The Circle System
Structuring for Collective Wisdom
By Jim Rough
Most everyone I talk with, no matter what his or her political persuasion, bemoans the quality of governance in our society. We face increasingly difficult issues, like burgeoning national debt, the environmental crisis, an L-curve distribution of wealth, energy security, etc. Yet our collective thinking process is a power struggle, often stuck in partisan paralysis. The case can be made that our collective decisions, reached largely through economics and politics, undermine our ultimate well-being. If instead of this collective stupidity, we could become collectively wise, these problems might be solved.
Three Systems of Organizing
There are three fundamentally different ways to structure a human system, whether it is a school, corporation, hospital, government agency, or society. The three approaches are: 1) the Triangle, based on hierarchy and positional authority where one leader is ultimately in charge; 2) the Box, where a prescribed set of agreements like a contract or constitution is ultimately in charge; and 3) the Circle, where there is a creative conversation of everyone seeking what’s best for all. At heart, most people desire the Circle System, where employees, citizens, or organizational members evolve common understandings and shared vision, where their best talents and skills are evoked to yield exceptional results. But the Circle often proves difficult to achieve.
Each of the three Systems has a different structure, promotes a different attitude in people, requires different leadership competencies, generates different results and is fundamentally a different kind of conversation.
The Triangle works well for organizations with hierarchical or charismatic leaders. The collective intelligence of the organization is limited by the intelligence and knowledge of the leader. People in the organization contribute to the shared cause, but limit their thinking. They know their place is to support the boss or someone of higher status.
The Box System works well for the general marketplace when the rules are clear and fairly enforced, and there is an objective way to keep score like money. Then it’s like a game, with no one in charge. The system encourages self-interested competition in the person and among teams, rather than seeking what’s best for all. Often government agencies use this System because following the rules is so important.
Seemingly the Circle is best for unions, cooperatives, membership organizations, and democracies, where whole system benefit is consciously sought. But in practice, these organizations are often rigid Boxes or even Triangles because the Circle has proven difficult to achieve. Surprisingly small corporations are often most capable of achieving a Circle but as they grow to become publicly traded, they revert to the Box or Triangle.
The nation is structured to be a Box System, where we are ultimately governed by a constitution. This can only work as long as we remain independent. As we become increasingly inter-dependent our reliance on competition generates collective stupidity instead of intelligence. Then the collective well-being is hurt if people continue to focus on maximizing self-interest. We must shift to the Circle System. And when we do, many of our most difficult societal issues will just go away..
Each of the three Systems generates a different kind of conversation. The Triangle teaches deference to the leader. People learn to suppress their own ideas and enthusiasm in favor of what the leader thinks and feels. The conversation revolves around who is speaking and their status rather than the merit of their ideas. To make a difference in this organization one must gain status.
The Box system, like a game, limits people’s attention to the score and to strategies for winning. We don’t look outside the Box. We aren’t expected to feel or to stop and determine what we really care about. Like within a game we get absorbed in the competitive play and focus on winning. Ideally, the Box conversation is like what happens in a time out—analyzing the situation, defining the problem, deliberating on which ideas are best, and making quick decisions based on good data. But in practice, because our feelings are suppressed, a more usual conversation is an argument or a competitive agree/disagree discussion.
The Circle system requires a particular form of conversation called “choice-creating,” where people drop their roles and become authentic, face the important issues collaboratively and creatively, and reach shared perspectives. Choice-creating often happens naturally when people face a crisis. Then real change can happen because people let go of their denial, roles, status and rules and look at the situation realistically and creatively. In the spirit of choice-creating, people can achieve miracles, often redefining the problem and themselves in the process. After the crisis is over, however, the spirit of mutual respect, creativity and community is difficult to maintain. So the organization slides back to the Box.
People want to think that the Circle system can be achieved with good leadership, highly conscious people, the right rules, or better communication. These are all part of the answer. But the essential ingredient for transforming our society from Box System to the Circle System, which we must do, is to elicit and sustain the choice-creating conversation. Then people are authentic, talk about the real issues and work together creatively to solve them. There are two social innovations that make this possible, safe, and accessible: 1) Dynamic Facilitation and 2) the Wisdom Council.
Dynamic Facilitation (DF) is a new approach to facilitating, which is guided by people’s feelings and emotions more than by an agenda. Using DF choice-creating is the natural result. And this allows people to achieve breakthrough progress on impossible-seeming or conflicted issues and determine win/win solutions. Instead of limiting people to what is possible, to preset guidelines, or to an agenda, the dynamic facilitator welcomes each person to just speak naturally. It’s up to the DF’er to assure choice-creating.
She uses four charts to do this—Solutions, Data, Concerns, and Problem-Statements. So for example, if a participant starts to disagree with a point someone is making, the DF’er invites that person to direct his comment to her, rather than to the person with whom he is disagreeing. Then she records the comment as a concern to be added to the list of Concerns, and invites the person to offer his answer. “So what might be an even better solution?” This answer is then added to the list of Solutions.
Notice in this approach, no one feels judged. There is no agreeing or disagreeing. Instead, each point is valued as piece of the puzzle and people grow in curiosity and creativity to solve it. Shifts and breakthroughs naturally result.
I once had the opportunity to dynamically facilitate a weekly meeting among angry and frustrated employees in a sawmill. Over time they achieved the spirit of choice-creating. Productivity and quality took off! The energy of their frustration turned into the energy of community and creativity. Just by participating in a weekly hour-long meeting these mill workers became more cooperative, curious, informed, and observant. They understood more, trusted more, risked more, and achieved more, inventing new solutions to seemingly impossible problems. They transformed the culture of the mill and the management system as well.
The Wisdom Council
Facilitating this bottom-up transformation experience led me to hypothesize a strategy by which we as a society could transform ourselves from the Box System to the Circle System. In 2002 I wrote a book about it called, Society’s Breakthrough! Releasing Essential Wisdom and Virtue in All the People, describing how Dynamic Facilitation could be leveraged to include all citizens and to facilitate them to come together as a powerful “We the People.” Now, many years later there have been a number of experiments with the Wisdom Council in organizations, cities and even states, demonstrating that this suggested breakthrough strategy works. Implementing it can solve many impossible-seeming public issues of society like the partisan gridlock, the national debt, the environmental crisis, poverty, wars, etc.
In the Wisdom Council, every four months twelve or so people are randomly selected as a microcosm of all the people. Each small group meets for a couple of days with a dynamic facilitator. They choose an important issue or are given an issue and reach exciting win/win conclusions through shifts and breakthroughs. The Wisdom Council then presents these conclusions and the story of how they were developed to everyone. Then all people are invited to talk face-to-face in small groups, or over the telephone or via the Internet. Those that hear the story generally concur with the Wisdom Council. They essentially say, “I think so too!”
Largely because of the spirit of choice-creating people in the greater audience feel involved and support both the process and results. If one person differs with the Wisdom Council conclusions, others are interested to know why. They listen carefully and seek ways to incorporate this divergent view. In this Circle process different perspectives are valued because they can lead to breakthroughs and group unity.
At one elementary school in Steyr, Austria a short Wisdom Council Process among parents, administrators and teachers was convened. This new conversation generated more volunteers, a greater understanding of school issues, demonstrated support for the faculty and administration and led to community project, where all helped paint the school.
Three ordinary citizens in Ashland, Oregon experimented with just one Wisdom Council in their county. They arranged for a randomly selected group of registered voters to come together for a day and a half and be dynamically facilitated. The Wisdom Council presented its conclusions to a gathering of the community. The council said that “We the People” need to awaken from our slumber, take charge of our society, make politicians more accountable, and start implementing common-sense policies, like adequately funding education. It was just a one-time experiment but important developments resulted. A number of citizens said that the experience was life changing to them and began a citizens’ movement that rewrote the town charter.
The Department of Agriculture of Washington State initiated a Wisdom Council Process within one division. One of the first Councils lamented that their division no longer had the spirit of community it once had. From that one meeting they found themselves reconnecting with one another and their mission. Later the process was expanded to include the whole department, where employees exclaimed that they had finally “bridged the Cascade Mountain Barrier,” which had always kept the agency in two separate cultures.
The Triangle, Box and Circle are three fundamental ways to organize a system. The Triangle is where someone is in charge; the Box is where a system is in charge; and the Circle is where a choice-creating conversation of all is in charge. Throughout history the Circle has been most desirable and most beneficial, but also most unattainable. Now our organizations and society are becoming increasingly interdependent in a way that neither the Box nor the Triangle can manage. We must shift to the Circle.
Key to making this shift resides in our ability to facilitate a whole-system choice-creating conversation, where we all face the problems and creatively seek a strategy that works for everyone. Dynamic Facilitation can assure this quality of thinking in small groups. The Wisdom Council Process uses Dynamic Facilitation to evoke the needed conversation in large systems. Using this process at different levels — globally, nationally and regionally— it’s possible to safely organize ourselves in the Circle dynamic. And in this way it’s possible to achieve rapid, breakthrough progress on our most pressing issues.
These ideas were first developed in the book Society's Breakthrough! Releasing Essential Wisdom and Virtue in All the People by Jim Rough.