Action Confidence: Laying Down the Path in Walking

By Otto Scharmer and Eva Pomeroy

Read the article in Spanish — in Chinese (traditional) — in Italian

“One of the main lessons I think we got from u.lab was be braver, just, you know, stop worrying about things so much and just try it and see what happens.”

— Anne, u.lab Scotland

“Let’s have the courage to create”

GAIA Journey participant

We live in a world of disruption, drama, and despair. All of these are real. But at the same time, we also live in a world of unparalleled opportunity — the opportunity to step into new spaces and to sense and actualize the future that many feel is wanting to emerge — even though it is unclear how.

Yet, in public perception it is the first story — disruption, drama and despair — that keeps being amplified, while the second story — the space of unparalleled opportunity to reshape the world anew — tends to remain unnoticed and unattended to. But why is it that the case? What is the missing ingredient that would make manifest the possibility so many of us feel today?

In this blog, we investigate the deeper territory of what it might take to activate this dormant space of possibility. We look at data from participants in two awareness-based systems change processes — u.lab and GAIA journey. When the participants talk about the impact of these journeys on their lives, they often talk about ‘bravery’, ‘courage’, and ‘confidence’ in relation to taking action. This led Eva and colleague Keira Oliver to coin the term action confidence in a recent study of u.lab outcomes for participants in Scotland.

Courage to Step into the New

On first read, ‘action confidence’ may sound like knowing you can do something well and then doing it. It isn’t that. That’s performance confidence.

Action confidence is the courage and capacity to step into something new and bring it into being, or, in the words of the late cognitive scientist Francisco Varela, “to lay down a path in walking”, creating reality as we step into it.

Now without my u.lab friends I would never have asked the First Minister to do a proclamation on recovery, and she did. I would never have had the courage or the know-how. I had the idea and went, ‘Oh, that’s mad,’ and somebody said, ‘It’s not mad, do it.’ We did it, she signed it, we have it.

Kuladharini, u.lab Scotland

Image: Workshop moment in a u.lab Hub

The key leadership challenge of our times is to cultivate transformative eco-system learning, which means nurturing connection, creativity, and innovation at all levels of the system. So how do we do this? What is it that gives people the confidence to step into new, uncharted territories?

One thing we do know is that action confidence doesn’t come purely from the outside. Setting targets for other people to reach does not foster confidence. Neither do rewards and punishments. While incentives may motivate action, they do not motivate action confidence. Nor does it originate entirely from within. Action confidence is not just a subjective state of mind, disconnected from what happens around me. It’s related to a quality of relationship between system and self, between the objective and the subjective realm. In other words, it’s an intersubjective quality of resonance that is at issue here.

When what organizations, institutions and communities need most is for people to step into uncharted territories of future possibility, they need to turn to holding spaces that are designed for deepening and strengthening the quality of that resonance and agency.

For example, in our first GAIA process in 2020 we had 13,000 participants join in total, about 7000 of whom joined on a regular basis over three months. What we provided for that group was nothing other than a holding space. We weren’t running a program. Its was not designed as a multi-step, multi-month capacity building journey. All we provided was a space to listen and connect. Connect to others. But also connect to yourself. In the exit survey over half of the respondents described the sense of a global interconnectness to be life-changing. They were then invited to share what they considered to be life-changing for them: the experience of a generative social field, of a community operating on open-minded and open-hearted dialogue at a global scale. In other words: it was the holding space that was most transformative to them.

Image: GAIA Journey March-June 2020

Awareness-based systems change is about creating such holding spaces. It’s about creating spaces that allow people to wake up to a level of aspiration and agency that they have not been aware of before but, once activated, shifts their sense of self and their sense of connection to the world and therefore their sense of agency going forward. Basically, it’s like putting people on a new playing field. You wake up and develop agency on a plane previously unimagined.

Image by Jayce Pei Yu Lee

So, what does this process look like? In the u.lab Scotland research, this was articulated as a shift in mental model about the nature and purpose of action, especially as a result of 0.8 prototyping. Moving into new action in order to learn and iterate rather than ‘get it right’ was seen as freeing people from the constraints that so often block new action before it starts — performance anxiety, fear of reprisal, analysis paralysis.

I think the learning from u.lab and also that exploration of creativity has, kind of, really freed me up to go, ‘Well, do you know what, I’m just going to do this and there’ll be learning out the back of it and then we’ll do it differently the next time’. And, kind of, that process of innovation and change, I’m able to embrace in a way that probably I wouldn’t have previously.

Allison, u.lab Scotland

The Deeper Structure of Action Confidence

Shifting one’s thinking about the purpose of action toward learning in order to iterate is an important part of the process. Yet we believe that underlying and inspiring this shift in thinking is a deeper process. When we look at where we are coming from when we step into new territories and new action with courage, we see qualities that might be thought of as characterizing new leadership capacities.

Open Mind: The precondition for action is operating from a place of not knowing, from genuine curiosity and inquiry. Operating from an open mind means developing the capacity to see what was previously unseen, including disconnects and shadow, and to perceive the self and the system differently.

We need a lot more compassion, and we need to include actively performing drug users in our circle of our concern without requesting that they give up. That was really new for me, that was a new perspective. So, in terms of that, using the tools to surface the margins…and bringing people from the furthest margins, I just thought, ‘Yes, I’ve always made it conditional’. I didn’t realize I’d done it, that ‘of course they want to be giving up’. Well, some people don’t and does that leave them out the circle of policy concern? No, it doesn’t. Does that leave them not having a voice? No, it doesn’t.

Kuladharini, u.lab Scotland

What is the capacity that enables this kind of inquiry? Open-minded humility.

Generative scribing u.lab 2020 - Kelvy Bird

Open Heart: The seed for action comes from opening the heart and being touched by the world. Rather than getting lost in your own emotions, you use the heart to tune into the world. And if you really connect, that in itself becomes a source of energy that allows you to do something that no one thought was possible. The precondition to do something magical or impossible is the opening of the heart — having a genuine social field experience where you connect with someone or something that isn’t you that begins to activate another level of inspiration and commitment.

I was looking at the clouds. I was looking at the mountains. I was looking at the water. I was looking at the sky. And I really…I trembled. It’s been happening for two days. And I can see how things are seeing themselves through me.

Luis, GAIA Journey

What is the quality that activates this connection? Open-hearted vulnerability.

Open Will: Somewhat paradoxically, the movement into action comes from letting go of pre-conceived ideas about what action should look like and becoming an instrument for emerging possibility. The thing about being an instrument is that you are holding something you don’t know. You don’t know what is emerging but you are committed to holding its coming-into-being anyway. Open will emerges from stillness and manifests as the movement from sensing to realizing the future that calls us forth.

In the past weeks, I have felt moments when I am on the “edge” of something, and I have felt the decision — do I go to where it is safe, or do I take a step forward into the unknown and “dare” to see what is there. I have taken a few of these small steps. I feel there are more to come, and in the past short while, I have felt a strong force to stay close, explore my own neighbourhood, and “see” opportunities in my backyard where I need to dare to go.

GAIA Journey participant

What is it that allows us to let go and let come? Open-willed surrender.

We surrender to what is wanting to emerge, what wants to be born, to doing what “we can’t not do” and to allowing ourselves to serve the future that ‘stays in need of us’ (Martin Buber).

Underlying all of the above is one more enabling condition: Trust. Trust in what? Trust in oneself, in community, in the universe. Trust that we are not alone. Trust that, if we truly step into our real path, help will be given to us.

For me the change is all about the shift from ‘knowing’ to embodiment — my stepping into the unknown and taking on all kinds of action, and showing up, trusting intuition and ‘nature’ and honoring my inner moves for manifestation. I can feel better that the moment is there to show up…

— GAIA Journey participant

Humility. Vulnerability. Surrender. Trust.

These are the leadership qualities we need to nurture in order to lean into the current moment and to source the courage to act.

In relationship with the emerging future — illustration by Jayce Pei Yu Lee

Discernment: Knowing What is Ours to Do

The action that we are talking about is not random or unbridled. It is not about moving confidently into any action. Instead, real action confidence is about having an intimate sense of connection with the field of the emerging future. Sensing and feeling the resonance of that space of future possibility in the current moment. That’s really what is guiding you. The original definition of presencing is sensing and actualizing the future that is wanting to emerge. Sensing and actualizing are intertwined but distinct elements. Sensing is going into resonance with the field of the future: feeling it. Actualizing is about turning yourself into a vehicle to bringing that possibility into reality — embodying it now. Action confidence is these two things together, sensing and embodying the field of the future now. It emerges in situations where we feel the sharp boundary between the inner and the outer beginning to collapse.

Rekha, a GAIA Journey participant in India, describes her experience of it when she moved into action in the face of the migrant worker crisis in her country. As thousands left the cities in the face the covid lockdown, travelling vast distances to return home without food, shelter or transportation, she describes herself as sitting in the confines of her home, wanting to help but not knowing what to do.

….I happened to meet up with someone else and we organized food for some people one Sunday. We managed to recruit about 34 volunteers, and the numbers keep going. All we do is that we sit at home, we make food, we send it out. One of just takes the food across to the community kitchen and they share it with the people who are in the situation. A lot of those people congratulated me saying that you showed us the way. And I was like, “No, I was in the same situation. I didn’t know what to do. I just happened to be at the right place.”

We have done three Sundays. We have fed more than 200 people. Every Sunday we feed about 200 people.

If it had not been for GAIA I would not have stepped into this, so that’s one thing. When we first decided to feed 100 people — even if it’s only 100 — that’s when I remembered prototyping. You roll with it, you don’t wait for the institution. Then things just started happening.

Rekha, GAIA Journey

How do we know when we have connected with the future that stays in need of us? It shows up first in our feelings. But this is an area where we need to learn discernment. In their complexity, feelings can actually drive us in the opposite direction — towards emotions that react to something that happened and that in effect can disconnect us from what is going on. We need to move through our own specific context and drama where feelings can be noise to a deeper space of knowing where feelings are sensing organs tuned into what is happening and about to emerge. Our colleague, Kelvy Bird, describes this as operating from our authentic self. She says,

We move into our more authentic self when we start to listen to our internal voice, the one that says: ‘This is true. Yes.’

To the impulse in the gut: ‘Okay, go with it.

To the heat rising through the veins: ‘This matters’

This discernment cannot be developed in isolation. It needs a container. And the container for supporting the process of waking up to a new level of aspiration and agency is the social field. What we do when we activate the social field is that we support people to develop trust in acting from a place of humility, vulnerability, and surrendering to what wants to emerge. Trust does not grow because you tell me this or that — those are just words. It grows when we feel a social field that immediately activates a trust that we are not alone.

Seeing and hearing from all over the world gave me a sense of the global scale of this kind of engagement, my body-heart-mind is part of a large evolutionary movement of body-heart-minds, and this is super inspiring.

GAIA Journey participant

In GAIA I saw in others my own dreams and it made me realize that these are collective forces shaping our common futures. I felt like a seed at the arrival of spring…feeling the magnetic pull of collective blooming. This gave me a great sense of trust in this inner force that wants to emerge in all of us. As a natural, organic, regenerative force that reshapes ourselves, our work and our culture.

Pedro, GAIA Journey

We began this blog as an inquiry into what it might take to make manifest the possibility that so many of us feel in this moment globally. What emerges from this inquiry is a first map of the deeper structures concerning our dormant action confidence. It is the one piece that, if focused on, can turn the switch and move us from confusion and despair to a realignment of our attention with intention, not only individually but also collectively. Action confidence is cultivated in generative holding spaces and emerges when we succeed in integrating the open mind, open heart and open will; when we cultivate humility, vulnerability, surrender and trust. It allows us to respond to the daunting challenges of our time in new ways: connecting with and stepping into new fields of possibility by laying down the path in walking.

So what?

What does action confidence have to do with the heart of our current transformation challenge in 2020? Answer: everything. Most if not all institutions in society today face challenges of profound transformation. The challenge is there. But the capacity — that is: the transformation literacy — is lacking. What we see instead is a post-covid situation where many people feel isolated and alone, which is a lack of connection, not an abundance of it. That’s precisely where the above mapping of the deeper territory of action confidence can serve as helpful tool for leaders and change makers to design interventions and holding spaces that allow for the four qualities outlined above to be activated and cultivated. Learning how to create these conditions face to face and also at scale globally is one of the most important dimensions of transformational leadership work today.

Animated scribing — by Jayce Pei Yu Lee

We would like to thank our colleagues Jayce Pei Yu Lee for creating the visuals and animated scribing for this piece and Antonio Moya-Latorre for composing and performing the music that accompanies it. We would also like to thank the u.lab Scotland research team, Keira Oliver and Kirsty Deacon, and the GAIA Journey research team, Angelique Ruiter, Els Laenens, Laura Pastorini, Lukas Herrmann and Sebastian Jung, for their contributions to the studies referenced here.

To read more about awareness-based systems change research, visit the Presencing Institute’s research resources page.

Read the article in Spanish — in Chinese (traditional) — in Italian

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Otto Scharmer

Otto Scharmer

Senior Lecturer, MIT. Co-founder, Presencing Institute. www.ottoscharmer.com