The Power of Collective Wisdom: A book review by Bob Morris

The Power of Collective Wisdom: And the Trap of Collective Folly
Alan Briskin, Sheryl Erickson, Tom Callanan, and John Ott
Berrett-Koehler Publishers (2009)

The importance of what Alan Briskin, Sheryl Erickson, John Tot, and Tom Callahan offer in this book is suggested by Peter Singe in the Foreword. He identifies three reasons. “First, [the material in the book] corrects a misconception, that wisdom is not developable [when in fact it] can be cultivated: through continual reflection, through silence, and through connecting with the highest in yourself and others…Second is that wisdom is not about just a few wise people but about the capacity of human communities to orient themselves around a living sense of the future that truly matters to them…While the world’s cultures offer a rich storehouse of stories of extraordinary individuals who exercised wisdom, upon closer inspection what makes the stories compelling is what emerged collectively…But even these examples are misleading, insofar as they start with the central leadership figure. For it is the everyday emergence of collective intelligence in teams, communities, and networks that is most welcome today…Third, the authors show that rather than being a `feel good’ concept with little tangible impact, wisdom is all about results, and especially what is achieved over the longer term.” Senge thus nails the essence of what this book is all about far better than I ever could.

For me, some of the most interesting and valuable material is provided in Chapter Three as Briskin, Erickson, Ott, and Callanan focus on what’s involved when “inhabiting” a different worldview, one that enables people to “think collectively about the circumstances they face. [This book offers] a guide to reclaiming our participation in groups as positive, necessary, and hopeful without sugarcoating the external challenges we face or the external obstacles that prevent us from seeing new possibilities. Wisdom reflects a capacity for sound judgment, discernment, and the objectivity to see what is needed in the moment. Collective wisdom reflects a similar capacity to learn together and evolve toward something greater and wiser than we can do as individuals alone.” The authors identify and then briefly but insightfully discuss five social visionaries who possessed the aforementioned worldview, who contributed to the field of collective wisdom: Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), Albert Einstein (1879-1955), Pierre Tielhard de Chardin, S.J. (1881-1955), Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933), and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882). Regrettably, Mary Parker Follett has not received the attention and appreciation she deserves. Peter Drucker named her the “prophet” of management. Warren Bennis has characterized her as a “swashbuckling advance scout of management thinking” whereas Rosabeth Moss Kanter suggests that reading any of her works is “like entering a zone of calm in a sea of chaos. Her work reminds us…there is truths about human behavior that stand the test of time. They persist despite superficial changes, like the deep and still ocean beneath the waves of management fad and fashion.”

Briskin, Erickson, Ott, and Callanan cite three of Follett’s most important insights, the second of which she called the “law of situation.” Instead of bringing in outside experts and resources to bolster one side over the other, consistent with the fact that Follett was a staunch advocate of “power with” rather than “power over” in all relationships, she proposed complete and unrestricted use of information to advance transparency of operations. “She saw the power of the scientific method, still nascent in her day, as useful in creating a shared pool of data that everyone could use.” Several decades later, Henry Chesbrough would develop this insight in much greater depth in two books, Open Innovation and then Open Business Models. Collective wisdom cannot be created and then leveraged unless and until everyone involved is both willing and able to embrace what C. Otto Scharmer describes (in Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges) as three intertwined “openings” of the mind, the heart, and the will. Only then, Senge suggests, can people learn “how to listen more deeply” and suspend their “take-for-granted mental models” as well as to “connect with one another in that listening, and, perhaps quietly and barely noticed, how to pay attention to why [they] are here.”

This is the journey of discovery to which Briskin, Erickson, Ott, and Callanan invite their reader. Throughout their lively and eloquent narrative, they affirm the value of collective wisdom, insisting (and I agree) that it is available to everyone, in any group or larger collective to which one belongs. That said, the authors add, “Our exploration of collective folly, however, reveals the other, far less comforting, implication of Terence’s bold claim, `If nothing that is human is alien to me, then I know the poet and the thief, I know the teacher and the terrorist. I know the victim and the perpetrator – they are all within me.’ The same is true of any group: We are capable of extraordinary acts of grace and kindness and creativity, and equally extraordinary acts of cruelty and violence. No group is exempt – all that is human is within us.”

It remains for each of us to locate “all that is human is within us”…and then celebrate it.

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