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Come Together

Can we discover a depth of wisdom far beyond what is available to individuals alone?
by Craig Hamilton

Chapter 1


It's July 2003, and fifteen top telecom executives have gathered at a small island retreat off the coast of Maine. Tensions are high as they head into a three-day summit to discuss the future of the industry. Since the advent of wireless service and the web, companies have been scrambling to stay ahead of the technological curve, and amid growing market competition, it has become clear that some new thinking is needed.

For the first two days, the talks are frustrating. Experts take turns trading theories and speculations, but everyone remains guarded. Finally, at the suggestion of one executive, on the third morning a “dialogue facilitator” is flown in to try to bring the group together. After giving a brief introduction about the importance of listening and suspending assumptions, and a plea to remember the common goal that brought them together, the meeting begins. Already, there is a different quality in the room. Around the circle, people seem more relaxed and more attentive to one another. A few minutes into the discussion, the CEO of one of the large wireless providers shares his vision: “I think we need to stop thinking of our work in purely business terms,” he states, pausing, groping for words. “What if we began to see one another not simply as competitors for market share, but as partners in uniting the world through technology? If you really think about it, in a sense, isn't our larger mission to create the infrastructure that will make it possible for the Global Village to become a real community?” His openness seems to catch everyone off guard, and for the first time all weekend, there is a brief silence. In this silence, an almost imperceptible, vibrant energy begins to grow in the room. “I'm glad you had the guts to say it,” another executive offers. “I think we've all grown tired of just chasing the bottom line.” “I agree,” a third adds. “If there's anything this industry needs right now, it's vision.”

The shift in the group is now becoming palpable, and several people comment on it. There is an electricity in the air and a sense of space that seems to envelop everyone. More members join in, and as each individual speaks, it seems to pull the group deeper into a unity, not only of interest but of vision. Several people try to speak at once, only to burst into laughter upon discovering that they all spontaneously had the same idea. A creativity seems to swirl in the room, carrying everyone with it, and a mysterious recognition begins to dawn in the group that they are no longer operating as separate individuals but are actually thinking together. Hours pass, but nobody wants to stop. Eventually, the meeting comes to a natural close, and everyone sits together in silence for a few minutes. Nobody knows what has happened. But they all know it was important.

In a world where many of us are still apt to think that there is nothing genuinely new under the sun, something seems to be emerging on our collective frontier. Around the country and across the globe, from corporate boardrooms to social change think tanks, people are responding to an impulse to come together in shared exploration. And in their midst, something miraculous is being born. “When the group reaches a certain level of coherence, generally there's some higher level of order that comes into the room and it's very noticeable to people,” explains organizational consultant Robert Kenny. “It's like something has shifted. People stop fighting for airspace and there's a kind of group intuition that develops. It's almost like the group as a whole becomes a tuning fork for the inflow of wisdom.”

Call it collective consciousness, team synergy, co-intelligence, or group mind—a growing number of people are discovering through their own experience that wholes are indeed far more than the sum of their parts; that when individuals come together with a shared intention, in a conducive environment, something mysterious can come into being, with capacities and intelligences that far transcend those of the individuals involved.

“In these group experiences, people have access to a kind of knowing that's bigger than what we normally experience with each other,” describes author and researcher Carol Frenier. “You feel the presence of the sacred, and you sense that everybody else in the group is also feeling that. There's a sense of openness and awareness of something larger than yourself. Your ability to communicate seems broader. What is astounding to people is how much creativity comes forth in a setting like that. You have a sense that the whole group is creating together, and you don't quite exactly know how.”

As Frenier, Kenny, and a growing cadre of other researchers in this new field are finding, it seems that in the spaces between us, unexpected higher-order collective potentials can emerge that make even our greatest individual capacities look insignificant by comparison. And the implications for the way we understand ourselves and the way we work together are as startling as they are profound. Juanita Brown, author of the forthcoming The World Café: Bringing Conversation to Life, observes, “What's happening in these settings is that you're actually bringing up the new. That's what makes it so exciting for people to be a part of. You're bringing up the next level—whether it's deeper or higher or broader—and people sense that there's something there of immense value. Sometimes it shows up in the inner experience, either individually or collectively, as an 'Aha!' Other times, everybody will go silent, because they're all reflecting on what has just been revealed. It's almost like a revelation of some sort makes itself visible.”

If you've never read a book about this “collective intelligence,” you're not alone. Despite its widespread emergence, it's a phenomenon that until recently has almost escaped the lens of the social sciences. For the past decade or so, this nascent social dynamic has been quietly simmering on the cultural back burners, slowly building up steam for the moment when it would burst forth into full boil—a moment that may have just arrived. Thanks to the strong voices of a few key movers and shakers, this newly recognized potential is rapidly catching the attention of a growing number of innovators intrigued by the possibility of harnessing the creative power of collectives toward the resolution of our most complex problems.

Google “collective consciousness” and you'll get over 64,000 results. “Collective intelligence” brings 30,000; “group mind,” 20,000. A visit to some of the sites listed reveals a host of new organizations with names like the Co-Intelligence Institute, the Collective Wisdom Initiative, and, all dedicated to chronicling and furthering our understanding of higher-order group functioning. Peppered throughout the latest literature on leading-edge organizational development are an ever-growing number of references to concepts like “developing group synergy,” “tapping the group mind,” “unleashing collective creativity,” and “developing team coordination.” In increasingly diverse fields of endeavor, it seems, the power of the collective is coming to the fore.

The fact that coordinated teams faced with a common task can access higher levels of functioning is, of course, not a new revelation. Ask a sampling of soldiers who faced combat in a platoon whether they ever experienced a heightened awareness of the whole, or even a “group mind,” and you might be surprised to find how many will have a sense of what you're talking about. Indeed, rescue crews, sports teams, dance troupes, and music ensembles have for years been reporting remarkable experiences of team synergy or group flow that have lifted them to undreamt-of heights of coordination and effectiveness. Add to that several millennia of group worship and other shared religious practice, and you might be inclined to ask what the fuss is all about. From a certain point of view, it could be argued, experiences of communion are as old as the tribe. However, what seems to be new about what's happening today is that this phenomenon is not only arising spontaneously in increasingly diverse groups throughout the world but, according to Otto Scharmer, cofounder of the MIT Leadership Lab, “more and more people are having this type of experience in the context of everyday work and professional settings. What's interesting today is that this kind of experience is something that no longer occurs in retreat from doing your real work, but in the midst of doing your real work—particularly when the work is related to profound social change and innovation.”

How to account for this new emergence is not entirely clear. Perhaps in our increasingly secular global culture, the sacred dimension is simply being forced to find new, more secular channels by which to make itself known in the world. Or it could be that, in response to mounting threats to our very survival, a kind of adaptive impulse is arising in the species, calling us to come together. As Juanita Brown puts it, “Perhaps in the face of the collective danger we're experiencing, our collective survival instincts are waking up and we're searching for a way to pass forward that will not be suicidal.” But among those who experience it, there is an increasing sense that whatever is bringing this collective awakening about, its implications are nothing short of evolutionary. As Bill Veltrop, former Exxon executive and founder of the International Center for Organization Design, puts it, “We're absolutely convinced that we're experiencing the beginnings of an evolutionary shift that's greater than anything we've ever experienced . . . as [a] society.”

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This article is from
Our Collective Intelligence Issue


May–July 2004