The Power of Collective Wisdom

And the Trap of Collective Folly

Alan Briskin (Author) | Sheryl Erickson (Author) | John Ott (Author) | Tom Callanan (Author)

Publication date: 10/01/2009

The Power of Collective Wisdom

An inspired, practical approach to developing the power of groups to make wise, compassionate, and creative decisions.

An inspired and practical approach to developing the innate power of groups to make wise, compassionate, and creative decisions

Based on nine years of research involving scores of participants

Includes real-life examples and specific practices to help readers understand and cultivate collective wisdom and avoid collective folly

If we are to disentangle the extraordinary challenges that we face today in organizations, communities, and nations we must transcend our divisions and develop solutions together. But what enables us to collectively make wise choices and sound judgments instead of splintering apart?

When human beings gather together, a depth of awareness and insight, a transcendent knowing, becomes available. Based on nine years of research The Power of Collective Wisdom shows how we can tap into the extraordinary cocreative potential that exists in every group. Collective wisdom is elusive and unpredictable – it can’t be willed into being, but the authors describe six commitments people can adopt that will increase the likelihood of its appearing. Stories and historical examples throughout serve to illuminate and illustrate how collective wisdom has emerged in a range of settings and through the lives and traditions of varied cultures. Equally important, the authors describe how to recognize the pitfalls of polarization or false agreement, either of which can lead to collective folly – a phenomenon with which recent history has made us all too familiar. And they offer a set of practices to help readers maintain the key lessons of the book.

The Power of Collective Wisdom is a foundational book for an emerging field of study and practice relevant to everyone seeking more effective and satisfying ways of working with others.

•    An inspired and practical approach to developing the innate power of groups to make wise, compassionate, and creative decisions

•    Based on nine years of research involving scores of participants

•    Includes real-life examples and specific practices to help readers understand and cultivate collective wisdom and avoid collective folly

If we are to disentangle the extraordinary challenges that we face today in organizations, communities, and nations we must transcend our divisions and develop solutions together. But what enables us to collectively make wise choices and sound judgments instead of splintering apart?

When human beings gather together, a depth of awareness and insight, a transcendent knowing, becomes available. Based on nine years of research The Power of Collective Wisdom shows how we can tap into the extraordinary cocreative potential that exists in every group. Collective wisdom is elusive and unpredictable – it can’t be willed into being, but the authors describe six commitments people can adopt that will increase the likelihood of its appearing. Stories and historical examples throughout serve to illuminate and illustrate how collective wisdom has emerged in a range of settings and through the lives and traditions of varied cultures. Equally important, the authors describe how to recognize the pitfalls of polarization or false agreement, either of which can lead to collective folly – a phenomenon with which recent history has made us all too familiar. And they offer a set of practices to help readers maintain the key lessons of the book.

The Power of Collective Wisdom is a foundational book for an emerging field of study and practice relevant to everyone seeking more effective and satisfying ways of working with others.

Read more and meet author below

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Overview

An inspired, practical approach to developing the power of groups to make wise, compassionate, and creative decisions.

An inspired and practical approach to developing the innate power of groups to make wise, compassionate, and creative decisions

Based on nine years of research involving scores of participants

Includes real-life examples and specific practices to help readers understand and cultivate collective wisdom and avoid collective folly

If we are to disentangle the extraordinary challenges that we face today in organizations, communities, and nations we must transcend our divisions and develop solutions together. But what enables us to collectively make wise choices and sound judgments instead of splintering apart?

When human beings gather together, a depth of awareness and insight, a transcendent knowing, becomes available. Based on nine years of research The Power of Collective Wisdom shows how we can tap into the extraordinary cocreative potential that exists in every group. Collective wisdom is elusive and unpredictable – it can’t be willed into being, but the authors describe six commitments people can adopt that will increase the likelihood of its appearing. Stories and historical examples throughout serve to illuminate and illustrate how collective wisdom has emerged in a range of settings and through the lives and traditions of varied cultures. Equally important, the authors describe how to recognize the pitfalls of polarization or false agreement, either of which can lead to collective folly – a phenomenon with which recent history has made us all too familiar. And they offer a set of practices to help readers maintain the key lessons of the book.

The Power of Collective Wisdom is a foundational book for an emerging field of study and practice relevant to everyone seeking more effective and satisfying ways of working with others.

•    An inspired and practical approach to developing the innate power of groups to make wise, compassionate, and creative decisions

•    Based on nine years of research involving scores of participants

•    Includes real-life examples and specific practices to help readers understand and cultivate collective wisdom and avoid collective folly

If we are to disentangle the extraordinary challenges that we face today in organizations, communities, and nations we must transcend our divisions and develop solutions together. But what enables us to collectively make wise choices and sound judgments instead of splintering apart?

When human beings gather together, a depth of awareness and insight, a transcendent knowing, becomes available. Based on nine years of research The Power of Collective Wisdom shows how we can tap into the extraordinary cocreative potential that exists in every group. Collective wisdom is elusive and unpredictable – it can’t be willed into being, but the authors describe six commitments people can adopt that will increase the likelihood of its appearing. Stories and historical examples throughout serve to illuminate and illustrate how collective wisdom has emerged in a range of settings and through the lives and traditions of varied cultures. Equally important, the authors describe how to recognize the pitfalls of polarization or false agreement, either of which can lead to collective folly – a phenomenon with which recent history has made us all too familiar. And they offer a set of practices to help readers maintain the key lessons of the book.

The Power of Collective Wisdom is a foundational book for an emerging field of study and practice relevant to everyone seeking more effective and satisfying ways of working with others.

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Meet the Authors


Visit Author Page - Alan Briskin

Alan Briskin, Ph.D. is an award-winning author, artist, and pioneer in the field of organizational learning. He has been working with groups and organizations for over 30 years as a coach and consultant. In his role as a consultant and executive coach, Alan helps leaders apply practical wisdom and a learning orientation to complex issues of organizational change and transition. He uses dialogue, inquiry, and skillful questions to evoke new ways of thinking. He is the author of The Stirring of Soul in the Workplace and co-author of Bringing Your Soul to Work and Daily Miracles.  His most recent book is The Power of Collective Wisdom: And the Trap of Collective Folly.

To learn more about Alan and his work, please visit his website wwe.alanbriskin.com



Visit Author Page - Sheryl Erickson

Sheryl Erickson is an educator, agent, connector, and convener of innovative transformational gatherings. Learn more about Sheryl and her work at her author and Power of Collective Wisdom websites.



Visit Author Page - John Ott


John Ott facilitates community and organizational change efforts, integrating principles of collective wisdom into contexts that demand action now. Learn more about John at his author and Power of Collective Wisdom websites.


Visit Author Page - Tom Callanan

Tom Callanan is a writer, group process facilitator, consultant, and cofounder of the Collective Wisdom Initiative.  Also visit his Power of Collective Wisdom book website.

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Table of Contents


Foreword: by Peter Senge

Welcome

Use of Terms


Introduction: Collective and Wisdom Make the Difference

Chapter 1: What is Collective Wisdom and How Does it Show Up?

Chapter 2: Preparing for Collective Wisdom to Arise

Chapter 3: Inhabiting a Different Worldview

Chapter 4: What Makes Groups Flourish

Chapter 5: The Tragedy of Polarized Groups

Chapter 6: An Illusion of Agreement

Chapter 7: The Unlimited Cocreative Power of Groups and Communities

Chapter 8: Practices of Mindfulness for Collective Wisdom


Final Reflection

An Invitation

Notes

Acknowledgments

Index

About the Collective Wisdom Initiative

About the Fetzer Institute

About the Cover Image

About the Authors

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Excerpt

The Power of Collective Wisdom

one
What Is Collective Wisdom and How Does It Show Up?

Central Washington University and Western Oregon University were playing each other for a spot in the NCAA Division playoffs in women’s softball. Up to the plate stepped Western Oregon’s Sara Tucholsky, their five-foot-two right fielder, with two runners on base in the second inning. On the second pitch, the light-hitting outfielder blasted the ball over the center field fence for an apparent home run. Looking up to see the ball clear the fence, she missed first base as she rounded toward second and had to stop abruptly to return and touch it. But something in her right knee gave way and she collapsed on the base path. “I was in a lot of pain,” she reported later. “Our first-base coach was telling me I had to crawl back to first base. ‘I can’t touch you,’ she said, ‘or you’ll be out. I can’t help you.’” Sara crawled through the dirt in obvious agony as her teammates and spectators watched her.1

The Western Oregon coach rushed onto the field and conferred with the umpires. They were clear that a player could not be assisted by her own teammates and that she would be credited with a single but not a home run. The Western Oregon coach did not know what to do; this was a crucial game, and it was Sara’s first home run in four years.

Then Mallory Holtman stepped in. She was Central Washington’s star first baseman and the player that other teams feared most. She offered a simple solution. If Sara’s own teammates could not help her round the bases, what if Central Washington players did? The umpires concluded that there were no rules against an opposing team assisting. Mallory and her shortstop picked up Sara and resumed the home run walk, pausing at each base to let her touch her uninjured foot to the bag. Mallory recalled that they were laughing when they reached second base and wondered how this would look to others. When they reached home, they found out. The entire Western Oregon team was in tears. “My whole team was crying,” Sara recalled. “Everybody in the stands was crying. My coach was crying. It touched a lot of people.”

Western Oregon won the game 4–2, but that is not what Mallory Holtman took away as her lesson. “In the end, it is not about winning and losing so much,” she reflected. “It was about this girl. She hit it over the fence and was in pain and she deserved a home run.… This is a huge experience I will take away. We are not going to remember if we won or lost, we are going to remember this kind of stuff that shows the character of our team. It is the best group of girls I’ve played with. I came up with the idea, but any girl on the team would have done it.”

Mallory Holtman is a fine human being. When the moment came for her to act, she did not hesitate. Nor did she wonder whether her teammates would hesitate. It is the best group of girls I’ve played with. Indeed, her impulse to help was not seen as separate from her teammates: I came up with the idea, but any girl on the team would have done it.

The story of Sara and the aid she received from Mallory and her teammates flew over the Internet. It was as if in a sea of distress, evidence of human kindness was news. Yet it was news not because it was beyond our imagination, though the details were unusual, but because it was a reminder of what is common and decent in all of us. Yes, many would have left Sara to fend for herself, rationalized that the rules dictated the outcome, and felt justified, even fortunate, in her turn of bad luck. But Mallory Holtman did not hesitate to help, and her team backed her up.

How can we awaken to a world more like that? We see the results of a world in which the urge to dominate is everywhere, and even conversations can be competitive battlegrounds for winning and losing. How can we be part of settings, and help create settings, where the company we keep is more in step with human kindness, more likely to give others consideration and a helping hand?

FOUNDATIONAL QUALITIES AND CHARACTERISTICS OF COLLECTIVE WISDOM

Collective wisdom is about how we come to make sound judgments with others, touched by what is common and decent in all of us. It is an insight or action recognizing that what happens to one happens to all. As such, it is not solely an analytic decision, a compromise, a vote, or even a win-win situation. Mallory knew enough about herself and enough about her teammates to act with a high degree of empathy that extended beyond her own group. This was no small feat regardless of its simplicity or the seemingly minor consequences at stake. She hit it over the fence and was in pain and she deserved a home run is a statement that has metaphoric power. We are capable of treating others, even those outside our own group, as we would want to be treated. We are capable of recognizing pain in others and responding to them. More often than we realize, we are adept at acting in the immediacy of the moment when something of real importance and value is at stake. These are characteristics that extend beyond the individual to groups, and they have real significance.

“I’ve been collecting stories about collective wisdom,” cross-cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien told us. “One was in Montana, where a Jewish family had a menorah in the window, and their home got completely trashed. The next morning, word got out, and by that evening, all the people in that community put a menorah in their window. That’s an example of stopping violence in a collective, a unification that stopped violence.”2 It’s the same message that Mallory Holtman conveyed in her actions with her team, but now set up in reverse: If it’s done to one, it’ll have to be done to all. Mallory Holtman saw beyond two separate teams, and the townspeople in Montana saw beyond two separate religions, both recognizing the larger humanity in which we are joined.

Reduced to its essence, collective wisdom evokes experiences of connection—an understanding that arises with others of right action and on behalf of a larger purpose. It is a form of knowledge that is not solely intellectual or based entirely on the knowledge of one person. This is what makes wisdom collective, though individuals often play a major part in collective wisdom’s occurrence.

Collective wisdom is reflected in group behaviors that show human decency, social justice, and spiritual awareness. The effects of such behaviors result in surprising and positive outcomes that often cannot be ascribed to a simple or singular cause. Sometimes quite ordinary, other times quite profound, collective wisdom is what can happen when people find themselves in situations that invite new perspectives and evoke higher aspirations. Often, its emergence is grounded in a different way of listening and bringing attention to the immediacy of the moment.

A Silence on the River

I WAS IN A GROUP of about fifty people preparing to take our rafts into the water. There was a guide, a park ranger, who was Native American. His name was Vincent. We mostly didn’t know each other. There was a lot of nervous energy in the group. People were chatting, checking their gear, eating. Some were expecting Vincent to speak and get the trip going. He didn’t seem to be in a hurry. He sat quietly as the group bustled about. Finally, as the group energy settled, he began to talk. I don’t remember him going through a long list of dos and don’ts about rafting, though I’m sure he shared with us the essentials of what we needed to know. What I remember instead was that he shared a bit about himself and why he worked as a ranger. He talked about the land we were on, and how his ancestors once lived here. He mentioned that there were times when he sat by himself that he could feel the presence of his ancestors still, and hear their voices in the wind and on the river.

When he finished, there was a noticeable calm that came over the group, and we began moving into the water, almost silently. It was really quite beautiful, as if we too might hear something in the sounds of the water and the wind.3

image

One of the essential qualities of collective wisdom is a palpable sense of connection with each other and to larger forces that is found, for example, in nature, in relationship to our ancestors, and even in relation to a physical place. Often these experiences are grounded in group members’ understanding of the sacred, however defined by the individuals and the group. Carol Frenier, an author and an active participant in the Collective Wisdom Initiative, was interviewed by Craig Hamilton several years ago for an article about the growing interest in this phenomenon. During her interview, Frenier observed: “In these group experiences, people have access to a kind of knowing that’s bigger than what we normally experience with each other.…You feel the presence of the sacred, and you sense that everybody else in the group is also feeling that.” 4

People who talk about their experiences of collective wisdom often report a sense of openness and awareness of something larger than themselves. The ability to communicate seems broader, and people are often astounded by the creativity that comes forward. “You have a sense,” Frenier observed, “that the whole group is creating together, and you don’t quite exactly know how.”

This experience of connection, when it arises, often expands or dissipates our experience of boundaries—boundaries between different parts of ourselves, between ourselves and other members of the group, between our group and others outside of the group, between what is personal and what is universal. In a second interview conducted by Hamilton, a woman observed: “In the group, I experienced a kind of consciousness that was almost a singularity, like a dropping of personalities and a joining together where there was no sense of conflict. Nobody was in opposition and everybody was just helping each other. It became obvious that we weren’t responding to individual personalities but were responding to something much deeper, much more real in each other that was collective, something that we shared—a commonality, really.” 5

Such experiences of connection, when they arise, can feel mystical, almost magical. But they are also quite natural. Certain kinds of conversations and collective endeavors, our colleague Meg Wheatley has written, take us to

the wisdom we possess [in groups] that is unavailable to us as individuals. The wisdom emerges as we get more and more connected with each other, as we move from conversation to conversation, carrying the ideas from one conversation to another, looking for patterns, suddenly surprised by an insight we all share.

There’s a good scientific explanation for this, because this is how all life works. As separate ideas or entities become connected to each other, life surprises us with emergence—the sudden appearance of new capacity and intelligence. All living systems work in this way. We humans got confused and lost sight of this remarkable process by which individual actions, when connected, lead to much greater capacity.

To those of us raised in a linear world with our minds shrunken by detailed analysis, the sudden appearance of collective wisdom always feels magical.6

Wheatley’s last point may seem surprising: The emergence of collective wisdom can feel magical—somehow extraordinary or even unreal—because we have become so focused on the rational (“our minds shrunken by detailed analysis”) that we have lost touch with other ways in which new capacity and intelligence come into being. Sometimes conversations and writings about collective wisdom can, perhaps unintentionally, reinforce this perception of the extraordinary nature of the phenomenon, intimating that collective wisdom is available only to the initiated.

This is not our view. We maintain that collective wisdom is a potentiality of all groups, not just of so-called healthy or enlightened ones. This premise is not some declaration of naïve faith or a wistful prayer; we believe that collective wisdom is a potentiality of all groups because, as Wheatley writes, this is how all life works. New capacity and intelligence emerges through connections: from cell to cell, dendrite to dendrite, human to human, group to group. As extraordinary and mysterious as the experience of profound connection—and of collective wisdom emerging—may feel in the moment, collective wisdom as a phenomenon is natural, even potentially ordinary.

This does not mean that collective wisdom will emerge in every group, only that it can, whether the group is a women’s softball team, a rural town, a one-time rafting expedition, a shared moment of profound awareness—or a team of hardedged engineers and consultants confronting concrete challenges of sustainability. Peter Senge, who is often identified with the lessons that living systems have for organizational life, offered a story to us about this last kind of group as an example of boundaries expanding and dissipating, of deeper connections emerging.

For the Sake of Our Children

THE SOCIETY FOR ORGANIZATIONAL LEARNING has organized a Sustainability Consortium, a group of diverse people, including researchers, consultants, and executives from companies, who are embracing environmental and social sustainability as a cornerstone of their business strategy. This consortium works together through diverse action projects; its members meet together about twice a year.

One of the theories the consortium has explored was developed by John Ehrenfeld, director of the MIT Program on Technology, Business, and Environment. Ehrenfeld posits that building sustainable enterprises will require embracing three often-competing perspectives: the rationalistic, the naturalistic, and the humanistic. Some years ago, consortium members had a firsthand experience of the convergence of these three perspectives.

Xerox was hosting the meeting, and throughout the first day, members learned about Xerox’s corporate philosophy of design for remanufacture. The company accounts for at least $250 million in cost savings due to remanufacture and waste reduction, a compelling illustration of the rationalistic perspective.

The group also toured the Document System 265 assembly area and saw firsthand what a “Zero to Landfi ll” work environment looks like. The production facility mimics nature by creating no waste—a powerful realization of the naturalistic perspective.

But at the end of the first day of meetings, the role of the humanistic perspective in Xerox’s change effort was still only implicit. It was late in the afternoon, and consortium members were packed into a noisy, stuffy meeting room adjacent to the Document System 265 assembly area.

A young woman, one of the lead designers on the Xerox team, was talking about how meaningful it had been for her to be part of such an innovative effort when she was interrupted with an unusual question. A Consortium member from Ford, a veteran of many organizational learning projects, asked, “Helen, I understand what a great opportunity this was, and how exciting it was for you. I work with engineers and I know the intellectual excitement of pushing the technological envelope. But what I really want to know is: Why did you do this? What I mean is, what was the stand you took and who were you taking that stand?”

Helen looked at him for a long time in silence, and then, in front of many peers and a few superiors, she began to cry. “I am a mom,” she said.

We all knew the team’s motto, “Zero to landfill … for the sake of our children.” But now we were in its presence. I suspect many of us will never forget the deep silence that filled the room. Another consortium member, a vice president from Ford/Visteon, turned to me and whispered, “seamlessness.” 7

image

In the story that Senge tells, a unifying element pulled together the different strands of the rational, naturalistic, and humanistic domains. There was a rational utilitarian benefit from remanufacture and waste reduction. There was the marvel of engineering skills that can mimic nature by creating no waste. There was a designer who was personally fulfilled by the challenge and possibilities of this effort. Yet, beyond these elements, there was something additional, something unexpected: a question that lifted the group to another level. It was a very personal question that elicited a very personal answer. “I am a mom,” she answered, and her eyes welled up with tears. She did this in front of her peers and supervisors. There was risk involved. She was at once exquisitely vulnerable and quietly beautiful in her honesty. It had the effect of deepening the silence that began when she listened to the question and took it seriously, pausing to find within herself the most direct answer.

With Helen’s answer, there was a convergence of varied perspectives. The company’s motto—Zero to landfill … for the sake of our children—stopped for a moment being just a motto and became something real and alive. It was a memorable moment, one that Senge felt was unlikely to be forgotten. This is common in our conversations with people about such moments—there is something vital, something that just feels so alive that it wants to burst out on its own. Seamlessness. An experience of a larger whole emerging as boundaries expand and connections grow stronger: within an individual group member, within a project team, within a business model, within an industry, within a world.

Collective wisdom is often revealed as people and world-views mix and collide, sometimes beautifully as in Senge’s tale, and sometimes with turbulence. Often, a catalytic moment—in this case, the question and response that expressed authenticity and vulnerability—moves the group into a new space or territory of understanding. In spiritual traditions, such as Zen Buddhism, this might be understood as a shift away from duality, erasing the concreteness of something having to be true or not true and moving instead toward a larger truth inclusive of multiple perspectives. However we might want to understand it, the higher aspiration that was indicated by the simple statement “I am a mom” drew into focus the richness of the group’s collective efforts and the meaning for a better life that the higher aspiration held for them and others.

BEYOND THE INTELLECT, BEYOND THE INDIVIDUAL

While some writers speak of collective intelligence, we use the term collective wisdom to reflect a quality of group understanding that is neither of the intellect alone nor of any individual alone. When this knowing and sense of right action emerges, it does so from deep within the individual participants, from within the collective awareness of the group, and from within the larger field of spiritual, cultural, and institutional forces that surround any group activity.

Many people who describe experiences of collective wisdom describe a physicality to the experience, a feeling of discernment in their personal body and an awareness of permeability with others. In another interview by Craig Hamilton, a woman said this of her group experience: “When someone else spoke, it felt as if I was speaking. And when I did speak, it was almost egoless, like it wasn’t really me. It was as if something larger than me was speaking through me. The atmosphere in the room felt like we were in a river.… We started to say things that we had never thought before … something would be revealed, and that would open up something else to be revealed.” 8

Sometimes this quality of understanding can manifest in a sudden and shared sense of what to do next, a knowing that extends beyond words and amplifies a shared sense of connection and purpose with others. Often, this knowing can emerge from uncertainty, a “not knowing” that requires added personal reflection and listening to divergent perspectives. We become less “expert” but more open. The cognitive scientist Francisco Varela explains how this can be true because at the “moments of breakdown, that is, when we are not experts … we become like beginners seeking to feel at ease with the task at hand.” 9 In other words, it is at just those moments when our world is less familiar to us that we have the chance to see in new ways and embody new actions.

One of the paradoxes of collective wisdom is that such insights are far more likely to arise when the group is willing to risk, or admit, not knowing. Juanita Brown recalls this moment experienced by a group that reached a point of surrender to not knowing.

I Don’t Know, but Maybe We Do

THE YEAR IS 1966. THE grape fields of California are ablaze with conflict and tension. Cesar Chavez and his fl edgling United Farm Workers are seeking negotiations through collective bargaining elections with the DiGiorgio Corporation—the largest grower of table grapes in the nation. Many new workers are frightened, already indentured by the company who paid their way from Mexico and now living in DiGiorgio’s labor camps. They support their brothers and sisters in the United Farm Workers who are seeking a better life, but they have children to feed and no passage home.

The farm labor camps, row on row of cinder block housing, are located on company property. There are watchtowers overlooking the camps, silent reminders of earlier days when the Japanese were interned in these same buildings during World War II. There are no longer guards in the towers but there are guards at the gates. Because the camps are on private property, United Farm Worker organizers have been barred from entry—barred from engaging in conversations with the workers inside—barred from discussing the workers’ democratic rights under the law to vote for the United Farm Workers to represent them in conversations with the growers. A paradox—workers have the right to vote in the first election in agricultural history but not the means to share in the conversation needed to make an informed choice on behalf of a better life for themselves and their families.

What to do? Cesar Chavez and farm worker organizers are on the roadside at 5 am as the trucks leave for the fields, passing small informational leaflets through the slats of the trucks. The growers have permitted informational leafl eting.

Even Cesar is beginning to lose hope. He calls a meeting of the whole community. Men, women, children: the farm worker meeting hall is full. The mood is somber. Cesar explains the situation to those gathered, realistically, honestly, without artifi ce.

Cesar says he has no answer to the dilemma. If there is no way to engage in conversation with the workers in the camps, it will be hard to change our future, he says. He asks for their honest assessment, for ideas, for help. All bearing witness know that some unforeseen breakthrough is the only way through.

People share ideas, many ideas. None are rejected. Everyone is asked not to debate because no decision is going to be made tonight. We are trying to listen, he says, listen to every voice that wants to be heard.

Many voices enter the conversation. The meeting is nearly done. Way in the back of the hall sits an old woman wrapped in a rebozo, a Mexican shawl. She stands and speaks quietly in Spanish.

“Well, I know I am not qualified, but there was something … I had an idea, maybe just a small idea, but maybe it can help. If we can’t go in to visit the workers, maybe there is a way they could come to us. I believe only God can help us now. Why don’t we build an altar, a small church on the public roadway across the street from the camps? We can hold Mass and a prayer vigil every night. I know there are priests who will help us. The workers can come across the street to the Mass and the prayer vigil. The growers can’t stop them from coming to a prayer vigil, can they? And they can’t stop us from holding one, can they? And as we pray together with the workers from the camps, they will come to know who we are and what we stand for and then they can vote in a better way for their future.…”

As the person who translated the old woman’s words from Spanish, I think somehow the energy of her presence, the power of her simplicity, and the sigh of Yes that emerged from the collective in the room will remain forever etched in my own being.10

image

What is this community struggling for? For the right to have conversations, for the right to gather with farm workers and engage them in dialogue about how the United Farm Workers might help them. The mood is somber; everyone knows what’s at stake. The UFW is a fledgling organization in 1966. It has just recently launched the grape boycott. A setback in these fields would be devastating not only for the workers here but for the larger movement as well.

Cesar Chavez calls the group together, not to ratify a plan he has already developed, but to confess that he does not know what to do. No one else does, either. So they gather: not to debate, not even to decide, but to listen to “every voice that wants to be heard.” Everyone is needed because no one individual, not even the leader, has the answer. Many people speak; none are rejected. And then, from the back of the room, an old woman who wonders if she is even qualified risks sharing an idea. She changes the very nature of the question: If we can’t go to them, can we invite them to us? In a place of past and present imprisonment, can we extend an invitation that allows them freedom to choose? For Juanita Brown, the energy of this woman’s presence and the simplicity of her profound questions shifted the trajectory in the room. Suddenly, there was a way forward. Yes. The sigh of Yes that emerged … will remain forever etched in my own being.

How is this possible? How does it happen that from a place of not knowing, of even hopelessness, a way forward emerges? A first response might be to appreciate the mystery of collective wisdom’s emergence. An additional response, however, might point to what becomes possible when we authentically confess to not knowing. In such moments of surrender, we may open to a knowing that transcends the intellect alone, a knowing that is beyond any one of us, a knowing that may not have been possible when the certainty of the mind crowded all else out. The “small idea” put forward by the old woman seeded new possibilities; she is the set breaker, in systems language. As with Mallory Holtman’s role in the opening story, a certain logic that shackled the group was released. If we cannot gain access by pushing our way in, would it be possible to draw people out? The group is “lifted up” by the possibilities of a new approach.

PERCEPTIBLE, POSITIVE, OFTEN SURPRISING EFFECTS

So what happened after the community meeting? A day or so later, the group parked Chavez’s old station wagon across the road from the camp gates and erected a small altar in the back. At first, only a few workers came, then many, and then many more. When the election was held, the workers voted to have the UFW represent them.

Collective wisdom is a transformative shift that affects both inner awareness and outer behavior. These effects can benefit individuals within the group; the whole group; and individuals, groups, and larger collectives impacted by the group’s work. They are also positive to the extent that they serve the larger social impulses for wholeness, fairness, compassion, and justice.

Sometimes the shifts are dramatic, as in the election that certified the UFW to represent the DiGiorgio workers. Sometimes they are subtle, as in the designer’s ability to embody a collective vision of “Zero to landfill—for the sake of our children.” Sometimes they are subtler still, as members began to move in concert and support each other as they embarked on a rafting trip.

Collective wisdom emerges when people open to it and don’t try to control and will it into being, so its effects are frequently surprising and in some cases unimaginable before they unfold. We doubt that anyone went into the UFW community meeting thinking, “I know: an altar on the back of a Chevy!” The effects are surprising because they are not predetermined; they arise through the connections and conversations that unfold within the group. Wisdom arises in the gaps between what is known and unknown, in the small openings that allow new meanings and perspectives to take hold.

SUMMARY: SOUND JUDGMENT AND REVELATION

Collective wisdom is about the nature of sound judgments made with others, reflecting a deep understanding of people and situations. It often involves an insight or revelation that what happens to one happens to all. Accordingly, we feel an instinct for ethical and constructive action in the moment. Collective wisdom shows up in our ways of being together—sometimes experienced as sacredness; or being part of a flow state; or feeling an expansion and dissipation of boundaries with others, nature, and spirit.

Throughout this chapter, we have also pointed to some of the paradoxes of collective wisdom. It is a mystery that has predictable patterns. It is an understanding beyond the intellect; it is a knowing that emerges from not knowing. The experience of collective wisdom can be extraordinary, and it is natural, even common, in groups. Collective wisdom depends on conversation and is most powerfully felt in the silences that arise within those conversations. Collective wisdom is experienced in groups, yet it is often catalyzed by or reflected in the behavior of an individual. Finally, collective wisdom has positive, even dramatic effects on group cohesion and action, yet it cannot be willed into existence, controlled, or even planned for. What can we do to bring it forth?

We believe we can prepare for it and increase the likelihood that it will emerge. The commitments and convictions instrumental for preparation are the focus of our next chapter.

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“This book takes knowledge about groups and elevates it to a field and a movement. The authors are original thinkers and good writers, and they have the ability to integrate a breadth of thinking into a new whole.

— Peter Block, author of Stewardship and Community

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