A super-quick blog post today, heavily plagiarised from my doctoral dissertation, as I’m doing a full-time online course this week with the Presencing Institute. If you’re not familiar with Presencing, it’s a blended word formed from sensing (feeling the future possibility) and presence (the state of being in the present moment). It means sensing and actualizing one’s highest future possibility—acting from the presence of what is wanting to emerge.
If you think this all sounds a bit fluffy, you might be surprised to hear that it was founded by a German lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management called Otto Scharmer. He co-founded the Presencing Institute in 2006, and in 2009 he and Katrin Kaufer published Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges. Described as an “action research platform at the intersection of science, consciousness, and profound social and organizational change”, the Presencing Institute has had a significant and widespread impact on addressing global challenges such as the ecological crisis, inequality, finance, healthcare and education.
Summarising their work as enabling the transition “from ego-system to eco-system”, the Institute identifies three fundamental disconnects that need to be healed in order to create an equitable and sustainable future: the ecological divide, the social divide, and the spiritual divide.
It was quite a few years ago that I first encountered this model, and it immediately made sense to me. I had been saying for a while that our environmental challenges resemble a many-headed sea monster – we can cut off the heads of climate change, deforestation, plastic pollution, etc., but until we get to the heart of the monster, it will simply keep sprouting new heads – and the heart is the mistaken idea that we are somehow separate from nature, independent of it, rather than deeply interconnected with it. It is only when this interdependence is fully understood that we will start to treat the natural world with the respect it deserves, recognising that to harm nature is to harm ourselves. It is maybe one of the biggest failures of the environmental movement’s communications that it has focused on “save the whale” or “save the planet”, when an appeal to “save the humans” might have galvanised swifter and more effective action.
It is easy to see how this disconnect came about. Nature can appear unfriendly, even dangerous – and I speak from personal experience. Early man understandably wanted to protect himself from famine and drought, extremes of heat and cold, and so he systematically set about creating a more comfortable and secure life with agriculture and homes, and later supermarkets and supply chains. In the course of this systematic attempt to conquer nature, most of us have become tragically disconnected from the systems that support life, to the extent that we liberally douse our land in pesticides, herbicides, and industrial pollutants, somehow imagining that we will be immune to the cumulative effects.
The Presencing Institute uses the emergent properties of working groups to generate creative new ideas. Theory U refers to the process of letting go of preconceptions in order to open up to new insights that are wanting to emerge from the collective intelligence in the room (or the “Field” or from “Source”, if those words resonate with you).
This concept was in part inspired by a conversation that Scharmer’s colleague and collaborator, Joe Jaworski, had in London with the physicist David Bohm, concerning the implicate order of reality. Bohm took two cylindrical jars, one slightly smaller than the other, with the smaller one having a crank on top. He placed the smaller cylinder inside the larger one, and filled the space between with viscous glycerine. When he placed a single drop of ink in the glycerine and turned the crank, the ink was drawn out to a fine ribbon until it seemed to disappear. When he reversed the motion of the inner cylinder the ink reformed to its original state as a visible drop. (You can watch a version of the experiment here – it’s quite stunning.)
What Bohm was illustrating here was that we think that the object, or ink drop, ceases to exist when we can no longer see it, but it does exist – it has merely returned from the explicate to the implicate world. As Jaworski writes:
“All matter and the universe are continually in motion. At a level we cannot see, there is an unbroken wholeness, an ‘implicate order’ out of which seemingly discrete events arise. All human beings are part of that unbroken whole, which is continually unfolding. Two of our responsibilities in life are to be open and to learn, thereby becoming more capable of sensing and actualizing emerging new realities.”
This insight proved to be a major influence on Jaworski, and subsequently also on his colleagues Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer and Adam Kahane, all of whom have used different flavours of this idea in their work. Jaworski wrote:
“Bohm had shared with me in London an explicit mental model of the way he believed the world works and the way he believed human beings learn and think. To Bohm it was clear that humans have an innate capacity for collective intelligence. They can learn and think together, and this collaborative thought can lead to coordinated action. We are all connected and operate within living fields of thought and perception. The world is not fixed but is in constant flux; accordingly, the future is not fixed, and so can be shaped. Humans possess significant tacit knowledge—we know more than we can say. The question to be resolved is how to remove the blocks and tap into that knowledge in order to create the kind of future we all want.”
This meeting influenced Jaworski’s work with the American Leadership Forum, which he founded. Through intensive courses and retreats, he sought to optimise the conditions for emergence. He saw the process as mystical, and yet reliably consistent.
“C. G. Jung’s classic, ‘Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle’, defines synchronicity as ‘a meaningful coincidence of two or more events, where something other than the probability of chance is involved’. In the beautiful flow of these moments, it seems as if we are being helped by hidden hands… Over the years my curiosity has grown, particularly about how these experiences occur collectively within a group or team of people. I have come to see this as the most subtle territory of leadership, creating the conditions for ‘predictable miracles.’”
It’s a powerful methodology. If I needed convincing that it can work, yesterday I was in a breakout room with three others, none of whom knew anything about me. One person described a current challenge, while we practiced deep listening, and then we had to report back on what images came up for us. One of the participants described her mental image: a rowboat with no oars.
I’m not saying it’s connected to my Atlantic experience, but I’m also not saying it’s not connected…
#SHEChangesClimate: Over the last few weeks I’ve been part of a rapid response group of women, ably organised by the indefatigable Antoinette Vermilye in response to the announcement of an all-male senior leadership team for the crucial COP26 climate talks being hosted by the UK next year.
Today we sent an open letter to the UK Government, calling on them for greater accountability and transparency on gender equality in the COP26 leadership team.
Our letter calls for 50:50 split of men and women in the UK COP26 top leadership team has been supported by over 400 high level signatures. Signatories include: Cherie Blair, Martha Lane-Fox, Caroline Lucas, Bella Lack, Wanjira Maathai, Rosie Boycott, Sandrine Dixson-Decleve, Livia Firth, Ellie Goulding, Kate Raworth, Fiona Reynolds, Mary Robinson, Amber Rudd, Vandana Shiva, Eve Ensler,
You can support our campaign via our website and on social media.
TEDx Webinar: Following on from the success of our first TEDxStroudWomen webinar, we will be holding our second one next Tuesday 15th December, in which I will be chatting with two highly experienced speakers about the challenge of speaking in public, and what it takes to be an effective communicator. If you’re an aspiring or actual public speaker, this one’s for you! Please REGISTER HERE in order to receive your link to the event.