Collective Genius – Choreographing High Performance

“Collective Genius” is “a state of innovation, collaboration, action, and reflection that emerges when the variables of human interaction are choreographed to optimize intermingled processes, behaviours, emotions, and relationships among interdependent parties who choose to interact in community around their common needs and share collective responsibility for delivering high-value outcomes.” In order to successfully achieve a state of Collective Genius, a group needs to cross three thresholds through the choreography of five specific variables. This is a journey for most groups, and there is no guarantee that the group will achieve this end state.Achieving Collective Genius Model


Effective work groups do not suddenly appear, fully developed and highly motivated. Like a dance ensemble or an individual performer, “work groups [and their individual participants] require careful, constant nurturing,” and inspired choreography to achieve high-value outcomes” (Laiken, M. 1994. The Anatomy of High Performing Teams. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p 3). In effective work groups and communities, members incrementally assume ownership of the needed activities, roles, and functions. Work groups and communities commence their efforts on the perimeter of their potential, and like amoeba that change shape and morph, the group can evolve to a state of collective genius, where all members act as leaders in an environment of high trust and commitment to the common or greater good.

As a work group evolves or a community develops, the variables in achieving the outcome manifest themselves in the behaviour and attitude of the members. The optimal end result is a state of “collective genius,” which is achieved when the group is able to successfully choreograph the variables of human interaction within the context of the existing structures. It is not about managing, control, or manipulation – but about choreography: the planning and arranging of movements, steps, and patterns of dancers. The emphasis on “choreography” is deliberate, as it is a balance of the art and science of dance – coordination of body and mind in collaboration with the human spirit to deliver integrated and inspiring movement that reflects spontaneity and creativity blended with structure and routine. The final outcome involves a sense of magic and mystery, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Success involves practice and performance.

High value outcomes will naturally flow from the state of collective genius. While the magic and mystery part cannot be controlled, or for that matter explained, how well the five variables are choreographed will determine the degree of movement from the perimeter of the group’s potential to the centre of its collective genius. It is an uncharted journey for most work groups and communities, through mostly unknown territory, and one which delivers great personal learning. It may be best to think of these five variables as five balls that a juggler has to keep in the air at all times. They are not steps to a process, but variables that must be choreographed. These five variables of human interaction are:

  • The people and what they bring to the group.
  • The level of organization or community support for the goal or outcome requested.
  • The shared principles that guide the group in its activities and processes.
  • The quality of the interchange within the group. (The formal, informal, and non-verbal: conversations, chats, discussions, debates, dialogues, gestures, arguments, etc.)
  • How power and influence are used and shared.

Achieving Collective Genius Simplied Model-Threshold 0

The diagram above demonstrates the five variables that are sitting on the perimeter of the group’s potential. The amoeba figure is there to represent the ebb and flow of each of these variables within each member of the group, and how they can change within each individual as well. The model suggests there are three thresholds the group must cross if they are the reach collective genius.

Crossing Threshold One
Considerable progress had been made when the group or community achieves Threshold One, leaving the perimeter of potential behind (shown in grey in diagram). Threshold One is where members begin to feel safe, accountable, and connected, and begin acting in an open and authentic manner. A good tool to assist the group on this journey is to work together at the inaugural meeting on a set of shared principles that will guide the group. A good discussion on the vision and desired outcome is also important, along with the understanding of why this is important. The link to the common good or higher purpose must be clearly owned by each group member. Crossing Threshold One takes time and the process must always lead to the characteristics needed to settle on the other side.

Achieving Collective Genius Simplied Model-Threshold 1

Crossing Threshold Two
At some juncture, the community or group may progress to Threshold Twowhere the members morph into a state of high trust and incrementally, group members begin to assume a leadership role with respect to specific circumstances or situations. This is an evolution, with some members leading the process and then the others gradually assuming their part of the leadership role. This is very dependant upon the formal leader’s ability to relinquish control over the group and share the leadership function. At some point in this evolution, the leader may even by rejected by the group. Thus, what the formal leader brings to the group is critical. The formal leader’s ability to act in a servant-leader capacity, to display humility, and to demonstrate the skill of inclusion are critical in achieving the state of Collective Genius. Provided all the variables are aligned, the group then becomes “leader-full” rather than leader-led. At times, the group may even appear to be “leaderless;” however, that is definitely not the case.

Achieving Collective Genius Simplied Model-Threshold 2

Crossing Threshold Three
Crossing Threshold Three brings the members into true Collective Genius, which usually arrives without anyone being consciously aware of the transition. There is a sense of magic and mystery present, and there will be varying degrees of presence by group members. However, group members will sense a different knowing within the group as well as individually. They will feel the magic happening. Yet, usually they can’t explain it – it’s a mystery. This knowledge is often tacit and intuitive. All members of the group are engaged and act as leaders on one thing or another. The dynamics truly reflect an emphasis on the collective good, and on doing things because they are right for the desired outcome. Individual ego, for the most part, is set aside; however, this is not to suggest that everything is sweet. The high trust and leader-full characteristics of this state of Collective Genius encourages the group to engage in collaborative conversations and dialogue that may be efforts to seek understanding, build consensus, negotiate a compromise, or explore additional options. Additional views and options are welcomed, honoured, and debated in the spirit of the common good. Decisions are made through a diverse mechanism based on the importance and level of expertise required: by the whole group, by an agreed upon smaller representation of the whole group, or by deferral to formal authority.

Achieving Collective Genius Simplied Model-Threshold 3

Challenges to Achieving Collective Genius
By placing a focus on what the group or community wants to achieve through the choreography of these five variables, high-value outcomes will emerge as the group progresses through the thresholds towards “Collective Genius.” However, a word of caution is necessary, as successfully crossing all thresholds is not guaranteed. Often a group may sense things could be better, yet, are not sure what to do. By reflecting upon the five variables, the group will discover what needs to be talked about, what processes need to change to move forward.

Groups for example, may successfully traverse the first threshold and remain stuck, unable to go any further. Crossing Threshold Two takes significant trust, minimal ego, considerable commitment, and inspired leadership and facilitation skills. This does not mean that work halts if progress is not made towards “collective genius.” It just gets more difficult to navigate the successful conclusion or achievement of original goals – success and achievement may be more modest than first desired. An artful, “leader-full” group is able to self-address the resistance that emerges, harvest the conflict, and guide themselves through the five principles so that progress continues.

Now, let’s look at the five variables in more detail, through the assistance of a set of questions, to assist in the choreography.

What do People Bring?

  • Relevant capabilities (knowledge and skills) that are linked together through business
  • An understanding of one’s own values
  • Accumulated Wisdom
  • An Informed Opinion
  • Aligned Interests
  • Competing Interests
  • Existing personal and organizational relationships
  • Their own beliefs
  • Self-interest and sometimes a degree of competitiveness
  • An existence that resides in a larger context – other systems, communities, groups, networks, etc
  • Their own mind-set and attitude
  • Their own Assumptions
  • Perhaps some sense of excitement
  • Perhaps some sense of pride
  • Past life and career experiences (both good & not so good)
  • Some level of readiness and willingness to learn form others
  • A willingness to learn from the experience
  • A level of trust in others’ intentions and abilities
  • A level of professional and personal commitment to the process, relationships and outcome
  • Their truth
  • Their hopes
  • Their fears
  • Their opinions
  • A set of aligned interests

What Organization or Community Support exists?

  • Is there clarity of strategy?
  • Is there clarity of direction?
  • Is there clarity of a compelling business or community need?
  • Is there clarity of desired outcomes?
  • Is there robustness of systems?
  • Are processes effective?
  • Are resources adequate?
  • What is the degree of senior management or formal leadership support?
  • What is the degree of flexibility and agility to respond to changing environments or needs?
  • Is there a willingness to take calculated risks?
  • Is innovation encouraged and rewarded?
  • What is the degree of support for innovation, creative approaches, and opposing ideas?
  • Are mistakes punished?

What are the Shared Guiding Principles?

  • What are the norms around respect?
  • Are feelings treated as facts or are they simply denigrated or disregarded by others as not relevant?
  • Are member’s perceptions honoured as being true for them?
  • Is meaningful conflict and thoughtful resistance that informs the process encouraged?
  • Are differences embraced?
  • Does everyone believe that the methods used to get things done are as important as the outcomes themselves?
  • Does everybody “count?”
  • Does everyone believe that the answers reside in the group and among the wisdom, experience, creativity, and perspectives of all?
  • What is the level of trust in others’ intentions?
  • Is thoughtful resistance and productive conflict that informs the group and the process acknowledged, surfaced, valued, and harvested?
  • Does everyone believe that they can embrace a number of dimensions at the same time by embracing the “and,” rather than getting stuck on the “or?”
  • Does everybody take responsibility for making the processes and relationships work?
  • Is there trust that everybody does their share of the work?
  • Is there a positive mind-set for spontaneity and innovation?
  • Is there a willingness to learn, and to share?
  • Is the decision-making model diverse?
  • Is the focus on collective success or individual achievements and self-interest?

What is the Quality of the Interchange?

  • What is the quality of the interchange that occurs in communications, dialogues,   discussions, and conversations?
  • Are active listening techniques used?
  • Is there a spirit of inquiry, with a view to obtaining a genuine understanding of others’ points of view and feelings?
  • Are “passive listening” techniques used (which lets the other person know you are   listening to them)?
  • How often is “positive agreement” used when group members choose to agree with another point of view?
  • Is respectful candor encouraged?
  • Is the tone judgmental? Argumentative? Respectful? Inclusive?
  • Is there genuine exploration of others’ ideas, feelings, and assumptions?
  • Is conflict welcomed? Surfaced? Harvested? Is it allowed to detract from harmony? Is it seen as inevitable?
  • How is resistance surfaced? Harvested? Is it seen as not necessarily bad? Is it seen as having the ability to strengthen and enhance community?
  • Is there an open mind to others’ ideas and proposals?
  • Does the interchange ask the four types of questions: To seek out facts and external realities? To seek out members’ emotional responses? TO draw out meaning, values, significance, and implications? To elicit resolution and closure?
  • Is jargon used?
  • Is individual advocacy limited in favour of a “learning conversation?”
  • Are words chosen carefully?
  • Is the language gentle?
  • What is the non-verbal and body language?
  • Does everyone believe that effective dialogue can help move beyond polarization and allow discovery of alternatives that build shared meaning and aligned action?
  • Is “tentative” language used where appropriate, where one’s uncertain view is portrayed and thus reduces defensiveness?
  • Are all members aware of the processes going on within the interchange?

How are Power and Influence Shared?

  • Does the use of power and influence build or undermine relationships?
  • Does it strengthen or sabotage processes and success?
  • Does it renew or deaden vitality?
  • Is there role rotation for such responsibilities as facilitator? Note taker? Process   Observer? Timekeeper?
  • Do people talk behind one another’s back?
  • How aware are the members to the group’s or community’s power balances like who controls information? Who controls money? Who controls decision-making? Who speaks for the group?
  • Does the group discuss relationship issues (such as gender, silos, diversity)?
  • Does it improve or detract form the quality and inclusiveness of decision-making?
  • Does it encourage spontaneity as well as reflection?
  • Is information shared willingly or hoarded?
  • Does the group examine imbalances in power and influence regularly and agree to either accept them or change them?
  • Do social cliques or political factions form or exist?
  • Are egos contained?
  • Are titles parked?
  • Does everyone understand that the keys with power and influence are their transparency and how they are used?
  • Does the group use diverse decision-making models in line with the circumstances (i.e., participatory, representative, and an appeal to authority)?