Ditching the boss: How the collective brain empowers organisations

Posted on January 10, 2014. Filed under: Human Capital, Linda Ray, Tara Neven | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

We’ve made it our mission at neuresource group to transform the workplace by helping to build brain-friendly organisations — starting with our own.

We’ve given a lot of thought to just what it is that makes an organisation brain-friendly. Over the next few months, we plan to explore the subject in more depth by looking at various organisational models to see what works and why. We welcome your comments and hope you will take the time to share your experiences and perspectives.



A lab for innovation

Because we were merging two unique and independent organisations, each of which was already functioning well, we were especially sensitive to setting up an organisational structure that would complement — and not quash — existing strengths. We also recognised that we had an unparalleled opportunity to try something new.

We both knew instinctively that a control-and-command governance structure was out. Not only was it something neither of us practiced for a long time, but we also saw that it wasn’t really working anywhere. Imposing ‘productivity’ never works in the long term. It was important to us to find a system that gave employees the freedom to develop intrinsic motivation, to draw on and extend their talents, and to follow their hearts.

We established a portfolio structure from the start. Because we are a small organisation, team members often sit across one or two portfolios, which allows for interesting insights and the cross-pollination of ideas. Because we are new, enthusiasm is high; because we emphasise democracy, our team is invested, but also open to different views and perspectives.

We began to notice something interesting. When one person generated an idea, the team would embrace it. However, the idea often underwent a series of subtle tweaks and changes that invariably improved it. No one actually said, “Improve on this”. It just happened. Sometimes just having a different person articulate the basic idea led to a new dimension that made it better, richer, and more powerful.

We realised that by setting up an environment that was open to new ideas and new ways of doing things, we were encouraging innovation. This is something that all organisations are after, often paying consultants high fees to come in and institute the changes that lead to a more innovative workforce.  And for us, it just seemed to happen.

The collective brain

img_3461We know from neuroscience research that emotions and attitudes are contagious. Being open to ideas leads others to be open to ideas and it also leads to more ideas. We now refer to our team as “the collective brain” and, trusting that throwing an idea out to others and knowing they will listen in an open and nonjudgmental manner, we can be confident the idea will blossom. Each team member has different talents, individual experiences and unique ways of looking at the world. This means that an idea that has passed through the collective brain of the organisation is going to be more robust right from the start.

Importantly, since everyone has a chance to contribute, there is more personal investment in all the stages of bringing an idea into fruition. By making our workplace a lab for innovation, we also set up a structure for real collaboration, something else organisations pay top dollar for.


In a recent energetic online discussion, we were introduced to the holocracy model. At first glance, it seemed like maybe we were practicing holacracy without even knowing it. It has many of the same elements as our collective brain model.

The creators of holacracy define it as “a comprehensive practice for structuring, governing, and running an organisation. It replaces today’s top-down predict-and-control paradigm with a new way of achieving control by distributing power. It is a new ‘operating system’ that instills rapid evolution in the core processes of an organisation.”

Holacracy is purpose- and process-driven, not manager-driven. In the words of the founder Brian Robertson, “It places the seat of organisational power in an explicit process, one which organises around an explicit purpose. This allows emergent behavior of the whole system, without being controlled by a single heroic leader…”

How holacracy is brain-friendly

istock_000017297060mediumWe know from neuroscience that no two brains are alike, and the holacracy model allows an organisation to tap into diversity among employees. We also know from direct experience that tapping into the collective brain really does work.

Additionally, in the hyperkinetic world we live in, organisational agility is paramount. Because governance and the bounds of individual authority are clearly defined in the holacracy model, employees are empowered to exercise autonomy and embrace change. By giving a clear direction rather than a defined path forward, quick ‘re-wiring’ and innovative responses are possible.

Some other brain-friendly features:

Overall, we are pleased to have learned about holacracy. We know first-hand the importance of encouraging autonomy as a way to support engagement, innovation, and collaboration. Tapping into the collective brain has empowered our organisation, and we believe it will do the same for yours.

Watch Brian Robertson on holocracy in this TEDTalk:




Screen Shot 2013-04-22 at 9.23.30 AM


Tara Neven is the co-founder/director of neuresource group.  As an entrepreneur, business strategist, facilitator, learning and development, and collective leadership specialist, Tara has over 15 years experience in corporate learning and development, education, business growth and organisational development. The last 10 years of this experience has been in remote and regional areas of Australia. Tara’s primary industry experience has been in the mining and resource sector, construction, local government and medium to large organisations.





Linda Ray co-founded neuresource group with Tara. Through  the delivery of the Diploma of Neuroscience of Leadership and other innovative programs informed by neuroscience.  this organisation is playing a key role in developing a new generation of thinking leaders. Linda is recognised both in Australia and internationally as one of the foremost thought leaders in the neuroleadership field. She actively contributes to the body of knowledge that supports the building of individual and organisational ‘neurocapability’.






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2 Responses to “Ditching the boss: How the collective brain empowers organisations”

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Hi Linda and Tara. Great post. I first heard about holocracy through Conscious Capitalism Australia which embraces this thinking. Your post highlights really well, how the neuroscience supports these concepts.

[…] how power is distributed to support organisations to be agile in a time of constant change. In an earlier post we referred to holocracy as one approach being adopted by organisations, which provides a good […]

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