When I first began to study organisations back in the 90’s the dominant view of larger groups was that they were dangerous. Expressions abounded about the futility of bringing large groups of people together; “an individual can be a genius but a group of geniuses becomes an idiot,” was the conventional wisdom. I was taught as a trainer that working alone with groups larger than 16 asking for trouble. The consensus was, and to a great extent still is, that large groups of people become like a mob, exhibiting no real intelligence, following blindly a leader or descending into chaos.
Even while I was learning that, pioneers in the field of organizational transformation were experimenting with new ways to come together in large groups to navigate change. This because organizations were being confronted with a combination of greater connectedness between markets and with innovations in communication resulting in a need respond faster to an ever to events. In this dynamic environment traditional change processes — where change is cascaded down through different levels of an organization — became exercises in futility. Once change finally made its way throughout the levels of an organization a new set of circumstances forced the next change, and the next, and the next. Sometimes it felt like the work of an organization was just to go through re-organizations.
So some brave and innovative people decided to try something that was counter-intuitive given the conventional wisdom of the time. They decided to see what would happen if you bring everyone into the room to address a challenge in order to find solutions quickly that could be implemented throughout the whole organization. In many cases it meant bringing together formally separated groups of people, executive and work floor, or business and stakeholder, etc.
This was an act of courage. It meant challenging the belief that large groups of people are destructive and taking a leap of faith that if they could find a good enough ‘container’ to harness the group’s potential then something new and positive would happen.
Many beautiful and powerful methods were developed using this leap of faith including Future Search, World Café, Appreciative Inquiry Genuine Contact ™ and Open Space Technology.
Now in 2018 the pace of change and increasing complexity and connectivity in the world has increased exponentially. The benefit of getting everyone involved and engaged in ongoing change has become even more clear. One of the surprising benefits of working in this way is that it brings people in touch with something I like to call collective wisdom.
Collective wisdom makes itself known at that moment when it becomes clear that there is knowledge in the space that transcends the individuals gathered.
Photo : Johannes Plenio from Unsplash
Collective wisdom is the realization of a bigger knowing, a bigger sense of the situation, a deeper understanding of the emotions being expressed as part of the whole, than anyone or even any separate group of people had been aware of.
I have seen this wisdom show up often, sometimes it takes the form of an elegant solution to what seemed like an intractable problem. A eureka! as it were that arises from some space previously unknown. It can also be a moment of epiphany shared by everyone in the event. Sometimes this can be very emotional, like the time many years ago when I facilitated a series of Open Space Technology meetings for organic farmers who needed to respond to new regulations that forced them to re-think their entire industry. After a day in which people were deeply engaged in talking about and coming up with good actions to address their situation, a moment came in the evening circle where a sadness enveloped the room and people expressed that in addition to ways forward they had found, they realized now that their way of life was changing for good. A silence entered the room. It was an important moment of recognition of a truth that had been hidden and that supported them later as they set to work re-shaping their worlds.
I see collective wisdom as a separate ‘being,’ an entity that can only be seen when the larger whole is present, when different people representing widely different viewpoints can meet in a space of freedom and be express themselves honestly and thereby touch on the essence of something that is of importance to everyone gathered. It is the unity that expresses itself from diversity, the holistic image of what lies in all parties. It is the whole system seeing itself.
Collective wisdom can not be controlled and it can’t be created or managed or understood and put into practice by any consultant. collective wisdom arises from the right conditions. It arrives when people are given the freedom to speak to what is important to them without others trying to mediate what is meant by it. What the consultant then can do is enable the creation of those conditions and work as a facilitator to make sure that the conditions are in place for collective wisdom to arise. This is subtle work, it means shifting focus from the content of any gathering to the setting in which that content will emerge. It means letting go of one’s own illusion of understanding ‘what is happening’ and instead looking at the place in which it is happening. Doing this is a radical shift…it meant for me letting go of much of my comfort and jumping into having to trust the ‘container’ I have contributed in creating.
It can be a wild ride for the consultant and for those courageous organizations and leaders who decide to use these methods. But it is worth it. As the different, formerly fragmented parts of a system come together and witness themselves building connections, understanding and novel solutions.
I love witnessing collective wisdom arise, I know that it is a powerful unifying force that enables us to face grave challenges together and come out with great insights, with great solutions and with a new respect for one another and the whole. It is for this reason that I feel honoured each time I am able to work to set up the conditions that invite it into a space. It is for this reason that I dedicate myself to working with pioneering approaches like Genuine Contact™ and the powerful methods it employs, like Open Space Technology that create the fertile soil for collective wisdom and collective action to take place.