Saturday, September 28, 2013

Presence and living into the Future

Yesterday I was discussing, in the staff canteen, what our future role as an international NGO might look like with an intern who is helping us explore new 'business models' through which to deliver our work.

In the course of which, I noticed coming towards me, out of the dialogue, a prospective future of how the organisation might look: a future possibility. If only we had paused there, allowed the presence of it to take shape, but the flow of the conversation moved on in the urgency of time (and limited by what we both thought of as 'the brief').

How often do these moments come to us when we get a tantalising glimpse of what might be a new whole, only for the veil to fall back into place and we return to our past-embedded agendas?

Usually the idea of reading a 'management' book is akin to being invited to occupy a circle of hell that even Dante had not envisaged; however, 'Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future' (Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski, Flowers) is undoubtedly different. It is a four handed account of how a new theory of change (theory U) emerged from their conversation and mutual exploration (separately and together) and is very compelling.

Theory U begins with sensing, in observing how the world is, allowing ourselves to bracket our assumptions and see how the world is present to us, delving deep into the facticity of things. The second phase, at the bottom of the U, is to stand back and reflect, what does the patterning of the world suggest as a whole, a new whole, as new possibility, allowing inner knowing to emerge. The third phase, the upswing in the U, is acting swiftly to realise what is being recognised with a natural flow that genuine seeing and greeting of the new allows, like a martial artist, embodying years of practice in acting out of what is seen.

Unsurprisingly embodying the theory requires inner work, it asks us to see beyond analysis, with the mind of the heart and though difficult to describe in the cumulative examples offered is perfectly recognisable. For example, the team struggling to meet a programme deadline that pauses and finds the honesty to admit that they cannot see the wood for the trees. A pausing honesty that allows people to go deeper and redefine what the programme might look like built on future prospect rather than past guidance.

It has been particularly striking reading the book today. The day after the IPCC report on climate change was released. Here, like no where else, does it require us to allow a future scenario to guide present action (rather than relying on what has been known in the past) and here, like no where else, can we see the difficulty of stepping into the U. Our bound vision of things is wound tight. We will not let go easily. But that is the task, not an argument about the 'facts' but offering paths that allow people the felt security to step into the facts. There has never been a moment in human history when working on our collective potential for emotional literacy and empathy for the other has been more important. The crisis we face is a spiritual one before it is a material one.

Presence is an account of how that crisis might be addressed in the context of organisations and, therefore, is both a radical and timely book (and was followed by others outlining both theory and practice in greater detail).

I was struck too with the parallels that might be drawn between theory U and Benedictine spirituality. For Benedictine spirituality is radically concerned with living into a future that comes towards us. There can be nothing more radical than living into resurrection and the coming commonwealth of God! How does the living of the Rule in community illuminate theory U and would theory U make the cumulative experience of living the Rule more explicit?


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