In King Arthur’s Round Table, Harvard professor David Perkins uses the metaphor of the Round Table to discuss how collaborative conversations create smarter organizations. The Round Table is one of the most familiar stories of Arthurian legend since it’s meant to shift power from the king who normally sat at the head of a long table and made long pronouncements while everyone else listened.
By reducing hierarchy and making collaboration easier, Arthur discovered an important source of power––organizational intelligence–that allowed him to unite medieval England. According to Perkins, Organizational Intelligence is simply “how well people put their heads together in a group, team, organization or community.”
Perkins’ book is full of colorful metaphors, such as the lawnmower paradox that he uses to describe the fact that, while pooling physical effort is easy, pooling mental effort is hard. “It’s a lot easier for 10 people to collaborate on mowing a large lawn than for 10 people to collaborate on designing a lawnmower.” A round table, Perkins notes, makes a group a little more intelligent since it makes it a little easier to pool mental efforts.
How people give feedback to each other is also a big component of organizational intelligence. Feedback is essential for individual, community and organizational growth and reflection but the bad news is that feedback often flops, which drives people apart.
Perkins identifies three types of feedback: negative, conciliatory and communicative. Direct, negative feedback is many times well-intended (since it’s “honest”) but it often leads to defensive reactions since receivers of negative feedback often feel misunderstood, personally attacked or don’t trust the intentions of the person giving the feedback. Conciliatory feedback is positive but vague and communicates little information. The most effective type of feedback is communicative. Balanced, respectful and honest, it communicates concerns and suggestions toward improvement.
In his book, Perkins offers a simple but effective communication model that can be used to strengthen the effectiveness of communications in a variety of situations. Here are the essential elements of Perkins’ Ladder of Feedback:
Step 1: Clarify—First, make sure that you’re clear about what the other person is trying to say. Be careful not to ask questions that are thinly-disguised criticisms.
Step 2: Value—Second, tell the other person what you like about their idea. Be as specific as possible to demonstrate that you understand what it is that they’re proposing. Don’t offer perfunctory praise that merely sets up your negatives.
Step 3: Concerns and Suggestions —State the concerns you have about the idea that has been expressed. Don’t resort to sweeping judgments (“what’s wrong with your idea is…”) or personal attacks (“that’s a stupid idea”). Instead, use qualified terms, such as “I wonder if….” or “It seems to me…”
Besides introducing a practical methodology for effective group communication, Perkins stresses the importance of understanding your organization’s “contact architecture,” the “web of roles and communications”…”between peer and peer, boss and subordinate, newbie and old-hand, in style formal and informal, in venues from boardrooms to mail rooms to bars after hours, by means from e-mails to meetings to conversations.” Understanding your company’s contact architecture allows you to recognize and promote “developmental leaders” (in contrast to “authoritarian leaders”) who are a transformative force within an organization. By ‘developmental leaders,’ Perkins means leaders, often not the most senior in the organization, “who show through their conduct what it is to think and work well with others, and who guide and coach others informally in patterns of collaboration.”
King Arthur, who broke with tradition by seating his knights at a round table, is a good metaphor for the type of collaborative leadership and culture that promotes organizational intelligence. Communication– face-to-face and electronic, from the mailroom to the boardroom—is key to organizational success since the quality of your communications ultimately determines how smart your organization is. Like Arthur, CEOs today are increasingly seeing the value of understanding their organization’s communication and collaboration patterns in order to successfully mine the insight and wisdom of those around them.
(Writing by Roger Smith; editing by Amy Canter, Janina Energin, and Hendrik L Clarke) Roger Smith, Technology Marketing Specialist at Hypersoft Information Systems, a 20-year-old software consulting firm specializing in Organizational and Operational Intelligence.