Collective intelligence, loosely defined by Wikipedia, is the “shared or group intelligence that emerges from the collaboration, collective efforts, and competition of many individuals and appears in consensus decision making”.

It has been explained, in terms of quantifying its effects, as 1+1=3, which illustrates the fact that the sharing of ideas and points of view can, in fact, generate more ideas than each of the combined individuals working as one. I am by no means an expert in collective intelligence, however, I do recognize its value and the importance for any startup.

Why is collective intelligence important for startups?

As a startup, you are working to design a product and to solve a customer’s need in a way that creates value. The simple fact is that it is easier to work with partners to define what the value might be. There are many methods for generating ideas and setting the stage for a collective intelligence exercise, but there is one hard and fast rule that applies to all: take it offsite.

Moving your session away from the office also moves it away from the everyday, away from the ideas and work that is done on a daily basis, and opens the door to new perspectives and new ideas. Whether you do it for a half day or a full day, getting staff together to brainstorm offsite at least once a year is critical to any startup hoping to be innovative, creative and inspired.

Free flowing ideas

One strategy to inspire collective intelligence is to start by having participants work on a topic completely unrelated to the task at hand. Choose a series of words, a task, that is completely unrelated to the product. This will encourage people to brainstorm based on their own experiences, habits, hobbies and so on. It will allow them to let their minds roam, to move away from the product and their daily focus that will free their creativity.

At some point, you will turn them back toward the product and features that might apply, but you will find that this creative exercise has allowed them to think away from the product, outside the box, and that they will come up with many ideas they would not have otherwise.

Mastermind

Another strategy is what we call the mastermind. Using this strategy, you will take one person and put them in the hot seat for a period of time. During this exercise, they will explain what their goals and struggles are, where they are currently, and how they got to that point. The others in the group will then share ideas to help that person solve their challenges and help them approach the problems with a new point of view.

Invite the client

A good way to drive innovation based on what a specific client wants is to invite them to a session during which they can share their ideas and ask questions in real time. This can be very useful in focusing the team on a shared path and vision.

Team questions

Another strategy involves coming up with a list of specific questions and then breaking the larger group into smaller teams. Each team will be given one question to consider and brainstorm, and a notetaker will record the thoughts and ideas generated. Before the next question is handed out, the groups should be remixed so that different people sit together at the table. Again, the notetaker will record the ideas generated. This can be done with several questions – as many as the product faces.

Once all of the questions have been discussed, the notetakers present the ideas generated by each group. You will generally find very distinct differences. From these ideas, you then merge, classify and prioritize the new ones that have come forward.

Classic session

A more classic session, and one that I use often, begins with a short ice breaker so everyone at the table is comfortable has had a chance to interact with the others at the table. You then hand each person a stack of Post-it notes. Don’t be stingy with these because the idea is to generate as many ideas as possible – even hundreds. Give people a set period of time and ask them to write as many ideas as they can come up with, writing one only on each Post-it note.

Once all of the Post-it notes are complete, you will stick them to the wall or a board, and then begin the process of categorizing them by business, client, IT challenge and so on. Leave people with extra Post-it notes so that if additional ideas come up during this process, they too can be added to the board. At the end of it all, express and prioritize ideas, evaluate them for time commitment and investment, and set the strategy moving forward.

Resources

There are many other resources available that you can use to drive ideas and set strategies for generating and gathering collective intelligence. Two of the best ones are designabetterbusiness.com and boardofinnovation.com.

There are definitely other ways people have found success driving this kind of collaboration and team thinking. Tell us below about your favorite that has worked the best for you.