No matter how clever one person is, the collective intelligence of a team or organisation can often be of greater value.  Although a bright individual might have great ideas, it takes a team, or collection of teams to develop and deliver on them.

In sectors such as consumer technology or pharmaceuticals, where product development forms a critical, but complex component of the value chain, bright people abound.  They can be found focusing on technical or scientific development, addressing regulatory or quality concerns, or dealing with the market and its customers.  On their own, these different teams of experts may perform well when measured against their own criteria.  However, the biggest success comes from getting these diverse, segregated, and for global firms, geographically dispersed teams, to build a collective wisdom that ultimately creates value.

Individuals and teams, in whichever function, division or country they work, need to transcend their particular expert worlds and begin to think laterally across a multiple set of perspectives.  They must do this by assessing and making sensible trade-offs between their inevitably conflicting objectives.  This requires collective, rather than individual cleverness.  The challenge then is how to foster this collective wisdom.

Take the pharmaceutical sector as an example, where different expert teams have to navigate through the competing goals of scientific development, clinical trialling, governmental regulation and local market engagement across multiple markets.  This is necessary in order to be able to deliver a drug that is effective, meets quality and safety standards, and is wanted by those who have the budgets to procure.  As it is unlikely that any one individual could possibly have sufficient insight into all these aspects and challenges, wise decision-making across multiple teams is vital.


you need to build up the capability and motivation for individuals’ social intelligence, to the point that it matches the level of their cognitive intelligence “


Challenges Experienced by Clever Teams

In our experience, the main challenges that multiple expert teams face in creating wise decisions centre around role clarity, process effectiveness and inter-team attitudes:

  • Role clarity – For multiple expert teams with different masters, there can sometimes be insufficient clarity of who has the authority to make decisions across the project;
  • Process effectiveness – weak project management and communication processes between teams can leave individuals unsure of how to pass on their insights or where trade-offs need to get made.  However, when processes are created, it is equally important to ensure that they are not overly bureaucratic which restrict or dampen creativity and spontaneity;
  • Inter-team attitudesStephanie Garforth’s article discusses the phenomenon of ‘Apollo Syndrome’, which explains that because clever people tend to believe passionately that they are correct, they might not have the sense or desire to invite potentially opposing opinions.  This can be exacerbated at an inter-team level, where expert teams can be overly focused on their point of view, rather than taking into account the end-goal of the project.  Combine this with a lack of understanding and empathy of the needs and challenges that other teams face, and it can develop an attitude of ‘we’re right, they’re wrong’ or at worst as a form of prejudice against other team(s).


Building Social Intelligence

If these are the key challenges for expert teams in complex product development projects, then how can they be addressed? Part of the answer comes from the field of social physics 1, which is about how ideas flow from person to person and how this affects productivity and innovation. This is particularly important in product development, where multiple perspectives need to be synthesised for an idea to become a commercial innovation.  Organisations need to optimise the flow of ideas by encouraging inter-team dialogue and exploration and sharing new ideas with their home team in order to develop a new consensus. This behaviour needs particular development in expert teams, who are not always naturally inclined to seek the opinion of others.

With this in mind, how do you create an environment that promotes the reaching out to other teams to understand their perspective and to synthesise these with their own points of view? What’s required is the development of the social intelligence of teams to a level that equals their cognitive intelligence. This is done by building social awareness, which involves recognising and reading people and groups accurately and responding appropriately, while also encouraging relationship management between teams, which involves relating to and influencing others (2). Consider the following ways to develop social intelligence:

  • Focus on the end-customer, and encourage teams to think, decide and act more around serving that end-customer, rather than their functional / business leader.  This can be more difficult than it sounds – in both defining your end-customer, and in making decisions that might in effect sub-optimise your own team’s performance.
  • Bring the teams together – at the start and at key phases of the project, to actively work on building empathy between teams.  Face to face connectivity is still a primary requirement for humans, in order to develop deep enough relationships that will sustain them when they are operating virtually.  It’s also important for each team to understand each others’ expectations, and to ‘contract’ between each other in how they are going to work together.
  • Assess and identify those ‘charismatic connectors’ amongst your clever ones, who not only are bright, but also relish reaching out to other teams and individuals, who can synthesise disparate views and also encourage others to do likewise.  This needs to be a natural way of working for a few key individuals across the project.  Otherwise, the teams will fail to link up with each other beyond the formal governance meetings, and remain convinced of their own clever, but ultimately closed, logic.
  • Build an open and transparent way to tackle trade-offs between different team objectives.  As the Apollo effect describes, sometimes experts avoid conflict.  So it is vital to create an environment and an approach that allows these conflicts to be raised and tackled constructively.

Adjust your incentivisation strategy so that it encourages the sharing of ideas, and delivers to the end-goal, rather than being self-serving for each respective team. Experts tend to know what they are worth and recognise that their knowledge is hard to replicate. So to motivate such people might require a radical change to your reward and recognition strategy, which might be instilling competition between groups, rather than promoting co-operative activity.

Kleinberg and Raghavan (3) investigated peer-to-peer incentive networks that encouraged participation, by rewarding the recruitment of others to the project’s goal.  They found that incentivising the building of relationships between information seekers and experts through a chain of trusted relationships achieved positive results more effectively than seeking ideas from targeted interested groups or individuals.   Applying this to the world of complex product development projects, one could establish a potential reward pool for the contribution of ideas that help develop solutions, with the value of such rewards based on the likely success or impact of each idea.  Creating a momentum for ideas generation is crucial.  Such rewards would be distributed throughout the life of the project, rather than at the end, as this would be too far removed from any contributions made.

Using such incentive strategies to impact the sharing of ideas is best served with projects that have a long life span, require strong relationships between teams, and where mutual accountability is required to deliver the end goal.

Clever people will recognise and tolerate nothing but cleverness”.4  Therefore, to get the most out of your clever ones requires a lot of forethought and active development of expert teams in order to establish the right environment.  An environment where ideas are encouraged, solutions sought without undue protectionism and any conflicting objectives are dealt with in a positive manner.


1. “Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread – The Lessons from a New Science” by Alex Pentland (2014) Penguin Press
2. “Clustering Competence in Emotional Intelligence: Insights from the Emotional Competence Inventory” by Richard Boyatzis, Daniel Goleman & Kenneth Rhee (2000)
3. “Query Incentive Networks” by Jon Kleinberg and Prabhakar Raghavan (2005)
4.  Henri Frederic Amiel (Swiss Philosopher)