Harnessing the collective: Why it’s easy to say, but difficult to do

Harnessing the collective: Why it’s easy to say, but difficult to do

I am sitting in a virtual room surrounded by a friendly group of academics, engineers, social entrepreneurs and policy advisors. When  I ask them to tell me what it feels like to be part of a collective or community, it opens up a conversation about community as family, religion, the roads on which people live, and groups bonded by hobbies or professional interests.

They tell me they value their communities for the ‘connection’, ‘learning’, ‘collaboration’, and ‘shared view of the world’, it brings. One person says they just love ‘nerding out on something’ with others.

Eventually the conversation turns to the work we are doing. Together we are aiming to grow the market for a new area of innovation. A solution which could save millions of lives across the globe, but which involves pushing and pulling at consumer behaviours, manufacturing and supply chains and international policies. Getting it right means many different actors would need to come together and collaborate.

All of a sudden a different kind of  language starts to emerge. People start to voice their fears of potentially destructive competition between organisations developing similar products, of the various different groups and committees involved, and the long, arduous process of bringing evidence to various bureaucratic structures and organisations.

Somehow this collective that we are all a part of has become an intimidating and unknowable beast that has to be tamed or torn down.

If we value community so highly, why don't we use it more?

Diversity breeds ingenuity
Diverse teams solving complex problems have better outcomes than more homogeneous ones. Man landed on the moon not because one type of scientist invented the way, but because a multidisciplinary sector rallied around one goal.

And yet...
Complex problems are often worked on by discrete groups of ‘experts’ with similar perspectives with devastating effects.
Collectives are smarter than individuals
Everything in our natural world, from the structure of our cells, organs and bodies, to plants and forests around us, is a result of cooperation between different entities. The collective intelligence of a group is far more likely to guess the right answer to a problem than an individual

And yet...
The world continues to incentivise individualistic ways of thinking and doing. Incentives in our organisations and society prompt us to beaver away on our own.
Better decisions come from truly democratic systems
When activists in the 1980s educated themselves to become “researchers, lobbyists, and drug smugglers, they were able to force the pharma industry, US government, funding and regulatory agencies to fast-track their response to the epidemic”. Platforms that empower citizens to take part in decision making, like Citizens assemblies improve citizen trust in governments, & encourage participation in democracy

And yet...
The world is unequal. Decision making power exists in closed pockets, unavailable to many who acutely feel the impacts of the world's pressing problems.

Whilst we all know in our bones and in our DNA, that collaboration and community are important and powerful catalysts of innovation; we often struggle to practise this when it comes to overcoming complex challenges and making efforts towards positive social progress.

There are so many reasons for this, from the innate make up of the human brain to prioritise our personal needs and desires, the emphasis in our current society being on being consumers rather than citizens, to the loss of longterm thinking in our hearts all the way to our policies.

But to put it simply - and to quote an expression that emerges often in my work - "it's just really hard!". We are all beavering away trying to tackle different aspects of a problem and there is so often a tension between going fast and alone versus slow and together. There is a tension between what one part of the system wants versus another. There is a tension between what I think the answer is versus you. There is also a world of fear of the unknown when we commit to bringing so many people along the journey and trusting that we will all find the solution together. It sometimes feels a lot easier to burrow our own furrow to satisfy our need for a feeling of progress.

However, if we want to solve the world's most complex challenges, we have to keep finding the best ways to meaningfully supplement our individual outlooks by bringing multiple perspectives to bear on the challenges ahead of us, even if it feels like the harder thing to do.

Three commitments we are making at Brink to support collective action and better problem solving

  1. Collaborate and care across boundaries in order to break fragmented action and siloed working to make meaningful progress
  2. Bring diverse sets of knowledge, experience and expertise together in order to bear on complex problems
  3. Empower the collective voice in order to shift deep and long standing structures and views in order to drive positive change

The Collectives practice at Brink was formed to proactively and deliberately create spaces and opportunities for collaboration, conversation, debate, learning and sharing. We are seeing time and time again, that when these things happen with intentionality and care, siloed thinking is broken up and greater diversity of thought is brought to bear on a problem.

We do this in big ways, such as acting as a convener of traditionally siloed or competitive actors around shared problems; by supporting collective financial and reputational risk taking in more uncertain avenues of innovation; and by designing and hosting collective experiences to drive the learning and progress of early stage venture ideas.

But we also focus on the small details: the words, the language, the tools, the space and the mechanisms that enable people to be greater than the sum of their parts. We take that extra time to build relationships between entrepreneurs that we coach, we synthesise and share the knowledge surfaced in group conversations, and we choose spaces and facilitators that cultivate fairer power dynamics. 

Because, when so much of our behaviour and interaction with others is driven by the unconscious mind, the way in which people are brought together matters. 

My hope is that through this work we are contributing to a shift - a gradual reshaping of outdated grooves into ones that better incentivise collective efforts towards positive social change.

If any of this thinking resonates with you - perhaps you are doing something similar, or wish to - I’d love to hear from you at [email protected].

Tune in over the next few weeks as I share some stories that I hope will bring these commitments, along with these big and small ways of doing, to life.

Image is of Frontier Technologies workshop in Accra with journalists from across Ghana. Part of the UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office's UK-Ghana Science Tech and Innovation strategy Media Capacity Building for journalists in ST&I reportage.

Interested in this topic, want to know more, or have some thoughts? Drop us a line at [email protected] and let's chat!