A Jar Full of Jellybeans

close up of colorful jelly beans in a jar

I love walking into a room of people who want to make a difference in their community. Moms, doctors, elders, elected officials, teachers; people who are new to the work sitting with people at the height of their career. The range of experience and knowledge excites me. I’m confident that together they will yield new insights and approaches, and forge friendships that last beyond the project.

As a facilitator, I believe my best service to the work is to help draw out what I like to call the “wisdom in the room” – the inherent, sometimes dormant, intelligence that emerges when people feel safe, share freely, reflect on what they’re learning, and make choices on how to move forward.

It turns out that my belief that a group of people can be more insightful, more intelligent, than any one person, is more than just a belief. It’s also got some science behind it.

In a lovely Radiolab podcast, Emergence, the story of Sir Francis Galton is told. Galton was a Victorian-era British statistician most well-known as the inglorious founder of eugenics.  A notorious elitist, he one day went to a country fair and watched as “commoners” guessed at the weight of an ox. Afterwards, he asked to see the 800-some guesses, and was astonished to find that, while no one person guessed correctly, the average of all the guesses was spot on.

Collectively, they were smarter as a group.

Similar experiments have been done again and again, always with the same outcome.  Teachers will ask students to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar. No one gets the answer correct, but as a group, the average of their guesses comes closest to the actual answer.

Here are two practices I use to help draw on the wisdom in the room.

Inclusive Group Norms

As I open a gathering, I’m explicit about the ground rules, or group norms, that I bring to the work. Norms allow for a straightforward conversation about how we strive to be together. As we review them, I see people visibly relax and get more present in the room. My favorite norms are from the National Equity Project:

  • we acknowledge each other as equals
  • we try to stay curious about each other
  • we listen to understand
  • we remember that conversation is the natural way we humans think together
  • we expect sometimes it will get a little messy

Wicked Questions

I love to develop questions that inspire us to think better, together. As I mention in my previous blog The Elephant in the Room, the World Café-style of thinking and connecting is a terrific approach.

Another awesome tool is called Wicked Questions. Wicked Questions are designed to safely expose the paradox, or seeming contradictions, that are at play in any change effort. For example, I recently posed the following – “How can we ensure both cohesion and inclusivity in our work?” – to a collective impact initiative that struggles with inconsistent participation.

I’d love to hear the practices you use to draw on the wisdom in the room.

Note:  Special thanks to Maggie Chumbley for sharing the Emergence podcast at a recent Liberating Structures user group session.

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