Transformative Learning: Building the Foundation for Next Stage Organizations
Pathways and practices to explore the hidden promise and possibilities of the liminal space…
The narratives, metaphors, paradigms, and structures that lay the foundations of the current reality are unraveling — unraveling at an unforeseen pace; nonetheless, organizations, institutions as well as social and political forces are continuing to operate in a “business-as-usual” mode. We are at a transition point in our evolution that Yeats described so prophetically in The Second Coming:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Joanna Macy calls this unraveling The Great Turning. The vital question for our collective contemplation now is, “how do we become the humans our world needs?” We, who are born into these profound times, have a shared responsibility to reimagine a new way of being, to be scribes to an emerging New Story — a Story of Interbeing, Interrelatedness, and Wholeness. A Story that embraces the exquisite fragility as well as the astounding resilience of this Planet and of Life itself.
This story needs to be lived at every level — social, political, ecological, organizational, and personal. It is already taking root, it’s tender shoots are sprouting across the globe through various movements, dialogues, and practices. To reinvent ourselves and our systems, we have to embrace our sovereignty and agency as individuals and as collectives. We are in a liminal space — a space that is alive with creative potential, filled with unparalleled possibilities, and with extraordinary prospects. To realize the hidden promises of this moment, we need to shift our consciousness from an “ego-system awareness to (an) eco-system awareness” (Otto Scharmer).
Against this backdrop, organizations are uniquely positioned to have a healing and transformative impact on the Planet and on all sentient beings. I see this as an opportunity for organizations to reinvent themselves, to align with the needs of the Planet and the potential of their people, to chart a new path towards their Evolutionary Purpose. It would be easy to argue that against the systemic forces at play, what influence can one organization or even several have? I believe that each and every life-affirming and regenerative intention and action undertaken has far-reaching effect, percolates far beyond our imagination, and ultimately becomes a groundswell displacing the crumbling system. It is time for the birth of the Next-Stage Organizations. …
Next-Stage Organizations will be microcosms of the regenerative world we want to inhabit. Organizations of the 21st Century are global, diverse, distributed, boundaryless, and ubiquitously connected. This makes their influence pervasive, profound, and potent. By choosing to live, learn, and lead from a different place, such organizations will become beacons for others to follow, amplify this movement of movements, and enable a collective planetary healing. Am I being unrealistic? Seen through the lenses and paradigms of the past, yes! However, it’s time to discard the old lenses; it’s time for us to engage in collective reimagination:
Imagination is the first step to healing our planet.
Our imagination is stuck in the logic of the old paradigms.
We can imagine the new paradigms.
We can create the new paradigms.
We can live the new paradigms.
We have examples of organizations like Patagonia, Pachamama Alliance, Buurtzorg, Jaipur Rugs, Shikshantar, and many others creating microcosms of The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible. Kate Raworth, in an evocatively titled TED Talk A healthy economy should be designed to thrive, not grow, captures the essence of what it means for an economy or an organization to be regenerative and relevant in the 21st century. As Joe Brewer of the Capital Institute’s Regenerative Communities Network says: “We’re ‘hospicing’ the dying culture of extractive economies, and ‘birthing’ a new culture of regenerative economies.”
What is required is a profound shift in mindset, in consciousness, and in the collective story that we wish to actualize. Making this shift is no longer an option; it is a choice between imminent destruction and disaster or generativity and thrivability. All it takes is a million dreams.
I am proposing that organizations need to begin by learning differently, by living in dynamic equilibrium with their ecosystem, by practicing “deep technologies of transformation.” Organizations need to shift from intended learning to emergent learning and build the capacities to consciously co-create the future and move towards their Evolutionary Purpose.
The latin word emergere literally means ‘bring to light.’ Emergence is when something new and unpredictable arises from complex interactions. … Emergence results from synergy, when different parts or agents in a system interact and produce a whole greater than the sum of parts.
Enabling Emergent Learning requires a few foundational conditions, such as “living the questions”. However, at the root of it lies culture change. And culture change doesn’t happen overnight. It is an outcome of “the steady accumulation of small realities” (Haruki Murakami). As I reflected on what organizations can do to learn differently, internalize new ways of being, and co-create a future different from the past, what came up are the need for designing intentional communities — small groups of people who can hold generative conversations around the threads and themes of the New Story that matter to them. Associated with intentional communities, a few other practices are required to dissolve the deeply ingrained and obsolete patterns of the past.
I am in no way claiming that these practices and methods are the final answer. In fact, there is no final answer. I am merely exploring different pathways that organizations and individuals can take to loosen the grip of what no longer serves us and dive into the possibilities of this liminal space…
Creating intentional communities. Jonathan Rowson in his article, Awakening the Twelve Tribes of Transformation, writes:
You are most likely to change culture in small groups; a place to learn new habits and to practice tolerance.
Today the creation of new ways of being tribal is part of what is emerging, and a design principle for viable and desirable futures.
I borrow from these ideas as I write about forming intentional communities. Organizations can start by designing safe spaces for generative conversations among small groups of people who are willing to step into and embody the emergent future. It is very easy to get caught up in the busyness of doing business. But difficult times call for us to slow down, listen deeply, and speak our truths. Seeds of transformation lie in thoughtful, authentic, and vulnerable conversations. These intentional communities can become crucibles for the new paradigms, patterns, and perceptions to arise. Hence, I would like to propose that the foundation of any deep transformation work is to facilitate small groups of people to have meaningful dialogues where they are mutually held, nurtured, seen, and heard.
When organizations invest time and resources to create and enable such communities, the seeds of change are planted. Will it take time? Yes. However, our current reality has already created the need for such conversations. Individuals and organizations alike are reeling under the effect of a fractured and fragile world. I believe that spaces for such generative conversations will be deeply valued. Those called to Lead in Uncertain Times could benefit from the power of such conversations. And leaders need to become facilitators in times of uncertainty, ambiguity, and complexity.
I’m quoting the 6 Practices of the Circle of Trust Approach that I find very fitting for such communities.
● Create spaces that are open and hospitable, but resource-rich and charged with expectancy.
● Commit to no “fixing”, advising, saving, or correcting one another.
● Ask honest, open questions to hear each other into speech.
● Explore the intersection of the Universal Stories of human experience with the Personal Stories of our lives.
● Use multiple modes of reflection so everyone can find their place and pace.
● Honor confidentiality.
Living the questions. These intentional communities can not only build the capacity for deep listening but also become crucibles for “living the questions.” Most individuals and organizations are not comfortable with questions. We need answers; we want the dots to connect; we have an insatiable desire to know “what next.” Hence, organizations and individuals alike turn to those who exude confidence, appear to know it all, and present clear directions, even when it is evident that the path presented will likely exacerbate the current challenges.
Staying with the questions, practicing presence for collective sensemaking to take place, and welcoming the spaciousness for the new to unfold require capacities and skills of a different kind. The safety of an intentional communities can strengthen people’s capacity to listen deeply, and tap into their inner sources of wisdom, empathy, intuition, and knowing. This is the shift to Level 4 conversation that Otto Scharmer describes (shown in the diagram below).
Living the question is as much an art as a skill. And most importantly, it is not a passive act. It is not about just sitting in a circle submissively waiting for someone to come up with an answer. It is about actively designing and holding a container where the questions can be thoughtfully explored from diverse perspectives, where silence and words are equally welcome, where sensing doesn’t take place only from the head but involves the heart and the gut, where everyone feels safe enough to express their truths. Most importantly, the exerting of power, position, and control or judging, fixing, and advising have no place in these communities.
Holding space for sensemaking. Sensemaking — as the phrase implies — is “to make meaning by using all our senses”. We are so attached to our logical, rational, and analytical proficiency that we completely ignore all our other capacities. Sensemaking is an invitation to tune into our deeper awareness using our brain, heart, gut and soul in unison, to tap into our consciousness. At a skill level, sensemaking arises from inner stillness, is about seeing and listening to the whole person, consciously moving beyond labels and roles, and putting interconnectedness and interrelatedness of all at the center. Sensemaking requires us to let go of the voice of judgement, be open to multiple perspectives including polarities and paradoxes, and see the evolving patterns while simultaneously giving attention to one’s own inner source. All of these capacities require individuals to have a degree of self-awareness such that they can step back from their thoughts and opinions to take a holistic and expansive view of what is unfolding.
From my experience, such dialogues benefit from being facilitated. I believe that those called to lead today need to bring their facilitative capacities to bear since collaboration and co-creation are the way forward to a thriving future. Facilitating conversations that matter within the intentional communities can be potent seeds of metamorphosis.
Nurturing a New Narrative. Everything we take for granted today — social systems, economic policies, national identities — were once imagined and then constructed. Imagination and vision drive the narrative of an era. Similarly, organizational narratives give shape to an organization’s trajectory. Yesterday’s narrative was based on the paradigms of the Industrial Growth Society. Today’s narrative needs to be grounded on the paradigms of a Life Sustaining Society. This requires us to reimagine our relationship with the Planet, with all sentient beings, with our communities, with our institutions, with each other, with our work, life, and with our own self. It needs to be about designing systems and organizations based on the principles of living systems — principles of wholeness, inter-relatedness, interdependence, resilience, and thrivability.
How does this impact organizational learning? Deeply, I believe. Organizational learning is always focused on upholding the current dominant narrative, whatever that may be. To shift the current paradigms and step into the New Story, it is essential to design intentional learning communities that are talking about, exploring, and prototyping new ways of being and doing, of asking and listening, of valuing and seeing. The narrative may not shift overnight but given enough sustenance, support, and space to flourish, the new narrative will gradually take root as is evident from the myriad movements taking place across the world. And once a tipping point is reached, it will replace the old.
Aligning Attention with Intention. Otto Scharmer says that “our energy follows our attention.” And I have found this simple statement to be profoundly true time and again. Hence, no matter what we “intend to do,” unless our attention is aligned with our intention, we are not going to infuse energy or initiate action toward fulfilling that intention. And this is as true for individuals as organizations.
What does this really mean? I believe it is related to the next point of “wholeness”. When our thoughts, words, feelings, and actions are in alignment, we are practicing integrity. Quoting from an article, The True Meaning of Integrity:
Integrity stems from the Latin word ‘integer’ which means whole and complete. So integrity requires an inner sense of ‘wholeness’ and consistency of character. When you are in integrity, people should be able to visibly see it through your actions, words, decisions, methods, and outcomes. When you are ‘whole’ and consistent, there is only one you. You bring that same you wherever you are, regardless of the circumstance. You don’t leave parts of yourself behind. You don’t have a ‘work you,’ a ‘family you,’ and a ‘social you.’ You are YOU all the time.
This is equally true for organizations. The sense of confusion and muddle that we feel in many organizations are because of this loss or lack of alignment between who they profess to be and what they demonstrate through their actions. This breeds an environment of suspicion, cynicism, and absencing. People put up their blinders, hunker down, do their work, and withhold heartfelt participation.
When organizations pay attention to their intention, act with integrity, and from a place of wholeness, the environment created supports flourishing and thrivability. A sense of this alignment permeates how organizations learn. Are they clinging to old patterns out of fear or are they willing to step into the unknown, explore and allow space for emergence? Are they focused on doing or the source from where that doing arises? Are they oriented toward “growth at all cost” or toward “wellbeing for all”?
Reawakening Wholeness. Organizations want only parts of us — the logical, rational, analytical, and conformist parts. Various other roles we play in life also require parts of us. Years of playing this ‘game’ has created a level of separation within and without that needs to be made whole again. We need to collectively weave ourselves back to wholeness.
The fragmentation each of us experience within is reflected in the disintegration of all that is outside of us. One of the defining characteristics of Next Stage Organization is Wholeness. Organizations wishing to be regenerative need to embrace the principles of Wholeness. Anneloes Smitsman, founder of EARTHwise Center, calls those daring to step forth and manifest the New Story, “Wholeness Coders” and “Future Creatives,” among other terms.
It’s important for organizations to become spaces where wholeness is welcomed, where fragmented individuals can find a way back to their whole selves, where operating from wholeness is a way of being. What does this really mean? To me, it exemplifies an organization that:
~invites full participation of the head, heart, mind, body, soul, and spirit
~offers intentional spaces for thoughtful and authentic dialogues
~operates from curiosity, compassion, and courage
~takes actions that are life affirming
~aligns attention with intention
When one steps into such an environment that honors our humanity, believes in the sacredness of actions taken, and trusts in the inter-relatedness of all life, it can bring back a sense of completeness and unity that is sorely missing from our organizations today. However, reawakening wholeness within an organization and its people has to be undertaken with intention, constantly reinforced in various ways, and must become a part of the culture. It cannot be a bolt-on strategy or words written on a plaque. It requires an authentic and steadfast alignment of attention with the intention of creating an organization that embodies the qualities of a living system — diverse, resilient, regenerative, evolving, and emergent. Like a livings system, even while it lives its own purpose, it co-exists in harmony with its ecosystem — nurturing itself while nourishing the entire system.
Practicing Deep Technologies of Transformation. What will be truly required are organizations and leaders who can facilitate deep transformation. We will have to engage with the disorienting dilemmas of this era at an organizational level. Herein lies the opportunity and gateway to deep transformation of the purpose of work, and our relationship to work and each other.
There are many social technologies that can facilitate the building of the proficiency required to become a Next Stage Organization. The the diagram below by Laureen Golden, who is the co-founder of Healing Our World (H.O.W.), depicts quite a of these social technologies that can be used within an organization.
In addition to this diagram, I would also like to add social technologies that I find especially useful, and have mentioned previously: Theory U, Circle of Trust, Liberating Structures, and Open Space Technology.
Some of these may require expertise to conduct, but many can be acquired through practice. Moreover, building these skills within organizations today are going to be as important as understanding AI, Blockchain, Virtual Reality, or Machine Learning — in fact, I would argue that these skills will be way more important in creating a regenerative culture. We need to think beyond autocratic and invasive technologies to deep technologies that can lead us back to our humanity and wholeness.
The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.
~ Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance