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By Chris Thomson and Neil Richardson

Intelligent people and organizations are intentional about doing good in the world. We have defined being intelligent as behaving wisely and well. No matter if you are an art dealer in London, a tile and marble contractor in Washington, DC or a university professor in Dubai -whether you have an advanced degree or no degree, intelligent people embody three traits: They have a lot of awareness, have a good understanding of themselves and of the world and they respond wisely and well, whatever the situation. Similarly, in this essay we explore the six characteristic that intelligent and wise organizations act. Finally, no robot-no matter how infused it is with artificial intelligence will be able to replicate the deep the intelligence that the ordinary human has the capacity to achieve.

Try to imagine what the world would be like if all organisations were intelligent. Although it would not be a problem-free world – we are all human and make mistakes from time to time – it would be a very different world, because so much depends on organisations. That much is clear. Less clear is what it would mean in practice to be an intelligent organisation. In this article we try to shed some light on this question. When we say “organisations”, we are referring to all kinds, public and private, big and small, commercial and non-commercial, governmental and non-governmental.

It is not easy to define “intelligent”, because it means so many different things to different people, but also because there are many different ways to be intelligent – mentally, physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually, and many more. In an attempt to cut through this, we will take the view that “intelligence is as intelligence does.” If your words and actions are intelligent, then you are intelligent. If they are not, then you are not! In other words, there is no such thing as being intelligent in theory. In practice, this means that most of us are intelligent some of the time, but probably not all of the time. It also means that it does not make sense to characterise someone as intelligent, as if this were a permanent quality. It makes much more sense to say that the person is behaving intelligently at this moment, or not, as the case may be. It is worth stopping to think about this. You may believe that you are intelligent, because you have a university degree or a well-paid job or because you know a lot, but the real question is: are you intelligent most of the time, or just some of the time, or only on rare occasions? Whatever your answer, perhaps you should think about how you could increase your intelligence, by behaving intelligently more often. But we have still not explained what we mean by “intelligent”. We are going to stick our necks out here, and say that to be intelligent is to behave wisely and well. Of course, this is open to many interpretations, but the one we like best is that if, by your words or actions, you make the world a better place, then you are being intelligent. It could be anything. It could be on a very small, personal scale, such as a kind word or action. Or it could be on a bigger scale, such as helping to organise a campaign against inequality or corruption or the causes of climate change. It matters not what the scale is. All that matters is that, in some way, you make the world a better place. If you do, then you are behaving intelligently.

We freely admit that what we have just said flies in the face of much conventional wisdom about intelligence. For example, Adolf Eichmann, who organised the murder of millions, was, in conventional terms, very intelligent. He was well read, a good thinker, very efficient, and very articulate. In contrast, the fictional character, Forrest Gump, was simple and unsophisticated, and he looked and sounded it! In conventional terms, he was unintelligent. Yet, one of these people made the world a much worse place, and one of them made it much better place. So we need to ask ourselves who was the truly intelligent one? What we are speaking about here is the crucial difference between being intellectual and being intelligent. The first does not guarantee the second. Eichmann was almost certainly an intellectual, because he knew a lot and because he excelled at rational thinking. But it is very evident that these qualities are not sufficient in themselves to produce good behaviour. In contrast, Forrest Gump was clearly not an intellectual – his haircut and way of speaking were designed to make this obvious in the movie – yet this did not prevent him from doing some wonderful things, some of which led him to meet three US Presidents. Just to repeat, because it is important, intelligence is as intelligence does, not as it could be in theory.

We have defined being intelligent as behaving wisely and well, in the sense that your words and your actions make the world a better place. Rather than trying to explain this in more detail, it might be helpful to give you a character sketch of someone we know well. In our opinion, she is intelligent in the best senses of the word. She is a therapist and actor and she lives in London. There is something compelling about the way she looks, the way she speaks, and even the way she moves. She is economical in her use of energy, so much so that she seems to be able to get things done without really trying. She feels very natural, very human. It is reassuring to have her around, because she always knows what to do when something goes wrong. It is good to be in her company, because she is cheerful and friendly, but also because she seems to understand people at least as much as they understand themselves. If we were able to look inside intelligent people, we would see that they are acutely sensitive to the world around them. They are very conscious. They notice a lot and miss very little. We would also see that they are masters of their feelings, and are able to empathise with the feelings of others. They use their minds well, and this enables them to think clearly and see why things are the way they are. So they understand things better than most of us. They have learned to trust and use their intuition, and they have managed to transcend many of the conventions and beliefs that often hold us back. They are very obviously mentally and emotionally intelligent, but it goes far beyond that. Everything about them is intelligent, even the way they move. Perhaps it is significant that they seem to have ascended to a higher order childhood. They are mature adults, but they have lost none of the spontaneity, playfulness and wonder of children. When they walk into a room, it becomes brighter. Just by being present, they make the world a better place.

Let us use this description try to capture the essence of intelligence. It is clear that truly intelligent people have a lot of awareness, of themselves and their surroundings. They have a good understanding, of themselves, other people, and the world. And they respond wisely and well, whatever the situation. We would like to suggest that these three qualities – awareness, understanding, and wise response – are what mark out intelligent people from others. Now, if this is true for individuals, we believe that it is also true for organisations. To be considered truly intelligent, an organisation must be highly aware, of itself and the world; it must have a good understanding, of itself and the world; and it must respond wisely and well, whatever the situation. A hurdle too high? We don’t think so, In fact, many organisations probably score quite highly on the first and second of these three qualities. Where they often fall down badly is in putting their awareness and understanding into practice, in the form of wise action. This is often because they feel constrained by the systems in which they operate, such as short-term profit maximisation, for example, or the need to keep a weather eye on the next election. It can also be because there is too much human weakness at the top of the organisation, in the form of greed or fear or short-sightedness. The rest of this article discusses what it might mean in practice for an organisation to score highly on the three core qualities of intelligence.

The Aware Organization

Emergent Action Aware OrganisationAware organizations have their ear to the ground and sense things long before others do. Whether an organization is selling a product or service in the private sector or part of a government initiative in the public sector, success depends on listening and identifying an issue or need. Organizations that practice awareness look for ways to stay close to the people they serve.

Intelligent organizations stay at the forefront by incorporating listening and sensing systems into the fabric of their work. Employee performance plans, organizational strategic and adaptive planning, and even the way office space is structured, cultivate a sense of awareness and deep connection to the values. In the private sector, focus groups and surveys of the customer base are essential if a company wants to keep its competitive and quality advantages. There is also much to learn from a company’s competitors – sometimes their mistakes have as much import as their successes. Public sector organizations often have an implicit if not explicit compact to serve some part of a community. With this is mind, there are a variety of ways to bring people together including dialog, focus groups, charrettes, Q&A and summits. Each is a way to listen and hear, and to gather early signals. Even so, you can practice all the awareness you want, but if the institution does not engage with the public by acknowledging what it heard and adapting to the public voice, trust and its market will deteriorate. Folks will not buy what they do not want and they will not engage publicly if they believe they are being ignored. Nearly every business thrives when it is more trusted, and this is doubly so for public institutions.

The Understanding Organization

Emergent Action Understanding OrganisationThe understanding organization gets early signals by being aware, and then it looks for ways to make connections between its mission and the wider world. An understanding organization is able to make connections where others cannot or will not. By listening deeply for early signals an organization can get the leap on a competitor in one sense and can makes decisions that are based on the big picture well beyond just the bottom line, including the environment and employee satisfaction. Most often, workers, customers, constituents and the public want organizations to be responsible, and that includes making decisions from the global context to the local.

Question: how does an intelligent organization listen and hear best? Answer: by creating processes that are part of a communication loop that incorporates listening, responding and acting. Good communication is a process of openness that allows for open exploration of the issue at hand and holds a degree of respect and understanding that each person has a valuable perspective. Internally, adaptive planning initiatives that incorporate employee and management input are best able to create a process that is realistic, comprehensive and dynamic. Externally, staying connected to the customer base and the public ensures relevancy.

Practices that can lead to effective communication include dialogs, community conversations and in some cases focus groups. Conversations that are well designed and that incorporate the spectrum of issues from the global to the individual ensure that multiple views are more likely to be heard and acted on. Public and private intelligent organizations have the widest perspective and the best understanding of who they are and who they serve.

The Wise Organization

Emergent Action Wise OrganisationThe wise organization has both awareness and understanding, but also has systems that ensure effective, sustainable action. Hearing and seeing early trends and being able to make connections between seemingly disparate things requires the ability to be open to the new and unimagined. Like people, organizations evolve and change or they become outdated and inefficient and eventually go out of business or out of office.

Wise organizations create a way of fulfilling their mission by considering the following six characteristics:

  1. What impact does their organization have on the physical environment?
  2. How does it impact people within and outside the organization?
  3. Does the organization create good adaptive systems to ensure intelligence is sustained throughout the organization in all its manifestations?
  4. Does the organization value the ideas and instincts of staff and the people they serve?
  5. Is there awareness that the organization is part of an emerging continuum that is much bigger than it?
  6. Is the organization making the world a better place?

What We Can Do

Emergent Action Intelligent OrganisationThere are two direct ways we can make a difference. Until we have a preponderance of Intelligent Organizations, the most effective action people can do is to take personal responsibility for the way we spend our money and our time. Your money has a life cycle and represents an investment you have made in the institution you are “paying into”-choose wisely who and what you spend your money on. Your purchases are you. The other way is to influence the organization you work in and nudge it toward considering the six principles noted above. How much can you and we do together?

Chris Thomson has worked as a lawyer, economist, researcher in Chinese, business consultant, and in think-tanks in Scotland and New Mexico. He now runs courses in intelligence and consciousness, and he recently published his first book “Full Spectrum Intelligence”. Chris lives in Catalonia and spends as much time as possible in the mountains.

Neil Richardson is Director of Continuing Education at the University of the District of Columbia, the founder of Emergent Action and a member of Communities of the Future in Washington DC. He has worked in nation-wide election monitoring in the United States and Ghana, managed municipal strategic planning initiatives and is the co-author of “Preparing For A World That Doesn’t Exist-Yet”. Neil has published numerous articles related to community and civic life as well original research on the poet Walt Whitman’s meditation practice.