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  The Power of Collective Wisdom

The Power of Collective Wisdom and the Trap of Collective FollyIn this session, Paul Born speaks with John Ott about his collective wisdom – the knowledge and insight gained through group and community interaction – and the book he has co-authored to explore it: The Power of Collective Wisdom and the Trap of Collective Folly.

Based on nine years of research, John and his colleagues show how to reliably tap into the extraordinary co-creative potential that exists whenever human beings gather together. Stories and historical examples illustrate how collective wisdom has emerged in a range of cultures, settings, and traditions.

The book also offers a set of practices to help readers realize the key and describe how to recognize the pitfalls of polarization or false agreement that leads to collective folly. Ultimately this book, and the work it illuminates, is rooted in a deep conviction that we all have a stake in each other and that what binds us together can be greater than that which drives us apart.

Learning Objectives:

  • To learn about the Collective Wisdom Initiative
  • To discover the meaning of Collective Wisdom
  • To appreciate Collective Wisdom’s opposite: Collective Folly
  • To explore the practices that help create conditions for Collective Wisdom to emerge

On this page you'll find:

Meet the Thought Leaders

John OttJohn Ott - John Ott is a nationally recognized authority on organizational and community change. John has designed and facilitated a myriad of small and large-scale change efforts. He is increasingly interested in processes that help groups work with the interior dimensions of change, the underlying beliefs, subtle values, and unspoken intentions that, if left unexamined, can frequently undermine their change efforts.

He is currently the lead consultant for the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA) planning process in Los Angeles County to support counties across the state as they begin their planning efforts. He is also a lecturer of Public Policy Studies at Duke University, and was co-founder and Associate Director of the Leadership Program there from 1985-89. He has organized and led several non-profit organizations, including a micro-enterprise project and an affordable housing initiative.

John has also worked as a community organizer in low and moderate income communities in North Carolina, Texas, and California, helping those communities learn how to recruit and train local leadership, improve their negotiating skills, analyze community decision-making structures, develop action campaigns, and build relationships of common values and commitments among people from diverse backgrounds and histories. He holds a BA from Duke in Public Policy Studies and a JD from Stanford.

Paul BornPaul Born - Paul Born is a master storyteller who infuses his work, relationships, community and life with the magic of conversation. He is the author of three books including the highly acclaimed Community Conversations and the newly released Creating Vibrant Communities which tells the story of a national collaborative that has to date helped over 147,000 people living in poverty. His Masters thesis entitled Leaderful Communities was recently published in Germany.   

Paul is the President and co-founder of Tamarack - An Institute for Community Engagement, Canada's leading authority on community change and collaborative leadership.   He has been internationally recognized, with awards from the United Nations, The Conference Board, Imagine, and the Governor General of Canada for his innovative approaches to community development.  Paul holds a Masters in Leadership, lives in Waterloo Canada.  He is a Mennonite inspired by Yoga and Buddhism, and a dad who loves to cook.

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Beyond Power: Deepening the Understanding of How Community Change Emerges

For John, the exploration of collective wisdom comes from a lived passion to be part of conversations that can help us all claim our power to effect change and create better results for folks in the world. His own personal story helped to inspire and galvanize a focus on the question: How do communities come together to support each other and to support individuals and families who are struggling? Through his work as a community organizer, John began to realize that his understanding of power limited his ability to affect the changes he hoped for. Listen here as he explains how this realization led him to his exploration of collective wisdom.

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Community as Relationship

Defining communities geographically or ethnically may be useful for planning purposes however these definitions are abstract. For John, community is much more about having relationships of support. In this clip, John shares his definition of community and describes the process through which community capacity is built.

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The Collective Wisdom Initiative

The idea that became The Collective Wisdom Initiative grew, in part, out of a sense of frustration about why community change efforts weren’t producing better results and questioning about how promising changes could be better sustained. The Fetzer Institute has funded and provided leadership to this Initiative whose purpose and intent are described by John in the clip below.

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What is Collective Wisdom?

The definition of collective wisdom is continuing to evolve, however one key point is that it is an innate capacity that exists within all groups. It is not a specialized knowledge available only to a few. It is also not a new phenomenon, nor is it unique to any one culture. In fact, the concept of collective wisdom has been alluded to in various ways, in various cultures for millennia. However, in spite of collective wisdom being innate, John and his colleagues also believe that it is possible for us to become more effective in creating the conditions for collective wisdom to emerge in groups. After laying out these caveats, listen here as John shares his definition of Collective Wisdom.

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If Collective Wisdom is Innate, Why Don’t We Recognize It?

A paradox about Collective Wisdom is that, while it may be innate, it is not the typical way in which many of us do things. One reason for this, John suggests is that notions of “the individual” and “the group” have become polarized, particularly in western culture. Therefore, we find it difficult to comprehend that we can be both “I” and “we”. A second dimension that contributes to our failure to recognize collective wisdom is the unintended consequence of the emphasis that is placed on professional knowledge and capacity. In the following clip, John highlights the risk of failing to acknowledge the possibility of collective wisdom.

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Collective Folly

John and his colleagues acknowledge that often when we gather in groups, what emerges is not Collective Wisdom, but rather it’s opposite: Collective Folly. They define collective folly as “…a continuum of behaviours from mere foolishness to acts of evil.” And, like wisdom, they recognize folly as an innate potential of all individuals and groups. John and his colleagues set out to examine collective folly in order to better recognize and address the “first moments” of a group’s move towards it. In the clip below, John shares what they have learned to recognize as those “first moments.”

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The Six Practices that Help Collective Wisdom to Emerge

John uses the metaphor of gardening to help describe how Collective Wisdom emerges. A gardener cannot make a plant grow, but he or she can create fertile soil that provides the conditions for the plant to thrive. So it is with Collective Wisdom. You cannot guarantee that Collective Wisdom will appear but you can adopt practices, both within yourself and within a group, that make it more likely for Collective Wisdom to emerge. These six practices are:

  • Deep listening
  • Suspension of Certainty
  • Seeing Whole Systems/Seeking Diverse perspectives
  • Respect for others
  • Welcoming all that is arising
  • Trust in the Transcendent

John expands on a few of these practices in the clip below.

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Reflection Questions

  1. What has been your experience of collective wisdom in groups?
  2. Recalling an experience of collective folly, can you identify the “first moments” when this movement began?
  3. Thinking about the work of you and/or your group, in what ways are the six practices already present? How could they be strengthened?

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Links & Resources

The Collective Wisdom Initiative – This website profiles the work of John and his colleagues in the Collective Wisdom Initiative and also provides access to a range of resources.

The Power of Collective Wisdom and the Trap of Collective Folly - Click here to order your own copy of the book.

2010 Communities Collaborating Institute – Join John Ott and other renowned thought-leaders at Tamarack’s signature learning event from September 27th to October 1st, 2010 in Kitchener, Ontario.

John Ott in Engage! – This February 2010 Engage! Magazine article highlights John Ott’s work and highlights from The Power of Collective Wisdom.

You can contact John Ott directly via email with any comments or questions.

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The Power of Collective Wisdom and the Trap of Collective Folly

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