Activating Collective Wisdom

(first published in weDialogue, May 2017)
The capacity to activate collective wisdom is at the very heart of the work I do, both in my spiritual practice and in my work with groups through participatory group processes like World Café, Open Space, Circle, etc.. As a host of participatory practice, my understanding of collective wisdom has largely been that of a field of shared awareness that can arise within the group when certain conditions are in place.

While it’s certainly true that Collective Wisdom arises from particular qualities of intention and attention, in practice its presence or absence has always been a bit of a mystery to me. In my experience, sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t – even when it appears that pretty much the same conditions are in place.

So you can imagine the enthusiasm of my “yes” when long-time friend and colleague Alan Briskin – one of the pioneers in shaping the language and ideas associated with collective wisdom and a leading practitioner in the field – asked if I wanted to collaborate with him to produce an online program on this subject.

[The result of our collaboration is Activating Collective Wisdom: Five Essential Practices, six two-hour online sessions starting Friday June 2nd.]

I had been utterly captivated by the book – The Power of Collective Wisdom and the Trap of Collective Folly – that Alan, Sheryl Erickson, Tom Callanan, and John Ott wrote collaboratively and published in 2009.

I loved that it looked at the shadow of collective wisdom – what they call collective folly – and pinpointed some specific attitudes and approaches that define forks in the road so to speak, that lead social groups away from wise action and into folly, sometimes merely foolish behavior and sometimes almost unimaginably horrible acts. I also loved how practical and straightforward his clear examples of collective wisdom were, and how they too described deciding moments in key historical junctures.

collective wisdomOut of the writing process for the book, Alan and his co-authors began to identify some key “stances” that an individual can take to bring collective wisdom forward in their own lives and in the lives of those they impact. In the 8 years since the book was published, Alan has given significant time and study to honing those stances into the five essential practices for activating collective wisdom that we’ll be focusing on in our course.

As a host of group process, one of the key questions I bring to this exploration is “What’s the relationship between individual practice and their application at scale within larger systems?” Or, put another way, “What can cultivating these practices at an individual level bring to my work with groups?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and talking about this with others and have uncovered a few insights, if not absolute conclusions.

1. The five practices that Alan has identified as ways to activate collective wisdom develop essential qualities that an individual can integrate at greater and greater levels of mastery.

2. To know something is not necessarily to know how to apply it in different contexts and situations. It’s in cultivating discernment, using our skills to read a situation, or person, or ourselves, that helps us know when and how to apply what we know…

3. By cultivating the qualities of collective wisdom in ourselves, we can recognize them (or the lack of them) in the people and situations around us.

4. Our embodiment of these qualities determines not only the way we show up in the world, but also how we impact the larger fields we touch. For those of us whose work is with groups this is the social field that drives social change – for good or for ill.

5. A deeper understanding of the practices of collective wisdom leads to a better application of the design principles that form the basis of the various group processes we’re working with.

6. Like many experienced hosts, I know it’s not about the form – even the most perfectly articulated form won’t give you heart or wisdom or real change. AND I know that good form, good design, can sometimes open doors that people didn’t even realize were shut.

I’m interested in how what we learn together in this course will change the way I design and my ability to create space where thinking can be transformed and collective wisdom can be activated.

My intention is that my own embodiment of these practices will strengthen my capacity to effectively call forward and recognize the signs of collective wisdom in the groups I am hosting, to help me be a better vehicle for the work I do.

My wish is that it help all of us do our work with more heart, more subtlety, more intuition, and a greater depth of perception.

* * *

Alan describes himself as a Practical Mystic – to him Mystery is not so much a mystery – although he wouldn’t deny the greater circles of mystery beyond what any of us can understand. After all, “Keeping Whole Systems in Mind” is one of the five essential practices and we are part of a great inter-connected system that makes up the Ultimate Mystery, Life itself.

Coming back to my initial comment about the mystery of when collective wisdom shows up and when it doesn’t, I think Alan’s work is so helpful precisely because of his ability to appreciate the mystery, and at the same time speak to the qualities that give rise to it. His work lets us peak behind the curtain and reveal some of the practical secrets that live there.

I hope you will join us. This course is designed as a collaborative learning journey, and we will learn from and with each other in a most stimulating, creative, and participatory environment.

If you want to be there, don’t let finances hold you back – we are committed to making it possible for everyone who really wants to be there to participate. Contact me with any questions.