Presencing: Learning From the Future As It Emerges

  • I. Three Issues and Puzzles
  • II. Principles of an Emerging Discipline: Presencing
  • III. Tools
  • II. Principles of an Emerging Discipline: Presencing

    The three examples above illuminate the same issue from the perspective of learning, change, and cognition. The issue is how to access the level 4 dimension of knowing and change that allows new patterns to emerge. I call this level 4 phenomenon presencing. Presencing is as much a collective or organizational phenomenon as it is an individual or personal one. While the above section on organizational change illuminated more the collective aspect, the section on cognition dealt more with the individual dimension of what essentially is the same phenomenon. Presencing signifies the process of coming-into-being of emerging futures. Presencing in the context of organizations and large systems is contingent upon and embodied in the following principles:

    • Primacy of praxis
    • Reversal of container and content
    • Inversion (Umstülpung)
    • Micro/macro switch (Going through the eye of the needle)
    • Systems sensing (the power of mindfulness)
    • Common will (the power of intention)
    • The fragile self (the power of love)

    Principle 1: Primacy of Praxis

    Primacy of praxis focuses on creating practice fields or environments that allow learning to follow the flow of innovation and change, rather than organizing for learning around a fixed set of workshops, exercises, and infrastructures. In terms of workshop design, the principle of primacy of praxis supplements and amends classical organizational learning workshop designs in two respects: (a) agenda flow and (b) architecture.

    (a) In many traditional workshop models, participants focus on "vision" first and "current reality" second. Working with leadership teams in workshops led by Generon Consulting we have found that reverse progression is often more productive: begin with "current" and "emerging realities," and then move to images, inspirations, and intuitions about the future (Scharmer, Versteegen, and Käufer forthcoming).

    (b) The agenda architecture of traditional workshops revolves around practicing and hinges on tool teaching. The practical know-how of managers is usually elicited through exercises that use these tools. Again, it is often most effective to begin by focusing on the participants’ real work challenges and relating the teaching of tools to the managers’ current issues and challenges. Primacy of praxis avoids the traditional activity of experts lecturing novices, and instead focuses on helping participants perceive the process by which they continuously recreate and reenact the reality in which they operate.

    Primacy of praxis shifts the focus of practicing from the context of "doing exercises" to the context of "coping with real world" or, as Schein (2000) has put it recently, as "rising to the occasion."

    Principle 2: Reversal of Container and Content

    While moving through the cognitive spaces of paying attention, seeing, sensing, presencing, envisioning, enacting, and embodying, at each threshold to the next cognitive space the same phenomenon occurs: a switch or reversal from one container and content of cognition to the next. During the first switch, which Varela refers to as suspension, the old mental models are moved from the center to the fringes, thereby opening up another cognitive space, the space of seeing. Then, while moving from seeing to sensing, another switch occurs: this time the content of seeing moves from the center to the periphery of attention, thereby opening up a space for the sensing of emerging patterns. Then, the content of sensing moves from the center to the fringes of attention, opening up a cognitive space for presencing the not-yet-embodied world of possibilities, and so forth.

    Principle 3: Inversion (Umstülpung)

    The next evolutionary principle is called inversion or Umstülpung, to use the term of twentieth-century avant garde artist Beuys (1992). Umstülpung literally means turning a whole field upside-down and inside-out. An example is the U-shaped process of transformation in which everything happens twice. The upward journey of the second part of the U-shaped process reverses the themes and gestures of the downward journey during the first part of the U-shape process. For example, the gestures of suspending, turning inward, and letting go of the first part of the process are reversed in the second part by the gestures of letting come, turning outward, and embedding (more on this principle below).

    Principle 4: Micro/Macro Switch (Going Through the Eye of the Needle)

    Going through the eye of the needle is a threshold experience that happens at the bottom of the U at "point zero" between the downward and the upward path. The eye-of-the-needle experience has been described as "birth" or "breaking through a membrane." Going through the eye of the needle is better understood in terms of what it does to the nature of the individual-collective relationship. The essence and, to some extent the mystery, of the eye-of-the-needle experience is a very subtle switch in how individuals relate to the collective whole of the community (or team or organization) they are part of. For example, in a recent workshop with 30 managers from different organizations within the same multinational company, the managers complained a lot about the structure, strategy, and culture of their company. The conversation among the group was by and large characterized by a pattern of victimization: the managers perceived themselves as victims of the current reality of their company. After the threshold experience, the whole discourse was completely reversed: nobody talked like a victim; instead, they spoke from a place where the individuals and the group as a whole thought of themselves as creators of the emerging future and a vehicle for bringing it into reality. For example, one could frequently observe the phenomenon that individuals create a much higher sense of their true self while at the same time acting much more "selfless" as a vehicle for bringing the collective new into reality. These people feel that they operate at their highest and that they may have been never more closely aligned with both their true self and the intention of the emerging whole.

    Thus, the essence of the U-shaped process is a transformation of social substance — of the old social body of relationships. The old social reality was imposed on individuals, constraining them and even making them feel abused and victimized. Going through the transformative U-shaped process allows individuals and groups to operate from a different place, where their Self becomes an open gate through which new social substance flows into being. The transformation of the old social substance, — i.e., switching from re-enacting the patterns of the past to sensing and embodying emerging futures — can only work if the eye of the needle is at the center of this metamorphosis. It is as if the old social body goes through a death-like transformation that allows for a different quality of social substance to reemerge. The emergence of the new social substance is a truly collective phenomenon. But it can only occur when individuals, at the eye of the needle, succeed in turning themselves into instruments of the emerging new.

    The transformational "switch" not only applies to the individual-collective relationship, as outlined above, but also to the self—world relationship, as outlined by Goethe:

    Man knows himself only to the extent that he knows the world; he becomes aware of himself only within the world, and aware of the world only within himself. Every object, well contemplated, opens up a new organ within us.

    What then, we may ask, is the new organ that contemplating social reality can open up within us? I believe that there are two types of cognitive capacities ("organs") that individuals and communities can open up for themselves. The first one contemplates a reality that is already enacted, as in Type I learning cycles that focus on reflecting the enacted reality of the past (reflective mind). The other type of cognitive capacity is accessing the generative sources of co-creating something entirely new (intuitive mind). That is what presencing is about. Presencing is a birth-giving activity. It is about bringing one’s Self into being as one accesses the sources of one’s highest creativity. The experience of presencing is twofold: co-creating and giving birth to a new reality and, at the same time, being transformed and born into a new world by the very same process.

    Principle 5: Systems Sensing: The Coming-into-Presence of the Whole

    At the heart of systems sensing is a shift of place from which cognition operates. This shift alters the external perspective of "spectator consciousness" (cognition levels 1 and 2) toward sensing and dwelling within the phenomenon of a "participatory consciousness" (cognition levels 3 and 4).

    How is it possible to sense the emerging whole in a world when our perception is usually limited to seeing parts? Says Bortoft (1998, p. 285):

    We cannot know the whole in the way in which we know things because we cannot recognize the whole as a thing. … The whole would be outside its parts in the same way that each part is outside all the other parts. But the whole comes into presence within its parts, and we cannot encounter the whole in the same way that we encounter the parts. We should not think of the whole as if it were a thing.

    Bortoft claims that we cannot know the whole in the same way that we know a thing, for the whole is not a thing. Thus, the challenge is to encounter the whole as it comes into presence in the parts. Says Bortoft (1998, p. 284):

    If the whole presences within its parts, then a part is a place for the presencing of the whole. … a part is special and not accidental, since it must be such as to let the whole come into presence. This specialty of the part is particularly important because it shows us the way to the whole. It clearly indicates that the way to the whole is into and through the parts. It is not to be encountered by stepping back to take an overview, for it is not over and above the parts, as if it were some superior all-encompassing entity. The whole is to be encountered by stepping right into the parts. This is how we enter into the nesting of the whole, and thus move into the whole as we pass through the parts.

    What struck J. Jaworski and me during a recent study of leadership in the new economy was that many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs seem to operate on exactly the principles outlined above (Jaworski and Scharmer 2000). Recall that Brian Arthur says that in order to compete successfully in the new economy one must first "observe, observe, observe." One must become fully immersed in and one with the environment. The next step is to retreat and reflect and to allow "the inner knowing to emerge." The final step is then "to act in an instant" (Arthur, 2000).

    Principle 6: Common Will (The Power of Intention)

    A common will is formed and accessed when a group uncovers the layers of their present reality and develops a shared image and sense of future and purpose. The process of uncovering and accessing common will includes more than what is generally known as "visioning." Common will evolves only after the process of uncovering the layers of reality. In agriculture, the success of the sowing season is not only a function of the seeds used, but also of the quality of the soil. In the same way, the success of will-formation is not only a function of vision, but also of sensing emerging futures and passing through the deep layers of present reality before the activity of visioning. To paraphrase Clausewitz (1989), who claimed that war was the continuation of politics by other means, we can say that the formation of will is the continuation of self-awareness by other means.

    Typically, forming a common will follows the U-shaped process as outlined in Figures 4, 5. The process starts with the surfacing of individual questions, stories and experiences (cognition level 2). It continues with tapping into the emerging new environments, for example, by visiting the most interesting new economy companies (cognition level 3: sensing emerging patterns). The next stage is to use the external experiences as a body of resonance for listening to the source of the inner music: Where does my, or our, commitment come from? Who is my Self? What is my Work? This stage is about connecting the emerging futures with the essence of both the individual and the collective selves (cognition level 4: presencing the highest Self and Work). The last step is to turn all of this into tangible action.

    In practice, the process of accessing common will is a deep transforming journey. At the heart of this journey is the crossing through the eye of the needle that was described above. But the principle of intention and will adds another dimension: as intention and will quicken and crystallize, the result is a transformation of one’s identity from victim to co-creator through whom new worlds are being brought to the fore.

    Principle 7: The Fragile Self (The Power of Love)

    William O’Brien, the former CEO of the Hanover Insurance Company, has summarized his experiences in leading change as follows: "The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervenor" (private conversation). In other words, the success of a tangible move in a particular situation depends on the intangible "interior condition" of the intervenor. The capacity to create such an interior condition is becoming one of the most significant topics for future research and practice. Says Jaworski: "When you open your soul and when you bring your whole heart into the room, it changes the structure of the room." The question though remains: What interior conditions allow us to access this mode of presencing? The principles of micro-macro switch (shift of relationship), systems sensing (shift of mind) and common will (shift of intention) outline three critical conditions of presencing. Bill O’Brien has touched on a fourth condition--maybe the most important. He says there is only one source that allows this to happen: love. He does not mean love as an emotional phenomenon, but love as the source of knowledge and will (Nishida, 1990). According to O’Brien, the essence of love is "to help others to complete themselves." Joseph Jaworski (1999) made almost the same observation. When I asked him what the single most important insight he had had since publishing his book Synchronicity, he responded, "The key to all of this is love."

    Varela’s (2000) notion of the fragile self, or the virtual self, which operates from a distributed periphery rather than from a center, and Ohashi’s (2000) notion of the alien element in the self, both point at the same sphere of emergence, where I and Other are not separated, are not two. In this deep sense, love may not be the single source of social reality formation today. But it certainly is the only source of operating in that emerging way that I have seen many people operating in and that this paper attempts to describe.

    Part III. Tools

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