The meeting room is much too small for almost 45 people. It is hot, the tiled floor does not help much, and the ordinary plastic chairs are not particularly comfortable. Little wind is coming through the open door that leads to the street. The occasional car driving past worsens the acoustics in the room. Down the hill is the sea, the vast Atlantic Ocean of Salvador de Bahia in Brazil, the invitation to a swim is ignored.

Despite the almost unbearable heat, the group concentrates on a written document that is projected onto the wall. Step by step we work through it – we’re all hoping that this very diverse group will finally agree on one single document.

The completion of this document would be an important milestone in this ambitious project. Different versions of the document have been under discussion for months – they have been the cause of conflicts and threats. In an attempt to reach an agreement on something that would lay the foundation for continued collaboration of highly diverse international actors, people have been meeting in various constellations for some time now.

I am standing in front of the group with the task of guiding the dialogue in such a way that we move forward without losing anybody’s contribution. I do not know which way this will go – will the group break apart, or will its common hope for change hold it together?

In accompanying, guiding and facilitating this group over the years, I have gained confidence in its ability to re-establish common ground continuously – against all odds, and despite political, economic and cultural differences.

I have also come to believe that the commitment to sustainability – once it has outgrown the usual scepticism and doubts – has the quality of resilience. It survives crises and reaches into the latent deeper desire of even the most critical person – the desire to contribute to the common good. In this group, I have encountered the subtle and silent presence of collective responsibility that arises in a group when a joint move into the future is at stake.

Despite all the vested interests, the lingering mistrust, the occasional doubt, we did  eventually reach an agreement. When my last call for proposals for change was met with silence I knew we had arrived.

Everybody knew. The relief erupted in spontaneous applause – we honoured each other; we achieved the almost impossible. And we proved that it is possible to tend the common.

Image by Red Sprecacenere

A challenging initiative, (the Common Code for the Coffee Community, today  involving a wide range of people from coffee growers on all the continents to coffee roasters, from workers’ unions to government officials, had taken an important step towards more sustainable growing, trading and production of coffee on the world market.

Here was a growing community of people who had voluntarily decided to join a movement of sustainable business practices: company representatives, leaders of coffee cooperatives, coffee farmers, researchers, and activists from civil society, presidents of coffee federations, lawyers, and sustainability managers. These were people who would not necessarily talk to one another, they would not get to know each other under normal business circumstances.

One of the participants summarized: “There was an atmosphere of commitment that made it impossible to misbehave – you would not withhold your position, but always stay in the collaborative field. You knew that this was a global learning process we are all in together: nothing is fixed, we learn as we go.

The initiative for more sustainable coffee production drew people together whose lives and worldviews differed in the extreme.

What spark is it that engenders commitment to a strenuous international learning process with an ambitious goal and an unclear outcome?

This initiative showed me that there is indeed a spark that rekindles a latent desire, our initial intention. Suddenly this desire is nourished, inspired, revived and longs for more. It doesn’t lay doubts to rest, but it does create resonance with an emerging possibility.

As this happens, the energy changes, people become more present, more open. They are more willing to cooperate while respecting one another’s differences.

Have you had similar experiences in sustainability initiatives?

This blog post looks at the dimension of COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE and INNOVATION in as it relates to the levels of the Collective Leadership Compass. In  the dimension of COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE it zooms into its aspect of  DIALOGIC QUALITY, in the dimension of  INNOVATION it zooms into the aspect of Agility. For more information on the Art of Leading Collectively, checkout the inside the book and  reviews on, or get inspired by an onsite course that takes the compass into the daily challenges of navigating complex change.

Categories: Allgemein, Harnessing collective intelligence, and Spotting innovative solutions.

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