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Why Collective Intelligence amid COVID-19? How to build organisational resilience & innovate

Collective intelligence and dialogic communication are possibly alien concepts amongst the banking and financial services community. Many senior leaders would likely dismiss it as irrelevant to their particular responsibilities and business objectives. I’m sorry to say that if this is the case, they are missing a trick. Strategising in the world we now live in demands they take a closer look.

What I’m talking about here is far from surplus to business requirements. In fact, I would argue that leaders of all seniority and sensibilities who manage critical departments and teams of all sizes and geographies, should pay attention. Particularly now that COVID-19 is having such a dramatic impact on everything as we know it.

Complex and ever-challenging landscape 

Organisational resilience is key when faced with increasing competition such as the popular open banking functionality that has doubled in the past six months with up to 2 million users. People are making the most out of aggregated and multi-visibility accounts and easier access to credit.

Advancements in biometric technology with new more agile banks making bold moves to reinforce their commitment to security and protect what money people have because of the crisis is continuing. Public borrowing is up and negative interest rates are causing a swell of dismay amongst savers. Combatting fraud of course also remains top of the list. 

The consequences of the Coronavirus are accelerating the push towards digital banking in countries not seen before. Unsurprisingly, next generation prospective customers in the USA are ripe for the taking with digital banking start-ups disrupting the status quo too. And with major shifts in demands for regulatory compliance, it is no surprise that Deloitte is calling this the new age of tailoring by banking regulators

The need for agility and cost efficiencies in an environment of budgetary demands and reduced profit margins is high on the agenda too, and the monolith of developing innovation that eliminates manual activities in favour of digital transformation across the entire business is fraught with complexities.

Staying ahead of the curve with what is now pretty much a ubiquitous mobile and online banking environment, where a significant number of serious big banks are carving out a piece of the pie at a rate of knots worldwide is tough to say the least. Without a doubt, there’s lots going on that’s putting more onus on banks to make this change and evolve on top in a COVID-19 society. The time has come to solve these kinds of problems through new eyes. 

Say goodbye to meetings that are a waste of time

Thankfully, there is a new approach that can fundamentally shift how organisations solve problems and define new strategies when so much is unknown: Dialogue. Dialogue differs from discussion as it focuses on the shared experience of everyone and allows them to contribute with no pre-conceived judgements. With a discussion (or advocacy), people take a position, debate and argue leading to a winner (and a loser) but rarely consider fresh new ideas. With dialogue (or inquiry), everyone’s ideas and experiences are explored, frequently leading to innovative new ways of thinking, thus optimising solution searching.

A dialogic approach to problem solving encourages employees and managers alike – no matter whether they are in an office or working remotely - to step out of their regular thought patterns, forget organisational norms and equip themselves with the skills they need to get to a point where they acknowledge some important questions. For example, it is easy for people to confirm what they know they know and what they know they don’t know. With dialogue, exploring what don’t they know they know and what they don’t know they don’t know will create new thought processes. It sounds complicated, but in real life this starting point creates an atmosphere of openness and vulnerability. It invites curiosity and lays the path towards innovation and critical thinking.

Dialogic meetings come with a whole host of tangible benefits that include improving team collaboration, integration and cohesion. It can also spark ideas from listening in a profound way - permitting true listening is very different from hearing what people have to say in the old world of corporate meetings.

The dialogic meeting format increases self-awareness of each individual’s own thought processes or transformative learning. Dialogic thinking also uncovers questions teams can ask themselves about models of implementation and how to get things done. It galvanises ideation, is appreciative-focused, and concentrates on people’s strengths and builds on existing organisational resources. It’s engaging, empowering and fundamentally motivating. 

Dialogue disrupts, whereas discussion and debate are more likely to deflect.

Hazards of limiting assumptions 

In a typical meeting with people attending of varying seniorities and profile, invisible biases exist; we all like to persuade others to agree with us. People who are most respected or considered important because they’re a head of department or the ‘boss’ are listened to most. Peers follow their lead for political, personal or ambitious reasons. We are naturally hard-wired this way. People follow without realising it and that in itself can lead to polarised thinking which can reduce the likelihood of finding a solution or a new idea. Likewise, everybody has an opinion and by association curiosity falls by the wayside. He or she who shouts the loudest usually gets heard and hey presto! The problem is solved. Or is it?

The issue here is that this way of remedying problems is repetitive and decision making can be viewed as pretty toxic. As human beings, we are inherently lazy when it comes to listening and making choices, more often than not, we can’t help it. This is largely because we decide on what we already know beforehand. And here lies the inevitable barrier to innovation.

Naturally in a group dynamic there are inequalities. The same people offer their ideas, the same people agree and move to the next problem. Sometimes this works, but I would argue this stifles opportunity. Are there other voices that are not being heard? Opinions that could offer different suggestions, and in turn boost the confidence of other individuals, perhaps even from outside their teams, departments or disciplines that fuse even more relevant ideas within reason? What happens if the most influential person is not yet in the room? Your absent adversary. Why predict an end game unconsciously because you have always done it this way?

Learn together. Listen. Repeat

There is an alternative where leaders can diffuse people’s fixed mindsets and uniformity in a meeting environment and enable thinking development

Yet, leaders themselves are a part of this complex system. How difficult would it be for you to leave your career-long and trusted judgements and opinions at the door before you step into a meeting? It is a vulnerable place. That said, many psychologists would suggest that from vulnerability, innovation is born because we have to think differently and under pressure. Just like how COVID-19 is testing the banking and financial sectors like never before.

A dialogic experience involves a process that harnesses the wisdom of all people in the meeting. With bias left at the door regardless of rank.

If we look at the entry and intermediary members of staff as an example, traditionally FS companies are hierarchical by nature that subconsciously, or in some circumstance intentionally, restrict empowerment and purpose for their junior employees and mid-level management populations. 

This old fashioned and outdated approach is a misalignment to corporate HR values that are formally designed to improve the employee experience and in turn the reputation of the company they serve. Not to mention to get a return on the substantial investment involved in hiring and the complexities of keeping and incentivising good people.

One of the leading thinkers on the power of dialogue, Peter Senge, expands on this in his seminal work, “The Fifth Discipline”. In it, he argues that the most successful teams need to practice learning, together.  And that the best way to practice learning is by regular dialogue across the whole team. This helps everyone understand the shared knowledge, skills and experience of everyone in the team, allowing them to be better placed to utilise those skills that in other teams often go undiscovered. Setting aside time for this type of organisational learning is critical.  Not only does it build team motivation and increase performance, it builds better organisational knowledge that is more likely to be retained. 

Critically, it can also help build organisational resilience (great in times of crisis like coping with COVID-19), and improve people’s listening skills. Empowering teams at a local level to make decisions quickly because they are practised in doing so, is vital. Teams must continue to learn whilst in crisis mode.  Leaders and managers alike need to intentionally set time aside for their teams to practice learning. Which is a big shift in their own thinking.

Paving a new road to innovation

COVID-19 means there is no normal anymore. Taking heritage approaches to solving problems that inform critical strategies are in my mind, flawed. Despite this being a difficult pill to swallow, there is merit in a new kind of psychological bravery for managers and how they meet with their teams dialogically. 

An attitude of adventurism and discovery are the next normal to remedying problems teams face together.

A lack of knowing in itself is the starting point. Being vulnerable is the best place to begin, no matter what your job. It’s the place where good ideas come from. It’s where innovation and invention live and often remain unexploited. It’s time to ditch partisanship for collective intelligence. To clarify and establish the right kinds of questions that invite curiosity and importantly don’t ask questions that you know the answer to already.

For FS leaders, keeping up with so much pressure to change requires a new way to solve problems. In the wake of COVID-19, there has never been a more opportune time to embrace a dialogic culture, or at least experiment in approaching problem solving from a new rewarding perspective.  

When applied and implemented benevolently, dialogic collective intelligence can increase productivity and create higher levels of people-performance, as well as reducing organisational waste and most important of all, create a new and long-lasting culture of the possible.



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Gary Ford

Gary Ford



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04 Dec 2020



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This post is from a series of posts in the group:

Innovation in Financial Services

A discussion of trends in innovation management within financial institutions, and the key processes, technology and cultural shifts driving innovation.

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