The Power of Collective Wisdom: And the Trap of Collective Folly

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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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ONE: What Is Collective Wisdom and How Does It Show Up?

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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.

 

TWO: Preparing for Collective Wisdom to Arise

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Our colleague Kate Regan uses a simple exercise to prepare individuals in groups to notice their internal thoughts and calibrate their group behaviors. In this exercise, typically done in workshops of approximately twenty people who are seated in a circle, she asks the participants to look down at the floor and close their eyes. She tells them that without opening their eyes, they must count to thirty in sequence without two people speaking at the same time. If two people do speak simultaneously, they must begin again. As you might expect, rarely do groups accomplish this the first time. As they report later, many individuals develop strategies to get the task done quickly without any sense of knowing what others are doing. For example, one person may decide to call out a number immediately once the exercise begins, or another may decide to call out his number at the split second after another person finishes. They learn that these individual strategies collide with each other, and two or three people inevitably call out at the same time.

 

THREE: Inhabiting a Different Worldview

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In the early 1970s, one of our colleagues, Robert Kenny, helped develop and lead educational and mental health programs for youth in New York City. Inspired by the work of the visionary educator Erling Thunberg, Kenny began to put into practice the values of community, personal authenticity, and collaborative leadership advocated by Thunberg. He noticed that even casual visitors to these youth programs commented on the “palpable atmosphere, or field, that they sensed—the therapeutic milieu, as we used to call it.”1 Many of the students’ public school teachers expressed amazement that these students, engaged and focused, were the same kids they knew to be violent and destructive.

Kenny became fascinated with what Thunberg referred to as “group consciousness.” He wondered if indeed his transformative experience in New York, which was healing and creative for so many, might be a portal to a different way of understanding life that involved work as a spiritual practice, collective consciousness, and group wisdom. Like Thunberg and so many other pioneers in social experimentation of that time, he was challenged to think differently about the meaning of the explosive changes going on in technology, communications, culture, and human values.

 

FOUR: What Makes Groups Foolish

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Groups that realize their potential for collective wisdom can experience moments of profound connection and become capable of extraordinary action. It barely needs to be said, however, that this is not always the case. Often, when human beings gather in groups, we become conduits for wisdom’s opposite—folly. We use the term folly to reflect a continuum of behaviors from mere foolishness to acts of evil. Put bluntly, if human beings have the capacity to access collective wisdom, why don’t we? Why are we so often responsible for collective foolishness or worse? Why do we become enmeshed, again and again, in seemingly endless cycles of petty and profound violence?

One answer to these questions is straightforward: Like wisdom, folly is an innate potential of human beings. Like collective wisdom, therefore, collective folly is a potential of all groups, not simply those groups we might label as dysfunctional or unhealthy, or groups that hold overtly destructive aims. Collective folly is a lived reality, and a legacy of thousands of years of conflict and warfare. Every day, human beings commit small acts of foolishness, conscious and unconscious acts of injustice, and unspeakable acts of violence and cruelty, within our families and among friends, against our peers and subordinates, and against groups of strangers small and large that we deem as “other.”

 

FIVE: The Tragedy of Polarized Groups

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Ignaz Semmelweis (pronounced “Eeg-natz Shemmel-vise”) is a well-known figure in medical history. Some twenty years before the work of Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, and others substantiated a germ theory of disease, and Lister recommended an antiseptic practice of surgery, Semmelweis discovered how simple hand-washing techniques could dramatically reduce the fatal incidence of childbed fever in new mothers.1

CHILDBED FEVER WAS RAMPANT in Europe in 1844 when Semmelweis graduated from the Vienna Medical School. Although many births still occurred at home, increasing numbers of mothers were going to hospitals to deliver their babies. Hospitals routinely reported deaths due to childbed fever of as many as 25 percent of all women giving birth, and sometimes up to 100 percent. No one understood why. There were a number of competing theories. One was that childbed fever was like smallpox, a specifi c disease with a unique cause, and that it came and went in epidemics. Another theory was that it was caused by a miasma, a poisonous mist or cloud that the Greeks and others had invoked to explain otherwise-inexplicable diseases. Many in the medical profession at the time believed that the cholera epidemic was caused by a miasma.

 

SIX: An Illusion of Agreement

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The stories of Helm and of childbed fever bear witness to the tragic consequences that can emerge from collective folly’s movement toward separation and fragmentation. Tragedy can also ensue from the second movement of collective folly, toward the illusion of agreement and unity. While the emergence of collective wisdom is often signaled by an enveloping silence of deeper knowing and connection, the emergence of collective folly is often signaled by a different kind of silence, an agitated silence where words are suppressed in fear or resignation. Such silences can give the appearance of cohesion but often mask dramatic divisions that permeate the group. When groups act from this false belief in agreement, almost always they have merely postponed the conflict until a later date, and often the false front leads to tragic results.

In the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, Apollo astronaut John Young recalled a conversation about a safety concern he had had with Lieutenant Colonel Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, a friend and colleague he had known since his earliest days at NASA. They had flown together in the first manned Gemini flight in 1965. “I couldn’t believe it,” Young recalled. “He said, ‘I can’t say anything about it or they’ll fire me.’”1

 

SEVEN: The Unlimited Cocreative Power of Groups and Communities

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We must envision our work as a creative act, more akin to the artistic endeavor than the technical process. This never negates skill and technique. But it does suggest that the wellspring …lies in our moral imagination, which I will define as the capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist.

—John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination

We know that groups are often the settings for stress, discomfort, and wounding. We are also aware that all too often, we are subject to destructive actions and emotions that can influence our thoughts, affect our biochemistry, and even alter our physical brain. Pick up a newspaper, glance at the Internet, turn on the television, or listen to the radio, and we are immediately drawn into images of raw aggression and conflict. Nor can our workplaces or even families be safe havens from agitation, aggression, and worse. Each of these systems has its own conflicted histories, habitual behaviors, and potential new crises.

 

EIGHT: Practices of Mindfulness for Collective Wisdom

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All of the stories in this book and the research behind them suggest that there is common ground beyond what commonly separates us. We draw from this one conclusion: There is still more to be discovered in our fellowship with others that can lead to the freedom and creative potential of human communities.

In this concluding chapter, we address four mindfulness practices that allow us to maintain commitments and convictions that foster collective wisdom’s emergence. Our assumption is that without a personal practice of continuous and vigilant mindfulness, no set of behaviors, plans, checklists, or models can be reliable. Mindfulness practices are simply ways of paying attention to our own inner experience and outer engagement with the world. They help us to focus the mind and re-mind ourselves of our true intent.

At its most basic, mindfulness is defined as a mental state characterized by concentrated awareness of one’s thoughts, actions, and motivations. Mindfulness plays a central role in Eastern teachings and increasingly is being incorporated into Western practices for good reason. It is a long-held tradition identified with engendering insight and wisdom.

 

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