Second Crack — The Leadership Podcast

Leading in a Complex World Utilising the Collective Intelligence of the People

May 27, 2022 Gerrit Pelzer, Martin Aldergard Episode 9
Second Crack — The Leadership Podcast
Leading in a Complex World Utilising the Collective Intelligence of the People
Show Notes Transcript

Today,  leadership takes place in a challenging context, e.g.,

  • increasing complexity
  • increasing speed of change
  • information overload

Thus, decision-making processes become more difficult. Leaders are at risk of either delaying decisions (gathering more information) or over-simplifying and rushing to decisions.

In an increasingly complex world, single leaders or  small groups of leaders can’t have all the answers. Instead, they need to involve the whole team in  sense-making and decision-making processes. 

Involving more people may seem counterintuitive, as if it delayed decisions further. However, utilising the collective intelligence of the people leads to better decisions and gets buy-in from the start. (See also “How to Speed-Up Corporate Transformation”)

The need to be competent may also keep leaders from involving more people. They associate competence with having all the answers and giving people clear directions and instructions.

Of course, leaders need to have professional knowledge and business acumen. But they do not have to be the smartest person in the room. Today, the leader's role is less of an expert. Instead, leaders must surround themselves with the best talent, align them around a common goal, and create the conditions under which they can be their best. 

Ron Heifetz says that leaders must distinguish technical problems from adaptive challenges. For technical problems solutions exist already. A leader or an expert has the answer and can tell people what to do. In contrast, an adaptive challenge is totally new. No experts have the answer yet.

 “The leader's job is not to provide the answer, but instead to frame the right questions for which answers are developed and discovered by the collective intelligence of the people.”

Being competent in today’s context is less about knowledge but instead about qualities we have covered in previous episodes such as being humble, understanding that human beings are driven by emotions , and that trust-based relationships are the foundation for performance.

According to Daniel H. Pink, leaders need to turn from bosses who tell others what to do into autonomy supporters. This can be done using coaching skills, including listening and asking powerful questions.

What might keep leaders from utilising the collective intelligence of the people:

  • The perceived need to express competence by having all the answers and tell others what to do; the fear that asking questions equals looking incompetent.
  • Past successes, such as frequent promotions, may make leaders think they do know better, they are smarter than others.
  • They don’t belief in their teams and struggle with letting go of control, or removing themselves from the centre of decision-making.

Reflection Questions for Leaders

  • How comfortable am I not knowing? 
  • Do I feel I need to have all the answers? Or do I still appear competent when I ask questions and say, “I don't know”?
  • Do I feel a need to demonstrate I am the smartest person in the room?
    If yes: why? How can I let go of this? 
  • How open am I to ways of working that are different from mine?
  • Do I  believe in the potential of the people I'm working with?
  • What role do I want to take in this process as a leader? Am I going to be the expert, or am I going to be more like a coach, a facilitator, an enabler, or might I be an observer?

More info about us and our work is on our website

Leading in a Complex World Utilising the Collective Intelligence of the People

Second Crack – The Leadership Podcast, Episode #9

by Martin Aldergård and Gerrit Pelzer

[00:00:00] Gerrit: A warm, welcome to Second Crack – The Leadership Podcast. In this show, we explore everyday leadership paradoxes, and dilemmas, and we invite you as our listener to self-reflect. I'm Gerrit Pelzer and I'm joined as usual by my friend and business partner, Martin Aldergård. So, hi Martin, how are you? 

[00:00:30] Martin: Hi, Gerrit, I'm fine. Thank you very much. 

[00:00:34] Gerrit: So today we want to explore how leaders can deal with the increasing complexity in the world. And I think we can reveal that one aspect is around using what we call the collective intelligence of the people. And one dilemma associated with this is around being competent.

But before we jump right into competencies, let me take a step back: I'm teaching leadership in an executive MBA program. And a question that is often raised is: what does it take these days for a leader to be successful? Some people will actually argue that leadership hasn't changed significantly over the last couple of thousand years. And others will proclaim a new leadership model every month. And I don't want to go into this argument, but I think it's safe to say that leadership today takes place in a very different context. And what do I mean when I say context? I think we see today extremely high speed of change. We see with the daily increase in globalization, we see a massive increase in complexity.

[00:02:02] Gerrit: And while maybe in the past, there was a problem in not getting enough information, today, we have so much information available that it's difficult not being overwhelmed by information. It's hard to find the information that's relevant. And I think also with maybe the younger generation in particular, we see a much stronger emphasis on purpose, finding meaning in work or whatever we're doing.

And also through technology, new ways of disruption that we haven't seen before. So different contexts may require different leadership. So the high speed of change, increased complexity, availability of information, purpose, and disruptions. So that's, that's what comes to mind spontaneously.

[00:02:53] Martin: The context is, is certainly important here. And I also totally agree and that we all live in a more complex environment and as leaders need to be acting effectively in this complex environment, and the question of being seen as competent as a leader is of course vital.

I'm seeing leaders that sometime really struggle with the increased workload under this complexity, under this uncertainty, because it's just getting so much harder to make sense of what's going on, and trying to stay on top of things, being decisive as a leader is setting clear goals and directions.

[00:03:41] Martin: Helping our teams to focus on the right thing when we might not even know what's the right thing to do. And, and I see leaders that actually start to take back control. When they're feeling I'm not getting what's happening or I don't understand the decision by my teams. And they are actually trying to slow things down just to get the time to cope with what's going on. And I think that in this complex environment, in an uncertain environment, perhaps we should actually involve our team. That means to let go of control as a leader, to let our teams make more decisions. But I actually sometimes see the opposite behaviors, where leaders request for more data and they ask their teams, can you prove this decision? Have others done this? And what was the result? And this is because they are trying to still be on top of things and be competent. 

[00:04:48] Gerrit: So I think if I summarize what I heard from you, we may find different ways that leaders deal with it. Some of them who, maybe like in the past, when information helped making decisions, nowadays they just can't get enough information because so much information is available. And then the other extreme that they might have: Oversimplify things and then taking decisions too quickly. So we see really two completely opposite responses, um, delaying necessary decisions that should be taken quickly - and on the other side making the decision too quickly, but it's, we're oversimplifying. Would you agree with that? 

[00:05:36] Martin: Yeah, and again, the oversimplification is sometime also based on wanting to look competent, wanting to still maintain in charge, being confident. But, who knows if you are climbing the wrong wall, it doesn't matter. 

[00:05:55] Gerrit: And I think it relates to what we will explore in more detail today that probably not a single person can have the answer, but based on these different responses that we already discussed, or let's say the paradox that some people delayed a decision and others make it too quickly. But another paradox comes to my mind and that involves that in order to find the answers to these complex situations, leaders need to involve more people. This may seem paradox because we are dealing with this external complexity, and then it seems like we're adding more complexity to it by involving more people. But the reality is that today's extremely complex world, challenges can't be solved by individual leaders or, or even by small teams of leaders. 

[00:06:56] Martin: And to build on this. I think organizations today, they are in themselves already quite complex as well. So of course you need to involve all your people because they are also the ones then responsible to execute the decisions. Right? So actually, I think you're saving time by involving people upfront because they are still the same people that need to execute and they need to be able to execute well in all this matrix organizations that most of us are working to.

[00:07:30] Gerrit: Yeah. And perhaps I could come back to what you said earlier: You brought this idea of being competent and I would like to take another step back here and ask, what does it actually mean to be competent? Because interestingly, you perhaps know this survey from Kouzes and Posner in their book “The Leadership Challenge”, and they've done the same survey over and over, over a period of, I think more than 30 years; they've done it across all continents, and “competent” was a quality of an admired leader across all times or continents, and it was always like number two or three. So it's very important. And obviously, every leader has to be competent to be successful. But I would say that in the past competence was often related to things like professional knowledge to understanding the business.

[00:08:27] Gerrit: And of course, such knowledge is still important today, but there's a shift. The leader still needs to know these things, but the leader does not have to be the smartest person in the room anymore. They don't need to know everything. In fact, they can't know every everything. And so the, the leader's job becomes increasingly less of being the expert and instead leaders today, they need to surround themselves with the best talent in the market and then align these highly capable people, who are often specialists or experts in a particular area, they need to align these people around a common goal and then create the conditions under which they can utilize their full potential. 

[00:09:24] Martin: Can I make an analogy? I see this picture in my head between the football team and the football coach. The coach doesn't need to be the best player technically and cannot be the best player technically, but he or she can still lead a great team of football players. So as leaders, we need to do we need to differentiate, am I the best player or am I the best football coach? 

[00:09:55] Gerrit: Yeah, beautiful. And before you made this remark, I was somehow on a different track and I'm not sure how I can make now the link to football, but if you allow me to just make the connection and to pick up the thread of my previous thought: I feel reminded of a wonderful explanation tha Ron Heifetz once gave. Ron Heifetz is the founder of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. He said that one of the big leadership problems that he observes is the challenge to distinguish between what he calls a technical problem and an adaptive challenge. So a technical problem is something for which a solution exists already.There is some expert somewhere who has the answer to a problem. Whereas an adaptive challenge is something totally new; no experts, especially no single expert has the answer yet. And let's say, what is today a technical problem may have been an adaptive challenge in the past. Maybewe need to illustrate this a little bit:

[00:11:11] Gerrit: If I have a leak in my bathroom, I call a plumber, right? And the plumber is an expert and can fix this literally technical problem. Now we can go to something that is more complex, perhaps. If we look at the human heart, we have learned how to do heart surgery and today it's, I think we can call it already a technical problem. It's almost like plumbing for the heart, but what we can't imagine, I think Ron Heifetz also uses exactly this example. What is there needed after the pump, the heart, is fixed, is we need the person to adapt: They need to stop smoking, they need to eat better. So that is the part of the adaptive personal challenge.

Now, translating this into businesses: Again, we have this technical problem. Let's say a new-comer comes into work and ask how does this or that work, then somebody else can show them. They can tell them what needs to be done. If you think of all these challenges that are not only, uh, are, should I say national or government challenges, but there are challenges also for whole industries, like: how does the future of transportation look like? How do we deal with climate change? Or what I mentioned earlier, disruption in our industry. So this is where a single leader, or even a team of leaders can't have the answers by themselves. They can't tell people what to do. And I know I have this wonderful quote from Ron Heifetz:

[00:12:53] Gerrit: “The leader's job is not to provide the answer, but instead to frame the right questions for which answers are developed and discovered by the collective intelligence of the people.”

[00:13:07] Martin: Yeah. And then this context, right? The whole definition of a leader being competent is shifted. Right. 

[00:13:19] Gerrit: Exactly, yes. So this leader who who may have had all the answers in the past can't have them today. So it comes back to creating the conditions for performance, right? So it's a completely different set of competencies or being competent. And actually we have covered a lot of this in our previous podcast episodes:

We had an episode around motivating people, to get involved by being humble and having the courage to say “I don't know, we need to figure it out together.” Another episode was on emotions at work. So leaders today need to understand that human beings are driven by emotions. And leaders need to understand what emotions they trigger in others and how they create trust, and that trust-based relationships are actually the foundation for performance and, um, I think we can put some links to these three or so episodes in our show notes so that our listeners can easily find. 

[00:14:47] Martin: And this notion around motivation when we are operating and our team are operating in more uncertain, more complex, unknown environment more and more what really drives them? The motivation of people in this, because it could be fear, right. Because people really fear the unknown, but what, what, what would you say drives people's motivation and then complex environment.. 

[00:15:19] Gerrit: Well, in general, you're giving me two wonderful keywords with motivation and what drives people: back Daniel H Pink has written a wonderful book. It's called “Drive - the surprising truth about what motivates us”  And if I summarize it in my own words, he focuses on three areas. Autonomy, mastery and purpose, right? We discussed already purpose: people want to find meaning in their work. Mastery: they want to get better at what they're doing. And, here the main word for me in this context is autonomy: people want certain freedom to do things their way, when they want to do it, where they want to do it. We see the whole discussion around working from home. And, uh, I think Pink might have made the comment himself that he says: Bosses need to turn from people who tell others what to do, they need to become autonomy supporters. And so, on one hand, that is closely related to this idea of framing the right questions for which answers need to be found by the collective intelligence of the people. And it also links to what we refer to let's say in the context of coaching skills, we are all aware that it's very popular this idea of a leader as a coach or having a coaching culture in the organization. So that includes all the skills around listening, asking powerful questions. And through this, through coaching people at work become an autonomy supporter.

[00:17:06] Martin: Building on this there's this term of sense-making and making sense, right? To help our team to be autonomous, we also need to help our team members to make sense of what's going on. So typically, as a leader, we might have a bigger view. We see a bigger picture. We might be in meetings where we get the information before our own teams. So the situation might not be as uncertain to us as it seems to our team members. So then by asking powerful questions by coaching, but also by helping our team members to make sense of what's going on. We can help them to stay on track, make good decisions and feel they have the autonomy to deal with their work as it is changing. 

[00:18:07] Gerrit: Would you say that it's helping them in sense-making or is it more of collective sense-making?

[00:18:16] Martin: I think it is both. I think, first of all, I think sense-making, if you just look into what we mean, I think sense-making is this process, when we're trying to make, to understand an unknown situation to understand what's going on here, and it involves creating my own mental model of a situation so that I can understand what should I do? What's happening? What'sthe best decision here? How should I act? And of course, then this sense-making process, it happens in our own heads the whole time, right? I think as leaders we're typically very good at sense-making, but my view it's often hidden.

So as a leader, we try to make sense the whole time, but we are not usually sharing this with others. What we are sharing are our conclusions. And then we tell our teams, guys, I think in this, we should do a BC, but our teams, they have never seen, they are not part of the process of sense-making. So they don't understand how I came to those conclusions.

So, then we can make sense-making more as a collective process instead of happening only in my own head as a leader, we can do it openly as a team. And I think that is also then involving the collective intelligence of the team. If we have several brains and more eyes and more ears in the team, I think sense-making can be much more accurate.

[00:19:57] Martin: And then of course your question was as a leader, should I help my own team members? Yeah, I think we need to help our team members to make sense. We can help them by asking questions for them to understand what's happening, but then also make this as a collective, as a joint open, transparent process.

[00:20:21] Gerrit: Yeah. When, when I, when I hear this, um, I'm a bit reluctant to go down this road because we typically focus on organizational leadership, especially corporate leadership, but I can't help and think of politics right now. And maybe I want to stay away from the details, but I'm thinking currently of two politicians, one being praised for doing a great job at explaining his decision-making process. And he gets a lot of support. Whereas another person is actually an even higher level leader in politics. And he's not visible and then something happens, but he doesn't explain the the decision-making or the sense-making process, and people then can't follow and, you know, there's this then eventually a leader who's losing support. And being transparent and explaining the sense-making process vs involving them is extremely important, I would say. 

[00:21:32] Martin: Yeah. And I think many leaders, they might not do this with bad intentions. I think leaders might think they want to save their people from the headache, or they want to simplify for their teams. I saw they try to make sense on behalf of their teams, but I believe this is an area where leaders should go slow to move fast later by involving and really encourage their team members to explore the unknown and to stay with what is uncertain. Don't move away from it too quick. And, and as, as I observe many leaders, they are very good in analytical skills. They are very good in making sense quickly about what's happening here and what is the best direction to move. Uh, but now helping your team then to be equally good together, the data, the diverse perspectives that you want to put on the table without making conclusions, without jumping to decision-makers. Get there everybody's perspective of what's happening, what we know, what we don't know and create this maps, trying to even visualize together as a team. How do we see this situation? How do we see different things connect? Because I believe in things are uncertain or complex it's because we don't understand how things connect.

But what if we together, we get to a white board and we try to start to map it out and draw lines and arrows between how things connect and then we can, we can come up with an idea. Ah, okay. We believe these are the things involved. These are the leavers we have, and we can try to find ways to act and test what this happening. And, and I think these are really hands on. So I don't think that as building on your political, uh, your example of politicians there, we might not understand the motives of the politician, but I think the, as leaders, I think most leaders, they have good intentions, but they might underestimate the importance of helping their teams, and involve their teams to make sense.

[00:23:58] Gerrit: So when I reflect on what we discussed so far, it's not rocket science, right? It's not, not brand-new. So I think a lot of suggestions we made, many people will listen to us and say like, yeah, I know this already, but at the same time, we often don't see it implemented. And I think that is also one of the themes that we look at in our podcast is what we call closing the knowing-doing gap.We know we should eat healthier, we know we should exercise more, but we're still not doing it. So how about we move into, what is keeping leaders eventually from using the collective intelligence of the team effectively. And one thing we touched on already is this idea about being competent.

I still see a lot of leaders who have this attitude of  “I, as a leader, I need to know the answers. I need to be able to tell people what to do.” And perhaps I should quickly add, since we have both lived for quite some time in Thailand, there are cultural aspects, right? There can be cultures in which the leader is supposed to give clear directions, but I think no matter in which culture you are, as we discussed earlier, the world is so complex, it's impossible for individual leaders to have the answer. So that is one aspect: thinking I need to be, I need to appear competent --  and there's no doubt leaders have to be competent, but it is misinterpreted into: “I need to have all the answers.I need to be able to tell people what to do” 

It reminds me of the book “What got you here won't get you there”. So, as leaders move through the ranks, they get confirmation that what they have been doing in the past was right, otherwise they would not have been promoted to top positions. So this history may encourage them to think’ “I do know better. I am the smartest person in the room.” So that may lead to some self-reflection: “am I really?”

But also, let's say then, talking again about competence and knowing; we said that leaders need to ask the right questions, and could it be perceived that if I ask questions that do I come across as not knowing. Is asking questions, does that equal incompetence? 

[00:26:49] Martin: Yeah. This link to, to lack of competence and not having the status and the power. 

[00:26:59] Gerrit: And then another thing that is actually related to one of our latest episodes around relationships, we explained there about not believing in the potential or capabilities of others; do I really believe that my team can come up with an answer without me taking the lead, guiding them towards the answer?

So, and another limiting belief or limiting factors that keeps people from applying what we discussed now for the last 20 minutes or so, these coaching skills include listening and while listening sounds very trivial, we see in daily life that is not so easy, right? It starts with: am I really interested in what the other person has to say? Oftentimes leaders have no time to really sit down and listen, or while we are listening, we are already anticipating what the other person is going to say, we are preparing already what we are going to say next. So a lot of things that keep people from really listening.

And maybe the last comment I wanted to make here: listening and asking questions go hand in hand, but I often experienced and people who still can't let go of having the answers and they misunderstand asking questions in a way that they ask guiding questions. So instead of telling people what to do directly, they ask a guiding question that then they expect an answer that is in line with actually they want to tell them what they're supposed to do. So, the leading questions or guiding questions is not the idea that we have in mind when we talk about coaching

What else comes up for you? 

[00:29:01] Martin: These limiting beliefs and limiting behaviors that you have talked about now, to me, they all come back to one fundamental belief, the essence of each leader: how do you view yourself as a leader? Do you view yourself to be the center of thinking and being the center of decision-making in your team?Because of course, if you see yourself as the center and being in control of the thinking and the decision-making in your team, you will, even, if you use questions, you will use leading questions. When things get too complicated, you might slow down because you need time to catch up or you need to oversimplify because you don't want to go into the details.

But what if you, as a leader have a totally different perspective that you remove yourself out of the center and you become either a leader within the team, so you're thinking, and your decision-making is just one part of the team; you are like an equal member of the team in terms of thinking. Or you might even be a football coach on the side, So, when the thinking and the decision-making needs to be done, you're actually not active part of that. And your job is to get the right players on the field and hope for the best.

But of course, this, this really requires confidence to step away from direct control as a leader. And secondly, it really requires belief that I have the right team and I can trust this team to come up with the answers to these complex problems.And of course it requires a lot of humility to say, you know, as a leader, I don't have the answers and I'm not the one supposed to have the answers. 

[00:31:16] Gerrit: Yeah, wow, very powerful! And, um, “questions”: I'm not sure if you want to add anything else or if we can start going into our reflection questions?

[00:31:28] Martin: I love to hear a good reflection question. 

[00:31:31] Gerrit: That is also one of the themes that we're following in our podcast. If you are a first time listener, we don't think that how-to advise is helping you; most of it, you know already. But we invite you really to ask yourself some questions and reflect. And the first thing that comes to mind, if I just reflect myself on what we discussed today: as a leader, how comfortable am I not knowing? Do I feel I need to have all the answers, or is it okay, do I still appear competent when I ask questions and say, “I don't know”? And do I feel a need to demonstrate my knowledge? Do I feel this need to demonstrate I am the smartest person in the room, to demonstrate what status I have, and that I'm admired, that I am respected as a leader?

And if this is a case that I feel I need to demonstrate my knowledge, then  we come to this difficult underlying question: why? Why do I feel I have to do this? And then: how can I let go of this? It links to what we said around theseguiding questions: How open am I reallyto ways of working that are different from mine?

If I think of Daniel Pink, what I said earlier, becoming an autonomy supporter, if I help other people to be more autonomous, then I'll also have to live with the fact that they might do things different from my preferred way of doing things. And then I think we covered the other question that I had on my mind, we covered this in various farms already, but coming back to: Do I really believe in the potential of the people I'm working with? Because if I don't, I'm sending out signals non-consciously that I don't trust them, and that, as we explored earlier, limits their capability.

So these are some ideas for reflection questions that come up for me. Do you have anything else or any other perspective?

[00:33:45] Martin: I'm thinking on this very practical aspect: if I want to involve the collective intelligence of the team, I really need to reflect on what role do I want to take in this process as a leader? Am I going to be the expert role or am I going to be more like a coach, facilitator, an enabler, or might I be an observer?I put the right team on the football field, and during the match, there is not much I can do about it. And so, what role do I want to play as a leader in this process? I think this is for me a very important question to reflect on. 

[00:34:34] Gerrit: Beautiful! So, we'll put these reflection questions in writing into the show notes so that people have enough time to look at those. Martin, I think we've covered everything, right? 

[00:34:46] Martin: Yes! Thank you for a great conversation, Gerrit. Nice talking to you today as always. 

[00:34:52] Gerrit: Thank you, Martin, likewise.

So, this concludes then today's episode on how to lead in this complex world, using the collective intelligence of the people. And if you enjoy the show, feel free to subscribe to Second Crack on the platform of your choice.

And we would also like to ask for your help: we would really appreciate it if you could help us spread the word by telling a friend about the podcast or post about it on social media. And of course it would also be great if you could leave a positive comment or a rating. Lastly, more info about Martin and myself and our work is also on our website  And that's all for today. Hope to speak to you again soon. Bye bye!