Global Fall Stories: Fire from Within

Monday, November 25th, 2013 | Uncategorized | 5 Comments

I love living in Boston, MA, on the east coast of the United States. I particularly love being there during the Indian Summer, when nature is turning the leaves a glowing red, making visible an inward turn of evolutionary forces. What more powerful image could nature put on show for us? Mother nature, contemplated from this perspective, seems to be issuing a global call that can be heard everywhere —a call for an inward turn, for profoundly renewing the foundations of our civilization, the ways we work and live.

Where can we find this shift and call for future? In the here and now: The future is already here! We just need to learn to pay attention to it. We need to learn to see the glowing leaves as a sign of the future in the midst of the everyday noise.

Here are four short stories about what I have seen lately—this fall. Read them, and if you feel moved to, please add your own story to the comments on this blog.

(1) U-Lab: The Power of Deep Listening.

I love teaching my U-Lab class at MIT Sloan. Teaching? Well, it’s really more holding the space. Creating a space for listening. Listening to what is emerging. And being vulnerable, willing to open up and to let go, to jump into the unknown—and staying with what is wanting to emerge. Each week the Lab participants engage in several practices (e.g., an empathy walk; presencing-based case clinics) and then reflect on them in their circles and in a weekly one-page paper that the U-Lab staff and I get to read. What have we seen in those reflection papers over the past few years?

One consistent theme has been the power of deep listening. Most students are able to profoundly transform their listening in just six weeks. And they are amazed at the impact this has on their experiences. Because the moment you begin to pay attention differently, what changes is no less than . . . EVERYTHING. That’s because our experience of reality arises in our consciousness through the structure that we use to pay attention. There is no other way.

The first step in the U-Lab class to shifting your listening is to go on an empathy walk. Pick a person who seems very different from you (in class, worldview, life-style, or political views, for example). And then connect with and make yourself a guest in that person’s life. Empathize with that person by putting yourself in her shoes, her feelings, and her thinking—in her “skin.”

After that exercise I ask the students what they notice about their listening. One Lab member responded: “I am noticing that in order to truly listen I have to create a place for the person I am listening to in my heart first.”

That sentence reveals the first golden nugget I wanted to tell you about. It’s a key to unlocking a profound shift in our relationships to others, to the world, and to ourselves.

The next story looks at how this shift can happen collectively.

(2) Climate Change: Five Conditions for Shifting the Collective Field

Another major activity for me this fall has been the launch of a seven-month transformation action learning program with a huge Chinese state-owned enterprise. According to the Forbes Global 2000 list (which for the first is topped by a Chinese company) that enterprise is currently the largest company on the planet. One reason I enjoy working with Chinese leaders is precisely because my experiences with them are so different from how Western media tend to portray them.

The team of the state-owned enterprise that I’m working with is composed of senior executives and high-potential younger leaders from across the company. Their goal is to develop ways to evolve and reinvent the company and the industry given the disruptive changes they face.

In one session we focused on climate change (as we do in all leadership programs of this sort). Here is how it works: Folks split into six teams, each representing one of the following countries or country groups: USA, EU, another developed country, China, India, and one other developing country. Each team is given a short briefing paper outlining their own interests and issues, and then the participants enter the negotiation room. There are six tables (one for teach team), with lots of food on the tables of the developed countries, and little or no food on the tables of the emerging and developing countries. Then the facilitator (Prof. John Sterman) addresses them as if he were the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon. He summarizes the current science and urges them to reach decisions that are appropriate to the global climate challenge that they face. The participants are given some time to discuss the issues in their delegations (at their tables) and with the other groups before each team is asked to present their commitments to climate action to all of the other delegations. The Secretary General asks each team to present their commitments by answering the following questions:

1. When will you stop increasing your greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions?
2. When will you start reducing your GHG emissions?
3. At what rate will you reduce your emissions?

We then use a peer-reviewed scientific climate-change model to calculate and simulate the impact of their decisions on the climate for the remainder of this century. After seeing these projections and their impacts, the groups are asked to review and revise their decisions. Usually they commit to much more radical cuts then they did in the first round.

Having seen this simulation with several other groups before, I knew what to expect after round two: even after making much more radical commitments to reducing GHG emissions, the outcome of their decisions is still massive climate destabilization, catastrophic sea-level rises, and temperature changes that will destabilize societies on a scale never seen before. The participants tend to have strong emotional reactions after this experience: denial, depression, and cynicism—the usual wicked triad. They are deeply disturbed and confused by the outcome of the exercise.

But this time it was different. Together the six teams almost had a breakthrough after round two. It wasn’t quite a breakthrough, but it was close, and you could sense that the tide had started to turn. We began to see a shift from one mindset (“ego”), in which the delegations engaged in finger-pointing and made decisions that served their own narrow self- interest, to another mindset (“eco”), in which delegations let go of their narrow country ego and devoted their full shared attention to collectively solving the challenge at hand. In short: they shifted their mindset from ego to eco.

On my way home that night I remember thinking that what I had seen was pretty amazing. In one microcosm, I had just witnessed the kind of shift that is deeply necessary now on a much larger scale around the world. So what were the enabling conditions that allowed this collective shift to happen? Here are four that I saw at play:
• A container: All the key players were together in one space.
• Science and data: The best possible data and science were readily available.
• An activation of the senses: People were able to see, sense, and feel the possible impacts of their decisions. Example: They saw what would happen to Shanghai if the sea level rose two meters over time, plus another two-three meters during a typhoon: Shanghai would cease to exist.
• Making the system see itself: The people who made up “the system” saw themselves as if reflected in a mirror—collectively.
• Leadership: time, space, and patience in holding up the mirror for the group.

Watching this process I can tell exactly when the shift started happening: it was when the system started to see itself. That is, when the participants went from thinking “Climate change is what they are doing to us!” to thinking “Look at what we are doing to ourselves!”

How did the shift happen? By letting reality sink into the collective mind. By allowing the (eco-systemic) global reality to penetrate the (ego-systemic) mindset of the institutional decisionmakers. That penetration creates a shift that Goethe once eloquently articulated like this: Every object, well contemplated, opens up a new organ of perception within us. Meaning: the current global crisis, jointly contemplated by the community of decisionmakers that is generating it, opens up a new organ of perception—a new level of common awareness and possibility for collective action—within us and between us.

That’s the second amazing golden nugget I’ve found this fall. If replicated on a large scale, it could help us to bring about the collective (ego to eco) shift necessary today. The climate change simulation model and additional methods and tools are freely available on www.climateinteractive.org.

(3) Abu Dhabi: The Knowing – Doing Gap

The third story comes from Abu Dhabi, where last week I attended a World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council session with a group of 1,000 amazing thought leaders and change-makers from across all sectors, systems, and cultures.

Here is my takeaway from the manifold conversations at that meeting. Many conventional thought leaders conceive of the current global crisis in terms of closing a knowledge gap: if only we could close the knowledge gap (on how to address the current challenges), we would be able to take appropriate action. But true change making practitioners often express the other view: the real gap today is not a knowledge gap, it’s a gap between knowing and doing. That is, the real problem is a collective capacity gap of sensing and shaping the emerging future at the scale of the whole system. If that is so, how can we create new spaces that allow people to co-sense, lean into, and co-shape the emerging future?

In my view, it would mean reframing the existing structure of public conversation that focuses on decision-makers (institutional leaders) on the one hand and decision-framers (thought leaders) on the other by introducing a third category of change-makers that focus on creating the conditions that allow individuals and systems to go through transformative change (ego to eco). Because this third category of change makers is largely missing, we tend to have the same old conversations time and time again.

(4) Indonesia 2013: YES WE CAN!

Today, as I write this blog entry, I am leaving Jakarta, Indonesia, where I attended the graduation workshop of the fourth IDEAS Indonesia program, a nine-month collective innovation journey with leaders from across all sectors of Indonesian society (business, government, civil society, academia, media). They came up with five fabulous prototype projects that allowed them to explore the future by doing: from sustainable tourism to community-based sustainable mining and reforestation practices.

In all five projects the participants somehow succeeded in shifting a multi-stakeholder situation from working in silos to collaborating more creatively, collectively, and intentionally in order to better serve our commons. That shift from ego to ego came in many different forms. But in reflecting on this process, the IDEAS fellows realized that one important precondition to making these shifts happen had to do with shifting the inner place. Here is how one of them, the CEO of a company, reflected on his personal journey over the past nine months: “It feels as if my life has brought me to a crossroads. Over the past few months, I realized that I had forgotten or not achieved many of my childhood dreams. But then I realized that I still can make a change.  I feel empowered to do what I wanted to do when I was younger. Through you and with you my new friends in this circle, I feel more invincible now. At the same time, I also feel a heightened sense of humility.”

I just love that quote—such a beautiful microcosm of a nine-month journey: waking up, remembering my dream, attending to my power to create change, connecting to a circle of friends that makes me “more invincible now,” and grounding myself in “a heightened sense of humility.”

In listening to the first-person stories of the fellows, I heard time and again the following three themes and awakening capacities: (1) deep listening, (2) discovering new sources of energy by engaging in care- and compassion-based action, and (3) courage to let go of fear and to commit to serve the well-being of all.

One evening we were invited to meet with the new Vice Governor of Jakarta, who together with the new Governor is among the most beloved and admired political leaders in Indonesia today. They have managed to take on corruption and huge vested interests in order to better serve the well-being of all. In short, they do what many had hoped from the Obama White House team: deliver.

So how can they cope with powerful vested interests turning against them? Total transparency! They put the state budget and every single stakeholder meeting they have instantly online. Interestingly, the Vice Governor talked about essentially the same key themes that earlier in the day the IDEAS fellows had talked about when reflecting on their experience: caring for the well-being of others, courage to fearlessly implement, and co-creating new economic models that serve the well-being of all.

Summing up: It feels as if the spirit of our time calls for a global fall, for turning our evolutionary forces inward, for discovering the fire from within that helps us lean into and operate from the emerging future. So where can we find early examples, the first red leaves, for this turn?

We generally find them first in the following places: (1) on the periphery of systems, (2) locally, (3) with young folks (Gen Y), and (4) in situations of systemic breakdown and/or the emergence of new systems. The above four stories represent just some of the first leaves that are beginning to glow. Which ‘leaves’ do you see in your environment glowing?

On February 11–12, 2014 we will bring many more of these ‘leaves’ and change makers together from across systems, sectors and cultures at the Global Forum on Transforming Ego-system to Eco-system Economies at MIT in Boston, Massachusetts. Please join us on that occasion in Boston or virtually through free live-streaming.

Greeetings from (currently) China,


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Indonesian Inspirations: The Asian Essence of the U

Thursday, July 12th, 2012 | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

I am writing this on my return flight from an amazing week in Indonesia. First we celebrated the graduation of the 2012 class from the MIT IDEAS Indonesia program, a nine-month journey for high-potential leaders from business, government, and civil society that took them to the edges of society, systems, and their own selves (picture).

Hosted by the Minister of Trade in Jakarta, the IDEAS group presented their five action learning prototypes to the public:

1. Defense through Prosperity: Shifting the security frame from hard to soft power
2. Vulnerable Children: Using media to empower the most marginalized children in Papua
3. Ecosystem Protection: Rebuilding the well-being of ecosystems through economic inclusion (rather than by working against the marginalized)
4. Water: Cleaning up a river in Jakarta by engaging stakeholders across all three sectors
5. Microfinance—Financing an economic shift that transforms fisher’s core business from catching fish to watching and safeguarding fish

What I love about these prototypes is that they became much more than just a practice field for cross-sector engagement. Almost all of the IDEAS teams are now engaged in significant ongoing change activities that have emerged from their prototypes, although the IDEAS program officially ended last week. Several of the teams have co-founded new organizations that will support their ongoing activities. Others have formed cross-organizational alliances between existing institutions. Their work has produced what seems like a really rich field planted with promising seeds for the future…

Meeting the Minister of Trade reminded me how successful Indonesia has been in reducing its debt-to-GDP ratio from 83% in 2001 to as little as 24% today. It’s an amazing accomplishment in only about one decad! Contrast that with the progress on that issue in Washington and Europe…

With my colleagues Frans (Jakarta) and Dr. Ben (Singapore), I then ran several workshops for BNI, the second largest government-owned bank in Indonesia, as part of their institutional transformation journey. Here are a few insights from these sessions:

–The opening of the financial markets in Indonesia for foreign banks has been a mixed blessing. Today, of the 40 largest banks in Indonesia, only 13 are not foreign owned. The benefit that the international competitors brought was somewhat limited, as all of them concentrate on the top market of the affluent and rich, creating very few services and benefits for the underserved customers in the country. That market, the underserved regions and segments of society, is largely left to domestic (government-owned) players like BNI. So why do Indonesians need the international banks when all they do is skim the cream from the over-served market, with no or little contribution (or rechanneling) to the underserved markets?

–When you take a group of 60 or 100 people through a one- or two-day U process journey, you know by the elevated energy at the end that some sort of transformation has happened. But when exactly is the moment when the collective field starts to shift? It happens when, having faced and absorbed the current reality from all the relevant angles (observe, observe, observe), people begin to BEND, TURN, and REDIRECT the beam of attention from the “problems out there” (in the it-world) to themselves (the I-you world), that is, to their own actions that continue to reproduce the current unacceptable reality.

This moment is different from abstract reflection. In abstract reflection we miss the first step: the collective grounding of the whole group by getting them to absorb and internalize all the relevant perspectives and views. (This involves systems mapping and role playing in order to enact the dynamics of the system in real time.) Next you allow yourself a moment of stillness, you let everything sink in, and then you ask yourself: Why are we doing this to ourselves? THAT is the moment when the field starts to shift. It’s the moment when the individual and collective beams of attention start to bend, bend more, turn, and get redirected back to their SOURCE: why are WE doing this to OURSELVES?

This sounds easy and obvious, but in most real cases this shifting of the field does not happen because of one of the two following failures. (1) Either you are simply stuck in current reality — that is, the whole analysis is done on a simple systems (technical) level, missing the self-reflective turn (it-world fallacy, it’s all about stuff). Or, if you do bring in the self-reflective dimension (let’s say by coaching the key players), it’s done with partial and incomplete data and doesn’t close the feedback loop between self and other in a system (I-world fallacy, it’s all about me). The point of the U is to avoid both fallacies and steer the ship between these extremes, first by building a solid foundation of seeing a SHARED current reality, and then by turning our attention from the it-world to the source. When that happens, things get quiet, time slows down, space gets broader and deeper. In that moment you know that you are on the right track. You have no idea what is going to emerge from the next phase. But you do know that you are entering a deeper level of the social field…

–The essence of all leadership is something very simple: connecting to reality. Reality 1 is current reality, and reality 2 is the emerging future reality that needs us in order to come into being. In other words, leadership is about getting out of our personal bubble. New consciousness comes into being when and to the degree that we pierce and emerge from the bubble of our formal systems, in order to meet and encounter the real reality outside.

–That reality has many faces. One way of thinking about it uses a set of three numbers that reflect the ecological, socio-economic, and spiritual divides that afflict our world: 1.5, 2.0, 3.0. The number 1.5 refers to the fact that we are currently using the resources of 1.5 planets every year. The number 2.5 refers to the 2.5 billion people who live in poverty. And 3.0 refers to the one million people who commit suicide every year, three times the number who die from violent conflict or war.

I have come to see my work more and more in terms of the work of a farmer. What does a good farmer do? Enhance the quality of the topsoil. What does a good farmer of the social field do (that is, a facilitator, coach, or leader)? The same thing. We all try to increase the quality of the topsoil of the social field. This very thin sphere connects what is underneath (earth, lithosphere) with what is above (sky, atmosphere). And through this connection, the soil becomes fertile. In management and leadership, in all sorts of social processes, we do the same thing. We are grounded in two worlds: a complete collective seeing of the “it” world, and then, when we redirect the beam of attention back toward its source, the distributed “I” world.

That is the essence of the U process. Working with groups in Asia has also taught me to better articulate the simple essence of the U: breathing in, breathing out. Breathing in: going down the left-hand side of the U; breathing out: going up the right-hand side of the U. Who is breathing here? It’s the collective breathing of a distributed social field, an emerging field of inspired connections among us…

Thoughts? Thanks for sharing them!

BTW, here are the youtube clips of an interview that Desi Anwar did with me for her “Face2Face” show that aired on Indonesian TV last weekend. I haven’t watched it yet but my Indonesian friends said that Desi once more created a great piece:

Part 1/5
Part 2/5
Part 3/5
Part 4/5
Part 5/5

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u.school and post-bubble economics

Saturday, May 28th, 2011 | Uncategorized | 14 Comments

We are living in an age of bursting bubbles. The first bubble to burst was the global financial market in 2008. The next bubble is expanding as we speak and is going to explode under the headline of the food security crisis (a mixture of food shortages, water shortages, soil erosion, peak oil, biofuel, and unsustainable farming practices). What do the financial and the food/soil bubbles have in common? Their common denominator is that they extract an unreasonable amount in the present while compromising the future capacity of the system to regenerate itself. This behavior externalizes the real costs to the poor (who won’t be able to pay the resulting higher prices) and to future generations (who will be left to clean up the mess we create).

Another common element is that both of these bubbles or boom-to-bust cycles are closely linked to a third bubble that has been in the making for a long time: the bubble of business schools and conventional economic thought. The essence of the old economic thinking is its blindness to social and ecological “externalities.” Both the financial and agricultural bubbles would have been unthinkable without modern economic thought and its whole set of management tools. It’s time to seed the beginnings of a new, post-bubble era of economics and management practice.

My colleagues and I are trying to contribute to post-bubble economics and management practices in two ways: by writing a book on the mindful transformation of capitalism, and by initiating a project we are calling the u.school, which would convene key innovators and leading institutions from business, civil society, and government around a platform for creating profound societal innovation and building personal and institutional capacity. Here is a link to a first concept paper on that initiative. Let us know what you think!


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Indonesia: the power of a tri-sector leadership journey

Monday, November 22nd, 2010 | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

A few days ago I returned from a workshop in Jakarta with an amazing group of leaders from all sectors of society (government, business, civil society). The same group came to MIT earlier this year at the launch of this nine months U process program. The group includes CEOs of medium-sized companies, founders of social justice organizations, deans and professors from the University of Indonesia, editors of major newspapers and news channels, senior civil servants from several ministries, members of the national parliament, the governor of a provincial district, and others. Here are a few highlights of what the group reported and reflected on during our concluding workshop last week:

(1) Each participant had experienced transformational change both individually and also as a group. They had discovered deeper ground and a deeper “source of being” within themselves. They also reported receiving multiple positive feedback from others about being better listeners.
(2) The process they went through as a group was described with these words: “We went from mistrust to trust, from trust to love, from love to knowledge, and from knowledge to action.”
(3) Several of them have made significant organizational progress toward transforming their organizations, although that journey is still early stage.
(4) Every team had accomplished two things with its prototype projects: some real impact and some hands-on learning. For example, one team that focuses on corruption went to a particular region far outside of Jakarta. On this learning journey they found that most of their assumptions about corruption in that place were wrong. They had to change their assumptions about corruption and its main drivers, and change their ideas about what needed to be done to improve the situation. They involved all stakeholders in the process of understanding the situation and inventing better ways of providing government services. The result, as we heard from a stakeholder who is doing business in that community, is a better, faster, more transparent, and more efficient government.
(5) The main takeaway for me has been to see the field of inspired connections that they – that we! – share with each other and that allows everyone who participates in that field to access their better selves.

I am so thankful to have been given the opportunity to prototype this country-level tri-sector leadership program in Indonesia over the past three years. Indonesia, with its diversity on so many levels, with its deep spirituality, and with its history that makes it a microcosm of all major global issues, is probably the best possible place to launch a new way of transforming society from ego-system awareness to eco-system awareness. Reflecting on some similar efforts currently under way in other countries, I wonder what this whole web of cross-sector innovation platforms might look like a few years down the road. Can we turn this effort into a globally networked “g.school” that allows young people to join the platform and add more quickly to the global web of prototyping initiatives?

The g.school would be a global action leadership school that convenes, connects, and co-inspires leaders and change makers across sectors, generations, and cultures. More on that later…


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