INSIGHTS

HOME / INSIGHTS / The Collective Brain: The Fastest Route to Better Questions and Better Answers

The Collective Brain: The Fastest Route to Better Questions and Better Answers


The notion of the lone genius is an attractive one. From Leonardo Da Vinci to Albert Einstein to Ada Lovelace, society (and innovation circles in particular) fetishize them and lauds their unmatchable talent. Of course, these folks had great talent in underlying fields. But their special sauce was really their ability to simultaneously hold different lenses to a problem. While not all of us can do that inside our individual brain, the same lenses are available to us – we just have to tap into a collective brain to enable it.

Three years into my time at Capita, a large outsourcing and software company, I was introduced to the annual senior management conference as CHRIS – the Customer Hierarchy Relationship Information System (creativity was short the day we made that acronym up!). I represented Capita’s investment in CRM. I was referred to as a signposter, an encyclopedia, even “glue”. Technology solutions (even allowing for the fact it was some time ago) were expressly off the table. My boss at the time was clear – you will always get more out of a 5 minute phone call with someone than you ever will out of a database. And if you don’t know the right person to talk to, find someone who might and go and ask them. She was (and remains) right. And so I’ve spent much of my professional career studying, building or helping facilitate networks.

This belief in sociability is a fundamental enabler for Innovation. Professor Sandy Pentland at the MIT Human Dynamics Lab has dedicated over a decade of research to understanding how ideas flow through social networks of all shapes and sizes, and ultimately how this translates into how humans behave. As social animals, we learn from each other. The more we can connect with people with different skillsets, backgrounds, knowledge and lenses, the better and faster we can get to not just good questions, and good answers, but also good behaviours.

There are headwinds to opening ourselves up to networks:

‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.’

Shunryu Suzuki – Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice

The more expertise we think we have, the more closed we tend to be toward new ideas – and this introversion can be exacerbated in times of stress. With the recent challenges we’re all going through, we’re seeing this play out at all levels. Nations pulling up economic drawbridges, organisations bunkering down and hoping that their existing assets and business model will be good enough to survive, individuals coping with these challenging circumstance by forcing all the pressure onto themselves in pursuit of that lone genius idea that will bring them security. These vicious cycles can be hard to pull ourselves out of. So, practically, how can we all leverage these collective brains?

Networks don’t have to be huge to be effective.

A fast, focussed way to enable this is through co-creation. In her previous incarnation as head of Data Science at Aviva, Marisa Murton hosted a hackathon including underwriters, developers and team leaders to co-develop an app for commercial underwriters. Underwriters were invited to pitch ideas, and those shortlisted were teamed with a developer. Each short-listed idea was built and went live with a cash/voucher prize given to the winner as judged by a panel. All of this led to a win/win/win – diversity of ideas; genuine engagement of front line teams/users; and new, useful functionality delivered.

Networks don’t have to take years of build to be effective

When lockdown hit Roelof Coertze – a consultant actuary – was left without a way to keep up his mandatory CPD hours. No longer was meeting in central London after work in an office or meeting space an option. So Roelof set up NoCA – the Network of Consulting Actuaries. Offering quality, curated content online, the network has grown from scratch to over 2,000 members in just 7 months. Engagement is genuinely incredible, with 350-400 people tuning in to their regular webinars. It’s a great example of the classic network effect: the more people join, the more want to be involved, the greater the value to the members.

Networks don’t have to “belong” to you to be effective

Isaac Newton famously said “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. Networks of networks are well studied (try Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s excellent book Linked). There are few industry segments where personal relationships and networks matter more than in the London Market. Facilitating and fostering collaboration and innovation that goes beyond personal networks by design is the mission of the Lloyds Lab. Lee Timms drew my attention to the successful partnership between Parysl, Lloyd’s and the market, originated with the Lloyd’s Lab accelerator. It enabled a fast response to the Covid-19 crisis through the establishment of the new “syndicate-in-a-box” to support the manufacturing and distribution of vaccine development efforts.

Without the kind of facilitation enabled by the Lab, this might never have seen the light of day.

It is often easier, faster and more effective to tap into prebuilt collective support, as well as (or instead of) replicating it yourself – see the entire services and software industries, ever. The difference is and remains the quality of the network, the accessibility of that network, and the ability to form good questions to coalesce around. By establishing a common understanding of what the aims are, you can allow everyone to bring their own experience, background, ideas (and wider network) to bear. The Camelot network itself was originally formed to address a fundamental need many independent consultants have – the need to feel part of something, the desire to help others and to learn.

Networks have never been more important

Someone much cleverer than me said of recent advances in machine learning and AI that “We are midwife to a new form of intelligence”. I would argue the same is true of networks. Very few organisations truly make best use of the collective power of their people. And in a world of work that is shifting away from a traditional 9-5 employed job, we all need to try and understand the power of networks beyond company borders – suppliers, independent experts, employees, educational institutions, hubs of all shapes and sizes – and involve and leverage them.

It’s the fastest way to get to better questions, and the fastest way to better answers.

Chris McKibbin, member of our Innovation Think Tank.