Collective Intelligence in the Holocene – 4: moving upstream

Collective IntelligenceI heard a story recently. It reminded me of the need to broaden the scope of our thinking in relation to human intelligence:

A woman was relaxing by a river, enjoying the sights and sounds and fresh air, when suddenly she noticed a person upstream struggling to stay afloat in the water. She dived into the water, swam out as fast as she could, and helped the person ashore. Catching her breath after the rescue, she glanced upstream, only to spot another person adrift in the river. Again, she dived in, swam out, and rescued the person.

In the next five minutes, the woman rescued two more people. Standing by the river, exhausted and almost completely out of breath, she saw another person adrift in the water. She started walking upstream, along the river bank. A passerby asked her, “Aren’t you going to help him?”

The woman replied, “Not this time. I’m going upstream to see if I can do something about whatever is causing all these people to fall into the river”.

A version of this story appears in at least two places, in two separate academic papers — the second of which refers to the first. After describing these two papers succinctly, I’ll expand into a third rendering of the story, and point to a gaping problem in the plot.

In the first telling, Egan [i] uses the story to advocate a unique approach to the design of mental health interventions. Along with many other societal problems we face, it has become increasingly apparent that hundreds of millions of people globally suffer mental health problems — anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and alcohol-substance abuse are all too common, and often go untreated, particularly for people living in poverty and for people living in developing nations [ii]. Rather than acting to rescue people from mental health problems, Egan recommends that mental health professionals intervene upstream, earlier in the process of human psychological development, and thus exercise their professional energy and expertise more efficiently, to promote wellness in their client population, and offer a more impactful and more lasting solution than simple relief from human suffering. Indeed, relief from suffering and mental health difficulties may be short lived unless we move upstream and discover whatever is causing all these people to fall into difficulty. Like the swimmer in our story above, we need to breathe deep, stand up straight by the river bank, take in the long view, and then move upstream and enter the flow of the problem earlier in the process, such that we can understand and prevent the problem from occurring in the first place. For any professional group tasked with transforming mental health outcomes, a key challenge is to exercise their collective intelligence, in collaboration with all the key stakeholders involved, such that they can design the best set of solutions — and the best possible environment — to reduce suffering and foster greater wellbeing into the future. As any mental health professional working in the field will tell you, this is no easy task.

In the second telling of the story, Friedman [iii] focuses specifically on the challenge of group problem solving. As such, he opens with the same story as Egan, but he uses the story as a starting point to advocate an upstream approach to facilitating group problem solving. Although it may seem ‘obvious’, Friedman reminds us that, before working with a group in a problem solving session, the group facilitator should take time to develop an understanding of the group and their current working context. How is the group structured? How do they think? Who wields power in the group? What skills do group members possess? What methods have they used to approach problem solving in the past? There are many other questions we might ask, but the point is that we need to understand groups before we can work with them. An upstream approach to facilitating group problem solving involves understanding your group and their context before even stepping into the ‘situation room’ to begin working with the group. Much like any process of scientific problem solving, we need knowledge of the problem before we can suggest any reasonable solution. Why would we approach our work with groups any differently? Why would we disregard the problem of promoting effective group dynamics?

Working in the upstream, Friedman highlights the importance of ‘setting off in the right direction’ with a group — working with them to clarify their specific problem solving goals, their expectations regarding communication and engagement, the key roles and responsibilities of everyone involved, and the group processes they will use to support their problem solving efforts. Much like we might dive into a river repeatedly to rescue people from drowning without ever addressing whatever is causing them to fall into the water, and much like we might work with passion to reduce the suffering of people who present with mental health problems without ever addressing the cause of these problems, we commonly approach group problem solving sessions in a similar way — without a deep understanding of the system we’re working within. All too often, groups come together as a way of dealing with urgent organizational or societal problems, but without much consideration as to how the group should act when they come together, and with little or no consideration as to the causes of repeated group failures. Again and again, groups often fail to deal effectively with the problems they are asked to address.

Returning again to the woman sitting by the river bank, our lone swimmer, who courageously dives into the river, again and again, before pausing to reflect on the upstream causes of the problem she is facing, we might begin to notice a gaping problem in her story. Indeed, there is hidden sub-problem in the scenario. You might recall the passerby. Observing a person about to drown in the water, and walking past our lone swimmer on the path, the passerby asks what appears to be a very natural question — “Aren’t you going to help him?” But the passerby does not offer any support or help, and our lone, courageous swimmer doesn’t even think to ask the passerby for help. This is clearly a problem. It takes a certain amount of courage to dive into a river to save someone, but it takes a different sort of courage to ‘ask’ for help, and it requires a certain perspective and courage to ‘offer’ help. As such, we have identified a sub-problem in the problem situation, but it’s a vital one. By moving upstream to discover the source of the problem, our story leaves a person in the water who will likely drown. From a systems perspective, we appear to be solving one problem by leaving another problem behind. Sure, from a metaphorical perspective the story may highlight the merits of ‘upstream thinking’, but it also implicitly reinforces individualism — the idea that people should be independent and self-reliant, and the related principle of ‘freedom’ of action for individuals over collective control. But are we truly free in a situation where we are dying because no-one has the courage to form a team to rescue us?

In the history of ideas, individualism is a recent cultural belief, but it has become very popular, particularly in societies that have sought to define themselves as liberal democracies. Like many other popular beliefs, people can get very ‘carried away’ by the notion. Individualism is a belief shared by many people, and it often extends to the rather heroic and generally foolish notion that a single individual, alone, can resolve complex societal problems. But we must challenge this belief and consider carefully its societal consequences if we are to evolve new, emerging possibilities for collective intelligence in the Holocene. There seems to be a blind spot — academically, socially, culturally, and practically — whereby we invest limited attention, and subsequently limited energy, in understanding and facilitating small groups or teams. However, this is changing, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the key cultural changes have occurred in the business world, where effective teamwork is seen as a source of enhanced innovation, productivity, cohesion, well-being and sustainability within organizations. As with many aspects of cultural evolution, key changes have occurred as a result of the inspirational spark and push of key players who bring a critical mass of followers to their cause [iv]. It’s true, individuals do possess the power to inspire the formation of a team; and teams, given access to usable methods, can push the limits of systems thinking and coordinated systems action.

© Michael Hogan


[i] Egan, G. (1984). People in systems. A comprehensive model for psychosocial education and training. In D. Larson (Ed). Teaching Psychological Skills: Models for Giving Psychology Away. (pp. 21 – 43) Monterey, CA. Brookes/Cole

[ii] Ngui, E. M., Khasakhala, L., Ndetei, D., & Roberts, L. W. (2010). Mental disorders, health inequalities and ethics: A global perspective. International review of psychiatry, 22(3), 235-244.

[iii] Friedman, P. G. (1989). Upstream Facilitation. Management Communication Quarterly, 3(1), 33-50.

[iv] Senge, P.M., 1990, The Fifth Discipline – The Art & Practice of a Learning Organization, New York: Doubleday

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