Collective Wisdom and Group Dynamics

I think most of us would agree that group think can cover more ground and depth than me-think. More bright minds addressing an issue or forging an innovation make more sense than Mister I-Know-Best going it alone. All of us have likely been a member of a magical group, a group that just clicked and got good stuff done. Okay, maybe “magical” is not the right word but perhaps what this kind of group achieves is what John Ott might call “transcendence.” (John was one of the keynote speakers at the recent Tamarack CCI conference and one of the authors of The Power of Collective Wisdom. I recommend the book).

Now before you accuse me of going all guru-esque on you, the transcendence I am referring to is not about white robes, chanting, or long gray beards. Rather I mean that an effective group that moves together based on collective wisdom and a common aim becomes in effect an entity that is greater than (or that trancends) each individual. John Ott, I think, might refer to transcendance as a higher power (something greater than ourselves, a unifier, an inspiration, a guide).

It’s not a religous thing in my mind, but what I appreciate about John’s work is that he includes the spiritual in his thinking and work, which is something we often shy away from in our clinical, professional, dogmatic approaches to life and work.

All too often we experience difficult, if not dysfunctional groups. The reasons why there are difficulties vary with context and membership, but there are common themes in my experience which include:

  • organizational agendas clashing with the group’s agenda
  • competition between members of similar organizations
  • strong wills clashing
  • glass half empty dispositions
  • opaqueness rather than transparency
  • certain minds opposing certain minds

There are more you could add. We all tend to dislike the experiences we have in such groups and often we can see our own contribution to the dysfucntion. Yet in such cases it seems like more often than not time is spent focused on “the other” as a cause for the problem. What happens if everyone sees the group’s difficulty as resting in “the other”? Nuf said, right?

Here’s the thing though. In just about every dysfunctional group I have been a member of I admire the individuals who are there – for their intellect, experience, knowledge, commitment, and on. I don’t see bad people (and hope they don’t see that in me either). I see people with proven individual track records of tackling complex problems, overcoming intimidating obstacles, and achieving results beyond what might be expected.

Maybe what is lacking is the group’s attention to framing a model of how it wishes to engage one another. Call the model a set of guding principles or a “mental model” or whatever. My point is that the group has an obligation to itself and its members to act and move in ways that facilitate forward momentum on the common aim, regardless of individual agendas and perhaps even more importantly, regardless of whether or not we like everyone in the group.

I think what John Ott offers us is helpful:

First of all, John warns us to be wary of taking “a contrary stance” that causes us to “create the other.” Doing so, he suggests, fosters separation and fragmentation, but also I think helps to create clusters of us and them within a group. I have written about this before within the context of strategic thinking undertaken by a group.

In any group there are five human perspective so to speak.

  • There is “me.”
  • There is “you”
  • There is a group or groups called “them.”
  • There is a group or groups called “us.”
  • And there is “WE” which I suggest is the superordinate relationship goal of a group.

Too much “me verus you” and too much “us versus them” does not an effective group make. So, how might we get to “WE?”

At the Tamarack conference, John Ott referred to the Scallop Principle. Take a look at a scallop.

The black dots along the edge of the shell’s opening are “eyes.” A scallop has eyes that wrap around the entire shell, giving the scallop a 360 degree view of its environment.  The analogy John makes is that each eye is a member of the group (the whole) and the group is bigger than the sum of its parts. If those eyes are not working together; if they are not communicating; if they do not all subscribe to achieving a common aim, the scallop (i.e. the group) is in trouble. I like the analogy but I tend to be moved by metaphors. What do you think?

During his presentation, John talked about what stances individuals should or could take to help create and nurture an effective group and achieve “collective wisdom.”

  • Suspend Certainty: this means explore ideas and perspectives to find new or enhanced meanings or possibilities. Approaching one another from a position of certainty won’t do that.
  • See the Whole: this is another way of saying see the big picture, but his language works better for me.  All too often we tend to divide a problem or a purpose into many pieces as if the whole can be understood and acted on by paying attention to its various parts. Life is too complex and is not a machine that can be disassembled and analyzed.
  • Seek Diverse Perspectives: Hard to argue with that, but the real thrust of his statement for me is the word, “seek.” Sometimes we may be open to them but we don’t seek them out. Seeking out others who see things differently from how I do is, I suggest, vital to achieving collective wisdom.
  • Welcome all that is Arising: this is a hard one. Instead of rallying against a personwe find irritating or contrary, John encourages us to work with what is before us, deploy appreciative approaches to understanding what is being said, to what is (really) going on. How often have you experienced a group where your perspective or others is not welcomed, much less encouraged?
  • Trust in the Transcendent: I already mentioned this one earlier. John is speaking to his sense (and the sense of many) that there is something out there that is bigger than any one of us or any group of us. You can go too far with this and result in blind faith and what John might call “folly.”

Let me end this posting with a story.

I am a singer-songwriter and musician and for a number of years I had a band and we performed at various venues, including the Edmonton Folk Music Festival. Once while performing live on stage, two things happened. We were playing a song I wrote as we had rehearsed it but for some reason I wanted to change an instrumental bridge mid stream and to do so required that Randy, my guitar player, changed with me. If he didn’t, the song would collapse. While we were playing I turned to him, met his eye, and nodded. Somehow this made all the difference and when I went into a changed version of the bridge, he didnt skip a beat. He changed with me.

In the same song, there was a chorus that involved me harmonizing with another band member. Our harmonies always worked well but this time, as we entered into the chorus I looked at Dorothy and she at me and as our voices blended together, I experienced a connection to her that caused my body to shiver and created such a feeling of peace and beauty I had not felt before. It was magic, and I believe it was transcendence.

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