COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE: CREATING A PROSPEROUS WORLD AT PEACE
Thinking together without ego:
Collective intelligence as an evolutionary
1Craig Hamilton and Claire Zammit
Strategic thinking takes a quantum leap
Beyond the “wisdom of crowds”
We’ve all heard by now about the “wisdom of crowds”—the notion that the aggregated intelligence of any group is nearly always superior to the
intelligence of any individual in that group. We know, for instance, that if a
group of us average our guesses at the number of jelly beans in a jar, our
“collective guess” will usually come closer to the mark than the best individual
guess in the room. We know that this principle accounts for the wisdom that
regulates markets, and that consistently returns good search results on Google.
Why, then, is it so often the case that when it comes to critical decision-
making, thinking together as a small group tends to make us stupid rather than
smart? Why do even our best attempts at collaboration often leave us secretly
wishing for the simplicity and sharpness of outmoded “command and control”
decision-making? With “groupthink” phenomena now well-studied, we know that primitive social drives for control, belonging and status can imperceptibly
sabotage our collective pursuit of clarity. But, what prevents this knowledge
1 Craig Hamilton and Claire Zammit are writers, educators, and strategic consultants.
They work with organizations applying their principles of evolutionary culture, creating life-enhancing, growth-oriented workplaces, and achieving the adaptability and
resilience that comes from paying careful attention to the collaborative environment.
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from being integrated to the point that our collective intelligence is not only an aggregate phenomenon but a lived experience?
For those of us in positions of leadership whose success depends on our ability to tap the wisdom of our organizations and communities, the need to find a way out of this collective constipation is paramount. The following pages will explore an emerging paradigm which suggests some tangible
methodologies for overcoming the social barriers to group intelligence, and ushering in a new era of collaborative thinking and collective creativity.
Imagine a group of people gathered for a creative strategy session with an
unusual mandate. The entry fee for this conversation is that everyone has made a sincere and educated effort to check their “ego” at the door. With personal
agendas temporarily set aside, there is a noticeable absence of self-
consciousness, or self-concern of any kind. The familiar jockeying for position has vanished, and along with it, all approval seeking. No one seems invested in being right, appearing smart, or appearing any particular way at all. In the absence of these familiar negative social behaviors, there is simply an authentic, innocent, undefended interest in creatively engaging the task at hand. Without the familiar, primitive “mental noise” blocking the system, listening is deep and
there is plenty of space for considered reflection.
Unified by a heartfelt and soulful commitment to a greater good, the group flows easily from one idea to the next. Diverging points of view are engaged organically, effortlessly, in the recognition that a diversity of perspectives represents a rich field of data to mine for insights. All questions and concerns are welcomed into the inquiry. Aware of the ever-looming specter of paralyzing group dynamics, an atmosphere of humility pervades, and an embodied
knowledge that confronting the questions that challenge our deepest
assumptions is our only safeguard against collective error.
Seeing Beyond the Self
The above scenario may sound like science fiction at worst, or wishful thinking at best. After all, most of us would be hard-pressed to point to a single example of a group we’ve participated in that bore any resemblance to this one. It is thus all the more significant to realize that the scenario described above was not derived from imagination, but from the lived experience of groups working to pioneer a new model for collective engagement.
THINKING TOGETHER WITHOUT EGO
As the above example suggests, at the heart of this new model is the conviction that the singular impediment to optimal group functioning is what
has traditionally been known as “ego.” Whether in the form of self-concern,
self-aggrandizement, self-doubt, self-consciousness, self-infatuation, or self-
absorption, this knot in the center of the psyche has long been recognized to be
the lone obstacle to higher moral, spiritual and psychological development in
individuals. But the recognition that this same unhealthy self-focus is the prime
saboteur of higher collective functioning is a relatively new idea.
In part, this is a natural and expected progression. As organizations have begun to push the outer envelope of collaborative skill-building and collective
functioning in general, it seemed only a matter of time before they would come
up against the same challenge as those who have been working on individual
development for centuries. But there is an element to this newfound discovery
that is unique to the life conditions of our historical moment.
Confronted by an ever-growing array of global challenges, those at the leading edges of collective inquiry are recognizing the urgent need to pioneer
new, more effective ways of thinking together about the big questions. In the
midst of this urgency, there is a growing willingness to experiment with
unorthodox approaches, including those arising from the time-tested spiritual
psychologies of the East. As goal-oriented teams begin to apply the insights of
meditation and inner cultivation to their collaborative pursuits, some surprising
new possibilities are revealing themselves. Foremost among these is a
collection of revolutionary social technologies that leverage positive group
dynamics to catalyze trans-egoic creative collaboration among participants.
Understanding Ego: the Foundation
To begin to get a sense of how a group might be able to function beyond the
grip of ego, it is first necessary to get clear what exactly we are trying to move
beyond. Although the word “ego” is used in a variety of ways in contemporary
culture, in this context we are using it to refer to something very specific.
Within all of us, there is a primitive psychological and emotional drive for
security and certainty. During our early evolution, it no doubt served countless stimportant functions, but here in the 21 century, as we attempt to evolve our
capacities for creativity and consciousness, this drive has developed into a
pathology—a pathology of self-concern.
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There is not sufficient space in this brief overview to elaborate in detail on
the ego’s many faces, but if we look at a typical group interaction, we can easily see its effect: If I am concerned about how I’m going to be perceived in
the group, will I be willing to take a risk to challenge the group’s assumptions?
If I am driven by a need to establish my dominance over others, how interested
will I be in hearing their points of view? If I am worried about how the group’s
decision is going to affect my own department, will I be available to explore all
possibilities with an open mind? If I have an unrealistic sense of intellectual
superiority, will I be willing to listen to ideas that challenge my own? If I am
overly attached to a positive image of myself, will I be able to hear corrective
feedback about my negative impact on others?
The list of the ego’s undermining effects on group functioning is a long one, and those who have spent any time in collaborative environments could no
doubt add many more to the few we have mentioned here. In the face of this
seemingly ubiquitous obstacle to optimal collaboration, what then are we to do?
Drawing from our two decades of group facilitation and observation, we
have put together a short list of core principles that begin to illuminate the
contours of a new approach to high-level collaborative thinking. It is by no
means comprehensive, but should give a snapshot of our best thinking on this to
Principles of Evolutionary Culture
1. A Commitment to the Greater Good: All of the individuals
in the group must be genuinely committed to discovering
and/or achieving the best possible outcome for the whole.
Individual or departmental agendas must be set aside. Bringing
the group to this high level of commitment may take
considerable preparation, but is most easily achieved when all
of those involved are on board with the organization’s greater
mission, and when there is a trust already established in the
leadership’s commitment to fairness.
2. A Commitment to Wholehearted Engagement: Each group
member must be committed to fully participate in all group
meetings. This means bringing one’s full attention to the matter
at hand, leaving all personal concerns at the door. By listening
carefully to the contributions of others and putting their own
THINKING TOGETHER WITHOUT EGO
best thinking into the mix, each member contributes to the
building of a larger vessel which can carry the group to
unforeseen heights of insight.
3. A Culture of Self-Responsibility: All group members must feel personally responsible for the success of the group. Each
must feel on a visceral level that the success of the group in
achieving its outcomes rests on her shoulders alone. Given our
natural tendency to defer responsibility, cultivating this level of
ultimate personal responsibility among members of any group
is a formidable task. One-on-one work with group members
outside the group setting is usually necessary.
4. A Suspension of Assumptions: For the duration of the gathering, group members suspend everything they think they
know in order to make room for new insights and
understandings to emerge. Practicing what is known in Zen as a
“beginner’s mind,” they cultivate an inner and outer environment of profound receptivity and openness, which turns
out to be fertile soil for leaps in creativity.
5. Culture of Deep Listening: Group members aspire to listen to one another from a place deeper than intellect. They tune their
ears to listen for the deepest threads and the emerging
glimmers of novelty in each other’s contributions, and, through
their responses, they highlight and draw out those elements to
make them transparent to the group.
6. A Commitment to Authenticity: Everyone in the group must be committed to speaking their mind and heart. This is built on
the recognition that in order to make the best decision, the
group needs everyone’s data. To support this commitment,
there must be an explicit agreement within the group that no
point of view—no matter how challenging to either the
leadership or to the group’s assumptions—will be ridiculed or dismissed without genuine, respectful consideration.
7. A Culture of Risk-Taking: Nothing takes us to the edge of evolution faster than taking meaningful risks. This means
speaking on an intuition when we’re not sure we have the
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words to give voice to it. Or, responding to a gut feeling that
something isn’t right, but doing so vulnerably, realizing that it
might be oneself that’s not right. It also means being willing to
step into new ways of being, even if they feel frightening and
unfamiliar. The more risk we are each willing to take, the more
profound will be the group outcome. 8. A Culture of Empowered Vulnerability: Leading by example,
the leadership demonstrates that it is okay to be vulnerable, to
take the risk to expose one’s ignorance and uncertainty. The
group sees that such vulnerability is actually a position of
strength and power because it shows a courageous willingness
to step into the most insecure places. This leads to a healthy
culture of non-avoidance that is the best inoculation against
9. A Culture of Constant Resolution: The group strives to
maintain a clear and harmonious field of interaction between
all participants. This means always striving to clear up any
interpersonal tension as soon as possible, so as to build a
container of deep harmony and trust among everyone. It is
about leaving each interaction “without a trace.” This can
sometimes require additional processing outside the group
meetings in order to keep group time most efficient.
10. A Commitment to Grow and Evolve: In order for the group
to consistently function at an optimal level, all individuals must
be committed to staying on their own “evolving edge,” by
seeking healthy feedback and taking on new challenges outside
their comfort zone. When all of the individuals in a group are
actively and enthusiastically engaged in their own evolution,
their collective spirit of boundary-breaking infuses the group
with vitality and organically keeps the group on its own
The possibility of a group thinking together beyond the grip of ego may seem
like an unattainable goal to those with extensive experience of the pathologies
of group life. But there is a growing body of action research demonstrating that,
THINKING TOGETHER WITHOUT EGO through the dedicated application of the principles described above, this higher
collective possibility can be made a reality.
Those pioneers who are willing to experiment in this arena will find many
challenges along the way, but it is our conviction that the bounty of inspired
collaboration and rich human engagement that awaits is well worth the effort.
Indeed, if human beings are going to rise to the challenge of our moment—
that of coming together beyond our differences and giving birth to a
cooperative and sustainable global village—finding a truly generative way to think together is a task that calls for the best from all of us.
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