Five Conditions for Shifting the Social Field

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments

Last week at MIT we hosted a group of leaders and change makers from Indonesia. With its 17,000 islands and 250 million inhabitants, Indonesia is the third largest democracy and the biggest Muslim country in the world. Several members of the visiting group are key players in CTI, the Coral Triangle Initiative, a multi-stakeholder initiative focusing on sustainable fisheries and marine stewardship in the world’s second most important biodiversity region (second only to the Amazon region).

The MIT IDEAS program, which they embarked on last week, is a 15-month journey of profound individual and institutional innovation and change. All participants remain in their existing jobs and organizations, but over the next 15 months they will meet regularly in small coaching circles, as well as in five whole-group workshops for 3-5 days each, progressing on a journey from total immersion to e deep reflection and learning by doing.

Last week we took our first total-immersion journey. The participants engaged in intense discussions with key thought leaders in global finance (Simon Johnson), systems thinking (Peter Senge), data-driven societies (Sandy Pentland), urban transformation (Phil Thompson), mindful systems change (Dayna Cunningham), and system dynamics (John Sterman). In addition, we threw them into highly experiential learning environments. On campus they visited the Media Lab, practiced the IDEO method of design thinking, and explored Boston’s hotspots of social innovation through small-group learning journeys.

We also provided them with deep reflection practices to help being receptive not only to the new ideas that emerged from the MIT eco-system but also to the new ideas that are emerging from within: who they are now, and who they want to be going forward. Many found it to be a profound, moving, and in some cases even life-changing experience. As one of them said on the final day: I have been born twice. The first time in Indonesia, the second time here in Boston. He explained that he felt he had come closer to his deepest human capacity to create.

One half-day workshop during the middle of the week offered them a window onto the current conditions and changes that we deal with in just about every larger process of systems change on the planet. Picture this: they entered the workshop room at 8.30 a.m. and saw that the room was set with six tables, one each for the U.S. delegation, the EU, other developed countries, China, India, and other developing countries. They were greeted by the facilitator, a person playing the role of Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General (SG) of the UN.

The SG welcomed the delegates and asked them to take seats at their respective tables (each participant had been assigned to one of the teams and had received a country briefing the night before). Then he provided the delegates with an update on the urgent current situation related to global climate change. He gave each delegation half an hour to develop a proposal for addressing the pressing climate challenges, in order to mitigate and perhaps halt the crisis by the year 2100. Each delegation was asked to present binding commitments its country or region would make on the following variables:

1. in what year it would stop increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions
2. in what year it would start reducing GHG emissions
3. the annual rate of emissions reduction it would undertake
4. action on de- or re-forestation
5. its projected financial contributions for all of the above (through payments into a global fund)

The delegates quickly realized that they were not all equal. While the tables of the delegations from the U.S., the EU, and other OECD countries were set with delicious food, China and India had no food on their tables. The delegates from “other developing countries” were even asked to sit on the floor, with their chairs and a table being removed (see team pictures below).

Picture 1: The U.S. delegation’s table, with lots of food.

Picture 2: The least-developed countries’ space: no table, no food.

After heated negotiations, each team presented its proposal. SG Ban Ki-Moon, a.k.a. Prof. John Sterman, input each delegation’s recommendations into a science-based simulation model that he and his MIT team developed and that is being used by various actual delegations to train their negotiators (including the U.S. and the Chinese delegations). He ran the model and presented the results. Although each team had stretched itself to make compromises and painful choices, the results projected for the year 2100 were nothing short of catastrophic: massive climate destabilization, catastrophic sea-level rises, ocean acidification, and temperature changes that would destabilize societies on a scale never before seen.
What really hit home for the delegates was a map that showed how the projected sea-level rise that resulted from their decisions would devastate their home countries and cities (picture 3).

Picture 3: Impact of projected sea-level rise

Then the SG asked the delegates to rework their commitments in a second round of negotiations. But first he gave them a tutorial on visualizing the potential impact for each region in the year 2100.

Having seen the results of their collective decision-making in round 1, in round 2 the delegates developed commitments of a whole different order of magnitude. They were much more courageous, collaborative, and determined. But still, the projected scenario for 2100 was devastating, although no longer as catastrophic as the round 1 scenario. It took a full third round for them to come up with an almost-final set of commitments and decisions, which, according to the model, would result in a scenario that was close to being acceptable.

Picture 4: Climate change briefing by Prof. J. Sterman (graphic created by Kelvy Bird)

Having seen this process a number of times with different groups, I would make a few observations:

1. The behavior we saw in round 1 is exactly the same as what we have seen from our actual delegations in most international negotiations on climate change over the past decade.

2. Note that the delegates in our simulation game were well-informed (for example, they all watched a “disruption video” before beginning their work) and well-intentioned. Yet, as a group, they acted just as dysfunctionally as our politicians do.

3. In rounds 2 and 3, they abandoned their silo perspective (“this is all that we can do–and by the way, the real polluters are sitting at that other table…”) and adopted a perspective of “seeing the whole.” Their mindsets shifted from an ego-system awareness (me-me) to an eco-system awareness (me-we)–that is, an awareness of the whole.

4. The big question on the table in almost every real-world case of large systems change is how to make that shift. What happened in that half-day climate simulation game is often missing on the larger, real-world scene.

5. Five conditions are required to shift the center of gravity in a system from ego to eco:

i. A container: You need to bring all key stakeholders together in a single room, and then create a container–that is, a holding space–in which they can interact and learn with each other.

ii. Science: You need good science in order to let the data talk to you–that is, in order to get beyond everyone’s currently favored opinion.

iii. Dialogue: You need to close the feedback loop between collective action and awareness; you need to make the system see itself (which is the essence of dialogue).

iv. Aesthetics. The origin of the term aesthetics lies in the Greek word aisthesis, which means perception through the senses. In the workshop, it was key to feel the impact of sea-level rise through the map visualization, the oversupply and non-supply of food to the delegate tables, and other inequities.

v. Facilitation: an “SG” to hold the transformative space. When the shift happens between round 1 and rounds 2 and 3, participants let go of their ego-system view (‘look at what they are doing to us!’) and begin to operate from an eco-system view (‘look at what we are doing to ourselves!’).

Picture 5: The Iceberg Model: Turning the Lens Back onto Ourselves, graphic created by Kelvy Bird

The above graphic drawn by my colleague Kelvy Bird depicts this basic point on the upper right: turning the lens back on ourselves and planet earth. It captures the ecological, social, and spiritual divides above the iceberg’s waterline, and all the deeper root issues and sources below the waterline.

What does it take to address the current crises of our time at the level of the source (as opposed to the level of the symptoms)? What it takes, we believe, is a journey–a journey on which the social field shifts from ego-system awareness (silo view) to eco-system awareness (seeing from the whole). That was the shift the Indonesian participants made in the climate change workshop–and in other key experiences during the week. It was that shift that resonated most deeply within their own beings, with who they wanted to be. It’s that shift that they will be able to prototype in the context of their own systems throughout their action learning projects in 2015.

Picture 6: Shifting the Social Field (Theory U). Graphic created by Kelvy Bird

How can we create these five conditions not only in small workshops, but in society as a whole? How can we reframe our public conversation on climate change by putting these conditions in place? Where have you seen similar shifts? And what conditions did you see that enabled such shifts to occur?

Here are a few links to the climate change simulation model that you can use free of charge:
For World Climate  
For World Energy


U-Lab: Prototyping the 21st-Century University

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments

Higher education has hit a wall — particularly the business school. Four issues are upending higher education as it is constituted today:

It is overpriced: While the cost of higher education has skyrocketed, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have emerged as a game changer, opening doors to an unparalleled democratization of higher education. The marginal costs of online learning are basically zero. And yes, in spite of huge enrollment numbers (often 50,000-80,000 students per class), MOOCs have not yet been able to fully deliver on their high- flying promises. Critics often point to course completion rates–often as little as 5% of the enrollees complete a course–a sign that MOOCs are still evolving.

It is out of touch with the changing market: The old model of higher education worked for a remarkably long period, although not for everyone. Students invested in the pursuit of a career path that almost guaranteed a good income, which then enabled them to swiftly pay back their college loans. Those years are gone. With many industries having moved from the United States to Asia, and with increasing automation in manufacturing and management, many formerly well-paying middle-class jobs no longer exist; they have been replaced by service sector jobs that do not even pay a living wage.

The curriculum is outdated: The intellectual and methodological foundation of business schools is thoroughly outdated. Lectures as a teaching method have been around for more than 2,000 years, and the Harvard case study method for more than 140 years; and yet, they still account for most of what is going on in B-schools today. But what’s worse is that the core curriculum–based on current mainstream economic and management thought–equips students with a mental framework that amplifies our global ecological and socio-economic crises instead of helping to solve them.

Mainstream economics and management not only failed to predict any of the fundamental social and economic shifts of the past 40 years–from the oil price shocks in the 1970s and the rise of the East Asian economies in the 1980s to the financial crisis in 2008; mainstream economic thought leaders have also failed to offer remedies for the profound ecological, socio-economic, and spiritual crises of our time. What’s at the core of this problem is not a failure of individuals, but the failure of an outdated intellectual framework that is profoundly out of touch with today’s challenges.

Its purpose is outdated: Although there have been many attempts to reform higher education, most have not succeeded. They have been limited to tinkering with structures, curriculum, and systems–ignoring the need to regenerate the university from its roots by reinventing its purpose in this century.

Historically, the classical university was based on the unity of research and teaching and served the purpose of conveying mostly theoretical knowledge. The modern university of the 20th century was based on the unity of research, teaching, and practice, and its emphasis shifted toward providing practical knowledge. What we currently witness can be seen as foreshadowing the next evolutionary stage based on the unity of research, teaching, and societal transformation, with transformation literacy at its core–that is, literacy in the personal, relational, and systemic foundations of leading innovation and change.

Summing up the problem: higher education is overpriced, out of touch, and outdated in both curriculum and purpose. The solution? The solution is beginning to emerge in many places today. One of such examples is the U-Lab at MIT, where I have been spending much of my time this year. Delivered by MITx free of charge through the online platform edX (co-founded by MIT and Harvard in 2012), this MOOC will prototype a new hybrid online/real-world learning environment, with the goal of sparking a global web of interconnected hubs, inspiring initiatives, and grounding learning locally in places where societal challenges are manifest (watch this clip).

The U-Lab offers a new type of learning environment that is personal, practical, relational, mindful, collective, and transformative.

“Personal” means that you are expected to bring your full self to the class, both who you are today (your current self) and who you might be tomorrow (your emerging future self).

“Practical” means that each week you apply a specific tool in the context where you operate.

“Relational” means that each week you will engage in a deep dialogue-based peer coaching session with five fellow Lab participants and take turns sharing a case.

“Mindful” means that each week you will be introduced to a mindfulness practice that strengthens your capacity to pay attention to your attention and helps you to intentionally shift the inner place from which you operate.

“Collective” means that this Lab will take you on a journey with others. Live-streamed sessions connecting Lab participants with inspirational change makers across cultures will facilitate this collective journey.

“Transformative” means that the core curriculum of the U-Lab is grounded in a social leadership technology that enables participants to sense and actualize emerging future possibilities.

Reinventing the 21st-century university requires addressing all four of the key issues mentioned above:

price: make it free (accessible) for all
relevance: focus on profound societal and personal transformation
curriculum: link global action learning with an evolutionary economic frame
purpose: to serve the current transformation of society and self

The future of higher education is already here. It’s being researched and tested through prototypes that are emerging around the world–like the U-Lab. But what will it take to move from developing prototypes to shifting the system as a whole?

What it takes, I believe, is to transform the fundamental thinking that underlies our modern civilization- science, technology and learning. The 1.0 version is a science that is applied to exterior data only (third person view), while the 2.0 version applies the scientific activity also to the more subtle aspects of our experience (third person and first person view). That shift in perspective bends the beam of scientific observation back onto the observing self (graphic below).


The capacity to perform this shift is at the heart of the developmental threshold that we are facing in this century as individuals, organizations, systems, and communities. In individuals the capacity is referred to as awareness or mindfulness (paying attention to your attention); in organizational and systems change it is referred to as systems thinking (making the system see itself). In both cases there is a shift from ego-system awareness (thinking in silos) to eco-system awareness (thinking for the benefit of the whole).

Maybe the finest role of universities in this century would be to nurture this capacity not only among individuals, organizations, and systems, but on the level of society–by holding up a mirror, helping individuals and their institutions to see themselves as an evolving whole, creating a genuine space for self-reflection and for dialogue on what may well be the most important conversation of our time: who we are as human beings, who we want to be, and what future society we want to live in.

The U-Lab aspires to be a step into this direction–a prototype. To make it work at the scale necessary today will require many collaborators. If you want to support this effort, please share this link, register for the Lab (which is free; sign up here), or even sign up to co-convene one of its hubs. Let us know what you think. Thank you!

From Big Data to Deep Data

Friday, July 18th, 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments

Over the past ten months I have chaired and co-facilitated MIT’s IDEAS China program–a ten month innovation journey for a group of 30 or so senior Chinese business leaders. This year the IDEAS China program enrolled executives of a major state-owned Chinese bank. One goal of this team was to reinvent the future of their organization in the face of big data and other related disruptive changes, which provided me with a little more exposure to that aspect of the world economy. For example, Jack Ma, the visionary founder of Alibaba, says that “In five years, we anticipate that the human era will move from the information technology era to the data technology era.”

But what does it mean to be in an era of “data technology” and “big data”? Until today, it hast often meant that big companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple–the same companies that we used to love and now increasingly begin to question and fear–take your data without asking and sell it to other companies without your knowledge (until you notice the targeted Web commercials that appear on your screen). I find it interesting that people’s initially very positive view of these American big data empires is shifting first in Europe, but also in other parts of the world, including North America. Edward Snowden made all of us more sensitive to the misuse of big data. But that’s just the surface issue. The real problem is on a deeper level.

The real problem of big data is that we are increasingly outsourcing our capacity to sense and think to algorithms programmed into machines. While this seems very convenient and cool at first and offers access to services that many of us want, it also raises a question about who actually owns big data, about the rights of individuals and citizens to own their personal data and to exercise choices regarding its use.

While big data has certainly opened up a whole new range of possibilities, I would like to suggest a distinction between surface big data and deep data. Surface data is just data about others: what others do and say. That is what almost all current big data is composed of.

Deep data is used to make people and communities see themselves. Deep data functions like a mirror: it makes you see yourself–both as an individual and as a community. Over the past twenty years of my professional life I have been helping teams and organizations go through processes of profound innovation and transformative change across sectors and cultures. The one thing that I have learned from all these projects is that the key to transformative change is to make the system see itself. That’s why deep data matters. It matters to the future of our institutions, our societies, and our planet.

But what happens today with big data often is the opposite: big data is used to manipulate our behavior, to bombard us with commercials that we never asked for. Surface big data is used to outsource human thinking to algorithms, to reduce our level of awareness inside old patterns of habitual thought. Deep data, if developed and cultivated in the right way, could help us to enhance the level of awareness and consciousness and to change the system by shifting the consciousness of stakeholders in that system from ego-system awareness (awareness of my own silo) to eco-system awareness (awareness of the whole).

Let me summarize the distinction between surface big data and deep with two simple drawings:

Big data (science 1.0): data that informs about the world (source: A. Oechsner).

Deep data (science 2.0): data that helps us to see ourselves (source: A. Oechsner).

The journey from science 1.0 to 2.0 is a journey of bending the beam of scientific observation back onto the observing self–both individually and collectively.

At the end of our last meeting, the leaders of the Chinese state-owned bank reflected on their own journey of the past ten months. Every one of them reported a profound shift in how they think and operate. Here are two exemplary statements:

“This journey is not just about tools and knowledge; it shifts your way of thinking and it allows you in the face of challenges to jump out of the box of old thinking. It feels like my self has been shifting. I also felt that shift among my colleagues. We get to consensus more easily. I feel there is a shift of intention among my colleagues. As a result, we are more in touch with our experience and we are able to execute better.”

“To me, the IDEAS journey is a journey of the heart. It opened a new way of thinking, a new way of relating, and a new way of being.”

In essence, what the IDEAS participants described was a transformation of
• thinking: from downloading old patterns to thinking creatively
• conversing: from debate to generative dialogue
• collaborating: from ego-centric/reactive to more eco-centric and co-creative

Over the past months, while staying in their jobs, the participants split into four teams that each tried to prototype some new way of operating in order to explore future opportunities. What struck me was that each team ended up developing a new platform of cross-organizational and cross-institutional collaboration that used data as a tool for transforming the way their stakeholders communicate across boundaries. All of their prototypes are still in an early stage. But one lesson that was mentioned by the teams repeatedly was the importance of shifting their mindset from me to we, from ego to eco.

The question that their efforts have left me with is this: On a societal level, what types of deep data infrastructures might facilitate this bending of the beam of observation back onto the observer on the level of entire eco-systems?

For example, today we use GDP to measure economic progress. GDP is an excellent measure of surface data. But what would the equivalent deep data tool be for measuring real economic progress in a community? I believe that it would include a new indicator system that is grounded in real outcomes (like life expectancy), and in the wellbeing of individuals and their communities (like quality of life). Last year we–the Presencing Institute, with the GIZ Global Leadership Academy (German Ministry for Development Cooperation) and the Gross National Happiness Centre in Bhutan– launched the Global Wellbeing Lab, The lab links leaders from government, business, and civil society around the world who are working to pioneer new indicators and deep data tools that help communities and eco-systems begin to see themselves.

Where are you seeing the seeds of such new indicactor systems or deep data tools today? What can be learned from these first living examples? What would deep data mean for your self? What are the sources of well-being and happiness in your own life and work and what metrics could help you to see yourself in a more meaningful way? How can we co-pioneer the shift from big data to deep data in society today?

Beijing, Brazil, 7-1: Awareness Shift in Soccer, Society

Friday, July 18th, 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments

I happened to be in Beijing earlier this week, and of course everyone was talking about the 7-1 (World Cup semifinal between Brazil and Germany). Since Chancellor Angela Merkel was also visiting Beijing this week, the running joke was that the 7-1 score was Merkel’s birthday present to her hosts, honoring the founding of China’s Communist Party (7/1/1921).

While in my heart I empathized with the feelings of the people from Brazil, a country I love and whose soccer I admire, I also felt joy in seeing the fruits of the Klinsmann/Loew revolution in German soccer. Ten years ago those co-coaches began a transformation of leadership on and off the field, and a transformation of the ugly (results-oriented) style of German soccer to a philosophy inspired by the Dutchtotal football and its more recent incarnation as tiki taka in Spain. Brought to Germany by Klinsmann and Loew, as well as by coaches like Pep Guardiola, who after winning everything with Barcelona now works with two thirds of the German team at Bayern Munich (and who is another major hidden parent of the historic 7-1 win this week).

Back in 2010 the German team tried to copy tiki taka from Spain and Barcelona. They played inspiring soccer, only to lose to Spain in the semi-finals. In 2014 the German team evolves tiki taka by blending it with some of the virtues of earlier German teams, such as mobilizing collective energy and will.

The soccer they play today is a complete departure from the soccer German teams played prior to 2010 or 2006. The team has no real boss, no real superstar; they enjoy a style of distributed and fluid leadership. The team also has no clear starting eleven. They keep changing their lineup and their positions, with two of their best players even missing the entire tournament (Reus and Gundogan).

So what is driving the success of the German team? It’s a philosophy that requires all players to operate from a shared awareness of the evolving whole. Everyone is required to be aware of what’s happening everywhere on the field–the changing positions, the emerging spaces among their own team members and their opponents, to keep the ball moving. It’s that shared awareness of the evolving whole that allows them to pass the ball faster than the opposing team at times can comprehend, or react to. It was the chief reason the Brazil defense collapsed and conceded four goals in six minutes of the semifinal this week.

Responding to that style of soccer cannot be fixed by firing the coach or replacing players. It requires starting at a deeper level: in the quality of our thinking, or our sensing, of our awareness of the whole. Making the transformation–shifting the way we operate from an awareness of the parts to an awareness of the dynamic whole–is the quintessential transformation challenge that we face in all sectors of society today: finance, food, health, education, sustainable business practices, you name it. Over the past several years I have worked in transformation initiatives in all these sectors. And the most important leadership challenge is always the same: the challenge is to change how people think and work together across institutional boundaries from a silo or ego-system awareness to a systemic or eco-system awareness.

The best soccer teams in the world have gone through this transformation over the past decade or so. But for the rest of society, that journey is still ahead of us. Not only in Brazil. Also in China, in the US, in Europe, in Africa.

As for Sunday, may the better team on that day win. Even if the German team should lose, I am still happy about the path Die Mannschaft is on. I only wish we could all help the Brazilian’s team spirit to rise from the ashes and return to the brilliance of its many golden years. The selecao will rise again, no doubt! In the meantime, let’s enjoy the finale.

Eight Accupuncture Points for Transforming Capitalism

Friday, July 18th, 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments

I’m just returning from the annual BALLE conference in Oakland. BALLE (the Business Association for Local Living Economies), is the fastest-growing network of sustainable and value-based enterprises in North America. It was founded some fourteen years ago, but the origins of this networked grassroots movement go back to the 1990s, when Judy Wicks, the founder of the White Dog Café in Philadelphia, decided to source and manage her café 100 percent locally and sustainably, using socially just practices. People loved it and it became a legendary success. But instead of turning her winning formula into a regional or national brand, chain, and eventually an empire, she decided to reinvest her profits in the health and well-being of her local community. She set up a foundation through which she taught everything she had learned to her competitors, using her money to help suppliers upgrade in order to serve all the cafés and restaurants in the region.

That shift from ego to eco, that is, from empire building (which is driving the Apples, Googles, and Facebooks of our age) to generating well-being for all, was the original spark that inspired the local living economy movement in many places across North America.


When you look at the local living economy movement today, it’s remarkable to see how much has been accomplished in just the few years since it began. Making our food cycles more local, sustainable, and inclusive has gone from fringe to almost mainstream in just 15 years. Next up for the localization movement: make investment, manufacturing, and production more local and sustainable (by moving money from Wall Street to bio regions, with 3D printing, etc.). As the Wall Street Journal wrote this week, entrepreneurs are turning to a new source of funding: their neighbors.

What’s next? Fifteen years ago the conversation was about localizing and entrepreneurship. Now these things are going mainstream. So what are the pioneers of the movement talking about now? What is the next frontier? What I picked up this week can be best summarized in two words: broadening and deepening.

Broadening means broadening the scope from buying locally to investing locally, focusing more on policy changes, more on empowering marginalized communities, and more on cross-sector collaboration (linking business, government, and civil society).

Deepening means creating room for the interior dimension of leading profound change: expanding the conversation about transformative leadership, mindfulness, compassion, sources of well-being, creativity, and spirituality. It means asking, Who are we today — and who do we want to be tomorrow?

This interior deepening on both the individual and the collective level is a remarkable development that mirrors a broader shift in society today, where ideas like mindfulness have gone mainstream in health, education, and leadership.

And yet at the same time, we also see the noise cranking up: countries falling apart, fragmentation, violence and civil war on the rise in many places, not only Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine.

The challenge of our time is to stay awake to what is happening around us, while also giving most of our loving attention to the seeds of the future that we want to take root in the world. Speaking of seeds, here are eight systemic areas ripe for reinvention that I heard people talking about at the BALLE conference. In combination, they constitute a set of leverage points for transforming the current system:

1. Place: reinvent how we deal with soil and nature. Instead of treating it as a commodity (that we buy, use, and throw away), treat it as an eco-system that we cultivate.
2. Entrepreneurship: reinvent our concept of labor. Instead of thinking of work as a “job,” think about it as entrepreneurship powered by passion and compassion.
3. Money: reinvent our concept of and how we deal with money and financial capital. Instead of extractive, capital should be intentional, serving rather than harming the real economy.
4. Technology: reinvent how we develop technologies. Empower all people to be makers and creators rather than passive recipients.
5. Leadership: reinvent how we lead. Instead of individual heroes, we need people working together to develop a collective capacity to sense and shape the future.
6. Consumption: reinvent how we consume. Instead of promoting consumerism and using metrics like GDP, move toward conscious collaborative consumption and metrics that focus on well-being like Gross National Happiness (GNH) and the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI, which is now being developed in about 20 U.S. states).
7. Governance: reinvent how we coordinate. Move away from being limited to the old three mechanisms, hierarchies, markets, and negotiation among organized interest groups, and move toward a fourth mechanism that operates through awareness based collective action (ABC), through seeing and acting from the whole.
8. Ownership: Advance the old forms of state and private ownership by creating a third category of ownership rights: commons-based ownership that better protect the interests of our children and of future generations.

If we focused on and advanced these eight key acupuncture points we could begin to transform the old system of capitalism into an economy that creates well-being for all (for more detail: link, book).

But what is the animating force that could move this ego to eco shift from small seeds to action? What I saw in the BALLE conference, and what I am seeing in various other places across the planet, is that something begins to grow together that belongs together: the power of entrepreneurship — and the power of the awakening intelligence of the heart.

Are We Sinking—Or Are We Beginning to Rise?

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments

The other day I sat in a World Bank meeting in Washington, D.C. The purpose of the gathering was to initiate a Collective Action Platform that would help multi-stakeholder groups to collaborate more effectively in addressing the major challenges of our time. Here are a few observations that I found interesting:

The World Bank itself is going through a radical transformation, from operating as a bank (creating change by making loans) to operating as a knowledge-based organization that multiplies its impact by convening platforms of collaborative action that involve crowding-in dozens or hundreds of other players (example: Global Partnership for Oceans).

Leaders at the Bank have begun to realize that the massive challenges we face require new ways of catalyzing collective action on an unprecedented scale—which in turn requires a new collaboration infrastructure such as the Global Partnership for Oceans platform cited above.

One participant in the meeting, the COO of one of the biggest global environmental NGOs, put it like this: “We are just coming from a strategic review process. We assessed everything we have been doing over the past decade or so and realized that, although we are winning some of the battles, we are about to lose the war. All major main indicators of global environmental well-being are moving in the wrong direction, many of them rapidly. Unless we begin to act in radically different ways to catalyze massive institutional change, we will be losing the war.”

A few days later I had another two-day meeting. The MIT Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) in Cambridge, MA, convened a group of remarkable leaders working to organize the most marginalized and exploited groups in the U.S. economy: undocumented people; home care and home service workers; and those who are incarcerated in prison. This group of change makers works for the most invisible, marginalized, exploited, and underserved people in our economy and society.

Sad fact: Over the past few years the Obama administration has deported two million undocumented people (a rate of 1,500 each day); and another two million Americans are incarcerated, mainly black and brown men and most for non-violent drug crimes. The United States leads the world in both of these categories. What do these four million people have in common? Most of them are people of color, as are the remarkable leaders who attended the MIT CoLab workshop. They are part of an MIT fellowship program that supports them in their search and journey toward creating an economy that generates wealth and well-being for all. What inspires me about this circle is that all of them work under very high levels of pressure and hardship—and yet they continue to come up with powerful new forms of mobilizing collective action at the grass-roots level in their communities. The life journey of the members in this circle are closely connected to the backstory of the civil rights and anti-racism movements and the election campaigns that put Barack Obama, and more recently New York mayor Bill de Blasio, in office. They are the emerging new America—an America in which people of color are in the majority and forming new alliances with the more progressive-leaning part of the urban white population.

When we come together in this circle we start by asking members to talk about their current situations. Here is a phrase that frequently comes up: “We are under attack.”We are under attack means: members of our community are being deported and incarcerated at a rate without parallel in the world. It means that the Supreme Court keeps rendering decisions as if it is acting on behalf of the 0.1%, not the 99.9% (see McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission and Citizens United, the recent Supreme Court decisions that abolished the limits on campaign contributions by individuals and corporations. It means that in June, in the case of Harris v. Quinn, the Supreme Court is likely to deliver another blow against the 99%, effectively limiting the right of homecare workers—among the lowest paid and most vulnerable members of the low-wage workforce—to join unions and engage in collective bargaining. We are under attack means more than being a member of the working poor (working for a minimum wage that can’t support a family); it means living in a society that strips away an individual’s dignity as a human being. Similar circumstances prompted the anti-apartheid movement against the oppressive regime in South Africa, the civil rights movements in the U.S. and in Eastern Europe, and the Arab Spring movement in the Middle East. All of them, in spite of many obvious differences, were fighting essentially the same enemy: a system that denies many of its people the most basic human rights and dignity.

My experience of the past couple of weeks can be summed up in these two sentences: Are we are losing the war? We are under attack. Take a moment to let these two sentences sink in. The first refers to the ecological divide, the second to the social-economic divide. Take them as a reality mantra. How does this mantra resonate in your mind and in your heart? The resonance that I feel appears to me in these questions: Is our courage sinking? Are we losing the essence of our humanity? Is our energy for profound renewal slipping away?

Last stop: China. As I write this I am returning from a remarkable gathering in Beijing, the Her Village International Forum. The meeting brought together 300 impressive women entrepreneurs and leaders from all sectors and geographic areas of China. The gathering was hosted by Yang Lan, who has been called China’s Oprah. Her intention was to bring together thought leaders and innovators who are pioneering new ways of blending mindfulness, well-being, health, science, technology, and entrepreneurship, from both East and West. Lan and her network reach 300 million people every week with their programs. Feeling the energy of these inspired change makers made me aware that they are an example of a new global movement that is taking shape in many different places around the globe. It is a movement that integrates mindfulness, science/technology, and profound social change. In most countries, women are at the forefront of this movement.


Her Village International Forum 2014

Her Village International Forum 2014

I personally believe that the future of leadership will be more mindful, more collective, and more feminine. Holding the space for others, cultivating relationships, and giving birth to a future that wants to emerge are all leadership capacities that are arguably different from the masculine ego-leadership culture that is hitting the wall in ever more evident ways (and yet staying strong and almost unchallenged).

So what is the moment we are living in? Are we losing, are we sinking—orare we beginning to rise? Are we losing the deeper levels of our humanity? Or are we rising by becoming aware, by waking up at a more profound level of our own humanity?

Maybe the answer to that question is not out there in the world—it emerges from the inner place that we choose to operate from. When I experience the beginnings of a movement, like the one I witnessed in China, it feels as if a new relational quality of the social field is being activated. It’s a quality that blends the power of entrepreneurship with the awakening intelligence of the heart.

Have you experienced such changing field qualities in your circles? What do you see going on in your community today?



A Global Action Leadership School in the Making…

Thursday, March 27th, 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments

I had an interesting week. On Monday I attended a book launch event in Denmark. The idea of the organizers was to create a “Nordic Forum” to bring together leaders and change-makers from many systems and sectors who are using awareness-based technologies of change (such as the one described in the Leading from the Emerging Future book that was introduced that day). Six hundred people from all walks of life showed up for this one-day gathering.

Entering the meeting space, I felt a wonderful energy of anticipation, an eagerness to learn about each other and about the connections between personal and societal change. We had set up the room in “neighborhoods” corresponding to the various hotspots (“acupuncture points”) of societal change: reinventing finance, energy, health, education, compassionate business, and politics. The politics group, for example, talked about an initiative to reshape the political field by co-creating a new party that would not position itself as either left or right; instead it would focus on unleashing the power of massive direct participation and compassionate entrepreneurship. I think this more direct democratic initiative is a really interesting example that soon we may also see in other places… Just ask yourself: who is not fed up with the traditional (20th century) political and economic debate between left and right?

After the breakout sessions we reconvened in a plenary session, where participants shared some of their emerging insights. Here are the ideas and topics that attracted most of them: business with purpose and compassion; education; nature; 4. Sector, measuring what matters; strengthening our sources of health; mindfulness.

Then we went through a “presencing practice” (connecting to your deeper source of inspiration in order to sense and shape the future that wants to emerge) and formed coaching circles among change makers in order to help each other across organizations and systems. Over the next nine months, many of these groups will meet regularly and use case clinic tools to bring about profound renewal and change.   Next December, at the second Nordic Forum, the participants will share what they were able to prototype, innovate, and learn.


When I left the meeting I was thinking: boy, this is really interesting, in only a single day you can activate such a powerful field of collective awareness, conversation, and connection;  it’s like switching on an already existing, but dormant social field. What if people could do that in regions and “hubs” around the world, and what if we could connect all these hubs in way that serves a deeper global intention for profound personal and societal renewal and change?

Next stop was China. A few observations. My first workshop was with leaders of a huge state-owned bank. It was the fourth of five workshops we’ve scheduled on a nine-month leadership journey toward profound innovation (formally part of the MIT IDEAS Program). We started with a “check-in circle” where each of the 25 participants shared some of what had happened for them personally over the previous three months. Almost everyone mentioned significant personal and relational changes. Most said that their thinking had changed. Instead of judging the world based on entrenched habits of thought, they were paying attention and listening. As one of them put it: “I try reduce the interference from myself.” Many of them (though not all) also reported that they had changed how they work with their teams. One said: “I used to be the boss who talks, who tells them what is going on, and who tells them what to do. Now I ask them to share.” Another put it: “I used to listen in order to correct them, now I ask questions in order to listen for solutions from them.”

Throughout this check-in the participants also mentioned specific leadership practices that helped them to operate in different ways. Here are the eight practices that they mentioned repeatedly:  (1) deep listening, (2) asking powerful questions, drawing people out, (3) letting go and letting come, (4) holding the space for their teams, (5) focusing on what they could change rather than complaining about what they can’t, (6) connect to their heart, being empathic, and (7) using systems thinking—“thinking from source, attending to the complex connections between the individual and the collective, between the inner and the outer. Looking at my notes, I realized that the group had just described the presencing practice model. (see also below graphic recording from my colleague Jayce Lee)


Later in the week I also met with leaders of a fast-growing Chinese Internet tech company that is continuously reshaping its industry. What struck me is the amazing pace of change it had undergone since I last visited the company only 15 months earlier.  What keeps such an enterprise together? What is the force at the eye of the hurricane? I saw a small core group of young entrepreneurial leaders who are linked by a shared sense of aspiration and commitment. Their aspiration is grounded in a deep-seated humanity (probably deeper than I have seen in most Western companies). As a senior government leader put it to me and my colleague Peter Senge a few days earlier: “We deeply appreciate the work you both are doing here with our leaders. It not only creates practical results and helps them to shift their mindset, it also connects them to the deeper levels of their will. It touches them in their soul.”

As I boarded my return flight from Shanghai I felt physically tired but also energized and renewed. In these and several other inspiring encounters over the past few weeks, something has happened to me. I am changing. I feel a reordering from within. An idea that I have been holding in my mind for the past 20 years suddenly has become more deeply rooted in my will. It’s the idea to create a global action leadership school for profound personal, and institutional renewal (what I have been calling a “u-school”).  Through a web of interconnected hubs, this school would bring together leaders and change-makers from across sectors and cultures to prototype 4.0 platforms of societal innovation.  Suddenly I see how this can work. Two catalysts are the potential partners I have been meeting with in China (and in other places, such as Brazil) and a new MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) I’ll be creating at MIT.

This week I got the green light to offer my U-Lab class at MIT as a MOOC through MITx and its online platform edX. This is exciting news for me. For one, I am only the second faculty member at MIT Sloan to be given this opportunity. And two, the goal of this particular MOOC is to innovate and reinvent the existing model of online learning. Currently, many online courses attempt to teach technical knowledge. But the U-Lab MOOC project would try to do something different: make online learning work on a more profound level: to promote leadership, entrepreneurship and systemic changes; and to make the power of compassion-based entrepreneurship and systems change available for free and for everyone.  The course, tentatively called U-LabX, will build on the existing model of online learning but then add the following dimensions:

  • Live Global Forum events at the kick-off, mid-point, and conclusion of each five-week course (like the Nordic Forum described above).
  • Structured Coaching Circles in which peer-coaching groups meet virtually between modules to engage in in-depth case clinic sessions.
  • Practical tools that the participants use to engage differently with their social and institutional stakeholders each week.
  • Virtual sensing journey tools, such as a video gallery of dialogue interviews with leading change-makers around the world.
  • Personal awareness and mindfulness tools that allow the participants to engage differently with one another.
  • Prototyping support for participants who, as individuals and groups, embark on real-world change initiatives during the course.
  • An assessment tool that helps individuals and communities to evaluate the evolution of their deeper leadership capacities.
  • An online community that helps participants find peers with whom they want to stay connected.
  • A network of regional hubs that prototype the future of hybrid online/in-person learning that MIT—and other universities—are seeking to advance in the years ahead.
  • Increasingly advanced U-Lab offerings over the coming years, with the first taking place in October 2014.

In other words, the U-Lab will be a launching pad for the vision that I talked about earlier, a hybrid learning platform that links existing academic and non-academic institutions with inspired change-makers across sectors, cultures, and systems.  This ”reordering” of my thinking makes me feel, simultaneously, both younger and more serious—as if I am finally honing in on my real point of origin or intention. As if the real journey of civilizational renewal in this century is only just now beginning…

Where have you seen stuff like this? Such as gatherings that bring together a microcosm of society, thereby activating a social field (like the Nordic Forum)?

Have you seen MOOCs that move into the deeper territories of transformative change? What ideas do you have that could contribute?

Can you think of ways to radically democratize access to educational environments that blend the power of entrepreneurship with the power of the open heart?


Capitalism 4.0 and Neuroplasticity of the Collective Brain

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014 | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

crossposted Huffpost

I have just returned from an interesting experience in Washington. D.C.:  a panel discussion with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The event was sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a leading neo-conservative think tank responsible for much of the intellectual core and agenda of the Bush-Cheney administration. So why would I go to a place that co-engineered much of the thinking that led us into the disaster of the Iraq War and the financial crisis of 2008, costing us trillions of dollars, and causing massive waves of human suffering across cultures?

Three reasons. One, I was invited by my friends at the Mind and Life Institute, which hosted one of the panels at the event. Two, because I am annoyed by the collective paralysis that we are witnessing in Washington and that is creating such huge problems both domestically and globally. I am more than happy to contribute anything I can  to creating spaces for dialogue across intellectual and political divides. And three, because Arthur Brooks, who took the leadership at the AEI in 2009, is breaking away from many taboos of the old thinking and trying to do something new. It’s that kind of spirit that we need in many more places today.

That being said, I don’t agree with many of the official AEI talking points. But I did discover, particularly in informal conversations, a lot more common ground than I imagined I would—including a thought-provoking conversation with Paul Wolfowitz (former U.S. defense secretary and former president of the World Bank). Here are three observations from my trip to Washington last week: discovering common ground, capitalism 4.0, and searching for neuroplasticity of the collective brain.

Common ground: There is surprisingly fertile common ground between the value-based core of the conservative movement on the one hand and people (like me) who believe that we are living in a moment of profound disruption that requires us to evolve and profoundly transform all our institutions of business, government, and education. What is that common ground? Three points: entrepreneurship; individual creativity; and mindfulness. Together these forces represent the power of business and social entrepreneurship and the power of civil society.

But what’s missing? One thing is the environment. What could possibly be more conservative than environmental conservation? There is nothing inherently left or right in addressing environmental issues. As we see in the rise of the green parties in other parts of the world, they often are quite independent of the left-right axis of traditional political thought. But in the United States the far right has done everything to deny the environmental challenges that we’re dealing with today. You could sense the ripple effect of this denial in parts of the audience when the Dalai Lama and Diana Chapman Walsh, former president of Wellesley College, talked about environmental challenges like climate change. There was a bit of an awkward silence. It reminded me of the reaction I experienced in Davos at the World Economic Forum after suggesting that we break up all the banks that are too big to fail. An awkward moment like this happens when people hear truths that are obvious but unpleasant. Yes, they are uncomfortable, but those are exactly the moments when cracks to the future can open up.

So my first takeaway is this: Traditional right-left polarization keeps the political discourse locked into false dichotomies of the past. Finding common concerns with many people at the AEI event reconfirmed my intuition that we need a completely different force field in politics today—not necessarily a new political party, but something very different from what we have now.

Searching for Capitalism 4.0

During the first panel of the event, Jonathan Haidt of NYU suggested that today’s capitalism has three different story lines: (1) capitalism as heartless exploitation,  (2) capitalism as the greatest discovery of mankind, and (3) a “more ethical capitalism” that relinks morals and markets, including a constructive role for religion and ethics.

Haidt suggested that His Holiness believes in story 1 (“I am a Marxist,” the Dalai Lama occasionally likes to point out with a smile). Haidt said that his co-panelist Glenn Hubbard, Dean of the Columbia Business School, believes in story 2. Hubbard was previously the chief economic adviser to George W. Bush, oversaw the tax cuts, and became well known for his interview in Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-winning documentary film Inside Job (2010), in which the 2008 economic crisis is linked to the deregulation that Hubbard and many others (including Democrats) advocated for.

Jonathan Haidt then said that he sees the emergence of story 3. That story begins with capitalism as one of the “greatest human achievements” (see story 2), but unlike story 2 also focuses on the externalities that we are facing now.

Reflecting on Haidt’s point of view, which seemed to resonate with many in the room, I would like to point out two issues that time constraints prevented me from raising during the panel discussion on Thursday.

First, the framing of the three stories misses a story that matters even more: a story of profound institutional transformation—story number 4. And second: the framing of the three stories lacks a structural analysis that gets at the deeper core of our institutional transformation challenges today. Just bringing in religion, morality, and some other good wishes will not do the trick.

So here is another view that frames our current situation in the context of four logics and paradigms of economic thought. They all respond to the basic coordination problem of our modern economies, but in a different way.

1.0:                  Organizing around centralized power: state and central planning
à giving rise to socialist and mercantilist economies (single sector)

2.0:                  Organizing around decentralized power: markets and competition à giving rise to entrepreneurs and the private sector (two sectors: public, private)

3.0:                  Organizing around special interest groups: negotiation and dialogue à giving rise to the NGO sector (three sectors, conflicting: public, private, civic)

4.0:                  Organizing around shared awareness and cultivating our commons à giving rise to co-creative relationships among the three sectors (government, business, civil society) in order to innovate at the scale of the whole system.

These four logics mirror four different stages of economic development. Each earlier stage is included in the later ones. As economies move from 1.0 to 2.0, 3.0, and now possibly to 4.0, the consciousness of the human economic actors also evolves from traditional (1.0), to ego-system awareness (2.0), to stakeholder awareness (3.0), and to an eco-system awareness (4.0) that we see beginning today.

The problem of our current economic debate is that we are trying to solve 21st -century problems with 19th- and 20th- century economic thought. That is: our discourse is stuck between “more markets and free enterprise” (2.0) and “more regulation and government” (3.0). In reality, neither of these approaches will suffice. Trying to solve 21st-century problems with 19th- and 20th-century economic thought is like driving a car at high speed while only looking into the rear mirror. That is what the economic debate looked like while it drove us into the crisis of 2008. As Einstein famously reminded us, we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them.

The present economic discourse does have three major views: 1.0—the authoritarian solution (à la Putin); 2.0—the free-market capitalism solution (the neo-liberal view); and 3.0, the stakeholder capitalism solution, which basically advocates “more of the same” in terms of the 20th century welfare state (the progressive view). But the problem with these three views—and the problem with Haidt’s three stories—is this: they all look backward, they all drive into the future while using frameworks of the past. What we need is a 4.0 framework and narrative that is based on transforming the patterns of economic action and thought from ego-system to eco-system awareness, in order to innovate at the scale of the whole (as I have laid out here).

Neuroplasticity of the Collective Brain

A panel moderated by Arthur Zajonc, president of the Mind and Life Institute, started off with remarks by Richard Davidson, one of the leading neuroscientists of our time.

Davidson talked about the neuroplasticity of the brain, a concept that has replaced the older static view of the brain. Neuroplasticity is based on the discovery that the structure (anatomy) and function (physiology) of the brain are much more malleable by our behavior and the environment than previously thought. For example, recent advances in epigenetics suggest that our behavior can alter the expression of the genes. According to a recent study, even a single day of mindfulness practices can change the epigenetics of your brain.  What follows from this is that well-being and its key drivers, such as generosity and conscientiousness, can be learned. Says Davidson, “There is absolutely no doubt that these factors can be learned.”

Listening to Richie Davidson’s intriguing presentation, I thought: Boy, the plasticity of the human brain is an unbelievable leverage point that points us to our ultimate leverage points as human beings: paying attention to our attention. It calls for a new type of leadership work that focuses on the cultivation of our inner instruments of knowing. But what would it mean to cultivate the neuroplasticity of the collective brain at the level of a whole system? That would seem to require a new type of leadership work that we all need to learn to engage in.

I followed that train of thought by structuring my own remarks around four major points.

One, that there are two sources of learning: learning from reflecting on the past, and learning from sensing, leaning into, and actualizing emerging future possibilities.

Two, that in order to activate the future-based learning cycle, leaders and change-makers have to go through a three-stage process:

  • Observe, observe, observe: Go the places of most places of most potential and listen with your mind and heart wide open.
  • Retreat and reflect: Allow the inner knowing to emerge. Share, reflect, and go to an inner place of stillness to connect with your deeper sources of knowing. Contemplate Who is my Self? What is my Work? 
  • Act in an instant: Explore the future by doing. Co-create rapid-cycle prototypes that generate feedback from stakeholders, which then helps to further evolve your idea.

Three, that in order to activate that deeper cycle of innovation and future-inspired learning, leaders have to engage in a new leadership work that focuses on cultivating three deeper capacities of knowing:

  • The open mind—the capacity to suspend old habits of judgment by paying attention to our attention (mindfulness);
  • The open heart—the capacity to empathize, to experience a problem from the viewpoint of another stakeholder, not your own view (compassion);
  • And open will—the capacity to awaken and activate the deeper creative, entrepreneurial core that is dormant in each and every human being.

There are many examples of exceptional business leaders who embody these deeper capacities in different ways. Steve Jobs is famous for his claim that the only way to do your best work is by following your heart. Do what you love, and love what you do.

Another one is Bill O’Brien, the late CEO of Hanover Insurance. Summarizing his experience as a successful leader of transformative change, he told me, “The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervenor.” What he meant is that what matters most is not just What leaders do or How they do it—the process they use—but the Inner Place from which a leader operates, the quality of awareness and attention that they bring to a situation.

An example of acting from this deeper place is Eileen Fisher, the founder and CEO of Eileen Fisher Inc., a highly successful women’s clothing company. She not only uses mindfulness practices for herself, as Steve Jobs did; she also introduced mindfulness moments in her company, just as Twitter co-founder Evan Williams has done in his company. For example, at Eileen Fisher, every meeting begins with a moment of stillness.

My fourth point related to the pressing societal challenges that we face across societies today. The number one leadership challenge in today’s major systems and sectors of society is the same. Leaders need to change how their key stakeholder systems interact. Instead of interacting based on a narrow ego-system awareness, they need to collaborate based on a shared eco-system awareness—that is, an awareness that focuses on the well-being of all.

What does it take to move stakeholder systems from ego-system to eco-system awareness? It takes a journey. A journey that we are seeing in many successful stakeholder projects in many cultures that moves them through the stages of “observe observe,” to listening with their minds and hearts wide open, to accessing their “deeper sources of knowing,” and finally to learning by rapid-cycle “prototyping,” by connecting head, heart, and hand.

I ended by asking His Holiness how we can apply the power of mindfulness and compassion not only to individuals but to evolving the system as whole. He gave two responses. The first one: “I think you know better [than I do] (laughter). You already have the experience…” He then continued: “My thinking is to emphasize the education. That’s the fundamental approach.” That approach is part of a major initiative to renew the foundation of education worldwide that the Mind and Life Institute is about to launch.

So here are my three reflection questions of this week: (1) Considering the collective paralysis in Washington DC, what would it take to shift the public discourse to a true dialogue? (2) Considering the evolution of capitalism: What would it take to take the eye off the rear mirror and onto the real challenges that we face in terms of Economy 4.0? (3) Considering the power of neuroplasticity, what would it take to unlock the neuroplasticity for our collective brain—that is, the sum total of our social, economic, and spiritual relationships?

Useful links:

Here is the link to recorded live-stream of the session.

The framework of Capitalism 4.0.

I will expand on these topics in my weekly blog posts here (bookmark).

Shifting the Social Field: Contemplation, Compassion, and Collective Action

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments

crossposted Huffpost

In a previous post, I blogged about my impressions of the World Economic Forum in Davos: about the increasing interest in mindfulness in mainstream circles, which co-exists with what might be called the “collective sleepwalking” of our elites—and ourselves. Here I share a recent experience that offers insight into the question: What does it actually take to awaken ourselves, the collective sleepwalkers?

Fields of Dormant Future Possibility

We live in a moment of profound disruption. Something is ending, and something else is wanting to emerge. There is a huge dormant potential in the world today that is waiting to be activated: a potential for profound renewal and change. People are tired of the usual conferences and approaches to organizational change that produce lots of talk but no substantive action. We are collectively creating results that nobody wants and will continue doing so until we can answer the question: How do we activate our future potential at the collective level?

I have spent the past 18 years pursuing this question. That quest has led me and my colleagues to create a “social technology” that blends leadership, mindfulness, and systems thinking. My colleagues and I have come to refer to this new social technology as “presencing.” The presencing method uses a sequence of co-sensing (“observe, observe, observe”), stillness (co-inspiring or “connecting to sources of knowing”) and co-creating (“acting in an instant”) to help people bring about profound innovation at the level of the whole system.

Global Presencing Forum: Ego to Eco

 Last week, along with my colleagues, I helped organize an event on the campus of MIT in Cambridge, MA, designed around the principles of presencing. We brought together 250 leaders and change makers from 28 countries; another 800–1,000 online participants watched the live-streamed plenary sessions, and some of them hosted parallel events in their local communities.


We called the event the Global Presencing Forum. Co-sponsored by MIT’s Community Innovators Lab, the Presencing Institute, and the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, the Forum brought together innovators who seek to generate profound change in social systems by shifting the awareness of the people within these systems, including themselves, from what we call ego-system awareness to eco-system awareness.

The Forum was designed to connect the four following groups:

  • leaders and innovators from business, government, and NGOs
  • grassroots movement builders and social entrepreneurs who come from, and work with, the most socially marginalized
  • thought leaders in transforming the economy toward sustainable well-being
  • pioneers in blending mindfulness with cognition science

Below I list some of the most interesting insights and initiatives that emerged during the two-day Forum. I also describe some of the methods we used.

Emerging Results 

Collaboration across boundaries:

Several new initiatives were launched. Equally important are the many new connections that were forged between existing initiatives and new partners.

For example, the Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI) on Climate Change, Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security is a multilateral partnership of six countries formed in 2007 to address the urgent threats facing coastal and marine resources. Its current challenge is to build a collective capacity to deliver on its objectives, in a scenario of deep social, cultural, economic and political complexity. At the Forum, CTI representatives linked up with similar (smaller-scale) regional initiatives with the goal of collaborating more effectively across boundaries and building capacity toward a vision that is organized around cultivating the commons.

Shifting how individuals relate to each other and to the whole system:

Some participants observed and experienced subtle new ways of relating to each other. A long-time leader of a major global bank told me after the Forum: “I was so surprised by the quality of awareness and connection in the room. It happened very naturally. I have never seen anything quite like it.” I asked him what qualities of connection he was referring to. He said:  “There was very little ego in the room. The ego-awareness was gone, and the eco-awareness was activated in just about everyone. It was quite a natural process. Very different from what I experience otherwise. As if a dormant collaborative gene has been switched on…”

Activating the potential of online learning:

Additional feedback came from our online audience. One participant reported “an unexpected experience of being deeply connected,” while another said “I never felt so connected and transformed before.” Because, personally, I have never experienced anything transformative through an online medium, my colleagues and I are now inquiring into what this participant and others found to be particularly helpful or inspiring, in order to explore how it can be replicated in future online programs (such as the MOOC I will be offering later this year through EdX).

Activating the Field of the Future

Here are seven tools and practices that we and the participants used in the Forum to co-sense and activate our best future potential.

1. A core group that “holds the space” with a common intention. Before the Forum began, 24 senior facilitators who guide presencing-based transformation processes around the world met for three days to share what we are learning through our work. The night before the Forum, we convened this same group along with all of the invited speakers. Forty of us sat in a circle and shared our aspirations for the highest potential of the Forum (picture). It was the power of this setting that helped this core group to collectively hold the space (collaboratively and without further planning) to maintain a high-quality learning environment for all of the participants over the next two days.


2. Mindful methods and tools. Activating the field of the future requires a method. We call this method “Theory U” or “presencing.” It’s a process that is grounded in our capacity to pay attention to our attention as the ultimate leverage point for life-enhancing change. To practice paying attention to our attention, Arthur Zajonc, President of the Mind & Life Institute and author of Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry, led us through a mindfulness practice for moving from focused attention to open awareness. For the rest of the Forum, participants were invited to use this mindfulness practice while listening to speakers and story presenters. This created a more empathic and generative quality of collective attention than people are used to experiencing at conferences, where too often we simply debate and re-confirm what we already know.

3. Experiential labs: storytelling and theater.  During the afternoon of day one, each participant joined one of eight Experiential Labs. These blended stories told by leading change-makers with group dialogue, personal reflection, and a highly experimental form of collective sense-making we call Social Presencing Theater. In my Lab, Eileen Fisher, CEO and founder of Eileen Fisher Inc., and Michelle Long, Executive Director of BALLE (Business Alliance of Local Living Economies, the fastest-growing network of sustainable enterprises in America), reported on the outcomes of their participation in the Global Wellbeing and Gross National Happiness Lab. During the dialogue, one of the participants said, “I feel that I am watching the beginning of a new movement that blends the power of entrepreneurship with the power of mindfulness and compassion.”


4. Connecting to source. During the evening of the first day, we hosted an East-West dialogue that explored how each of us can access deeper levels of individual awareness. Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein of congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York City said the process requires us to stop, turn, and listen to what wants to emerge. Tho Ha Vinh of the GNH Centre in Bhutan shared the Bhutanese context of Gross National Happiness and its underlying values and principles. Ego, he explained to us, is essentially about craving and fear, while eco is about compassion and mindfulness. This dialogue echoed themes from earlier in the day when Kang Yoto, an elected leader and Islamic scholar from Bojonegoro, Indonesia, shared his interpretation of Al-Fatihah (the first chapter of the Quran), which, he said, communicates the importance of cooperation and giving to others as opposed to seeking gain for oneself.

5. Awakening the undocumented part of our story. On day two, Sofia Campos, chair of United We Dream (the largest immigrant-youth-led organization in the U.S.) and a Master’s student at MIT, talked about the violence experienced by the deeply marginalized groups in U.S. society. She spoke uncomfortable truths: two million undocumented people have been deported since President Obama was elected (a rate of 1,500 each day); two million Americans are incarcerated, mainly black and brown men and most for non-violent drug crimes. The United States leads the world in both of these shameful categories.

Sofia finished by showing this remarkable video, which left many in the audience in tears. “Many of us have undocumented parts of our story,” Sofia said.  “In order to know others,” she continued, “you have to know yourself.”  Emotions were strong because Sofia brought us back to our awareness of the “undocumented” parts of our collective social experience.  In sharing her own story as an undocumented American who arrived as a child with parents fleeing terrorism in their native Peru, she emphasized how essential it is to have space in an open-hearted community that upholds and embraces those who are wrongly criminalized and despised by the larger society, and that does so based on dignity, love, purpose, and compassion.


6. Prototyping the new. Nietzsche once said: Art is the only revolutionary force. In the presencing process, we employ a variety of artistic tools that help people crystallize intention into action: guided journaling, drawing, and theater, followed by a quick and chaotic process in which participants search for others with whom they can collaborate on an idea or initiative.

7. Weaving the field of the larger eco-system. At the close of day two, we invited participants to describe some of their emerging initiatives. The landscape of small and not-so-small initiatives and connections will be very interesting to watch and support as their momentum grows. Several individuals commented on the personal and relational shift they experienced over the two days. For example, more than 20 Brazilians attended the Forum, many of whom had not known each other or their projects beforehand. By the end of the Forum many had found connections and possibilities for collaboration; including an intention for a societal transformation “hub” in Sao Paulo that could be an ongoing source of support for these connections.

Shifting the Field

So, what does it take to awaken the sleepwalking entity that is our collective self? What does it take to sense and actualize the space of future potential around us?

What it takes is a social field and a social space that facilitates a turn, a bending of our beam of observation back onto ourselves, back onto its source. The bending of the beam of observation is called reflection when it happens as a mental process. It’s called empathy or compassion when it happens as a process that activates the intelligence of our heart. And it’s called entrepreneurship, or love, when it happens as a process that activates our deepest capacity to create.  What I saw at the Forum was the beginning of a collective opening process on all three of these levels: opening the mind (reflection), the heart (compassion) and the will (creative core).  When that opening happens, we still have the same problems, but we can approach them more in more present, more connected, and more co-creative ways.

Where have you seen conditions that allow groups to move from the state of sleepwalking (same old, same old) to waking up and co-sensing a new space of possibility? What examples come to your mind, small or big, and what can we learn from them?

Thank you for sharing!

And thanks to Adam Yukelson, Dayna Cunningham, Julia Kim, Katrin Kaufer, and Frans Sugiarta for contributing to this post!




Cultivating Collective Mindfulness: The Leader’s New Work

Thursday, February 6th, 2014 | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

In my previous blog post I shared my observations from the World Economic Forum in Davos: about the rising mindfulness movement on the one hand, and the continued supremacy of what could be called collective sleepwalking on the other. Collective sleepwalking results in three deep divides that are the signature of our civilizational crisis today: the ecological divide—the disconnect between self and nature (resulting in overuse of planet earth’s finite resources—we are using 1.5 planets today); the social divide—the disconnect between self and other (resulting in two societies: the 1% vs. the 99%); and the spiritual divide—the disconnect between self and self (resulting in suicide now taking more lives than war, murder, and natural disasters combined). Looking into the mirror of our time, I see a reflection of 1914, when sleepwalking Europeans, awake but not seeing, moved the world toward WWI, then WWII, and the rest of 20th-century history as we know it.

Collectively Creating Results That Nobody Wants

The reality is that we—all of us, not just the financial elite—are the collective sleepwalkers. How do we wake up? Why is it that, across so many major systems, we collectively create results that nobody wants? Nobody wants to increase environmental destruction, poverty, cultural ADHD, or suicide. Yet we keep doing it. Why do we collectively recreate these patterns?

The Blind Spot

The root cause of our current economic and civilizational crisis is not Wall Street (although the decoupling of the financial and the real economy is a huge problem). It’s not infinite growth (although overusing earth’s finite resources is another enormous problem). It’s not Big Business or Big Government (although their disconnect from the real needs in our communities needs to be fixed). It’s also not leadership, governance, or ownership. The primary root cause is more fundamental than any of these structural issues or systemic disconnects.

Our current crisis originates between our ears: in our outdated paradigms of economic thought. It originates in the disconnect between our dominant models of economic thought (which gravitate around ego-system awareness, in which stakeholders maximize benefit only for themselves) and the collaboration imperatives of our global eco-system economy (in which stakeholders seek to improve the well-being of all, including themselves). We have an enormous disconnect between ego-system thinking and the eco-system reality.

Economic Evolution as an Evolution of Consciousness

The main shortcomings of conventional economic theory can be summarized in two words: externalities and consciousness. Economic externalities have been discussed at length by policymakers and researchers, and many have tried to address them. By contrast, the issue of consciousness—by which I mean not only what we do or how we do it, but the level and quality of awareness we operate from when taking action—is completely ignored, not even registering as a legitimate component of economic thought. Why is it so important?

The current capitalist economy is fundamentally ego-centered: it is structured to satisfy my wants as an individual and to privatize or even atomize decision making. Most attempts to deal with social and ecological problems encourage consumers and producers to extend their awareness beyond themselves, to internalize the well-being of other stakeholders. But this process is inadequate to deal with the size and complexity of the crises we face today.

What’s really needed is a deeper shift of consciousness. We need to care and act not just for ourselves and a few close partners, but in the interest of the entire eco-system in which economic activity takes place.

The economic imperative of our time calls for an evolution of the dominant logic and operating system from one that is based on ego-system awareness to one that is based on eco-system awareness. To paraphrase Einstein, the problem with today’s capitalism is that we are trying to solve problems with the same level of consciousness that created them.

The Leader’s New Work: Bending the Beam of Observation

What would the path toward an intentional, co-creative eco-system economy look like? It would take us on a journey that links together three intertwined parallel transformations —personal, relational, and institutional. All three of these transformations must deal with essentially the same inner movement: shifting the state of awareness from ego to eco by awakening the intelligence of our heart.

The good news is, the research that my colleagues and I have been doing for the past 19 years has shown us some reliable ways to do precisely this.

Personal Transformation: From Me to We

One of the early and important moments that led me to pay attention to consciousness was when I heard the late CEO of Hanover Insurance, Bill O’Brien, sum up his own leadership experience with the observation, “The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervenor.”  When I heard this I thought, Wow! He claims that what matters most is not what leaders do or how they do it, but the inner place from which they operate—i.e., the quality of awareness and consciousness that they bring to a situation. I asked myself: What do we know about this inner place, about this source of social reality creation?

We know nothing! Because it’s hidden in the blind spot of our everyday experience. We can see and record what leaders do and how they do it (the processes they use), but how could we track what was going on in that inner place? To do that, I realized that we would need to bend the beam of scientific observation back onto the observing self.

Bending the beam of observation onto its source is the essence of the leader’s new work. Engaging in this new type of leadership work allows leaders and change-makers to tune three critical instruments of their inner knowing: the open mind, the open heart, and the open will. (see figure).

Fig 2

Figure 1: Theory U—Leading from the Emerging Future

The open mind represents the capacity to see the world with fresh eyes and to suspend old habits of thought. Having an open heart means having the capacity to empathize, to see any situation through the eyes of someone else. And an open will is the capacity of letting-go and “letting-come”: letting go of old identities (like “us versus them”), and letting come a new sense of self and of what is possible.

As the saying goes: the mind works like a parachute—it only functions when it’s open. The personal transformation I’m talking about here unleashes profound ways of opening up that helps us tune in to and operate from the emerging future. Leaders need to extend and deepen their capacity for listening—from downloading (listening only to confirm what I already know) and factual listening (listening for information that challenges what I already know) to deeper empathic and generative listening (sensing and presencing the emerging future).

Relational Transformation: From Ego to Eco

Most key leadership challenges of our time boil down to something very simple: transforming stakeholder relationships that operate based on transactional ego-system awareness into relationships that operate based on transformative eco-system awareness. Ego-system awareness means paying attention to the well-being of oneself. Eco-system awareness means focusing on the well-being of oneself and of the whole (all the stakeholders in the system, including nature).

Shifting from one to another requires a profound shift in the types of conversation we have with each other: from downloading and debate to dialogue and collective creativity.

Institutional Transformation: From Silos to Collective Creativity

An institution that moves from ego to eco reshapes the traditional geometry of power characterized by hierarchies and competition into a co-creative eco-system of stakeholder relationships that generates well-being for all. As this organizational transformation evolves—from centralized and decentralized to networked and eco-system-based—we will also see our larger economic system also evolve from its earlier forms (state-centric, market-centric) to more mature stages of development. (For more on all three transformations, see the Matrix of Social Evolution.)

Building a New Collective Action Leadership School

So what will it take to wake up from our collective sleepwalking? It will require applying the power of mindfulness, both individually and collectively, to the evolution of business, democracy, and society.

To accelerate and advance this shift we need a bold initiative to build the collective capacity of mindful leadership on a massive scale. We need new innovation infrastructures and social technologies that enable diverse groups to act in new ways by co-sensing, co-inspiring, and co-creating the future that wants to emerge.

At the heart of this new collective leadership capacity is a profound shift of awareness from ego to eco. Many people know that in the age of disruption that we have entered, the big systems around us will continue to crumble and collapse. What’s called for now are new is a deeper shift in the quality of our relationships—a shift of the heart—that allows us to co-create, prototype, and scale new forms of collaborative institutions.

To support this ego to eco shift we need a new type of awareness-based collective action leadership school—a distributed platform that focuses on pioneering profound innovations by an approach that links and integrates all sectors (business, government, civil society), system levels (micro, macro, mundo) and all intelligences (head, heart, hand).

We already have much of what it takes in the form of living examples, methods, tools, frameworks, and capacity building mechanisms. What’s missing is a shared platform and common intention by an inspired core group to make it happen on a larger scale—a school that integrates science, consciousness, and profound societal renewal.

To explore this space of possibility and to learn from ongoing experiments already being conducted around the world, the Presencing Institute and the MIT Colab are co-hosting a Global Forum on economic transformation on Feb 11–12 at MIT. Change-makers from across all sectors, systems, and cultures will be attending. Free live-streaming will be available (the on-site event is already fully subscribed).

Over the coming months, I will share in this weekly blog more about the ego-to-eco shift, how mindfulness can be applied to our collective challenges today, the highlights of the Global Forum, and how we can bring the three revolutions that are necessary today (personal, relational, institutional) to life.

For more detail on the ego-to-eco shift: Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego-System To Eco-System Economies.