My mind is racing. Today I experienced one of those rare and astonishing instances of serendipity that make you wonder whether there is an unknown force at work in the universe. Having just recapitulated my personal, seemingly paradoxical credo in Tuesday‘s post, and then drawn together a lot of the current thinking on approaches to deal with complex situations and ‘wicked problems’ yesterday, I stumbled today on a new book I have heard nothing about, despite the fame of its four authors, Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer, Joe Jaworski, and Betty Sue Flowers (producer of the Joseph Conrad/Bill Moyers series Power of Myth), a book which bears directly on and opens new avenues to explore both of my latest essays. The book is called Presence, and since I picked it up ten hours ago I have not put it down.
The book is hesitant, inconsistent, difficult to wade through and alive with its authors’ passion. It is a work of remarkable synthesis of a myriad of ideas from religion, philosophy, science and business. Ken Wilbur calls it “leading edge” and “an altogether important book”. Its pages contain references to the ideas of no fewer than two dozen of the writers, philosophers, scientists and others I have discussed here on How to Save the World.
The idea is clearly unfinished, and the authors make no apology for the “much effort, confusion and ambiguity” that remain, but feel that the unfinished journey that the four of them have taken bears telling. Rather than an exposition, the book reads as a chronology of meetings and conversations. What makes the book most challenging is that the English language, at least, is inadequate to capture many of the ideas and perceptions in the book, so the authors cycle through one anecdote after another, using different words and examples, in the hope that each reader will relate to at least one explanation of each element in the model — possibly a model for saving the world — illustrated above.
It is impossible for me to paraphrase their words, and I would urge you to pick up a copy and join the conversation. Instead, I present some extracts that try to capture each of the elements in the model, so that you can, hopefully, get enough of an idea of what it’s about to get you oriented in your reading. My comments are in square brackets. After that, I summarize just one practical example from the book where the model was used, more or less, to extraordinary effect. Ready? Here we go:
Wholes and Parts:
For Buckminster Fuller, “pattern integrity” is the whole of which each [element of the living world] is a concrete manifestation. Biologist Rupert Sheldrake calls the underlying organizing pattern the formative field of the organism. “In self-organizing systems at all levels of complexity”, he says, “there is a wholeness that depends on a characteristic organizing field of that system, its morphic field…When a cell’s morphic field deteriorates, its awareness of the larger whole deteriorates. A cell that loses its social identity reverts to blind undifferentiated cell division, which can ultimately threaten the life of the larger organism. It is what we know as cancer”. [What an amazing analogy to what Lovelock calls the planetary malady, the “plague of people”, disconnected from Gaia and reproducing “madly”!]
The part is a place for the presencing of the whole…You have to cultivate a quality of perception that is striving outwards, from the whole to the part, so you “see from the whole”…[In this model] you let the experience well up into something appropriate. In a sense, there’s no decision-making. What you do becomes obvious. You ‘feel out’ what to do. You act out of an inner feel, making sense as you go.
As long as our thinking is governed by industrial, machine-age habit, we will continue to recreate institutions [corporations, schools etc.] as they have been, despite their disharmony with the larger world, and the need of all living systems to evolve.
The Future of Humanity:
Jack Miles has written a article called Global Requiem, speculating what would happen if we started to realize that humankind might perish, an exploration of the unthinkable… 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 and our world very clearly. [This is precisely what I was talking about in my post Tuesday]
The Model Part 1: Sensing: Suspending & Redirecting:
Suspension is removing ourselves from the habitual stream of thought [said Varela]…As we become aware of our thoughts, they begin to have less influence on what we see…We can consistently bring creativity into our lives by paying attention to it and building the capacity to suspend the judgements that arise in our mind…Groups are naturally coercive — they need shared norms and ways of thinking and seeing to function effectively…And in moments of real suspension people are more likely to feel unsettled than empowered…[But] learning to see begins when we stop projecting our habitual assumptions and start to see reality freshly. It continues when we can see our connection to that reality more clearly…Suspension if the first “gesture” of enhancing awareness, and redirection, sensing the reality as it is being created, and sensing our part in creating it, is the second…The shift of the living process to the foreground of our awareness characterizes the essence of redirection…The one brings the many out of itself, as Goethe said…Redirection produces a direct understanding of the generative process underlying present reality, “encountering the authentic whole”, as distinct from our abstract, conceptual understanding, which is “the counterfeit whole”.
Cultures exist only as we bring them into being moment by moment. As you continue the process of activating your imagination and applying it in different situations, you start to sense the organization’s culture as a living phenomenon. The ‘figure’ and the ‘ground’ reverse, and you start to see yourself as part of this process, an active agent in enacting the organizational culture.
Redirecting [is aided by techniques such as meditation]. Kabat-Zinn distinguishes two basic levels, concentration (focus, relaxation, paying attention) and mindfulness (seeing beyond the surface of what’s going on in your field of awareness, making it possible to see connections that may not have been visible before, simply coming out of the stillness). These levels correspond closely to the distinction between suspension and redirection. Simply seeing a situation as a “problem” has the effect of allowing us to distance ourselves from it and blocks “observing whatever arises as it actually is”…”In general, if you feel you’ve got a problem to solve that is ‘out there’ and you don’t necessarily see or want to see any possible relationship between the ‘you’ who is trying to solve the problem and what the problem actually is, you may wind up not being able to see the problem accurately, in its fullness. You may therefore unwillingly be contributing to maintaining the undesired situation rather than allowing it to evolve and perhaps dissolve”. [A fascinating restatement of the paradox of Wicked Problems I wrote about yesterday].
The problem-solving mindset can be adequate for solving technical problems, but it can be woefully inadequate for complex human systems, where problems often arise from unquestioned assumptions and deeply habitual ways of acting…You can’t just analyze such systems from the outside to get to the root causes of things — you have to feel them from within…There is an inner knowing that comes with innovation, and we have to learn to see with the heart first, before we can see from the whole. [It is helpful to use] nature as a guide. Political, legal and economic approaches don’t go deep enough. By themselves they won’t bring the penetrating changes in human culture that we need for people to live in true harmony and balance with one another and with the Earth… The next great opening of an ecological worldview will have to be an internal one.
The Model Part 2: Presencing: Letting Go, Letting Come:
Presencing is seeing from the deepest source and becoming a vehicle for that source…It entails a capacity for surrendering control, surrendering into commitment, “de-centredness”…You reach a state of clarity about and connection to what is emerging…It requires refraining from imposing pre-established frameworks or mental models…The knowledge that emerges is primary knowing, arising from interconnected wholes through direct presentation, rather than analytical knowing, which arises from stored representation, with its artificial separation of subject (I) and object (it).
The birth of the de-centered self can be profoundly disorienting, it is transcendental and often involves a heightened sense of awareness and connection. The analytical ‘localized’ self can find it fragile, frightening and impossible to grasp…There is a sense of being present to what is seeking to emerge, with intentionality. If you follow your nature enough, if you follow your nature as it moves, if you follow so far that you really let go, then you find that you’re actually the original being, the original way of being. The original being knows things and acts, does things in its own [intuitive?] way. It actually has a great intention to be itself, and it will do so if you just let it.
The Model Part 3: Realizing: Crystallizing Intent, Iterative Prototyping/Experiments/Improvisation, Institutionalizing
Realizing entails bringing something new into reality, but this action comes from a source that’s deeper than the rational mind. The magic comes from the capacity to sense something new, collectively, and act instantaneously in accordance with what that felt knowledge dictates…It requires not imposing our will but rather “operating from the larger intention”. It entails acting in the world but not on the world, a co-creation between the individual or collective and the larger world of which it is a part.
One of the results of crystallizing intent, realizing the purpose of the team’s work with greater clarity, is synchronicity. Many people sense and are drawn together around a new possibility that’s unfolding, about what wants to happen.
Whew! Tough work, isn’t it. I’ve been through it three times and I think I understand most of it. It makes sense, but at a level I’m not (yet) comfortable with. You need to read the whole book (and probably more) to really understand the model.
The most compelling example of the model in application was a study in Stuttgart, Germany of ways to improve the intensive health care system, but which involved a multidisciplinary exploratory team. They initially identified four levels of increasingly profound relationship between doctors and patients (my paraphrasing):
The group assessed that, for the most part, most existing relationships between doctors and patients were level 1 or 2, while relationships of level 3 or 4 would be more effective. But then an amazing thing happened. the politicians on the team diagnosed their relationships with their constituents in identically the same way. Then teachers diagnosed their relationships with their students in identically the same way. Then others did the same. Ultimately, farmers on the team diagnosed their relationship with the land the same way. A history of how these problems had emerged had been told, in reverse time order. Suddenly there was a collective understanding that analogous dysfunction underlay all of the ‘Wicked Problems’ facing the team members in their respective professions. There was a simultaneous ‘letting go’ of the well-established excuses why things had to be done the way they were done, an empathy among all the team members, and a willingness to ‘let come’ other ways of dealing with these endemic situations. A number of bold initiatives were proposed in one or another of these professions, and taken up and amplified and refined by others by analogy in their profession. An enormous creative energy galvanized the team, a collective intention to ‘re-form’ these situations in response to the newly emerged understanding, and as a result, some amazing, revolutionary, and wildly successful changes have been introduced in Stuttgart in all of the participating disciplines. I wish I had been there!
The Presence model corresponds amazingly well with Open Space’s Four Practices: Opening, Inviting, Holding/Making Room and Acting/Realizing, and also with Snowden’s Complexity Dealing Process: Probe, Sense, Respond, both of which I have discussed in previous articles. The fact that these have evolved independently and each has powerful anecdotal and historical evidence of its value in dealing with complex situations is very compelling, and exciting. We must hope that their proponents connect and learn from each others’ models, and perhaps synthesize one with the best qualities of all three.
The authors refer to The Marblehead Letter, an amazing joint statement by a group of large businesses and public organizations, which indicates substantial enthusiasm for approaches like the Presence model and concludes:
Complex interdependent issues such as these are increasingly shaping the context for strategy. Yet the pressures created by these very issues tend to keep leaders in a continuous ‘doing’ mode, with little or no time for reflection and real thinking. We believe that there is a greater need than ever for leaders to meet and genuinely think together — the real meaning of dialogue. Only through creating such opportunities can there be any hope of building the shared understanding and coordinated innovative action that the world desperately needs.
The final sections of the book, on institutionalizing, leadership and application to science, are much weaker than the rest of the book, and seem to have been rushed together to give it a sense of completeness — hopefully future editions of this book with deal with these issues more thoroughly.
In contrast, the Epilogue, which returns to the Future of Humanity theme and introduces the lessons from Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael, is intriguing. The authors note: “We do act as if evolution stopped with us, as if ‘we’re it’, the whole purpose of nature’s four billion year project on planet Earth. It would probably shift things to realize that may not be so. We may be just here to enable what comes next”. Countering John Gray’s arguments I referred to Tuesday they suggest perhaps that the other species need us not to steward the planet, but to rejoin them in the co-evolution of the planet’s future, that they long for our return as much as we, in our saner moments, long to return to a life in concert with nature and our fellow creatures. The final quote is from environmental architect Bill McDonough (who I’ve also written about here), saying “What will it take for us to become indigenous once again — not as we were, but as we might be?” Their answer: “I think if we can find our place, we will find our purpose”.
Something is happening here, though I’m not quite sure yet what it is. But I have to believe there is more to such remarkable coincidence and congruence of thinking than serendipity. I’m not ready to buy into the hype of a newly emerging collective human consciousness. But despite appearances, I’m an optimist at heart, and there’s much here to warm the spirit and quicken the heart. Just maybe…
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