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A Metaphor for a Worldwide Paradigm Shift
Creating Learning Organizations Through Core Competence in Community Building
Softstuff: Work Teams in Technical Organizations
From Chaos to Community at Work
Discovering a Generative Path to Organizational Change
Dialogue and Organizational Transformation
The Wisdom Council
Rediscovering the Circle: Community in Balance
A Sense of the Whole: The Essence of Community
The Quest for Collective Intelligence
Principles for Sustainability
My Journey Toward Hope

The Wisdom Council: A New Way to Build Community in Large Organizations

by Jim Rough

This document is a revised version of the chapter
"The Wisdom Council"
in the anthology "Community Building: Renewing Spirit and Learning in Business", New Leaders Press, 1995.
Please do not quote without the permission.

"I'm tired of all the small talk around here. I want some BIG talk for a change." These were the words of a manager before a meeting with his coworkers. His desire for meaningful communication with others is a step beyond the traditional working relationship where people are hired for their physical labor. It even goes beyond the work of professionals where people are hired for their minds. This manager's quest is a desire for community. The BIG talk he seeks is not only desirable, but a key ingredient in the search for corporate excellence. In fact, the authors of the classic business book, In Search of Excellence, characterized the single most important difference between excellent companies and the rest as "rich informal communication." Another way to phrase it might be "having BIG talk in the organization." I have developed a new process for creating community in large organizations through BIG talk. I have come to call it the "Wisdom Council."


Random Selection

A Wisdom Council is comprised of twelve to twenty-four people who are randomly selected to act as a microcosm of a larger population. The pool of possible participants generally includes everyone - managers, hourly employees and salaried people. Like a jury, they seek an unanimous view. Unlike a jury, the group itself determines what they will discuss. It's like a "time-out" --the members of an organization ask themselves how things are going and how they might go better. With the aid of a facilitator, these people enter into a high quality dialogue seeking collaborative breakthroughs. At its conclusion, the group issues an unanimous, non-binding statement that articulates the informed wisdom of the people. This particular group then disbands, but each year, or each quarter, a new group is randomly chosen.

The Wisdom Council creates change the same way a crisis transforms an organization. It is the kind of time-out that happens in a game when a player gets hurt. The game stops, the energy shifts, and everyone remembers that we are all connected in ways that go beyond who wins and who loses. Caring and concern are shown, where only a moment ago there may have only been competition and self-interest. With a Wisdom Council, an organization symbolically enters into this structured, limited kind of time-out. People are encouraged to respond with creativity and open-mindedness so the organization is elevated to a new level of trust and capability.

In a county public works department, for example, a group of employees similarly met and determined that the critical issue for them was their overwhelming workload. At first, they talked about the need to hire more people. Then they decided that they really needed more time in the day. They achieved a breakthrough when they eventually realized that the underlying issue was that they didn't feel respected by the people they served. Each employee in the agency was independently working at a frantic pace to prove his or her own worthiness, despite a system they all felt was inadequate. Facing this issue and talking it through to a new resolution was a quantum step forward for the organization. It was healing to each person and to relationships between workers. Each person gained a greater sense of shared responsibility and many collective improvements were made.

Just acknowledging and facing critical issues like this with creativity has a powerful impact on the organization. In addition, a group's unanimous conclusions, when presented to the whole, possess power. In the example, the group expressed its new understanding about the need for mutual respect and suggested ways that people might earn that respect. Even people who were outside of the conversation were changed. Discussions about problems among co-workers, letters to the editor from citizens, and entrenched positions across the bargaining table were all positively influenced by the group's conclusions.

Another example illustrates how statements that come from the Wisdom Councils can make a difference. Employees and managers in the steam plant at a paper mill met and determined their key issue. At first, they listed issues like the need for better cleanup procedures, the need for more training, and the need for improved communication between operators and the maintenance department. As the issues were categorized, it became clear to all that there was one overriding problem that everyone was afraid to mention. It was the ash that hung in the air of the plant.

Everyone knew that the mill had a competitive advantage because it was running at two times its design capacity and that ash was a natural result. All believed that nothing could be done without a major investment because the engineers had been studying the problem for years. The employee union and management had already tangled on the issue and everyone had backed away from a potential conflict. The black ash problem had disappeared from everyone's consciousness until this group brought it to the surface. Naming it in a statement to the rest of the mill sparked a new creative resolve and it wasn't long before two people invented a patentable device that solved the problem. The statement and the shared understanding of the issue's importance crystalized creative energy throughout the whole organization and spontaneous change was the result.


Transformational Change

The Wisdom Council provides people at all levels in the organization with a symbolic opportunity to meet outside the hierarchy and to connect meaningfully on larger issues. It is a process for working on fundamental, deeply felt questions. "Is our organization really contributing something of value?" or, "Am I proud to work here?" are questions that might be dealt with. Rather than top management addressing strategic issues, in this scenario everyone deals with existential issues. As a symbol of the whole, each random group wrestles with the issues and reaches consensus that brings meaning to everyone.

The Council's power of change comes in three nontraditional ways. First, the existential crisis of BIG talk within the Council and the conversation it generates in the larger community elicit a transformational change. Secondly, the statement of unanimous wisdom of the group sparks dialogue and crystallizes creative energy. Thirdly, the periodic selection and disbanding of the Council establishes a learning process by which the community can evolve itself, reflecting on progress. Because the Council is all-inclusive and because it disbands immediately after presenting its results, it invokes a self-organizing process rather than a managed change process. Proposals, goals, action plans, and timetables may eventually result after it has disbanded.

When intelligent people stop to reflect on what really matters, change is created. Sometimes this change involves specific action items, but more often it runs deeper. It evokes subtle changes away from the need for extrinsic controls and toward the spirit of community. I believe Dr. Deming was talking specifically about this type of change when he said in his famous quality seminars, "We are destroying our people by the methods we use." He was talking about the system of extrinsic control and hierarchy vs. self-managed change and transformation, or what Deming called "metanoia." Managed change has obvious value in ensuring that specific actions are completed, but its overuse causes many problems. When used with people, they eventually either succumb to the control or rebel against it. In business, some people just wait for retirement. Some become bureaucratic thinkers seeking their own sense of control through rigid adherence to the rules. Still others opt out and profess to not care. Related problems like stress, burnout, rising health costs, and poor quality are secondary effects of people feeling manipulated. People under control feel estranged from community and from the impacts of their actions. Transformational change can eliminate many pressing problems as the spirit of community replaces the mechanisms of control.


The Structure

The Wisdom Council is similar to other approaches of building community, yet fundamentally different. One special feature is that, even though only a few people participate in a particular Council, the whole community is involved vicariously. The random selection process and its short life span are particularly responsible for this. Anyone can be selected and those chosen do not become an elite group. Each member speaks his or her own personal -- and even spiritual -- viewpoint without representing anyone else. Council members resume their normal activities immediately after disbanding.

Other group structures that are similar to the Wisdom Council, but not the same, are as follows:

  • A jury because it assembles peers to reach unanimity on a decision for the whole community. However, a jury reaches a verdict on a predetermined issue through discussion and voting. The Wisdom Council picks its own issues and uses dialogue to evolve consensus.

  • An advisory board in that it provides nonbinding guidance to an organization. The advisory board is not randomly selected. It meets over a long period of time and doesn't necessarily reach unanimity. The Council doesn't advise top management as much as it articulates the whole system view.

  • A survey because it uses a random sample to identify the views of the total population. But in a survey there is no dialogue among participants. There is no vicarious sense of participation among those who were not selected.

  • A focus group because there is a facilitated dialogue among a microcosm of a population. But a focus group does not choose the issue and doesn't reach unanimity.

  • A future search conference because it seeks to involve the whole community in dialogue and to evolve the culture using a facilitated process. But the future search is a large group process particularly oriented toward developing a vision of the future. With the Wisdom Council, a smaller group containing few management people determines the topics based on members' own interests and energy.


Quality of dialogue

Beyond its unique structure, quality of dialogue is vitally important to a Wisdom Council. If members were to argue and develop a legalistic statement of compromise, or if people just complained about how awful things were and issued a statement that expected others to do something about it, much of the Council's power for change would be lost. The spirit of dialogue is essential. The late physicist David Bohm recently drew a distinction between a discussion , where people talk back and forth with one another, and a dialogue , where people meet without a predetermined agenda yet a "coherent culture of shared meaning" emerges. In the book The Fifth Discipline , author Peter Senge builds on Bohm's work, describing dialogue as (1) going beyond one person's understanding to a larger pool of meaning, (2) exploring complex issues from multiple points of view, and (3) inquiring in a way that people become observers of their own thinking.

In a Wisdom Council, this same spirit of mutual inquiry and emergent meaning is needed, but the group also needs to reach consensus on a specific statement. For a brief process, with people who have been randomly picked, the question is How can we ensure a spirit of creative dialogue yet also achieve an unanimous statement? In a trial jury, people are on their own to make a simple judgment on a predetermined issue. The need for a Council is for something more like a Quaker business meeting, where a deep and open spirit of inquiry exists, yet the group still reaches unanimous decisions. A facilitator is essential to achieving this blend.



According to Senge and Bohm, dialogues per se are not suited to decision making. They envisage facilitative leadership and place emphasis on participant guidelines and taking time to be sure the guidelines are met. Examples of guidelines might be: drop all previously-held assumptions, respect all views, and allow equal air time for all those who wish to speak. Bohm views the facilitator's role as limited to setting the stage and pointing out "sticking" points. Senge envisages more of a knowledgeable discussion leader, even contributing opinions at times. To reach decisions, Senge suggests that discussion is probably needed and suggests using both.

The Wisdom Council, on the other hand, needs a process facilitator who takes a more active role. He or she helps the group determine and meet the key issues, often in an organizational environment where they seem undiscussable; influences the group process so that dialogue, not discussion, is used; and helps to stimulate creative thinking where breakthrough insights, understandings, or new feelings can emerge. The aim is an emergent consensus, or a collective breakthrough, rather than agreement on a compromise. For this, one cannot rely on a step-by-step facilitation approach, nor exclusively on the self-management of participants. It is better to have facilitators with advanced knowledge of group dynamics and creative thinking who manage the group process. In this case the need for discussion is greatly diminished, and usually restricted to fleshing out details.

Although exerting a strong influence on the process, this type of facilitator does not participate in the content. He or she ignores his or her views on the topic in order to help the group create its viewpoint. He or she is not concerned with "what" the group decides but with "how" the group talks and thinks together. Some pioneers of this type of process facilitation (aside from 300 years of Quaker meeting leaders) are Michael Doyle and David Straus, who wrote the book How to Make Meetings Work . The Institute for Cultural Affair has developed facilitation tools for dialogue with large groups. The Guild for Psychological Studies has pioneered dialogue as a process of individual transformation for more than 50 years and the Creative Problem Solving Institutes have been advancing creative thinking for more than 40 years.


Six Facilitative Principles

These approaches rely on a facilitator to help groups address issues with creativity and trust. Dialogue on crisis-level challenges leads to transformational changes. This is not "decision-making" and it's not "problem-solving." Instead, I coined the phrase "Choice-creating" to better describe it. This quality of thinking seeks quantum movements, changes of mind, and changes of heart. Key facilitative principles that go into Choice-creating are:

  1. The facilitator orients the group toward developing lists (of issues, solution ideas, data, etc.) to avoid discussion. An opening sentence might be "What are some of the issues we might address?" This question asks for a listing instead of discussion. If someone starts to talk about one of the issues, the facilitator might head that off by saying "please turn your comment into another suggestion." In this way, discussion is averted and participants maintain a spirit of discovery.

  2. The facilitator ensures that each person is protected from all forms of judgment. For instance, if one person has an idea and another starts to say why it won't work, the facilitator helps turn this judgment into a concern. Both people are protected and each comment is useful.

  3. The facilitator helps people express themselves fully. For instance, if someone says, "There should be better communication," it is important to urge them to say more, to the point of risking and exposing real feelings. This expansion builds trust in the group.

  4. The facilitator reflects back to the group what they are saying or what is happening. This raises the level of capability for self-management in the group and it helps all to listen and understand more fully what has been said. With reflection, members often change views of their own accord, allowing the group to spontaneously move forward. Simply by standing and writing ideas on the flip chart, the facilitator uses reflects to the group.

  5. The facilitator supports the vital energy of the group. If some people are excited about an idea before the problem has been defined, for instance, the facilitator goes with their energy and asks them to articulate their solution. In this kind of setting, the group energy leads while the intellect follows.

  6. The facilitator helps the group capture and acknowledge group movement. He or she might say, "It sounds like you are all in agreement about this part of the issue. Can someone summarize what you are saying here?" People often don't recognize their progress unless this progress is captured and articulated.


Using the Wisdom Council

The Wisdom Council is a low risk, low investment strategy for building community. This is not a top-down cultural intervention to be managed, but a small, limited structural addition that may generate system-wide, heart-felt change. In a formal sense, it has no power. But by creating an organization-wide dialogue and sparking ground-swell consensus, it has great potential for transformational change.

Organizations that are a part of the quality movement and wish to focus on real quality can find the Wisdom Council valuable. Some organizations install a Total Quality Management program that is exclusively focused on making quality measurable and more controllable. Such a strategy is a continuing part of an extrinsic control paradigm and not what the quality movement is about. As Peter Senge said in a recent keynote address, "If you don't understand that the quality movement is about intrinsic motivation, then you don't understand the quality movement." The Wisdom Council supports intrinsic motivation in people. It is a way for companies to ensure a vital quality effort.

Other examples of potential use are: A large university hospital might use this approach to overcome organizational barriers between doctors, administrators, and staff. A competitive software company might use it to call "time out" from their hectic pace and to build depth in the environment without losing competitive focus. For a large government agency it is a way to overcome the bureaucratic thinking that regulations and micro management encourage. In a manufacturing company one group of employees has proposed this approach to their management as a way to build and maintain a shared vision for everyone to invest in.

In these instances, the Wisdom Council helps to transform a hierarchical system. But in a different, more powerful application, the Wisdom Council might also be used to empower and give a new voice to the people of a democratic organization. An employee-owned corporation, a labor union, or a school, for instance, can use the process to create wise, democratic leadership. With a Wisdom Council in a high school, for example, the faculty and administration can assume a more facilitative role, helping students get what they want, instead of trying to control them toward predetermined aims. It can reinvigorate the learning environment.

When twelve students participated in a high school Wisdom Council, they developed six unanimous points. The points were focused on class sizes, the need for creative lessons, more meaningful requirements for graduation, etc. In the meetings students talked about serious matters. Some wanted harder classes. Others needed help to keep up. All wanted a safe place where they could be challenged to learn. At a presentation to the superintendent, principal, and city council, the adults expressed pleasant surprise. Many people had underestimated the level of capability and responsibility that randomly chosen students would demonstrate. The Wisdom Council was an initial step in building BIG talk with and among students.

A Wisdom Council builds a culture based on intrinsic instead of extrinsic motivation. By giving a voice to the wisdom of the students the whole system is brought into dialogue. In a similar application this process could be used to reinvent both government and citizenship. In fact, the Wisdom Council concept originally arose as a way to enliven responsible citizenship and to build community at the national level. In seminars where people were learning about facilitation skills, groups resembling Wisdom Councils addressed issues of their choice. They chose societal issues: the rising violent crime rate, the breakdown of families, the inequitable distribution of wealth, and the like. These groups sought simple, non-threatening ways to reverse the negative spiral of these problems. The breakthrough that emerged was the Wisdom Council concept as a constitutional amendment. By creating a national and wise "Will of the People", the Council would reinvent government as more facilitative than controlling. By building community and empowering responsible citizenship this process offers a low-risk, high-return way to deal with increasingly complex issues.


Large Organizations

From its initial conception as a constitutional amendment, it became clear that the Wisdom Council process can also be used to support participative leadership in most large organizations. It is a way to subtly move the system away from extrinsic control via rules and hierarchical structures toward intrinsic control through individual initiative and mutual trust. It doesn't directly confront the hierarchical system, but by establishing BIG talk it empowers the potential for transformation. It is best to structure the Council in a way that is consistent with this bottom-up power. Rather than being set up by the president of an organization to find out what people really think, for instance, it is more powerful to consider the Wisdom Council to be the people stopping to reflect on how their system is working. Structuring the context so that the Council is above the hierarchy enhances its transformational potential. The Wisdom Council best functions from the assumption that the ultimate authority is with the people of the organization.

Arranging the Wisdom Council requires coordination. A person or group needs to establish meeting rooms, identify facilitators, and schedule times. They need to help assure that everyone selected can attend. In any random selection process, it is critical that those selected participate voluntarily. The coordinators help the organization contract with itself so that people who are chosen will participate. It may be helpful to turn the selection process into a ceremony. Each person is eligible, so everyone should be aware and interested. It might be like a lotto drawing, or a large door prize. This enhances the sense of identification with those who are chosen.

During Wisdom Council meetings, the coordinators ensure that participants can be sequestered if need be, that they have accurate meeting notes, and that requests from the from the Council can be met. For instance, the group may ask for the opportunity to meet with experts, or the organization's president, or to present their results to certain audiences. If top management does attend, it must be remembered that the real "top manager" is the Council in this setting.

Sessions may be videotaped and viewed. This can increase the sense of vicarious participation. At the conclusion, it is understood by everyone that the Council will present their results to the whole organization. At presentations, individual Council members need to distinguish when they are speaking for an unanimous Council and when they are speaking for themselves.

After the meetings and presentations, Council members have no further official role except possibly to help improve the process and to plan the next one. I suggest that a small committee of former members be created to oversee the Wisdom Council process.



The Wisdom Council can be a powerful and valuable process for any large organization that is open to exploring growth through transformation. It can provide a basis for self-organization and self-management, and eliminate much of the need for extrinsic controls. It is a new concept for building community--ensuring that people address the issues that really matter and remain in dialogue. It helps everyone remember that, at the most basic level, we are just people and we are connected. The Wisdom Council ensures that there is room for BIG talk. It creates a time for "just folks" around the campfire. It's a way for the wisdom, goodness, and creativity in people to emerge and help in building community.

by Jim Rough

For more information on the facilitation process recommended for the Wisdom Council see
the Dynamic Facilitation Skills seminar web page

For more information on the Citizens' Amendment, how the Wisdom Council process might be applied to reforming our society please see this web page.

The Business Transformation Book Café is a project of Vision Nest Publishing
Last updated by webmaster, April 23, 1997 .