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Jim Rough

Quality Insider

The Circle System

How to structure a culture of excellence

Published: Wednesday, May 30, 2012 - 09:30

There are three fundamentally different systems for eliciting collective intelligence in a large organization: the triangle, the box, or the circle. Each of these systems has a different underlying structure, promotes a different attitude in people, requires different leadership competencies, and generates different results.

Whether we are talking about a corporation, school, hospital, government agency, or nation, you will find one of the three categories:
1. The triangle, where a leader or committee is ultimately in charge
2. The box, where a set of agreements or constitution is ultimately in charge
3. The circle, where conversation and consensus amongst all participants is the ultimate authority

At heart, most people want to live and work in a circle system, where employees, citizens, students, or organizational members are involved in setting the organizational direction. This process of self-governance evokes the best talents and skills from individuals, builds a spirit of community and sparks organizational excellence. However, the circle has proven itself to be an unrealizable ideal in most large systems. Many people have given up. They’re willing to settle for something else because they want to avoid the pain and frustration that comes with aiming high and missing.

Military organizations and businesses with charismatic leaders are usually triangles in which people orient to the leader or his position. The collective intelligence of the organization is limited by this leader’s attributes. People in the organization contribute to the shared cause but hold themselves and their capabilities back in favor of loyalty to those with higher status.

The box system works well when the rules are clear and fairly enforced, and when there is a simple way to keep score. Then it is like a competitive game: No one need be in charge. The competition evokes entrepreneurial behavior and collective growth. But this win/win system breaks down when people must work together to solve common problems. So for a department of sales people with many potential customers, for instance, a competitive system may be win/win. But when there is a limited customer base to sell to and all must coordinate their activities, the competition can undermine organizational effectiveness.

Government agencies often aspire to be a box system because, supposedly, the rules are in charge. But there is no simple measure of performance, and the political process punishes entrepreneurial behavior, so the box structure cannot be fully realized. In society, most people live under a constitution where the free market is in play. Supposedly, there are fair rules, money to keep score, and competition bringing out the best in people. But increasingly the game is rigged because the winners make rules to fit themselves, and the competition among self-interested parties eventually causes more damage than good (e.g., diminishing planetary resources). The box system will always break down eventually because a contract cannot really be in charge of people. Ultimately, We the People must arise to reassess things and make adjustments.

For unions, cooperatives, membership organizations, and democracies where everyone is supposedly equal, it would seem that the circle system is natural. But in practice, these organizations often become dysfunctional simply from questing after the circle. People in these situations can get frustrated from pretending to be a circle when, in fact, top-down control is the actual practice. The term “burnout” applies to people in this situation.

Achieving the circle

Ideally everyone in a circle system is part of a community with a shared vision, where all are serving a vital purpose and achieving high levels of quality, and where all grow in excellence as individuals. For this to happen each person must care deeply about the organization and creatively contribute to it. This can be a difficulty, because when people are creative in this way, offering guidance to the organization, they are vulnerable to being deeply hurt when their views are ignored or they feel that they being judged.

In fact, it can be traumatic for people to feel the slightest bit of judgment when being creative. When this happens they often say to themselves, “I just don’t care anymore. I’ll put in my time and do what I’m told. Then I’ll feel safe.” This unfortunate choice, where people “turn themselves off” often occurs in organizations that aspire to be a circle. This often happens in organizations when management invites employees to get involved and share authority, just so people feel better, but then make the decisions anyway. In such burnout situations, organizations often adjust by becoming even more bureaucratic, with more roles, rules, and procedures.

How do you flip the switch so past hurts become helpful experiences, where people’s genius is released and people really do make the ultimate choices? And how do you keep this circle ongoing, so the organization lives its values and people are safe?

There is a simple new strategy for achieving the circle, based on three social innovations: choice-creating, dynamic facilitation, and the wisdom council process.


Choice-creating is the form of conversation at the heart of the circle system. It’s where people face difficult, impossible-seeming issues creatively and collaboratively, determining unified answers that work for all. Choice-creating often happens naturally when people face a crisis. Then they let go of past hurts, status, and roles, and pull together to achieve miracles. But they often lose this collaborative spirit after the crisis is gone, and the choice-creating conversation slips away.

Key to ensuring a circle system is to involve people in regular settings where they achieve the spirit of choice-creating, address issues important to them, and make rapid progress toward unanimous perspectives.

Dynamic facilitation

Dynamic facilitation (DF) is a way to reliably facilitate the spirit of choice-creating. The group identifies and addresses a pressing issue, no matter how impossible-seeming. The dynamic facilitator helps to bring out the group members’ differences and creative gifts so that the group can experience shifts of insight and understanding, and determine solutions that everyone supports. Instead of asking people to work on what is possible, adhere to guidelines, or restrain themselves to an agenda, the facilitator helps people to speak naturally. And most important, she ensures that each person is safe from judgment and all points are valued.

To reliably achieve this kind of conversation, the facilitator uses four charts: solutions, data, concerns, and problem statements. For example, someone is encouraged to speak his mind, often in advocacy for a particular solution. This is recorded on the list of solutions. But then if someone starts to disagree, the facilitator invites that person to direct her comment directly to the facilitator, rather than to the person who spoke first. Then the facilitator records what was going to be a disagreement as a concern on the list of concerns, and then invites the person to offer her solution. (“How would you do it?”) That response is added to the list of solutions.

In this way, each person can be real and speak from the heart yet will be fully protected from judgment. There is no agreeing or disagreeing possible in this approach, just comments that contribute to the task of solving the problem. Each person is honored, and each comment is a legitimate asset to the group. This is the circle spirit. Shifts and breakthroughs naturally result.

During the early 1980s I facilitated a group of sawmill employees for an extended period of time. They talked about issues that bothered them and turned their frustrations into thoughtful actions, dramatically improving mill operations. In the early stages, management wasn’t involved in the conversations but was continually surprised by unforeseen leaps forward in productivity and quality. Even people who were not part of the actual conversations became more cooperative, curious, informed, observant, and involved. They understood more, trusted more, risked more, achieved more, and invented new solutions to seemingly impossible problems. As a result of these regular one-hour-per-week conversations, the circle spirit emanated throughout the mill. Eventually, these employee meetings were affecting the union, management, and larger community, changing the culture and management style of the mill.

This circle-development experience led me to devise a way that can be applied to very large systems, like transnational corporations, cities, or even nations. I call it the “wisdom council.”

The wisdom council process

Every four or six months, eight to 12 people are randomly selected to form a wisdom council. The group represents a microcosm of the organization. Each wisdom council meets for maybe a day and a half with a dynamic facilitator. Council members choose the most important issues and reach win/win conclusions through shifts and breakthroughs. Then the council presents to the greater organization these unanimous conclusions and the story of how they were developed. Everyone is invited to talk face to face in small groups and via the Internet. In this way every person in the system is involved in one overarching choice-creating conversation about key issues.

It turns out that when the wisdom council presents its unified perspectives, most people in the larger audience resonate and essentially say, “Yes, I think so, too.” If some people differ, others are interested to know why. Rather than dismissing these divergent views, people listen and seek ways to incorporate them. So here’s an easy way to involve the whole system in one conversation, even those not directly involved in the wisdom council.

In May 2009 Swisscom IT Services started using the wisdom council. In his article, “Der Rat der Wiesen,” consultant Matthias zur Bonsen described the situation. Twelve employees were randomly selected to meet for one and a half days. They chose the issue “this organization could be more powerful than it is.” In the conversation they shifted topics to “building the courage to do what is right.” Later they experienced another shift. They had been thinking that courageous behavior started with managers, but they realized that it really started with them, the employees. Many changes resulted from their presentation of this progression of thinking and the greater awareness of this issue among all employees.

Another focus for that wisdom council was the “need for greater customer orientation.” The wisdom council determined a number of strategies to address this but primarily focused its attention on customer task teams, which get organized if a customer screams loudly enough about some problem. Then attention and resources are applied in ways that aren’t normally available, and the problem gets solved. The wisdom council realized that the current culture values these task forces as a high-status activity. The breakthrough for the council was to see them in a different light as an approach that is too late for the customer and unnecessarily high in cost. Ultimately, the council devised a strategy to prevent the need for task forces in the first place, which it presented to the organization.


The triangle, box, and circle are three basic strategies for large systems to achieve collective intelligence. The circle system where “we” are ultimately in charge is most desirable but mostly unattainable. With the wisdom council, however, there is a new way to achieve and sustain a circle system.

Key to making the shift is to facilitate all people to engage one another periodically in a special form of conversation, “choice-creating,” where they creatively and collaboratively address high-care issues and make win/win progress. Dynamic facilitation reliably evokes this quality of thinking in small groups. The wisdom council process uses randomly selected members of the organization as well as dynamic facilitation to involve the whole organization in the essential choice-creating conversation. This new strategy is low risk and low cost, yet has an extremely high benefit. It is growing internationally as a process of choice in many different applications.


About The Author

Jim Rough’s picture

Jim Rough

Jim Rough is a business consultant, seminar leader, author, and co-founder of the Center for Wise Democracy. He is the founder and president of Dynamic Facilitation Associates, a network of organizational change consultants skilled in dynamic facilitation and capable of helping individuals, groups, organizations, and systems transform. He is author of Society’s Breakthrough! Releasing Essential Wisdom and Virtue in All the People (AuthorHouse, 2002). He is originator of the Wisdom Council process, which is now being implemented in government agencies, cooperatively owned businesses, schools, and communities.