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What is Collective Wisdom • Part 2

In his book Solving Tough Problems, Adam Kahane writes:

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, non-rational, more ancient kind of knowing. (1)

Our language for this deeper, non-rational, more ancient kind of knowing is collective wisdom. Collective wisdom 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, but to realize this potential, we must nurture the conditions that make it more likely for collective wisdom to arise among us. This is why we have developed and teach Living Collective Wisdom™: to help staff and community members learn how to make it more likely that collective wisdom will arise to support their efforts.

A first step in this process is becoming more alert to signs that collective wisdom is arising to support us. 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 become better gardeners of 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 blog post.


(1) Adam Kahane, Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities, 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.

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