Diversity IntegrationOne of our primary tools when we work with organizations is the roundtable. For many, the mere mention of the word evokes visions of the legendary knights of King Arthur’s court seated at a round table discussing matters of justice and honor. Today, I would like to deviate from this vision and propose the roundtable as a means for solving all sorts of problems – to be used in all types of situations, be it in the family kitchen or in the corporate boardroom.

But before we get into the details of the method itself, I would like to present the results of a recent study about the effect of seating dinner guests at a round table versus non. The study found that a circular seating arrangement leads to a warmer, family-like and engaging atmosphere whereas a rectangular, jagged seating arrangement tends to accentuate peoples’ confrontational and individualistic qualities.

We were not at all surprised at these results. Our experience conducting roundtable discussions in corporate and community settings has shown that something magical happens when people sit together in a circular arrangement and discuss issues of all kinds – as long as they do this with attention, mutual understanding and consideration. What we see happening is that at the end of a roundtable, no one wants to leave. People continue sitting oblivious to time and place, wanting to prolong the discussion, holding on to the feeling of connection they just created with their peers. We are also witnessing something else quite extraordinary. The group suddenly becomes hyper-creative and highly intelligent. One idea leads to another, and all of a sudden the group has come up with a plethora of practical solutions for the issue being discussed.

In trying to understand this phenomenon, we stumbled upon this study co-authored by MIT, Carnegie Mellon University and Union College which offers a clue. As it turns out, what we may be experiencing is collective intelligence in its purest form. The study found that groups with the right kind of internal dynamics have a consistent ability to perform well on a wide variety of assignments. What determined whether a group had the “right dynamic” was the level of social sensitivity of its members – or how well group members perceive each other’s emotions. Additionally, groups with less domineering personalities and where the conversations were more evenly distributed were also found to be more collectively intelligent.

Thus, it is clear that to reach this elusive “collective intelligence”, what is most important is not how smart the people you gather at the table are but how well they are able to “jive” together. To ensure that each roundtable is as effective as possible and leads to maximum collaboration and collective intelligence, we have devised the following golden rules:

  1. At a roundtable, everyone is equal and very important. Each person’s opinion counts irrespective of their profession, level of knowledge or social standing. It is very important to listen and to be heard.
  2. At a roundtable, we do not criticize but only add. Participants do not state their opinion with respect to another’s but only answer the question posed by the moderator. By not criticizing and only adding to others, participants are able to view things differently and from the perspective of all other participants.
  3. The result of a roundtable depends only on the participants’ desire to come to mutual understanding. Answers and opinions should not depend on the knowledge or oratory skill of the participants bur rather on everyone’s desire to find a common force, a collective intelligence between them.
  4. Each roundtable has a moderator responsible for leading the discussion. By posing the roundtable questions and ensuring compliance with roundtable guidelines, the moderator leads the discussion and draws conclusions.

From our experience, these rules create the perfect space, a laboratory if you will, for the development of social sensitivity so important for the emergence of collective intelligence. We hope to be able to conduct roundtables at your organization so you too can experience the many benefits of this approach!

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