In his book Solving Tough Problems, Adam Kahane describes the import of Collective Wisdom this way:
This world is too complex and interdependent and rapidly changing for us to be able to reason through everything that is going on. We can no longer rely only on making sense of the whole of what is going on: We also have to sense it. This requires us to access a deeper, … more ancient kind of knowing.1
Collective wisdom—this deeper, more ancient kind of knowing—is a potentiality of every group. This does not mean that collective wisdom will emerge in every group, only that it can.
Indeed, no organization or community can simply decide to be wise, just as no gardener can decide to make a tomato. If a gardener longs for tomatoes, she must plant the seeds, and then carefully tend to the conditions that support their growth. She waters; she weeds; she protects; she waits. The better she is at sustaining the conditions that nurture tomatoes, the more likely she will be graced with an abundance of ripe, juicy fruit.
So it is with collective wisdom. The seeds of collective wisdom are always present whenever two or more of us gather. To realize this potential, however, we must become gardeners of collective wisdom, nurturing the conditions that help this transcendent knowing arise in support of profound action. This is why we teach the Leadership for Collective Wisdom™ framework: to help staff and community members learn how to make it more likely that collective wisdom will arise to support their efforts.
Signs of collective wisdom arising
A first step groups can take to become gardeners of collective wisdom is recognizing the signs that collective wisdom is arising. One sign is an emergent quality of knowing that is beyond the mind, and beyond any one individual. Sometimes this quality of knowing manifests in a sudden and shared sense of what to do next, or a knowing that extends beyond words and amplifies a shared sense of connection and purpose.
A second sign is the emergence of spontaneous moments of joy and generosity, and a sense of deeper connection—to ourselves, to each other, and to a greater whole. Even when the work is hard or overwhelming, we can experience a joyful resoluteness with our colleagues and partners. A third sign is positive, often surprising results. Collective wisdom emerges by opening to it, not by trying to control or will it into existence. The effects are often surprising because they are not predetermined; they arise through a collective commitment to discover a way forward, to discern right action together.2
Recognizing these qualities of experience, and reflecting on what helps nurture them, is a beginning discipline that can help groups cultivate the conditions for collective wisdom. So too is being alert to the signs and experiences that give rise to collective wisdom’s opposite, collective folly—the focus for our next two blog posts.
—John Ott and Rose Pinard
¹ Adam Kahane, Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009, p.105.
² Alan Briskin, Sheryl Erickson, John Ott, and Tom Callanan, The Power of Collective Wisdom and the Trap of Collective Folly, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009, pp. 15-34.