“Transforming the quality of attention that we bring into action”
One of the most familiar faces of the Presencing Institute’s online course u.lab — often pairing with Otto Scharmer to form the dynamic facilitation duo participants have come to know from the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) — Adam Yukelson has been the invaluable driving force for various online learning environments around Theory U. From the Global Classroom to u.lab, and from the Transforming Capitalism Lab to u.lab-S (Societal Transformation Lab) and beyond, Adam has held an important role in designing, holding and facilitating blended online-to-offline spaces for transformative learning. As he is now celebrating seven years of involvement in the Presencing Institute and five years of u.lab, Adam is looking ahead to new horizons and the next challenges in his career. What better time than now to tap into his wisdom on the transformative learning environments he has co-created over the years?
“I felt like I knew this work intuitively, but I had never heard anyone actually talk about it,” he reflects, thinking back to when he first came into contact with Theory U. In 2008, when Adam went to India on a fellowship with the American Jewish World Service, he met Sonali Ojha, founder of the Dreamcatchers Foundation. Like many practitioners, Sonali had spent years creating work that mirrored the U process before learning about the Theory U framework. To help him understand Dreamcatchers’ work, Sonali gave Adam a copy of the book Presence.
“At the time,” Adam shares, “I thought I was interested in education and [international] development.” Through Presence, and especially through his work with Dreamcatchers, he came to realize there was a deeper dimension of change work that interested him. “The only place I knew where this work was being done, outside of Dreamcatchers, was the Presencing Institute.”
Returning from India, Adam met Arawana Hayashi at the Shambhala Institute, now named Authentic Leadership in Action (ALIA). With Arawana, Adam started practicing and writing about Social Presencing Theater. He worked for two years as a Youth Mentor in Philadelphia and then returned to grad school for a Masters in Sustainability Management at Columbia, all while continuing to build relationships with Arawana, Otto and others at the Presencing Institute.
In 2012, Arawana sponsored his attendance at Presencing Institute’s 2012 Global Forum in Berlin, where he met with Otto to inquire about possibilities for getting more involved. Without any particular role or funding options in mind, Otto suggested that if Adam were to move to Boston, something might materialize. Without knowing how he would make that work, Adam knew right then that he would give it a try. He smiles and reflects:
“So, maybe the lesson in all of that is to be clear on your intention — And then, when some opportunity arises, to say ‘yes’ without having any idea of how you’re going to make it work.”
Entering New Territory
Initially, Adam’s role was mainly around research, writing, and documentation, in projects with the Sustainable Food Lab and the Global Wellbeing Lab (which focused on moving organizations and governments beyond GDP). This experience, in addition to what he had learned in India, gave him a deep understanding of what it looks like to go through a U process and how to bring the framework and practices together in a journey. Still, when Otto asked Adam to lead the development of the first u.lab course in 2014, it was new territory.
“I had zero background in online learning, I didn’t even know what a MOOC was. But I did have a deep process understanding and a pretty clear felt sense of what these methodologies could offer in an in-person context. And that was primarily what we used to inform the design of u.lab.”
Defining Transformative Learning Environments
Adam’s definition of online-to-offline transformative learning environments might seem obvious: “It depends on what it is that you’re trying to transform.” He continues: “In the context of what we try to do in u.lab, you might say that we’re transforming the quality of attention that we bring into action.” This is based on the fundamental idea underlying Theory U that the outcomes we create together in a social system are a function of the awareness or attention that we bring into those systems. Adam highlights:
“When I am talking about transforming attention, the assumption is that there are different ways that we can pay attention. But many of us have not been made aware of the fact that attention is something we can shift.”
Indeed, he explains that, given the right conditions, we can go from “having one or two modes of operating, to having multiple modes of operating.” Transformative learning environments, then, “are about creating the conditions in which such transformation can happen.”
These conditions are what online learning platforms such as u.lab have aimed to provide virtually. The main challenge in doing so is really to get people to self-organize forming small groups and work without an expert facilitator, at scale. In fact, Adam stresses that “the only way in which such learning environments can work at scale, is if they are co-creative.”
What is crucial here, is for the online facilitators to provide guidance from the position of knowing and fully trusting the process and practices you offer. “It’s important to remind people that this is an effective process, that it has worked for many, and that it might take some time to get into. It might not work right away — and that is absolutely fine.” Encouraging learners to come in with an openness to the practice is also important. As Adam reminds us: “It’s not just about a particular exercise or process, but it’s also simply a practice ground for your own attention.”
When asked what such learning environments aim to achieve, Adam’s thoughtful answer moves away from an old mindset “achievement framework,” and rather focuses on what the intention is of such learning spaces.
The first intention Adam describes is that of “helping individuals and groups develop a sense of agency to create change in the social systems in which they live. his is a major part of my understanding of systems thinking.” He described this idea, also rooted in the work of and systems thinking articulations by Peter Senge, that often we assume the system is something “out there” and its negative effects are something that happen to us. Adam has witnessed that leading people on a U journey allows them to understand, not just intellectually, but also experientially, that: “the decisions that I take and the things that I do on a day-to-day basis are not in fact separate from the system that’s out there.” He points out:
“We live in a time and a context where cause and effect are not as obvious anymore, as there is a delay in seeing the effects of our actions.”
For that reason, bringing the right group of stakeholders together and creating the right type of environment, can help affect a shift in the sense of “I am a victim of my circumstances,” towards “the things I do are interrelated with the system that is out there”. And that allows for a much greater sense of agency and possibility to effect change in your context, Adam points out.
The second objective of transformative learning spaces that Adam highlights is to practice and experience shifts in the level of our attention within an environment where the conditions are optimal, “so that when you get into a more difficult, emotionally charged environment at some point, you have that muscle of attention built and might be able to access that more easily.”
A third intended effect of transformative learning environments has to do with how collective spaces can influence individuals. Adam refers to an interview that Otto Scharmer did with philosopher Ken Wilber. They describe that when a group begins to operate at deeper levels of conversation — what in Theory U we might refer to as going from debate to dialogue, or from dialogue to a more generative space — it may pull some individuals into a space of deeper awareness than they would be able to reach on their own.
5 Years On: A Different Landscape
When asked what has changed in transformative learning, Adam chuckles and says he is reminded of an interview with a meditation teacher he was listening to recently: “[The teacher] was frequently asked: ‘We live in times of such disruption and change. How do we show up in these times?’ The teacher said that every human being in all times has always lived in times of disruption and change.” Similarly, Adam feels that less has fundamentally shifted in the past few years in terms of how he would define transformative learning environments. “But,” he says, “the world has changed. There are new dynamics that weren’t quite as powerful, or weren’t quite as on the forefront of people’s awareness five years ago, when we started u.lab.”
Next Level Systems Transformation
When asked how we can know whether the right people are in the room when it comes to at-scale learning, Adam says: “That is an interesting question. We actually have no idea with u.lab who is going to show up. If you were going to use an online platform to work on a global issue, how in the world would you even do that? Who would you invite and how would you create that kind of container?” He goes on to reflect: “We have generally aspired for u.lab to have a global impact, but I’m not sure that our theory of change has been that we wanted to convene people for the intention of having an impact on a specific large, global challenge.”
Playfully, Adam starts thinking of ways to do this: “We would probably need to focus it on specific types of challenges, such as — I don’t know — carbon removal. Who would be the key players that would need to be part of that? Major emitters, such as oil and gas companies, factory farmers, and government. It would probably end up being a small microcosm, rather than thousands of participants.” He leaves us with this final thought:
“If everything up to now has been a prototype for ‘How do you do large systems transformation?’ then what would be the next step of bringing this all in alignment with the scale of the challenges that we face? I don’t have a clear answer to that right now, but that’s certainly something worthwhile to look into.”
Watch Adam’s video interview here: