In biology there is a concept called quorum sensing. In our bodies there are large numbers of bacteria but they do us little harm. When a population of bacteria increases in density it is possible to reach a tipping point or critical mass or quorum. The bacteria begin to signal each other. This leads to coordinated effort. The individual bacteria begin to operate as a whole. The collective phenomenon has pathogenic impacts on the human body, meaning you and I may get very sick.
Some people developed the idea of quorum quenching. Instead of killing the bacteria, it might be possible to simply cut off the communication or signaling process. This suggests an exciting new way to heal diseases.
My friend became the CEO of a company designed to do research on using quorum quenching. He and his partner fervently believed, based on compelling, early evidence, that they could change the world of antibiotic drugs by finding a new drug that targeted the bacterial signaling system. They enthusiastically declared their shared vision and many people and resources were attracted to the company.
In record time they created a new drug that shut down the signaling mechanism in bacteria. Unfortunately, achieving the objective caused an unintended problem. The impedance of the bacterial signaling system caused the exacerbation of an internal chemical pathway that bacteria use to resist antibiotics. This was a very big problem.
My friend and his partner, however, had a back-up plan that enabled the creation of another antibiotic compound not involved with the original signaling pathway. This reflected good science and good planning. Yet they encountered a most surprising problem.
The original vision was so simple, clear, and appealing that it easily attracted money and employees. The new, revised vision, although only slightly different, did not have the same appeal and did not bring the same level of response. The two men unfortunately had to sell the company for what little they could get.
In reflecting on the experience my friend particularly speaks of how much was accomplished in a very short time. The large drug companies often expressed amazement at what was accomplished. He says, “It was because of the coordinated team effort put forth by people with disparate scientific backgrounds. They were fully committed to a shared objective and they unselfishly collaborated.”
Here there is an important irony. When bacteria act alone there is little impact. When they communicate and act as one, there is great impact. This same pattern holds in organizations. In conventional organizations we expect people to act as self-interested individuals. Our experience keeps us from even imagining, much less calling for the sacrifice of self-interest.
Yet in the real world, there is sometimes a shift and the people become connected to a meaningful vision. In this case, for example, the original vision was simple, clear, and persuasive. People could understand and believe in it. This was true for outsiders who invested their money and it was true for employees who invested their hearts as well as their heads.
In such a situation the employees can begin to sacrifice for the common good. Differentiated people become integrated people. The collective intelligence climbs. Efforts become self-organizing and hierarchical direction is much less necessary. In this high state of collaboration, the group flourishes and exceeds expectations. They become a positive organization. When this happens, observers marvel. In fact, there is often a sense of awe.
Observing a positive organization can alter expectations. If we believe that people can respond to a vision, engage in sacrifice for the common good, self-organize, increase their collective intelligence, flourish and exceed expectations, then we may be tempted to engage in leadership instead of management. We may choose to do the very difficult work of formulating a meaningful vision, we may commit to it, and we may communicate it with relentless and effective enthusiasm. As others accept the vision we then may ask them to accomplish things we would not normally dare to ask. Because of belief in the vision and the power of increased collective intelligence they may flourish and exceed expectations. This is where positive organizing begins.
What is collective intelligence?
How is it created?
How could we use this positive passage to get better?