Saturday, January 17, 2009

Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society

This is a good book and one I can highly recommend. I like the style. It is innovative, at times conversational and at other times authoritative. Like many of us grappling with the problems we see in front of us and an uncertain future, perhaps the book attempts to do too much. However, the insights in this book are wonderful and show up every ten pages or so. (at least according to my marking of the book)

Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski and Flowers are long time colleagues and from the conversational nature of much of this book, I assume friends. The narrative laced through the book is the basic structure and it’s their struggle to make sense of some very large problems.

The book begins with the four friends meeting for the first time to discuss why people and their organizations don’t change.

Joseph leaned forward. "But isn't that why we're here? Haven't we come together to answer one fundamental question: Why don't we change? What would it take to shift the whole?"

"We don't change because we think we're immortal." Otto's tone was matter-of-fact. "Like teenagers, we might be afraid, but we still think we'll go on forever."

"Perhaps that's true," said Joseph, shaking his head. "I recently read an article that's been circulating in the foundation community written by a man named Jack Miles, a senior adviser to the J. Paul Getty Trust, called 'Global Requiem.' It's a speculation about what would happen if we started to realize that humankind might not overcome these problems, that we might not develop a sustainable society-that the human race might perish. It's an exploration of the unthinkable."

"But don't scenarios like that evoke the very fear Peter is talking about?" Otto asked. "As he showed, this sort of fear is usually met by denial or simply makes us feel hopeless."

"But that doesn't have to happen," Joseph replied. "I've seen many instances where imagining alternative futures, even negative futures, can actually open people up."

"Scenarios can alter people's awareness," Betty Sue agreed. "If they're used artfully, people actually begin to think about a future that they've ignored or denied. The key is to see the different future not as inevitable, but as one of several genuine possibilities.

"Maybe if people really believed we could be headed for extinction, we would do collectively what many people do individually when they know they may actually die-we would suddenly see our lives very clearly."

"If we could actually face our collective mortality-and simply tell the truth about the fear, rather than avoiding it-perhaps something would shift," said Peter.

The Society for Organizational Learning met in June 2001 in Marblehead, MA to discuss the growing problems of globalization. This resulted in what’s called the Marblehead Letter

The Marblehead Letter
A natural agenda of issues is shaping the future, especially for corporations with global scope.

• The social divide: the ever-widening gap between those participating in the increasingly interdependent global economy and those not. How long can 15% of the people get 85% of the benefits of globalization?
• Redefining growth: economic growth based on ever increasing material use and discard is inconsistent with a finite world. How long can we keep piling up more junk in the same box?
• Variety and inclusiveness: developing inclusion as a core competence in increasingly multi-cultural organizations. Who is the "we"?
• Attracting talented people and realizing their potential: developing commitment in a world of "free agents" and "volunteer" talent. What are we committed to, really?
• The role of the corporation: extending the traditional role of the corporation' especially the global corporation, to be more commensurate with its impact. Just how accountable will society expect us to be?
• The system seeing itself: the challenges of coordination and coherence in social systems. How can we stop going faster while our ability to see further ahead is decreasing?

June 2001

How do we begin to solve problems like those outlined in the Marblehead letter? The process begins with a vision, but is not an individual vision that will foment organizational change. “…there’s nothing more personal than vision, yet the visions that ultimately prove transformational have nothing to do with us as individuals.”

“The seeds for this transformation lie in seeing reality more clearly, without preconceptions or judgements. When we learn to see our part in creating things that we don’t like but that are likely to continue, we can begin to develop a different relationship with the our ‘problem.’ We’re no longer victims. When we move further from sensing to presencing, we become more open to what might be possible, we’re inevitably led to the question ‘So what do we want to create?’”

Presencing is the key capability required for the transformational model the authors call the “U”. It’s at the bottom of the “U” and the necessary step before transforming action can occur. The “U” movement has three major areas – sensing, presencing and realizing, as shown below in the chart from Presence:

The entire U movement arises from seven core capacities and the activities they enable. Each capacity is a gateway to the next activity-the capacity for suspending enables seeing our seeing, and the capacity for prototyping enables enacting living microcosms-but only as all seven capacities are developed is the movement through the entire process possible.

"Clearly, people relate to the U theory in different ways. Some appreciate the distinct capacities in moving down and then up the U. Others just seem to grasp the whole of it and aren't really interested in the different capacities and aspects. Others respond to the idea of seeing with the heart and opening up to something beyond yourself, and to spontaneous action in support of the whole."

"In my experience, the part that people struggle most to understand," said Betty Sue, "is the bottom of the U-presencing."

"Yes, that is really is the 'heart of the heart,' as Eleanor Rosch puts it," said Peter. "It's the essence of the whole theory, and perhaps what we really may be discovering about shifting the whole."

"The mystery at the bottom of the U ... ," said Betty Sue slowly.

"In the end, it may be impossible to give a very complete explanation of it. Some things are beyond human comprehension, and it's actually unwise-some would say irreverent-to try to analyze them too far."

My intuition is telling me that this model of change is extremely powerful. And, indeed it may not be possible to ever write a “cookbook” of how you go through the three major stages. Hover, this is a book that must be read by anyone interested in change, and collectively we’ve got to create ways of at least reproducing the process when required.

In 1994, Donna Prestwood, Barbara Benjamin and I set out on a journey similar to the one these four friends traveled. We researched. We interviewed over 60 people, including Betty Sue Flowers, and we met and had deep conversations, some lasting several days in retreat settings in Maine. The result of that work was 8, 2 hour TV programs for the National Technological University, entitled “Leadership in the Interactive Age”. It also resulted in a change model that emerged three years later that was published in The Futurist in Jan/Feb 1997.

The core of that change model was seven principles:

• Who are you?
• Letting go of what you got hold of
• Learn your purpose
• Live in the question
• Learn the art of barn raising
• Give it away
• Let the magic happen

These seven principles mirror most of the seven capacities of the “U” movement, although the wording and the sequencing are different.

I was struck by the similarities of the “U” model to other models and stories I knew from mythology and religion, including the hero’s journey, and twelve step methodology. But, also other models of change like Richard D. Grant’s interpretation of Mastering the Change Curve by Dennis Jaffe & Cynthia Scott (2003), and F. Scott Peck’s model for community development – pseudocommunity, chaos, emptiness and community – in The Different Drum (1987). The “U” shape is a common way of describing the descent into “hell” required for transformation.

The major stages of the hero’s journey are:

1. A call to adventure, which the hero has to accept or decline
2. A road of trials, regarding which the hero succeeds or fails
3. Achieving the goal or "boon", which often results in important self-knowledge
4. A return to the ordinary world, again as to which the hero can succeed or fail
5. Applying the boon, in which what the hero has gained can be used to improve the world

In a well-known quote from the introduction to The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell wrote:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

As I wondered why we choose a “U” to represent this process, I was reminded of the “S” curve. The “S” curve is a measurable archetype for technology and markets. It is also sometimes referred to as the “growth” curve, and is a staple for analyzing technological substitution.

It’s general form is one of slow growth at the beginning, a period of rapid growth, and then ending with another period of slow growth.

What struck me is the derivative, or rate of change of the “S” curve is related to the “U”.

The rate of change curve is an inverted “U”. So, the inverse of the rate of change would be a “U”.

The inverse of the rate of change is an indicator of resistance to change.

If this synthesis is correct, then while the “U” curve is appealing emotionally to us because we have to go deep inside and then come out, it is misleading from a change perspective. In the “U” curve, it would appear that it would be easier to “fall” into the “U”, but in reality the resistance to change is highest at the beginning and end of the process. In the hero’s journey it is clear that the resistance to change is high at the beginning, and it is difficult to return to the ordinary world.

This is not a criticism of Presence, for all have used the form. But I think this topic is worthy of more conversation.

I wonder if the citizens who are ranking change as their first political issue, and the politicians who are responding to that message, have any idea of what they are asking for? They probably don’t. My guess is that change means so many things to people, the question and the results are meaningless. Some may want change back to the past. Some may mean just “rattle the rocks in the box” and see if anything better happens. I would guess that very few understand that the kind of change we’re going to have to go through is the kind of radical change this book refers to…

Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society, Peter Senge, C. Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski and Betty Sue Flowers, Doubleday, 2004, 287 p

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1 comment:

  1. Great overview, Paul. Stumbling across “The Marblehead Letter“ in “Presence“ has led me to your post.

    Transformative change with impact on a collective basis is no easy task.