Warning: Esoteric post follows.
Over the last few years I’ve become more and more interested in the power of presence in working with people though I often steer clear of talking about it as I find it a hard concept to explain in words. So I think I have to give credit to others’ efforts to do so, even if I do have misgivings.
In that spirit, I appreciate the book, Presence by Senge at al. This is despite the bad review by Rob Paterson. Interestingly, another blog mate Chris Corrigan stuck up for it in the comments to Rob’s post. You’ll find their divergence of views reflected in the Amazon page for the book. (I was finally tipped into buying it when I noticed Alex Kjerulf had bought it on a recent trip to London. I wonder what he is making of it.)
I have to admit, the whole topic easily becomes very hard to describe, and I apologise in advance for the following attempt to summarise the central idea of the book.
The authors set out a U shaped curve as a model of what happens to groups who make decisions using presence. The downward slope of the U – they call this phase sensing – is about suspension, essentially the willingness to suspend our default mental models and thus give more rich attention to what is actually going on (as opposed to the stories we tell ourselves about what is going on). Together with suspension comes redirection, which I’d summarise as a kind of shift of paradigm in which we experience ourselves as a part of the whole, so that the “problem” is not something separate from us. This leads us, according to the authors, to the bottom of the U and presencing – “a third kind of seeing, beyond seeing external reality and beyond even seeing from within the living whole. It is seeing from within the source from which the future whole is emerging, peering back at the present from the future”. Finally, we go into the upward curve, realizing, where action takes place, but not in the conventional make-a-decision-and-act way; one interviewee in their research described it thus: “It’s almost as if I’m watching myself in action. I’m both engaged and simulataneously detached. When that happens I know there will be magic.”
Maybe an example might help? A story in the book that I really liked was told by co-author Otto Scharmer. As a young man, he returned home to see his family house burning to the ground. The fire stuns his habitual patterns of thought into suspension. As he gazes at the flames, it’s as if the flames sink into him – this is redirecting, seeing the living the whole embracing both himself and the fire. This is followed by a sort of out-of-body experience (presencing at the bottom of the U) where Otto realises that he is not attached to the tons of stuff smouldering infront of him and that “I, my true Self, was still alive.. more acutely present than ever before.” With that came a sense of being drawn into the future that he might “bring into reality with my life”. (Realising)
I think you’d have to practice a fair bit of suspension reading the book and indeed this post. Rob’s comments certainly highlight some initial reactions to the book that I had to suspend – especially to the fairly constant use of “high status” clients as examples of the authors’ work. I think attempts to present what happens in moments of deep connection between humans run a big risk of abstracting out the real mystery in favour or something a bit clunky. I’m not sure that real life quite follows the logical pattern of the U model.
Having said all that, I found the book fascinating and thought-provoking because it’s a genuine attempt to point to something that I feel is incredibly important and generally excluded from most management books: the mysterious stuff that goes on between we human beings that cannot be reduced to a business process. And I know there have been seminal moments in my life where I’ve experienced groups of people thinking together in a way where one begins to sense something really powerful at work, below the surface.
I’m excited by the notion of moving beyond solving problems as if we are separate from them. I dislike a lot of organisational change practice because it embodies the idea that the top managers are somehow separate from the organisation they want to change. (With this comes the dubious cult of personality that seems to surround CEOs). To suspend problem solving and enter the discomfort of trying to sense how you are part of the story, feels important. I think it’s important to seek that connection rather than deluding yourself into thinking you are some separate external force for change. I think this is where we want to get beyond trying to be clever or expert and use other parts of our intelligence – the parts that don’t fit inside a spreadsheet or make logical sense. I think when I’m facilitating, that’s the kind of sensibility I am working for.
Thank goodness for blogging, as I could never tackle this subject as an essay. A blog post which might start a conversation.. that I can just about manage…