Collective Intelligence #4 — The Five Altitudes of Business Conversations

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There are two fast ways to ruin a great company and run a business into the ground. The first is to let lawyers run the company. Although attorneys play an important role — they help leaders operate within the law and keep the company out of trouble — they have no business defining the organization’s strategy. Sure, there are very smart lawyers who understand business; applying a legal mindset to defining the company’s mission, however, is one fast way to destroy a company.

Listen here: Episode 92 — Collective Intelligence #4 — The Five Altitudes of Business Conversations

Unless they deliberately choose differently, both lawyers and controllers are prone to take a myopic view of the business by focusing on a single objective, which inhibits and stifles the collective wisdom and intelligence of a leadership team. One explanation I’ve heard about the Boeing 737 Max debacle is that it was the financial targets that forced the engineers to change the logic of the autopilot control. Whether this account is true and whether it was the only breakdown point that led to two disastrous plane crashes is for Boeing and other entities to analyze. If true, this singular focus exemplifies a myopic imperative that catalyzes collective stupidity.

When lawyers or controllers take charge of company strategy and define product strategy choices, they inevitably will lead the organization to produce collective stupidity instead of collective wisdom. It is in the context of our pursuit of collective organizational intelligence that we reflect on the collective stupidity syndrome.

Most spectacular disastrous in corporate history can be traced in one way or another to collective stupidity. Let me explain.

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What is collective stupidity?

Have you ever been in a room full of smart people only to discover that collectively you have produced senseless and even idiotic outcomes? Be honest! If you answered, “Yes, been there, done that,” I have bad news and good news for you. The good news is that your experience mirrors that of many other bright professionals, and that all is not lost. The bad news is that you are not alone: collective stupidity occurs spontaneously almost weekly in some of the most renowned companies in the world.

The technical definition of collective stupidity is a condition in which a group of individuals makes each person less intelligent and more prone individually and collectively to sub-optimal, dysfunctional and even disastrous outputs.

Why do teams of smart people produce collective stupidity?

First, their members fail to listen deeply to each other. Second, they react from pressure and fear, which cloud their judgment. Third, people get defensive and entrenched in fixed viewpoints. Fourth, because they each speak at different altitudes, and they are not able to produce true alignment due to the misunderstandings that necessarily occur. Fifth, they fail to appreciate that well-designed conversations, the “master app” of successful teams, lead to clarity of purpose and facilitate the co-creative brilliance and collective wisdom of the team.

Nearly 30 years ago I first observed the altitude differentials and disconnect syndrome that contribute to ineffective and dysfunctional conversations and meetings. To prevent such outcomes by helping people clarify which level of conversation they were in at any given time, I named and described five different conversations and their corresponding altitudes. Here is how I framed them.

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The five conversation altitudes
My Air Force flying experience taught me the practical and metaphoric power of altitude. Flying at 500 feet, 5,000 feet, 10,000 feet, 20,000, and 35,000 feet, I realized that each altitude provides a unique vantage point and therefore activates different maneuver and response possibilities. It was an experience that shaped an approach I recommend to executive teams, which is to develop the capacity to work at all five altitudes. An effective leader must be able to shift adaptively, engage in conversations at different altitudes, and decipher the strategic, operational and tactical elements for each situational need and opportunity.

The premise was simple and straightforward. Below I describe five altitudes jet pilots navigate and apply them to the leadership conversations and intelligence each one represents.

Altitude 1. At 500 feet, pilots cannot see very far because objects on the ground look large. The mountain in front of them can be dangerous.

Similarly, leaders must recognize and separate what’s truly urgent, solve these problems and make decisions quickly. Altitude 1 is the problem-solving and decision-making conversation.

Altitude 2. When flying at 5,000 feet, pilots easily can identify objects on the ground and compare them to each other. They can see what’s below clearly enough to say, “I like this neighborhood down there… I prefer this house with the swimming pool.”

Similarly, leaders must bring tremendous focus to a few select priorities that represent the preferred opportunity targets that enable them to build momentum. They then must mobilize their teams and coordinate their collaborative efforts to produce meaningful near-term benefits and results. Altitude 2 is the priority opportunities conversation.

Altitude 3. Climbing to an elevation of 10,000 feet, pilots can see where they came from and where they are heading. Although close enough to the ground to identify movement, they have sufficient altitude to maneuver.

Similarly, leaders allocate resources strategically in the most effective way when they evaluate the performance, productivity and profitability of their business units and activities. Altitude 3 is the performance and profitability conversation.

Altitude 4. Flying at 20,000 feet, pilots have a different perspective because they see everything from above, including mountaintops. This altitude enables them to reflect on the paradigms (mental models) that shape their outlook.

Similarly, leaders must reflect on the perceptions that govern their views of the marketplace and the world — the big picture paradigms in which they operate. To gain new perspectives, they ask bigger questions that enable them to see relationships and connect dots that earlier appeared unrelated. Altitude 4 is where leaders can reinvent themselves by challenging their own and others’ perceptions and by engaging in the paradigm and perspective conversation.

Altitude 5. Flying at the top of the tropopause and entering the stratosphere at 35,000 feet, a little above 10 kilometers and the preferred altitude for commercial flights, pilots see the world differently. At that elevation there is a distinct feeling of, perhaps even a mystical appreciation for, the hugeness of the world.

Similarly, leaders step into an elevated set of considerations when they include the problems and urgencies they need to solve (Altitude 1: 500 feet), the priorities on which they seek to collaborate (Altitude 2: 5,000 feet), the performance they drive (Altitude 3: 10,000 feet), and the new paradigms (business models) and perspectives (Altitude 4: 20,000 feet), all inside the consideration of purpose. Altitude 5 is where leaders create a vision inclusive of people and planet, aligned with their purpose.

Each of these altitudes has its own power and intensity. Together they represent the gradient of conversations and issues leaders face in business and in life. You can be passionate at every level, although the nature and quality of the passion change. Each of these altitudes of business conversations brings forward its unique intelligence:

We’ve all encountered managers who operate only at 500 feet. They miss the more holistic performance considerations because they move from urgency to urgency, unable to prioritize opportunities. The altitude 1 conversations and their intelligence must be kindled before we are ready to explore new perspectives and embrace different paradigms that lead to the bigger picture of purpose.

Recall our friend Albert Einstein, who said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” To escape collective stupidity, unleash the joint creativity and wisdom of an organization, and free up its capacity to apply its collective intelligence, we must practice the discipline of conscious conversation choreography. The five altitudes framework is one of several tools that helps us ask and clarify:

  • What are the needs and opportunities we must address?
  • What conversations best facilitate these needs and opportunities?
  • At which altitude should we begin the conversation?
  • How will we design the conversation flow to include all participants efficaciously?
  • How will we facilitate the best flow of ideas and collective intelligence, overcome challenges and produce the highest impact?

Google has built two layers of collective intelligence that are integrated with the workflow. First, employees are encouraged to dedicate 20% of their time to projects that represent their interests and passion. Providing this autonomy and freedom creates a first layer of distributed intelligence and promotes a bottom-up vortex from which the next breakthrough idea can emerge.

The second layer builds on the first. As people share their passion projects, others who share their excitement are free to allocate their energy and time to those efforts as well. That’s the second layer of collective intelligence, generated by distributed individual choice, where people voting with their time and energy create a mechanism of self-organized selection.

Now it’s your turn. Turn the key. Identify situations that are prone to collective stupidity in your organization and your team. Reset and reframe opportunities by encouraging and provoking an emergent inquiry about the conversation’s focus, nature and altitude. Unleash the collective wisdom of your team and organization.

You can listen to an audio version of this by subscribing to the Create New Futures podcast

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