Pursuing Collective Wisdom


Collaboration may improve decision making.

When are two heads better than one? Sometimes collaborating with others to make decisions engages the best efforts of the group in considering more options, understanding additional points of view, considering more evidence, expanding the range of problems and solutions considered, deliberating effectively, gaining insights, discovering new possibilities, challenging unfounded assumptions, uncovering unexpected expertise, increasing creativity, engaging remarkable efforts, and almost magically making wiser decisions than you could have made by yourself. Other times group decision making degenerates into argument, conflict, fragmentation, misunderstanding, manipulation, obstruction, disengagement, animosity, sniping, groupthink, and deadlock.

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As we face larger, more complex, and more difficult problems it becomes essential to collaborate with others and engage the collective wisdom of the group. However, group results vary widely, seemingly independent of the wisdom of the individuals making up the group. Some groups of wise individuals seem to obtain poor results, yet there are impressive examples of ordinary people coming together to obtain extraordinary results. What are the conditions that sway a group towards collective wisdom and away from collective folly? How can we make wisdom come alive in the groups we belong to?

A key question for evaluating the wisdom of a group is this: Did the collective group arrive at a wiser outcome than any individual member of the group would have been likely to have arrived at working alone?



The objectives of this course are to:

  • Identify opportunities for a group you are engaged in to make important decisions.
  • Assess the performance of a particular group in making wise decisions.
  • Identify specific obstacles preventing the group from making wise decisions.
  • Overcome obstacles preventing the group from making wise decisions.
  • Unleash the power of collective wisdom in groups you are engaged in.

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The possibilities curriculum includes many courses useful for collective ideation, decision making, and problem solving. Studying those courses can help to pursue collective wisdom. This course is part of the Applied Wisdom Curriculum.

The course contains many hyperlinks that may be clicked on and followed to obtain further information. Use your judgment and these link following guidelines to decide when to follow a link, and when to skip over it.

Collective Wisdom and Collective Folly


From among many definitions of wisdom, the following is chosen as the basis for this course:

Wisdom is: “The capacity, the desire, and the active endeavor to realize what is of value in life, for oneself and others.”[1]

The phrase “wise outcome” is sometimes used in this course as shorthand for the above definition. It is a synonym for doing good.

A group is exercising its collective wisdom when it is attaining wise outcomes; it may be trapped in collective folly otherwise.


  1. Identify several groups you belong to. These may be various work groups or teams, committees, task-forces, clubs, civic organizations, relationships within your family or community, or other groups.
  2. Choose 3-5 to focus on and assess informally,
  3. Which of these groups are making wise decisions, which ones are not?
  4. What conditions seem to make the difference between collective wisdom and collective folly?

The Collective Wisdom Institute Model


The Collective Wisdom Institute Model[2] describes certain factors that promote collective wisdom, and others that lead to collective folly. Those factors are briefly listed here:

Collective wisdom is most likely to emerge when the group values, promotes, and achieves the following behaviors:

  1. Deep listening—an authentic curiosity about what is going on inside the speaker
  2. Suspending certainty—deferring judgment and allowing a new truth to emerge
  3. Seeing whole systems and seeking diverse perspectives—seeking the origins of positive deviance through appreciative inquiry to understand solutions that now exist within the system
  4. Respect for others and group discernment
  5. Welcoming all that is arising—embracing unexpected participants and allowing unplanned events to contribute to the solution.

The group can fall into the trap of collective folly when they are overcome by:

  1. Fragmentation which allows one faction within the group to alienate and attack the other, or
  2. The group may settle on an illusion of an agreement rather than an authentic and enduring commitment.

This model is used as the basis for the design of the assessment used in the next assignment.

Assessing Collective Wisdom


Identify a group you participate in that is important because it has the potential or opportunity to make significant decisions, perform at a high level, and truly make a difference. The following assignments guide you as you assess and work to improve the collective wisdom of that group.

This next assignment relies on a collective wisdom assessment instrument influenced by a model developed by the collective wisdom institute.

When skillfully used, this assessment instrument can:

  • Accurately reflect a well-conceived definition of wisdom,
  • Rely on observations, data, and measurements that can be reliably obtained,
  • Be easy to use,
  • Provide valid, reliable, and repeatable results,
  • Provide results that are easy to interpret,
  • Be perceived as providing an accurate assessment of wisdom,
  • Provide a wisdom model that encourages learning how to increase wisdom,
  • Identify specific areas for improvement so that the assessed organization can use the assessment results to guide their improvement efforts.



Complete this Collective Wisdom Assessment instrument for the group you have chosen to study for this assignment.

Bringing Wisdom to Life


A key question for evaluating the wisdom of a group is this: Did the collective group arrive at a wiser outcome than any individual member of the group would have been likely to have arrived at working alone?

If you are satisfied that your group is performing well and collective wisdom is emerging, then congratulations, it may be best to allow the group to continue their good work without intervention. However, if your group is not performing well, and the assessment scores are low in one or more areas, there may be an opportunity to improve the group’s performance and attain collective wisdom.



Did a majority of group members agree the collective group is working toward a wiser outcome than any individual member of the group would have been likely to arrive at? If so, then the group should continue working on its task with renewed confidence. If not, then the group must suspend its task work to improve the relationships among group members. The group can begin by reviewing the results of this assessment and frankly addressing those areas receiving the lowest scores. Work to improve relationships and continue to reassess until collective wisdom emerges. There is no reason to continue the task work of the group if the likely result is collective folly.

If the group decides to increase its collective wisdom, it may be most fruitful to begin by discussing the trustworthiness of group members.

Further Reading


Students interested in learning more about collective wisdom may be interested in the following materials:


  1. This definition of wisdom is advocated by philosopher Nicholas Maxwell. See, for example knowledgetowisdom.org
  2. Briskin, Alan; Erickson, Sheryl; Ott, John; Callanan, Tom (October 1, 2009). The Power of Collective Wisdom: And the Trap of Collective Folly. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. ISBN 978-1576754450.