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David Perkins
In recent years, the intelligence of groups has captured David Perkins' attention, pulling his focus to issues more often tackled at schools of business rather than education. (Staff photo by Kris Snibbe)

Groups, like people, can be intelligent

New book probes King Arthur, lawn mowers, and organizational intelligence

By Beth Potier
Gazette Staff

For much of his career, Professor of Education David Perkins has trained his expertise as a cognitive scientist and educator on intelligence and creativity. A founding director of Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (GSE), Perkins - like many of his colleagues - has been largely concerned with how individuals think and create.

In recent years, however, the intelligence of groups has captured Perkins' attention, pulling his focus to issues more often tackled at schools of business rather than education. After all, he says, few of us work or learn completely alone. And almost all of us who work in groups - offices, project teams, committees, classrooms - could do it better. Perkins puts forth his observations and suggestions in the new book "King Arthur's Round Table: How Collaborative Conversations Create Smart Organizations" (John Wiley & Sons, 2003).

King Arthur, who broke with tradition by seating his knights at a round table, where their status could not be so easily measured by their physical proximity to the king, serves as one of Perkins' dominant metaphors for the collaborative leadership and culture that fosters organizational intelligence.

"Organizational intelligence is all about how smart a group thinks, collectively," says Perkins, adding that like individuals, groups make decisions, solve problems, articulate plans, and develop forecasts. "The question is, How smart are those processes? How well do they pool the minds of the participants and take advantage of individual experience and expertise in a coordinated way? Do they leverage the minds in the group, or does it all get done by the guy or gal at the top?"

Surrounded by his knights in their egalitarian seating plan, King Arthur created a leadership style that championed collaboration rather than authoritarianism ... or so the story goes. But no one is certain that King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, or Camelot really existed.

Similarly, says Perkins, organizational intelligence can be elusive. It's far easier for a group of people to pool physical effort than it is for them to effectively combine their mental energy. He illustrates this point with what he calls the "lawn mower paradox": 10 people with lawn mowers can handily mow a lawn much faster than one, yet it's far more difficult for the same 10 people to design a lawn mower.

"Many physical tasks divide up into chunks very nicely," he says, but not so with intellectual duties. "It's pretty hard to say, 'Let's make a decision together: you take part A of the decision, I take part B of the decision.'"

Realistically, 10 minds will not design that lawn mower with the same efficiency their 10 bodies trimmed the lawn.

"It's just more complicated to fit the pieces together," Perkins says. "But we can expect to do so with significantly more insight, significantly more confidence, significantly more precision than with just one person involved."

Smart leaders, smart culture

While lawn mower design by committee may be beyond most of us, smart organizations are within reach, says Perkins. He describes organizations as made up of conversations, or more broadly, interactions. Progressive interactions lead to intelligent organizations.

Such progressive, intelligence-building interactions have two sources, says Perkins.

"They come from a strong culture ... a culture of commitment to collaboration, to thoughtfulness," he says. The other primary source is leaders who express, through their thinking and their conduct, that same commitment to collaborative thinking.

With lively real-world examples and colorful images, "King Arthur's Round Table" illustrates how either leadership or culture can wise up an organization. Perkins draws on a Harvard Business Review article for the example of British Airways, which in the 1980s suffered a customer service reputation so poor its popular nickname was "Bloody Awful." With what Perkins calls inquiry-centered leadership, British Airways' CEO Colin Marshall reached out to employees for ideas and helped shift the company's culture toward collaboration and commitment to improving the performance of the airline.

Likewise, "King Arthur's Round Table" empowers even those outside the traditional power structure to create a culture of collaboration.

"No matter what the leadership, you in your own local realm within the organization have an awful lot of power to create a local culture, an enclave where the tone may be different," says Perkins. "Even if I'm not in charge of my office, if the people around me and my boss are kind of reasonable folks, I can try to behave in ways that promote norms of thoughtfulness and respect."

"King Arthur's Round Table" provides specific tools for ways of leading and participating in smarter organizations, from negotiating creative conflict resolution to avoiding those dreaded meetings that wander aimlessly and produce nothing.

It also offers the sobering reality that organizational intelligence can be very difficult to attain. Bad practices, says Perkins, trump good ones and drive them out. The book highlights what he calls negative archetypes or, more colorfully, "dragons" - authoritarianism, micromanagement, "coblaboration" versus collaboration, lack of respect - and stresses their ability to poison an otherwise intelligent organization.

It only takes one person treating others without respect, for instance, to turn the organization's practices from progressive to regressive.

"It takes two to tango," says Perkins. "A lot of the positive ways of interaction depend on the commitment of multiple parties and the skill set of multiple parties. If a couple are off the track, it's a spoiler."

Pedagogy to the people

Perkins' research on organizational intelligence grew out of his work with Project Zero, specifically its Teaching for Understanding project. Action is at the center of Teaching for Understanding: "to understand something is to be able to think and act in a flexible, thoughtful way around the something," says Perkins.

This performance conception of understanding is also at the heart of "King Arthur's Round Table."

"When we collaborate with others, when we put our heads together to figure something out, we're engaged in a kind of a performance of understanding. We are playing out our puzzles, our experience, our individual contributions, trying to meld them together and to compose something that makes sense, that solves a problem, that delivers a service that fits a need," says Perkins. "There's a performance conception of understanding lurking beneath all this talk of organizational intelligence."

Despite the book's ed school pedigree and business school savvy, its audience transcends career educators or business leaders. It's for "anybody who worries about running things," says Perkins, from meetings to projects to campaigns to corporations. And beyond.

"It includes people who, whether they're running things or not, worry about patterns of participation, and would like to see matters moving ahead with more energy and better results," Perkins says. "It's for people who find themselves responsible and concerned, officially or not, for folks working together to get something done."


Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College