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.