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What is Collective Wisdom • Part 1

In our forthcoming book titled Leadership for Collective Wisdom, we write:

When human beings gather in groups, a depth of awareness and insight, a transcendent knowing, becomes available to us that, if accessed, can lead to profound action. We call this transcendent knowing collective wisdom.

This knowing is not of the mind alone, nor is it 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 that holds the group. (1)

Management theorist Margaret Wheatley explains this innate capacity of groups this way:

[There is a] 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 a 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. (2)

Wheatley’s last point may seem surprising: the reason the emergence of collective wisdom can feel magical—somehow extraordinary or even unreal—is because we have become so focused on the rational (“our minds shrunken by detailed analysis”) that we have lost touch with other ways that bring forth new capacity and intelligence.

Our beginning premise is that collective wisdom is a potentiality of all groups, not just so-called ‘healthy’ or ‘enlightened’ ones. This premise is not a declaration of naïve faith or a wistful prayer. It emerges from years of original research and decades of experience with the phenomenon, through our work in non-profit organizations, in communities and community-based change efforts, in foundations, in small and large public sector systems, and in small and large-scale private sector organizations.

Moreover, as Wheatley writes, this is how new capacity and intelligence emerges in all of life, through new 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.

Through this blog, we will explore some of the many facets of collective wisdom, and share stories and insights about our Leadership for Collective Wisdom™ and Living Collective Wisdom™ frameworks in the world.


(1) John Ott and Rose Pinard, manuscript of forthcoming book Leadership for Collective Wisdom. Cited with permission from the authors.

(2) Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, The World Café: Shaping Our Futures through Conversations that Matter, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 20095 p. xii. This quote also appeared in The Power of Collective Wisdom and the Trap of Collective Folly, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009.

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