The impact of individual leaders on organizational success is often overrated. Rather, organizations succeed due to the genius of the organization itself. An organization is a living organism, a separate entity apart from the sum of individuals who collectively form the organization, with its own ‘distributed intelligence’. Organizations need to identify and deliberately build their distributed intelligence for being able to tackle the increasing complexity and ambiguity of business challenges today.

How does the distributed intelligence of an organization differ from traditional notions of intelligence? By giving up the notion of brainpower for the sake of the power of networks.

The task of solving problems is traditionally attributed to a brain, where intelligence is assumed to reside. In this frame of reference, a problem is tackled by an intelligent individual who uses brainpower to select the fitting course of action amongst various alternatives. In an organization then, the assumption is that intelligent people combine and share their intelligence to create answers to organizational problems. This assumption of combination and sharing has powerful implications. The management literature is full of talk around how to best share and manage information, how to best recruit, retain, and develop the needed knowledge and skills, and how to enable creative thinking while still pursuing a concise strategy. In summary, the management literature focuses on how to best manage brains for solving organizational problems.

When we focus on networks rather than brains, we might find more efficient and effective ways to tackle organizational challenges, especially those almost too complex and ambiguous to capture. It is these challenges that organizations increasingly face today.

In a network frame of reference, organizations are seen as living entities, alive and with a separate form of intelligence, apart from the sum of the more or less intelligent individuals inhabiting the organization. This separate form of intelligence comes about through complying with system rules, and can be described as a distributed kind of intelligence. It is exactly this distributed intelligence that is often required for tackling the most complex challenges that individuals are unable to grasp and capture.

Let’s take the swarming of birds as an example. An individual bird flying within a swarm of birds does not think about the movement of the whole swarm, and indeed would be unable to grasp and capture this quite complex swarming movement. Rather, the individual bird follows only a few simple rules, such as keeping a prescribed distance from its neighbors. By complying with these simple rules, the individual bird does not bump into its neighbors, and plays its important part within the larger system. As a result of complying with the simple rules on an individual basis, the swarm of birds executes a very complex and coordinated swarming behavior. Again, an individual bird would not be able to orchestrate such behavior in this sort of rapidity, complexity, and beauty. The swarming is therefore not governed by individual intelligence, combined and shared in some sort of exchange. Such a combining and sharing of information and knowledge would be too slow and inefficient for the swarming situation. Rather, the individual birds create only local solutions, corresponding to simple, local rules, without capturing the whole systems. These local solutions again create automatic coordination that benefits and shapes the success of the entire system.

When managing the complex and ambiguous challenges large organizations face today, the reliance on distributed intelligence can be very efficient and effective. Let’s observe an anthill to make that clear. The ants are able to collectively execute tasks that an individual ant neither can do nor conceive. They build elaborate housing structures, they raise their offspring, they locate food, they fight their enemies. An individual ant does not have enough brainpower to do and plan all this. Through creating a network of units, made out of thousands and thousands of individual ants that each comply with local and simple rules, a distributed intelligence emerges that brings about the needed solutions. For example, when locating a source of food, the ants quickly form an ant trail to that particular source. This ant trail is not formed as a result of a conscious awareness residing in each individual ant that food is available at the end of the trail. Rather, the trail is again formed by local and simple rules. The rule each individual ant complies with is to follow odor markers left by other ants. The ant then walks from marker to marker, without having a greater awareness of the overall purpose. From the systems perspective, however, we can clearly see that the ants have formed the ant trail in order to collect food. Each individual ant has played an essential part in bringing about this purpose; yet, without the intention to do so. Rather, the overall purpose has been brought about by the compliance with local and simple rules. In summary, the ants solved a challenge too complex to master given the brainpower at their disposal. Rather, to understand the success of the ants when organizing their survival in the midst of situations an individual ant must conceive as too complex and ambiguous, the notion of distributed intelligence is essential.

To an increasing degree, organizations face challenges that appear too complex and ambiguous to master. Nevertheless, organizations often are resilient regarding these challenges, and do find the right course of action; just like the ants collectively know what to do. This too often happens by chance, however: instead of crediting the organization’s distributed intelligence, a hero is chosen who supposedly led the organization to success with her/his specific skills and genius. This is detrimental. Organizations should rather learn to identify their specific quality of distributed intelligence, and to continuously build it. Only then will organizations react and act successfully when the next challenge appears. In the end, it is about providing local and simple rules to the individual parts of the organization that allow for appropriate reaction, without necessarily even knowing the end goal or the purpose of reacting. Only then do organizations gain the skill if finding appropriate answers to those changing circumstances that more often than not are too complex and ambiguous to master without distributed intelligence.