Actionable Ways to Transform Business, Society & Self

In This Podcast
Show Notes
Otto Scharmer
E 131

In This Podcast

  • From ego system to ecosystem 
  • The knowing/doing gap
  • The ecological, the social, and the spiritual dimensions
  • How can leaders play their part?
  • The need for movements

Otto Scharmer is a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-founder of the Presencing Institute. In 2015, he co-founded the MITx U.lab, and in 2020, the GAIA journey (Global Activation of Intention and Action). GAIA has activated a vibrant worldwide ecosystem of transformational change involving more than 200,000 users from 185 countries.

Show Notes

Why Attention Aligned with Intention can Move Mountains with Otto Scharmer

What are the actionable ways that mankind can transform business, society and ourselves? That is the question Senior Lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management and co-founder of the Presencing Institute, Otto Scharmer, discusses in this episode of Corporate Unplugged. 

From ego system to ecosystem

For decades, Otto has been researching how humans can transition from an ego system to an ecosystem, so just what is the answer?

Firstly, says Otto, three out of four people are in support of transforming our economic systems, of undergoing a systems transformation towards better addressing the environmental and the social challenges, and the emergencies that we now face. 

The problem is, while we have 85% of the technologies available to help us achieve these goals, we are simply not doing it: 

“Whenever you have a system where you have a decoupling between the head and the hand, I believe the most important leverage point to bridge that disconnect is activating the knowing of the heart.”

What does that mean?

The knowing/doing gap

It isn’t that we don’t know enough, says Otto, we know everything we need to know to begin to fix the issues. We know what’s broken and we know how to fix it, the knowledge is there. The problem is there is a knowing/doing gap:

“And so that brought me into the whole domain of systems thinking. Because Systems Thinking starts with observation. Why is it that in most large systems today, we collectively create results that nobody wants?”

I.e. We are destroying the planet and ourselves. 

But, no one wakes up in the morning and says, ‘today I’m going to destroy the planet and inflict harm on myself and those around me’. Nobody does that, says Otto. Yet at a collective level, that’s what we are doing. 

From a traditional systems thinking point of view, you’d ordinarily hold a mirror up to the problem and say look at what you’re doing, but we aren’t doing that at an institutional level:  

“We’ve learned over the years that just making systems see themselves is not good enough. What’s really necessary to unlock the creativity of the collective is [you] need to feel it, right, you need to make systems see and sense themselves.”

Changes starts on the periphery 

If you don’t feel the pain of the one on the receiving end, says Otto, it’s very unlikely you’ll be moved to take action around it. 

So how do you address this issue?

You need to realise where the disruption shows up first, says Otto. It’s very unlikely, from a systems perspective, that issues will show up in the centre. More often they emerge first on the periphery, which is where you need to focus your gaze. 

So if you want to tackle the problems, you need to look at your group composition:

“When you put together strategy teams or innovation teams, you want to go to the younger people, to the more diverse people, people more from the edges of the system. Not just the headquarters experts, because then you only get more of the same.”

You also need to put yourself into the shoes of the user first, before you think about innovation and problem solving. 

Scenario thinking

Scenario thinking is the perfect approach to implement change in a practical situation, says Otto. The key point about scenario thinking isn’t that you’re trying to predict the future, far from it. It’s about working with multiple possible stories of how the future might unfold. 

A methodology that Otto has used widely over the years is 4D mapping. 

In his role as a speaker, Otto typically only has a few days with a leadership team. He needs to be able to open their eyes and create a transformative experience, to change their mindset in two or three hours. And he does that by getting his audience to think about what is possible. 

4D mapping brings to light the current reality in a social system i.e. a school, health care system or government. Participants use 4D mapping to gain new insights into their system:

  • How the highest aspiration in a system might come forward
  • Through applying mindfulness of the body and awareness of the space
  • By noticing what shifts in a system might be significant in moving toward an emerging future reality
  • By what is actually happening, not on what we think should be happening

“Everything you experience is data. You know that as a coach, you know that as a leader. In a relationship, when you work with a group, everything you experience is data about the situation, about the relationship, about the group, about what’s happening.”

4D mapping includes traditional stakeholder mapping methods, but also three roles that relate three other dimensions – the ecological, social and spiritual divides. 

The ecological dimension, the social dimension, and the spiritual dimension

So, how do you bring these dimensions into stakeholder mapping? 

  • Ecological – that is Mother Nature, it’s the planetary dimension
  • Social – that’s the marginalised groups, those who aren’t typically the decision makers
  • Spiritual – that’s the voice of the future, children, or aspirations of a country 

You can only map the system if you take every dimension into account:

“We not only face industry transformation in the traditional way, but we face a planetary emergency, we face a situation of social disruption which will significantly change the context of business.”

But the spiritual divide, says Otto, is the one thing that routinely gets ignored: 

“If I have learned anything in the past two decades of doing this work, it is that the only way of addressing the challenges we face collectively, not only on the level of institutions or industries, but really also society, is by integrating these three aspects.”

How can leaders play their part?

“As a leader, what you do is you evolve ever more conscious and awareness approaches to shift the inner place that you operate in, in order to be more effective.”

You can’t force a plant to grow faster, says Otto. All you can do is improve the quality of the soil. The same is true with organisations. You can’t force practical results and change, you can only work on the quality of relationships between individuals and teams to encourage improvement: 

“You need to create these areas and arenas of collaboration and co-creation, that’s the only way we can move forward. Increase the areas of collaboration, co-creation, in a context where these toxic social fields that have to do with the mind, heart, will, are ever more amplified.”

As a leader, says Otto, you need to develop the capacity to transform these patterns of behaviour from dysfunctional to functional. And you do that by improving the quality of the soil i.e. improving the quality of relationships:

“That’s where my passion is. How to create spaces, learning spaces that allow us as individuals to access our own experience on a deeper level, and where we see how what we do and how we pay attention to a situation has a direct impact on what’s happening in a system.”

The need for movements

The only way big change happens in society, observes Otto, is through movements. And the only way movement happens is if you enable infrastructures to go deeper. In the old days, these infrastructures were the churches i.e. for the civil rights movement. 

“Today we need these enabling infrastructures, and often they are not there. And it often has to do with small groups and practices of people spending time together and accessing their deeper aspiration for change. But they often don’t have dedicated attention because we are missing these enabling spaces.”

Therefore what the world needs most right now is the space to realign attention and intention on the level of the whole. 

“In principle, the future that we are working towards we don’t need to plan that out. It’s already there, it’s seeds. But what’s not there is spaces that put the attention on the seeds in a way that would really help them to grow.”

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