Six neighbors were sitting in a circle when idle chatter began to edge into a discussion of hot-topic social issues — health care, budget proposals, public education, housing, employment, and the environment, just to name a few. Speaking quietly at first, the sharing became more animated, words spoken with increasing vigor and persuasiveness. And volume. Faces hardened and fists clenched, bodies thrusting forward.
Differences of opinion, some significant, morphed from exchange into confrontation. Two, then three began speaking at the same time, competing for attention.
Our surprise and concern about this escalation did not change the dynamics until our host raised her hand, the group quieting, and said, “We are becoming just like them.”
“And who’s ‘them’?” a man, still breathless from the tumult, asked.
“Those elected to make decisions about these things,” she replied. “And the news media reporters and commentators charged with keeping us informed and guiding our thinking.”
An unexpected hush fell over the gathered.
One of the younger in the circle took his smartphone from his pocket and placed it on a coffee table that, perhaps mercifully, separated the group.
“Ten years ago,” he said, “if someone had predicted the very existence of this phone, even those in the high-tech world would have pronounced it impossible. But across that decade a gathering of very bright people sat in a circle, not unlike ours, and pooled their genius, each bringing his or her expertise and each listening intently to the others. They may have been of political views as opposed as ours. They may have been of dramatically differing ideologies. They were likely ethnically, racially, and religiously diverse. But they shared a common goal and were committed to a collaborative process — of producing the unthinkable: this phone.”
Only that claimed their full and undivided attention. A silence settled on the group, so he went on.
“What if developing a health care system that covered everyone at reasonable cost took the place of that phone? There is a growing population of geniuses in the health care and financial management worlds who, if opinions that divide could be set aside, collective wisdom emerging, would inspire the ability and will to create that system.”
“What if developing an educational system that creates a level playing field of all our youth took the place of that phone? We have an abundance of players from the educational, psychological, and business management worlds who, if they worked collaboratively rather than competitively, embraced a both/and rather than an either/or paradigm, could stir the capacity and determination to manifest that system.”
“What if developing an economy that provided meaningful and fairly compensated work for all took the place of that phone? There are plenty of business professionals, labor advocates, and cutting-edge economists who, if they set political partisanship aside, let left or right loyalties subside, and let loose a common mission and passion, would bring that system within our reach.”
A person from the circle versed in group process dynamics and systems thinking asked for a moment to revisit a decades-old group exercise that demonstrated that collective wisdom almost always surpasses individual wisdom, commonly called the NASA experiment. The group nodded assent.
Participants were given a list of 20 rather unsophisticated items: a flashlight, a shovel, a watch, and a tent, for example. NASA had produced a “rank order of importance” of these items if six people, for whatever reason, found themselves stranded and isolated, with assistance miles and days away.
Working first as individuals, each one produced a ranking. Then, working as a group, the exchanges usually animated, even contentious, they produced a consensus ranking. When the NASA list was revealed, the group wisdom virtually always exceeded the wisdom of even the best individual lists.
Back to the phone and those three issues. The unthinkable, unbelievable, beyond imagination smartphone was a result of ardent collaboration. Had its creators vied for dominance, even using their best individual gifts, there would be no phone.
Setting aside real but inevitably distracting differences, working as teams with mutual respect, and pooling a wisdom they possess only together, what would it take for our circles of geniuses to produce the impossible in the decade ahead?
Howard E. Friend is an organizational consultant, teacher, and former pastor of the Montauk Community Church. He lives outside Philadelphia and remains a regular visitor to Montauk.