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How to improve the collective effort of a team

Emergence is a captivating phenomenon, especially when observing the emergent properties of teams. It’s intriguing to note that when a group of intelligent individuals collaborate, the average quality of their collective thought process can sometimes deteriorate instead of improve.

The flip side of emergence

One might assume that the collective intelligence of a team would be greater than the sum of its parts, producing synergy. Yet, frequently, the outcome is the opposite. This paradox often arises due to the prevalence of single-loop learning within the team.

  • Single-loop learning: Action -> Result

  • Double-loop learning: Thinking -> Action -> Result

  • Triple-loop learning: Being -> Thinking -> Action -> Result

As seen above, the conversation revolves solely around the relationship between an action and its expected outcome. There’s typically no room to discuss the thought process that led to such actions—what we term as double-loop learning.

Sometimes, challenges arise from disparate thought processes. In these situations, delving deeper into the team’s identity and values—understanding “who we are”—can provide insights. This is the realm of triple-loop learning, offering the richest insights. But, let’s start with understanding the basics first.

If a team becomes mired in a cycle of “if we do X, then we’ll achieve Y” without examining the basis for these assumptions, it’s essential to intervene in their process. Failing to do so can lead to stagnation or dysfunctional conflict.

Engaging the team in a discussion about their thoughts on what needs to be done can be enlightening. It requires a structured approach to accommodate and harmonize various thinking styles, fostering healthy friction without creating division.

It’s often beneficial to take a short break before starting this introspective process, allowing for mental space and readjustment. It’s almost guaranteed that if you don’t facilitate this intervention, the team will become more entrenched in their views, failing to harness their collective talents. And that would be a great loss indeed.


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