Archive for December, 2011

U of Democracy: Direct, Dialogic, Distributed…

Tuesday, December 13th, 2011 | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

I’m flying home from my fall road trip to some very inspiring parts of the world. Here are a few observations and experiences from the past few weeks:

MIT, Cambridge, Mass.: Starting at home, the Fall U-Lab class was great. Half of the 85 students were mid-career executives studying at MIT and Harvard on leave from companies around the world. What I found interesting is that many of them reported the same experiences in their home organizations (that I am also hearing in other places): “The faster I climb up the ladder of corporate success, the less inspired I get by my work…”

Presencing Global Forum, Cambridge, Mass.: The Global Forum was a huge experience (see my previous blog entry). It felt like stepping into a field of heightened collective possibility—something we have been working toward for many years. The question now is how to take the next steps. The next Forum will be in Berlin, June 18-19, 2012. Then the 2013 Forum will probably be in Bali (late June 2013). The Masterclass meeting (with a group of 72 advanced practitioners) that we held right after the Forum in Cape Cod also created the same feeling of deepened connection and heightened future possibility…

Health Innovation Lab, Amsterdam. I reconnected with a group of Dutch health practitioners working to radically renew their existing health system. We used social presencing theater (including many elements of constellation work) to map the current system and how it could be transformed into a health system of the future. We conducted the same process in two parallel groups and then compared notes. These are the three main elements common to both sets of ideas for transformation: 1. The new does not start inside the system, but from the periphery, from the edges of the system. 2. It starts with citizens (payers), patients, and alternative health providers—but when physicians join the new constellation the axis of the system shifts and the bigger players (insurance companies, hospitals) also need to change. 3. It is essential to include the patients and citizens (the people who pay).

Forum for Global Development, Berlin: On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, the German Ministry of Development Cooperation invited me to a two-day Global Development Forum that convened 60 decision makers and change makers from all cultures, regions, and sectors, including the head of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, and the head of the UN Environment Program, Achim Steiner. The event was designed around Theory U and co-facilitated by two of my colleagues from the Presencing Institute. Unfortunately, I could only attend the first day. On that day we started with some learning journeys. The journey I picked led me, among other places, to the now closed Tempelhof Airport in the center of Berlin. Have you ever been in an airport that’s completely silent? It’s almost surreal. The only time I had experienced an airport wrapped in stillness was right after 9/11 when Katrin and I tried to catch a flight from S.F. to Boston to get back to our children. Everything was closed down, as you may remember. Here is a picture of the Tempelhof Airport:

A few months ago this huge green strip in the heart of Berlin was opened to the public. What’s the result? People LOVE this green field in the heart of the city. They use it for running, skating, kiting, flying toy airplanes, enjoying the OPEN SPACE… Here is a look at that open space:

When you grow up in Germany (as I did) you find several reasons not to feel so great about your country, to put it mildly (nazi past, etc.). That said, I was really pleased to see how the city of Berlin included all its citizens in a process of participatory planning regarding the future of Tempelhof, openly and reflectively dealing with the history of this airport (which includes some Nazi elements, among others). Many other countries still cover up the shadowy parts of their history. Germany today (or at least parts of it) is a great example of dealing thoughtfully with the darker parts of its history. I liked what I saw. The Forum was guided by the same spirit: systemic, self-reflective, open-minded, empathic, willing to explore one’s blind spot, and to explore the future by doing.

a clip on the Forum

Bojonegoro, Java, Indonesia. For the past several years I have been running an MIT executive education program called IDEAS Indonesia. It is based on systems thinking and Theory U and brings together young high-potential leaders from government, business, and civil society and guides them on a nine-month innovation journey—a journey that takes them to the edges of society and the self. The first weeklong module takes place at MIT. The following three modules are held in Indonesia. So every now and then I get to travel to Indonesia to co-facilitate one of the modules there.

This time I managed to visit one of the prototype initiatives that has emerged from a previous IDEAS program. It’s led by Pak Bupati SUYOTO, the Regent of the Regency in the district of Bojonegoro, who was one of last year’s participants. The focus of the prototype was on reducing corruption and improving the quality of government services in the district. After the decentralization of government in 2005 much of the governmental decisionmaking in Indonesia has moved from the center to the 400 Regencies that are governed by the directly elected Bupatis (Regents). While the decentralization generally is a good thing, the corruption of government officials remains a huge problem for the country.

The story that we heard in Bojonegoro is stunning. We learned that Pak Bupati SUYOTO came into power without any support from the established interest groups. Since he had no budget for his election campaign, he did the only thing he could: go to the villages and listen and engage in dialogue with the people there. And he did it very effectively, earning the most votes in the election, much to the surprise of the entire political establishment.

What’s even more surprising is that he managed to turn around the regency in the record time of two and a half years. Having always ranked high on corruption and low on service quality (the lowest 20% among the 400 regencies), it is now exactly the opposite: his Regency is now ranked among the top ten nationwide in the quality of government services among the 400 regencies. How was that stunning turnaround possible? I was scratching my head and wondering whether this turnaround could really be possible.

Here is what I have learned so far. On his first day in office Pak Bupati SUYOTO called for a general assembly with all government employees in his regency. When they showed up, many of the senior people expected to lose their jobs because they had actively worked against him during the campaign. The Bupati delivered two main messages. First: No one will be sacked. Everyone will keep their job. He doesn’t want to look back but to look forward, building a future that is different from the past. Second: The three don’ts: No money (no bribes), no complaints, and no “not my job” (“not my area of responsibility”) responses. When he delivered that message people were surprised, but most people didn’t believe it (80% of them remained skeptical). But by consistently living up to his key messages he managed to shrink the percentage of skeptics from 80% to 20% within a year.

One of the most important mechanisms that he used to do it was simply to close the feedback loop between government officials and the citizens of the community. He did four simple things:

1. He gave his cell phone number to citizens and told them that they could text him any time. Since then he has received hundreds of text messages every day. He responds to many of them personally. Many others he forwards to his directors and department heads in charge of the relevant issues. Everyone in his administration is expected to respond to an SMS from a citizen within a day or two.

2. Second, he instituted an open-door policy. Anyone can walk into his office any time.

3. Third, every Friday afternoon he conducts a community dialogue meeting to which all citizens are invited and which all his top civil servants are required to attend. I attended one of these meetings. First a farmer voiced his issue: he had no access to fertilizers. When he sat down the microphone went to the head of the department of agriculture to explain the problem and say what could be done to fix it. The department head was a bit defensive. But he also knew that next week he would be back here facing the same people. So he had every incentive to fix the problem within a week’s time. Next came a young woman in her 20s wearing a hijab (Muslim head scarf). She said she was an educator and needed books to improve her teaching work in the villages. The classes that she wanted to teach included sex education for girls, and there were no instructional materials available. I listened with my eyes wide open, mindful that I was watching a community meeting inside the biggest Muslim country on the planet, with lots of old men and religious community leaders sitting in the audience of 300. She completed her request without any sign of fear or hesitation. The Bupati responded and told her how to find the resources she needed. He said that one of the big U.S. oil companies had come to his office earlier that day (in fact, I had attended that meeting as an observer, shadowing the Bupati) and asked what they could do to help the community. The Bupati told the teacher that she should pose her request directly to the oil company and that she would probably get what she needed. If it didn’t work she should come to back to him. Everyone in the community was listening to the exchange between the young woman from the village and the Bupati—and that shared listening turned the bilateral exchange and her initiative into a legitimate community project.

4. Fourth, the Bupati takes his key officials on a joint trip to two or three villages where they go through a similar dialogue process on a local level every single day.

What do these four mechanisms add up to? A lot of listening. A lot of direct listening by government officials to the everyday experiences of citizens, and a direct dialogue between the citizens and their elected Bupati and his team. When I saw these four feedback loops in action I thought boy, that’s exactly what’s missing in our democratic institutions in the West (and other parts of the world) today. In the West, elected officials and top civil servants spend only a small amount of time authentically listening to their citizens. Instead they listen to the lobbyists and organized interest groups who financed their election campaigns, who buy their influence through bribes in two forms: illegal ones and legal ones in the form of undisclosed campaign contributions.

So in a nutshell, what I saw in Bojonegoro was the seeds of a regenerated democracy. It was deepening our existing democratic forms by making them more dialogic, direct, and distributed. We need the same kind of renewal in the West, but also in many other places around the world. I felt the power of connecting directly to the community of citizens in the State Hall of Bojonegoro when I was asked to address the community at the end of their gathering. I felt the power of being in synch with the base of your community.

Below is a picture of Pak Bupati SUYOTO. It’s a shot taken maybe five minutes after the end of the Friday dialogue I referred to above. While walking out he was approached by one of the citizens with a concern. He sat down with that guy on the doorstep of the meeting hall to talk it over. At the end of that 2-minute meeting the Bupati wrote and signed an order that helped the citizen get access to the department that could help him. This was direct, dialogic, and living democracy in action…

Bali, Indonesia. The presencing workshop with thirty leaders from government, civil society, and business across Indonesia was a transformative experience for all of us. One element of this five-day workshop was a collective mapping of the current situation in the country (“sculpture 1”) and how it could be transformed (“sculpture 2”). Inspired by some temple visits in Bali, we added three “observers of the system” when mapping the current reality: Brahman (the creative capacity), Shiva (the destructive capacity), and Vishnu (the capacity that holds the space) Vishnu emerged as the critical enabler by paying attention to and connecting the most marginalized players in system, holding the space for them. Like in the Netherlands before (and in many other constellations previosly), the new sculpture mapped the formerly marginalized players in the heart of the new configuration…

Sao Paulo, Brazil: Two experiences. I was invited to give a talk on transforming capitalism at the Institute for Democracy and Sustainability (IDS) in Sao Paulo. The people in attendance were a really interesting group of social entrepreneurs, formers Ministers and grassroot change makers. Many of them were from Marina Silva’s team, the Green global thought leader who won a stunning 20% in the 2010 Presidential election in Brazil (she herself was attending the climate conference in Durban). At the end of the discussion one participant said: “OK, Otto, I notice you’re trying to connect three different themes and communities: the first one is inspired social entrepreneurs, the second group is leaders of really big institutions in business and government, and the third one is intellectuals and economists who are thinking and reflecting on the transformation of capitalism. These three groups usually do not mix, they tend to stay separate.” I thought that was a great observation and insight. It’s true that these three groups tend to not mix and blend very well. Yet, in this age of disruptive change that we have entered now, it seems to more important than ever to accomplish precisely that…

Most of my time in Sao Paulo earlier in the week I spent working with Natura. Natura is a Brazil-based company that focuses on individual and collective well-being. Natura, founded in 1969, and today a $4.5 billion cosmetics company, has always inspired me since at its core it is about achieving well-being by bridging the three big divides of our time: the ecological divide, the social divide, and the spiritual divide. The company has always been an ecological innovator. It works with 1.3 million “consultants” at the base of the socio-economic pyramid in the country, and its essential mission is to connect people to the deeper sources of our humanity.

During this visit I had the opportunity to get to know two of the company’s founders: Luiz Seabra and Guilherme Leal. It was SUCH an inspiration to meet the two of them! Luiz embodies the presence of the open mind, open heart, and open will in a palpable way that continues to inspire his community of a million-plus collaborators (who touch more than 100 million customers with their products). Next I met with Guilherme Leal and some of his close collaborators. In his journey as an entrepreneur he extend his material entrepreunerial interest from business to people and planet, turning Natura into a pioneer in sustainable development, and joining Marina Silva as her running mate in the last presidential election. Both conversations and both men inspired me for different reasons. But what intrigued me most, maybe, was how they interacted with each other together: how respectful and supportive they were of each other, how they not only tolerated but appreciated the differences in each other. Seeing them interact made me understand the real origin of the empathic culture of Natura.

I also remembered the remark made by an audience member about the three separate communities: inspired social entrepreneurs; leaders of large institutions; thought leaders on transforming capitalism. I realized that on the other side of that lunch table I faced two men whose relationship with each other crossed the boundaries of these three communities. That is exactly what inspires me about working with Natura: helping company to advance the transformational leadership journey it is on, and linking personal transformation with systemic transformation in society and capitalism today…

Going home. As I type these words on my flight back to Boston, I’m thinking about how all this relates, how to connect all the dots. I feel as if we live in a field of intensifying connections and heightened disruptions and possibilities. What does that heightened field of possibility want us to do? Create a landing place for the future? Create a whole set of interconnected landing strips? Landing places that would reside in Brazil, Indonesia, Europe, Africa, the US? It could be called “” -– or it could be called something else. But to bring IT into reality is a call of the future that I feel. How to make it happen is the question I’m returning home with…

Which reminds me of a recent review meeting with the top 20 civil servants in the Ministry of Health in Namibia, who we helped to see and transform their system for the better. Reflecting back on their two- or three-year learning process, they referred to our quarterly meetings as a “University of Democracy,” which I thought was a very interesting name…


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