Tuesday, April 13, 2010

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

If transformation interests you, especially as it applies to organizations, you might enjoy Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society, by Peter Senge, C. Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, and Betty Sue Flowers

The authors explore the nature of transformational change—how it arises and the possibilities it offers. They introduce the idea of "presence"—that the whole is entirely present in any of its parts—to the worlds of business, education, government, and leadership. Too often, they found, we remain stuck in old patterns of seeing and acting. By encouraging deeper levels of learning, we create an awareness of the larger whole, leading to actions that can help shape our evolution and future. Following are a few excerpts from the book's introduction, which can be found on their website.

To appreciate the relationship between parts and wholes in living systems, we do not need to study nature at the microscopic level. If you gaze up at the nighttime sky, you see all of the sky visible from where you stand. Yet the pupil of your eye, fully open, is less than a centimeter across. Somehow, light from the whole of the sky must be present in the small space of your eye. And if your pupil were only half as large, or only one quarter as large, this would still be so. Light from the entirety of the nighttime sky is present in every space—no matter how small. This is exactly the same phenomenon evident in a hologram. The three-dimensional image created by interacting laser beams can be cut in half indefinitely, and each piece, no matter how small, will still contain the entire image. This reveals what is perhaps the most mysterious aspect of parts and wholes: as physicist Henri Bortoft says, “Everything is in everything.”

In talking with pioneering scientists, we found extraordinary insights into this capacity for deeper seeing and the effects such awareness can have on our understanding, our sense of self, and our sense of belonging in the world. In talking with entrepreneurs, we found extraordinary clarity regarding what it means to act in the service of what is emerging. But we also found that for the most part, neither of these groups talks with the other. We came to realize that both groups are really talking about the same process—the process whereby we learn to “presence” an emerging whole, to become what George Bernard Shaw called “a force of nature.” As W. Brian Arthur, noted economist of the Santa Fe Institute, put it, “Every profound innovation is based on an inward-bound journey, on going to a deeper place where knowing comes to the surface.”

This inward-bound journey lies at the heart of all creativity, whether in the arts, in business, or in science. Many scientists and inventors, like artists and entrepreneurs, live in a paradoxical state of great confidence—knowing that their choices and actions really matter—and profound humility—feeling guided by forces beyond their making. Their work is to “release the hand from the marble that holds it prisoner,” as Michelangelo put it. They know that their actions are vital to this accomplishment, but they also know that the hand “wants to be released.”

Can living institutions learn to tap into a larger field to guide them toward what is healthy for the whole? What understanding and capacities will this require of people individually and collectively?

We’ve come to believe that the core capacity needed for accessing the field of the future is presence. We first thought of presence as being fully conscious and aware in the present moment. Then we began to appreciate presence as deep listening, of being open beyond one’s preconceptions and historical ways of making sense. We came to see the importance of letting go of old identities and the need to control and, as Salk said, making choices to serve the evolution of life. Ultimately, we came to see all these aspects of presence as leading to a state of “letting come,” of consciously participating in a larger field for change. When this happens, the field shifts, and the forces shaping a situation can shift from re-creating the past to manifesting or realizing an emerging future.

In the end, we concluded that understanding presence and the possibilities of larger fields for change can come only from many perspectives—from the emerging science of living systems, from the creative arts, from profound organizational change experiences—and from directly understanding the generative capacities of nature. Virtually all indigenous or native cultures have regarded nature or universe or Mother Earth as the ultimate teacher. At few times in history has there been a greater need to rediscover this teacher.

The changes in which we will be called upon to participate in the future will be both deeply personal and inherently systemic. The deeper dimensions of transformational change represent a largely unexplored territory both in current management research and in our understanding of leadership in general. As Otto puts it, “This blind spot concerns not the what and how—not what leaders do and how they do it––but the who, who we are and the inner place or source from which we operate, both individually and collectively.”