Meaning Management, Positive Living Newsletter

Society’s Breakthrough … and You

Jim Rough
Jim Rough, M.B.A., M.S.E.E.

I believe that most of the really big impossible-seeming problems of society are caused by our system. For 25 years, I have been stewarding a realistic, achievable breakthrough solution—how we can transform our system to work for everyone, so we can solve the monster problems our system is creating. And we don’t need government to do it for us. With enough money and media support, you and I could set this transformation in motion.

The solution strategy I’m talking about started as an epiphany on the night of May 9, 1993. Then, to bring this forward I met with elected officials, gave talks, convened a conference on “Innovations in Democracy,” organized a TV show, wrote a book (Society’s Breakthrough, 2002), presented seminars, and sparked demonstration projects. Many people supported experiments with what I call “The Wisdom Council Process” in organizations, schools, and communities. And this process has taken root in Austria, for instance, where two states—Vorarlberg and Salzburg—have adopted the “Wisdom Council Process” (in German: “Bürgerratte”) into their state constitutions.

Unknowingly as a society, we structured ourselves to talk, think, and make collective decisions in a way that generates problems. You name the global issue—climate change, L-curve distribution of wealth, rise of authoritarianism, loss of species, destruction of our food systems, structural racism, etc.—these are all-natural outcomes of our system of economics and governance, which is based on competition and judgment. Especially as we reach the limits of planetary resources on which we all depend, like soils, fresh water, air quality, trust, antibiotic effectiveness, fisheries, etc. This competition assures that we will deplete or ruin these commons and limit our people as well. This system evokes the motivation of self-interest rather than the equally natural motivation of community service. And so, we find ourselves in institutions with a primary goal to maximize profits, while serving the public interest is often illegal.

Key to solving all society’s big problems … and to fulfilling our lives … is for us to stop and think periodically as a global system, to face our problems in a heartfelt, creative, collaborative way, and determine win/win solutions that we all support. This new thinking process can establish the context of shared meaning that we’ve been lacking.

Even if a global constitution existed, that wouldn’t be enough to adequately address society’s problems. Our current idea of democratic governance (i.e., a constitution, voting, representatives, balance of powers, laws, etc.) will still support the dynamic of competition and self-interest. To successfully manage the commons, we all need to get into a different mindset and culture. And it needs to happen soon. Sound impossible? It’s not. Making this change only seems impossible because our system structures a kind of thinking in us—discussions, debate, deliberation, brainstorming, negotiation, and judgment—by which we avoid facing impossible problems, and don’t solve them.

Society’s Breakthrough doesn’t change anything, except to add the missing conversation and form of thinking. It structures a way for us to call “time out” regularly to talk as global citizens. And then we call “time in” again, to go back to normal. Only, the old-normal will have changed. It’s hard for old-normal to exist once we start facing our problems, working with others, and realizing what’s needed. This new mode of thinking puts us into relationship with one another and a higher level of thinking. It creates a new set of answers, a new context of meaning, and … by itself … a more participative, holistic, and wise form of democracy and economics.

We all know from experience how this simple approach will raise consciousness for a human system—global, national or individual. Practicing it as an individual helps me to face my problems creatively, achieve breakthrough answers, and restructure my situation. The “magic sauce” for achieving this lies in my ability to stop what’s going on, and to change my thinking process to be more open, reflective and creative. This change is the difference between “decision-making,” which relies on judgment to determine what to do vs. “choice-creating,” which relies on creativity to gain clarity and enthusiasm for what to do. Decision-making is good for thinking fast and solving within-system difficulties. Choice-creating is good for impossible-seeming issues, providing a way to transform us and our system.

You may have said or heard someone say, “We can’t change until there is a crisis.” That’s right. If we face our problems only in the spirit of decision-making, then it is normal to avoid facing the big impossible-seeming issues until a crisis overcomes us. But then sometimes we can break out of the “box,” start facing the issues creatively, reach out to others, and overcome the challenge. The trick is to evoke this spirit of choice-creating early before the crisis overwhelms us.

We can use the Wisdom Council Process to do this at large scale. Using it, we can assure regular moments of whole-system, choice-creating at a global—or national—level. Briefly, here’s how it works. We identify one key global issue that needs solving. Then, being as mathematically correct as possible, we randomly select 10-16 people from the global population. They are brought together in one place as a symbol of all. They hear briefly about the issue from different perspectives, for just a little while. And then they meet in private with someone skilled in Dynamic Facilitation. (This is a key social innovation which allows us to reliably evoke choice-creating, even from random people who may be uneducated, uninformed, closed-minded, radicalized, or having poor meeting skills.)

Despite language and culture difficulties, in just a couple of days, this group will come to unity on a clear sense of the problem and, to some extent, what needs to happen. Then, they walk on stage to a large “global community meeting,” with many officials, celebrities, and media co-sponsors. They present their conclusions, plus their story of the shifts and breakthroughs, which allowed them to reach these conclusions. Then, they disband. In three months, a new Wisdom Council is randomly selected, and the process is repeated. This ongoing nature of the process assures that the whole-system conversation continues.

By itself, each Wisdom Council has no power. The power of this process comes from how it facilitates all of us into a new kind of public conversation, one that is more choice-creating than decision-making. Because the Wisdom Council reached unity through shifts and breakthroughs, when the rest of us hear their presentation, generally we say something like, “Yes, I think so too.” And we look around the virtual, global room and realize, ”Hey, we’re all on board with this!” This evolving unity has ultimate power in society, the power of “We the People” to write a constitution for example.

Different meetings happen between Wisdom Councils, like gathering representatives of NGO’s, government agencies, and foundations to coordinate their responses to the Wisdom Council. Over the course of time a unified perspective develops, which leaders of governments, corporations, and institutions recognize and support.

For a fuller description of Society’s Breakthrough—its history, the problems it can address, the specifics of the idea, the underlying social innovations, the new model of change, experiments and examples, projected benefits, and how you can support this project, please see the website for the nonprofit organization: The Center for Wise Democracy (