All posts by Zaid Hassan

A History of Social Labs: Incorporating Systems Thinking

A school of thought that next-gen Social Labs has drawn heavily from is systems thinking. This field was developed at MIT’s Sloan School.

Taking a systems thinking approach meant trying to take a “whole systems” approach to change. With its origins in the 1930s and 1940s Western thought, particularly engineering, cybernetics and management but also physics and biology, systems thinking is the study of systems as wholes, as opposed to dealing with parts. While the basic ideas of systems thinking have been with us for decades, for a long time, they have “done little more than raise dust,” and “systemic thinking remained pretty much in the outback.”

Then in the 1990s Peter Senge published The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. The book took systems thinking, derived from a particular branch known as systems dynamics popular at MIT where Senge was and is based, into a mainstream business context achieving “mega-popularization of systems thinking for its contribution to organizational learning.” (Flood – Action Learning pg.119). The organisation Peter founded, the Society for Organisational Learning (SoL), were early champions of many people that helped developed the approaches behind the Change Lab- an early precursor to Social Labs. 

In Change Labs, Systems thinking was a major component of how we thought about the world and critically, one way of understanding why dominant approaches failed. A key notion from “The Fifth Discipline” that can help us reading current trends comes from the so-called iceberg model and Senge’s understanding of events.

The iceberg is a metaphor that points out we usually only “see” events, that this, whatever is above the waterline. The bulk of the iceberg sits below the waterline. Examples of events include a newspaper headline about a single event, a single incidence of crime for example. A pattern then is the trend, the crime-wave, or the trend of biodiversity loss for example. The iceberg, as commonly interpreted, posits a third “level” which is sometimes labelled “systemic structure” and sometimes “structural dynamics” or even “driving forces.”

These driving forces are often understood to be ways of thinking and acting that give rise to certain patterns and events. So what is traditionally thought of as a infra-structure, for example a physical structure, like a road network, can be thought of as a product of a certain mind-set or paradigm. In other words, “systemic structure” is considered casual and paradigmatic. Therefore if one can address the casual factors, our interventions will, in theory, be more effective.

At something of a distance from the OD orientation of Peter’s approach, a major paradigmatic contribution that came directly from the Sloan School’s work on systems thinking was the ground-breaking 1972 publication of Limits to Growth (LTG). Commissioned by the Club of Rome, Limits to Growth was the result of a two-year study, from 1970-72, of questions such as “Are current policies leading to a sustainable future or collapse? What can be done to create a human economy that provides sufficiently for all?” The two-year research study undertaken by the authors of LTG made use of systems dynamics theory and computer modeling to generate twelve scenarios that “showed possible patterns of world development over two centuries from 1900 to 2100.”

A key headlines from this study was that global ecological constraints would increasingly become a significant factor on global developments in the twenty-first century. LTG therefore “pleaded for profound, proactive, societal innovation through technological, cultural and institutional change in order to avoid an increase in the ecological footprint of humanity beyond the carrying capacity of planet Earth.” The essence of the problem identified by the authors of LTG remains. We are living in a world of what LTG referred to as “overshoot.”

I read with interest in LTG’s 30-Year Update that they considered the .com bubble and subsequent collapse to be “one vivid example of global overshoot and collapse.”  While in 1972, the end of growth, “seemed a very distant prospect,” we are now staring this reality directly in the face.

One way of understanding the systems approach is that it provides us with a language of complex causality, where we can begin to better understand the unintended consequences of certain actions or policy approaches. Turning this screw will result in these consequences across a system. As an approach, however, the systems approach takes a largely descriptive and un-prescriptive approach to systems.

The process-consultation approach coupled with systems thinking resulted in earlier work in this field being characterized with a double whammy of political conservatism that I found difficult to fathom at the time. The abstract notion of a “system” encouraged a highly rational and bloodless approach to contemporary situations that cry out for a more heart and less emotional distance. 

Although dressed in rather cold and abstract terms, in many ways systems thinking was a profoundly humanistic approach. Discovering this, however, required the practitioner to persist in confronting the implications of the approach.

This was recognized the late Donella Meadows, lead author of LTG and a key thinker in the field. She wrote that what was unique about the endeavor of systems thinking was “…the fact that the tool of systems thinking, born out of engineering and mathematics, implemented on computers, drawn from a mechanistic mind-set and a quest for prediction and control, leads its practitioners, inexorably I believe, to confront the most deeply human mysteries.”

The U-Process

Perhaps the school that most influenced Generon and its practice was one that it had played a major hand in formulating. This is the U-process, also sometimes known as “Theory U.”

Leadership in the New Economy, co-authored by Joseph Jaworski and Otto Scharmer, was a first draft of the U-process and it’s application, which was called “The Leadership Lab.” The paper argued that “Doing well in the new economy requires the enhancement of a particular capacity: the ability to sense and actualize emerging realities.” It went on to outline seven core practices, three root principles and ten operating principles and outlined how to apply them.

The core formulation of the U-process that the paper was built on came from an interview that Joseph and Otto conducted with economic theorist, mathematician and student of innovation, Brian Arthur, based at the Santa Fe Institute. Arthur, explained to them that success in the New Economy would be the result of leaders who could access a “a deep inner knowing.”

Joseph writes in his book, Source: The Inner Path of Knowledge Creation, that, after the interview in the parking lot of Xerox Parcs, where they have interviewed Brian Arthur, “Otto pulled out a tablet from his briefcase and said, “Look – we can model Brian’s three elements along a ‘U’” and “We drew the first U-process model right there in the parking lot of Xerox PARC…”

Joseph and Otto went on the run an early prototype of the Change Lab, in a progam that was called The Leadership Lab for Competing in the Digital Economy, for a joint-venture between the Shell Oil Company, Texaco and Saudi Aramco known as “the Alliance,” which was “the largest downstream organization in the world with annual revenues of $40 billion.” Joseph reports that “The Alliance hired Generon…to help develop its senior leadership and to assist in the integration of the units into a cohesive whole.”

In 2003, Otto published a short paper, based on based on post-doctoral research he had conducted from 1994 through 2003, The Blind Spot of Leadership which examined the success of change initiatives from the point of view of leadership theory. The paper begins with two key insights. The first concerns the identification of a “blind-spot” in how many of us operate. Otto writes, “I first began thinking about this blind spot when talking with the former CEO of Hanover Insurance, Bill O’Brien. He told me that his greatest insight after years of conducting organizational learning projects and facilitating corporate change was that “the success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervenor.” That sentence struck a chord. What counts, it dawned on me, is not only what leaders do and how they do it, but that “interior condition,” the inner place from which they operate.”

The second insight was to apply this idea of a blind spot to wider systems and a primary cause of our current challenges. “I also realized that organizations, institutions, and societies as a whole may have this blind spot—not only individuals. Maybe, it occurred to me, what really needs to be done in response to the current world crises — political, social, and spiritual — has to do with changing that interior condition: collectively shifting the inner place from which a person, an organization, or a system operates.”

I first started working with the U-process at Pioneers of Change, after finally reading the Leadership in the New Economy paper, which Joseph referred to as “The Red Book,” due to the red colour of the cover.

My early approach to understanding the U-process as practiced in the Generon community was to talk extensively to Joseph and Otto. I twice attended workshops that Otto ran at the Shambhala Institute for Authentic Leadership and this helped me tremendously. I also started discerning that even within this small group of practitioners there were subtle differences of orientation and emphasis.

In many ways, the U-process was a very complex theory. It’s original formulation, given by Brian Arthur as three elements, “Observe observe, observe; Retreat; Act in an instant,” had given rise to a full-blown theory of group innovation and can rightly be called a new school of thought and practice.

The first part of the theory, around observation, though tough is familiar from a number of fields. Philosophically, the field of phenomenology urges a return to “the thing itself” is advocating a similar stance to idea of “observe, observe, observe.” Then ethnographic approaches are also treading in the same space, where participant-observes are trained to spend years observing and understanding the patterns of a culture.

For the final part, “act in an instant,” Otto drew the idea of “prototyping” from the field of industrial design. The idea of a quick and dirty prototype, iterated through feedback, stands in stark contrast to the planning paradigm. IDEO, the design firm that has done most to articulate the practice of prototyping, in books such as “The Art of Innovation” by co-founder Tom Kelly, and in films like “The Deep Dive” provide a paradigm of action. My own background from new media, software and design meant that I understood the idea of a prototype very well. Despite this clarity, applying the idea of prototyping to social issues was and remains challenging. In IDEO’s “Deep Dive” video they re-invent the supermarket shopping trolley. This is hardly the same as prototyping a new approach to child malnutrition. Finally, even if there was an easy way of doing so, the international development paradigm, consisting of governments and NGOs, where much of our work happened, had forty-years of planning drilled into them. Getting development practitioners used to five-year plans to shift to prototyping is a very tall order.

Despite all this, the most original, profound and difficult element of the theory however was the middle part, with it’s focus on interior conditions and the activity that later became known as “presencing.”  It’s importance was embodied in Bill O’Brian’s statement that “The success of an intervention depends on the interior conditions of the intervener.” Both Joseph and Otto had turned their attention to interpreting this statement and pioneering a practice of presencing. Their explanations of presencing were slightly different but there was a large amount of congruence in both how they understood the idea and the importance they attached to it. One small measure of how central this phenomenon is to Otto comes from the fact that the institute he founded to develop this work is called “The Presencing Institute.”

During my time at Generon, we had endless debates about what exactly presencing was. It was the moment in the shower when an “aha” or insight arrived. It was that moment in the wilderness when all the barriers between oneself and the world melted away. It was the moment that an individual understood “what the situation was asking them to do.” It was all these things which made it somewhat of a chimerical phenomenon.

Joseph’s approach to presencing was embodied in the nature solo, something he had learned from John Milton. When applied to groups, this meant groups undertaking a long solo-retreat in the wilderness. In Pioneers we had done several retreats, but usually they were only a few hours long. Joseph made the case that in order to really experience the power of a retreat took at least three days and nights. This was quite an ask for some clients.

The other, much more significant challenge with presencing was the fact that it forced the intensely personal, the “interior conditions” of an individual to the attention of the group. What’s more, the success or failure of an intervention was at least in theory linked to the interior conditions of an individual.

At it’s most simple, the way I understood what was Joseph was making the case for was that if a group of individuals all shared an intention with piercing clarity, then all sorts of things would happen enabling them to succeed. A quote that Joseph used to illustrate this came from W.H. Murray of the Scottish Himalaya Expedition:

“Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: That the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.”

I understood the above quote in relatively simple and pragmatic terms (as I did most things). A group of people all of whom were “of the same mind” can be a tremendous asset. Indeed alignment of purpose and intention is, in many ways, the holy grail of any high-performing team.

In the original paper that we worked off in Pioneers of Change, there was a statement about “broadcasting your intention.” The basic idea being that if people are aware of what you want to do, and if the intention is meaningful enough, then people will want to be part of it, just like I did with the intention of “cracking ten global problems in ten years.” Joseph referred to the idea of intention as being a “strange attractor.”

But the quote that Joseph felt most strongly encapsulated the nature of presencing came from the philosopher Martin Buber in his famous essay “I-Thou.” Joseph simplified a passage from Bubar to read as follows:

“The free man believes in destiny, and believes it stands in need of him.  It awaits him; he must go to it with his whole being. The matter will not turn out according to his decision.  But what is to come will come only when he decided what he is able to will. He must listen to the course of what is emerging from himself and to the course of being in the world. He must sacrifice his puny, un-free will, controlled by things and instincts to his Grand Will. Then he intervenes no more but at the same time, he does not let things merely happen. He brings it to reality as it desires.”

What did this mean? The key phrase is “listen to the course of what is emerging.” The core idea here is that something is emerging, something “wants to be born” and the core skill of being “a free man” lies in listening for this something and supporting it’s birth. Here’s how Otto explains it in a recent speech, “Here you share and reflect on everything that you have learned from a deep place of listening, asking “what wants to emerge here?” and “how does that relate to my and our journey forward? So the key question is: how can we become a part of the story of the future rather than holding on to and embodying the story of the past?”

As an approach, the U-process therefore puts great stock in the idea of “emergence” which stands in contrast to a pre-ordained, planned path decided in advance. Indeed in the original text Bubar states, “The free man…quits defined for destined being.”

All these ideas while in some abstract, take us into some extremely deep and difficult waters. During my time at Generon there was no single issue that we struggled with more than the nature of presencing, how to put it into practice and finally the implications of these ideas.

Agreeing to propositions such as Bill O’Brian’s or Martin Bubar’s in the context of our work, a consulting firm engaged in client work, presented tremendous problems. Presencing smacked of spirituality and new age thinking. In professional contexts, taking a spiritually orientated mode of intervention was hardly a legitimate response. Indeed one of our partners banned us from using the “S word” (spirituality) in front of clients. Furthermore taking a purely emergent approach meant that we couldn’t say what the results of our processes would be. They were “emergent” and therefore we did not know and could not say what would “emerge.” A number of donors found this preposterous as they wanted to know what they would get before they put any money down. It’s as if we were turning around and saying to them, “it’s ok, we need to trust the universe.” The emergent, as opposed to the planned, nature of the process is just one of the many challenges the U-process raises for those more steeped in a more traditional planning paradigm.

A still more serious problem arose from the question of, what to do if you’re part of the group and someone decides that the interior conditions of another member of the group are not conducive to success? A related question was, what if an individual is judged not to understand presencing (hardly the clearest of ideas)? What do you do? Did the intensely personal nature of presencing mean that our work was to a large extent psychodynamic in nature? Or was it spiritual in nature? How could a group of people with no training or background in psychodynamic approaches then undertake the work? How does one even begin to approach spirituality in a professional context? These were some of the minefields that were to become increasingly relevant in the coming years.