Collaboration as the ultimate expression of intelligence

Collaboration is the ability to work jointly to achieve a common goal, and I consider it to be one of evolution’s penultimate achievements, if not the penultimate achievement. For example, place five chimpanzees in a room with five identical puzzles, and you will always have five chimps trying to solve five puzzles. Put five humans in a room, and you potentially have five people trying to solve one puzzle. Hence why we are arguably the most adaptable species on this planet. And I would argue that all of the major evolutionary advancements of our species with regards to intellectual capacity in the last two million years have been to support this: from our ability to create and process language, to the relatively recent capacity to connect on an emotive level.

What about ants, you might say?

Ants, bees, and other colonizing insects do exemplify the collaborative spirit, and there is research that suggests that, taken collectively, the hive does, indeed, represent a relatively high order of intelligence. However, this is intelligence writ small. When projected out to encapsulate the human intellect, and the collective ability of humans to solve problems, then the human “hive” capability is orders of magnitude more complex and powerful.

Which brings me to the topic of individualism and, specifically, the brand of extreme individualism worshiped in the U. S.

The U. S. mythology is based in no small part on the concept that individual achievement is more important than that of the team; that one highly capable individual is of higher value than a group of average performers. Thus the fascination with such stories as Atlas Shrugged, and the adulation of people such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. However, while these people may inspire others, they could not have achieved their success in a vacuum – their achievements are as much a product of human collaboration as individual ability. After all, Steve Jobs may have conceptualized the iPad, but it was a team of engineers, developers, marketers, and others that brought it to life.

Now, you can make the case that the iPad would never have come about without Steve’s ability to focus his team towards developing it, and you would be correct. The collective mind does need to be focused. But it does not take a rock star, rugged individualist to do this. All it takes is someone with the skill of managing group dynamics, practiced daily by hundreds of thousands of project managers, team leads, department heads, and the like.

So, we should stop looking to the super-achievers for the answers. We would be better served by focusing on improving our capability for collaboration. Indeed, the problems currently facing us are much too large and complex for any single person to grok. The only way we are going to make it is by working on these problems together.


Filed under General Grunting, Philosophy

2 responses to “Collaboration as the ultimate expression of intelligence

  1. And yet, when we ask what makes it possible for large numbers of people to work effectively together on a productive project over time, I think you’ll find that the unifying vision of a leader at the top is necessary. Without someone to provide vision and direction toward goals, you will have a bunch of conflict and wasted time.

    As far as innovation goes, no it is not made in a vacuum, but it is produced by the thought of definite individuals. (See: QuickPoint 1: Thinking is Individual.)

    • Thanks for the comment!

      I agree that leadership requires vision. However, I also believe that “visionaries” are far less rare (and far more overrated) than we like to believe.

      In my professional experience, i have seen and achieved much higher productivity and resilience from teams — even those comprised of “average” performers — that were coached to work collaboratively, than those that were taught to rely on one or two “rock stars” for all the answers.

      Collaboration is not just about working better together. Its also about empowering individual group members to think, and to encourage them to share their thoughts with the group. Indeed, I have found coaching a group empowered to work this way far more gratifying and fulfilling than leading in the old top-down dynamic 🙂

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