What I Learned By Shutting Up

More and more, it seems offline action taken collectively is what will rebuild what’s broken in the world. Clay Shirky’s new book has some good examples.

The more I study collective action, from Tanzania to Toronto, the more I uncover the important step of creating a shared agenda. It begins with problem consensus.

Take, for example, a group of farmers in Indonesia blighted with crop failure. Root rot, many suspected. But the experts from the extension service didn’t rush to judgment. Instead, they did something radical for experts. They came into the village, set up, and shut up.

They gathered the farmers and asked that they share their observations. One wondered out loud if it was possible to look at the roots more closely. Microscopes were brought in. There were tiny worms devouring the roots – not root rot. They had immediate consensus on the problem. Then, collective action could take place.

Experts can advise. Experts can stimulate new thinking by asking the right questions. But if what we are after is collective action where things get done, not just talked about—then sometimes the experts have to do something counter-intuitive. They must shut up. And let the community find its way to the nature of the problem, and the agenda for action.

Enough said.