Paper: connected group intelligence

“Hear one side and you will be in the dark. Hear both and all will be clear.”

Thomas C. Haliburton

In an age of increased volatility and uncertainty, groups of all sizes face adaptive challenges that are unparalleled in their complexity – often in situations where the way forward is unclear, the stakes are high, time is short and trust is low. If we are to continue to thrive in the emerging new environment, we need to significantly up our game in how we relate and work together in groups. At Living Systems, we have developed a unique approach for groups of all sizes to break through complex, adaptive challenges, which we call Connected Group Intelligence.

Connected Intelligence is a process of learning to think, feel and act together.   It involves slowing down to engage in collective inquiry and dialogue before moving into problem-solving. It is a structured process that flows through four sequential phases of conversations:  Collective Inquiry, Relational Dialogue, Co-creating and Collective Action. We think of these as the head, heart, left and right hand of Connected Intelligence, respectively.

1. Collective Inquiry

During this initial phase, instead of diving straight into problem-solving, the aim is to pause first and engage in collective inquiry. The aim is to develop a clear and unbiased appreciation of the perspectives of every individual or subgroup present (depending upon the size of the group). To do this individuals need to be able to put aside the bias of their own position, focusing instead on genuinely understanding the perceptions and beliefs of every other individual or subgroup in the room.  The emphasis is on seeking to understand before being understood.

Open inquiry sounds like an easy skill but its anything but. It requires the ability to hold two or more opposing ideas in mind at the same time. This involves being able to genuinely and openly inquire into the opinion of someone who hold may hold the diametrically opposed view to you, without needing to correct them, advocate your own position or add your own meaning.

Achieving this requires a fundamental shift in where we normally listen from, and how. Think for a moment about most of the meetings you attend. Most of us spend the time others are speaking listening to our own internal monologue, or preparing what we are going to say next. We hear half a phrase from someone else, and then the voice inside our head takes over: “There they go again, banging on about manufacturing quality”. 

Confirmatory Bias

Confirmatory bias takes over, and we only hear information that confirms our existing preconceptions. In this kind of environment, there is no real listening – only monologuing. The problem is this voice never shuts up. And sometimes we’re not even aware it’s talking. We blindly get swept up by the certainty of our thoughts and in an instant we are shut off from whatever was new or fresh in what we were seeing and hearing.

Practicing open inquiry therefore demands deep mindfulness and presence. Group members practice “bracketing” – noting one’s own biases and assumptions as they occur, then putting them to one side, to focus back on the speaker, without prejudice or judgement.  This doesn’t mean you give up on your belief; you are just putting it to one side for a moment.

When all the group’s members are able to operate from this place, a process of collective inquiry emerges. As the group becomes able to reflect on the problem collectively, individual perspectives are broadened and the roots of the problem become clearer.

2. Relational Dialogue

As the group engages in the process of Collective Inquiry, relational challenges will inevitably surface, either between individuals and groups in the room or with stakeholders outside of the room. Normally the tendency in meetings is to avoid the “elephant in the room” or take the issue offline. When dealing with complex transformation, however, this is not the case.

The aim instead is to surface conflict in a mutually respectful way and work with it productively within the group. This is because adaptive challenges often show up as relational tensions between functions, departments and individuals. These elephants that are normally herded out of the room are often key contributors to the stuck patterns of behaviour the group finds itself in.

“Cook the conflict”

In these situations, Ronald Heifetz at Harvard talks about the need to “cook the conflict”. Whereas we normally become uncomfortable when these kind of issues arise and avoid them, here we have to let the conversation simmer. In other words, we have to start managing our meetings not to feel comfortable but for breakthrough.

This requires a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, conversations have to be grounded in a container of mutual respect. In conflict situations we often see flashes of people that we react to, revealing qualities we don’t like. The word “respect” comes from the Latin “respecere”, which means “to look again”. The invitation here is to do exactly that – to notice our biases emerging as strong emotions, to ground ourselves and then to look again.

When we look again from a grounded place we are then able to see those parts of the other person that we may have missed. We may not like what people are saying or doing, but we nevertheless need to hold compassion for them as a living, breathing human being. When we do this the possibility for empathy and understanding emerges, even when people hold very different belief systems and positions.

On the other hand, we also need to express our truth in ways that honour our own boundaries. This involves paying attention to our own impulses, emotions and thoughts and then ensuring that we give voice to our experience in a way that doesn’t disrespect the viewpoints or personhood of the other.

This is not fluffy or touchy-feely work, it involves surfacing and working productively with conflict, often across functions and levels. As such, it requires a high degree of conversational effectiveness, together with deep courage and authenticity. When practiced effectively, the group is able to undo the stories, narratives and projections that were keeping them stuck. As dialogue begins to emerge, the group becomes able to think, feel and act as a cohesive whole.  

3. Co-creating

By now the group will have developed “full system sight” around the disruptive challenge – arriving at a collective understanding of all the rational and relational issues related to the transformation challenge, together with a shared appreciation of the diverse viewpoints and perspectives of each party in the room.

At this stage, if the group begins to sense there may be a way out of the jungle they find themselves in, there may be a temptation to jump into action. With highly complex challenges it is important, however, to pause at this point and work with creative process, before transitioning into action planning. 

Outside of the Confines of Traditional Thinking

Working with creative process provides the group with an ability to grasp the problem as an unbroken whole and encourages people to step outside of the confines of their traditional thinking. It can transform understanding of a problem and generate new possibilities for action. In this way groups can crystallise the insights from the two previous phases into a compelling collective picture of success, one that mobilises collective energy and surfaces breakthrough ideas for action. 

Some leaders we encounter have an instinctive aversion to creative thinking, becoming deeply uncomfortable if the possibility of it is even mentioned. Yet these are the same leaders who bemoan the lack of breakthrough thinking in their workshops and meetings. The truth is that if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.

4. Collective Action

Now that the group has developed a collective view of all the rational and relational issues impacting performance and then developed a shared picture of success, the aim of the Collective Action phase is to turn shared vision into reality.

During this phase the group identifies opportunities for breakthrough action and prototypes these opportunities into potential activity streams. Once the group has collectively ratified and scoped these activity streams, sub-groups and individuals self-organise around these opportunities and plan activity after the event.

The group will then adjourn and hand over to the prototype transformation teams, until it reconvenes at regular intervals to collectively review progress, learn and adapt transformation activity accordingly. 


To continue to thrive in an age of disruption, we need to significantly up our ability to work together in groups. The old team model of “Form-Storm-Norm-Perform” is dead – the groups that face adaptive challenges are often significantly larger than a team, and simply don’t have the time to wait to get to High Performing.

To rise to the challenge of our times we need to develop the capacity for Connected Intelligence in groups – learning to think, feel and act as a cohesive whole. This involves resisting the rush into problem-solving and focus instead on collective inquiry and connection to develop the collective consciousness needed for breakthrough problem-solving.

Whilst this process may seem relatively simple on paper, in reality it requires a significant step-change in conversational effectiveness, interpersonal capability and self-awareness. It also takes significant investment and development up front, by both the leadership team and the other groups being represented at the transformation event.

The payoff in the end, however, is worth it. As the group begins to learn to think, feel and act as a cohesive whole, this effects a step-change in the group’s learning, which in turn accelerates business performance. A demonstrable shift in business results then further improves group cohesion, and so on – and in this way a virtuous cycle emerges to start turning the flywheel of group and organisational transformation.

Want to find out more? Start the conversation to move your business forward by contacting us today.