Dr. Ben Chan is a Theory U practitioner who wants to plant oak trees, not bean sprouts. As a professor of entrepreneurship and a facilitator for systems transformation across the three sectors of business, government, and civil society, he often encounters eager young people who want to see quick results. But he cautions them, “Are you planting because you want a bean sprout? Or do you want an oak tree?”
Ben is a Singaporean living in Perth, Australia and working (having fun) in Indonesia. He thinks that social transformation takes root according to the “Four Ss.” When we have the seed of an idea we need to plant it in fertile soil. Then, while we wait for the seed to germinate, we must patiently undertake stewardship. Finally, when the season is right, the seed will grow and flourish.
Even though he counsels patience now, Ben is no stranger to its opposite. As a young man, he was ambitious to make money. His father died when he was only eight years old, and when he saw his mother struggling to make ends meet he internalized a survival mindset.
After earning a degree in electrical engineering, he worked at Philips Singapore for a number of years, but then took a job as a salesman for Caterpillar Tractor Company, selling diesel engines and generators to international oil companies operating in the Java Sea. Ben noticed something astonishing on his regular visits to oil rigs: ships were constantly arriving to deliver fresh water to be used in the drilling process. When he discovered the enormous amount of water needed (300–400 tons per rig per day), and the price that oil companies were paying ($15 per), he looked around him at a Java Sea full of oil rigs and full of water, and saw a business opportunity.
Using his background in engineering, he began making plans and raising investment capital for the largest floating desalination plant in the world, securing contracts with oil companies to supply fresh water at a rate of $5 per ton. The 1984 launch of the desalination barge, named the “Tamara Siang”, was a major ego massage, Ben says.
“It builds up over time,” he says about one’s ego self, “I thought that my possessions — my Mercedes Benz, flying first class — made me who I was.”
That sense of self was in for a shock when the oil crisis hit in 1987. The demand for fresh water in the Java Sea dried up completely, leaving him high and dry and in debt. To Ben, it felt like he had lost everything, and he found himself planning suicide. He was saved by his children, who saw him preparing to leave and said, “Where are you going? Daddy, please don’t leave us.” In that moment, he began the reconnection to his authentic self that eventually led him to become a practitioner of Theory U.
Ben became an illegal hawker, working with his mother to sell packet lunches on the roadside along Marina Bay in Singapore. “This was a humbling experience,” he says, and the difficulty of that period provoked him to figure out his next step. He decided he should get a PhD in entrepreneurship to find out what had gone wrong. He was fortunate to have good friends who raised the money to pay for his post-graduate degree. “This shaped me; it opened a window that allowed me to shift and relook at the purpose of my life.”
It was in 2005, when he was an entrepreneurship lecturer at Singapore Management University, that Ben was first introduced to Theory U and the Presencing Institute. Frans Sugiarta, the Executive Director of United In Diversity in Indonesia and now a Senior Presencing Practioner, had joined the first ELIAS Program (“Emerging Leaders Innovate Across Sectors) and had come back from a trip to MIT talking about this thing called Theory U. Frans explained the core mantra of ‘open mind, open heart, open will,’ but “I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about,” says Ben. “Because you know, business school professors never talk about ‘open heart, open will.’ We usually talk about ‘open mind.’” Ben laughs, “I was really lost!”
Then Ben got a chance to take a Systems Thinking course that drew heavily on Peter Senge’s work and Theory U. “That is when I started to understand what it meant to have a deeper connection between the questions, ‘who is my Self?’ and ‘what is my Work?’” It all started to make sense for Ben when he started to look at his life’s journey and Theory U side by side. That’s when, he says, he “became converted.”
Since then, Ben has been a passionate Theory U practitioner traveling between Singapore, Indonesia, and Australia, and has served as the local faculty for the MIT-IDEAS Indonesia program (Innovative Dynamic Education and Action for Sustainability) since 2008. Now he knows that his work is to ignite the inner intention and attention of leaders from throughout the Asia Pacific region. He wants to help them develop the “Heartware” needed to collectively investigate problems and find the emerging solutions.
Even in this new role of facilitator, Ben is not leaving behind what he knows about business. He thinks that the spirit of entrepreneurship is essential to co-developing and prototyping the solutions we need because of entrepreneurship’s iterative nature and its essential tilt toward action.
“It’s not a question of not knowing enough,” he says, arguing that we have the knowledge already. “The problem is that we are not doing enough collectively.”
In his own life, he has taken the regrets from the past as an opportunity for reflection and learning that can help him sense how to move forward. He thinks that the same principles apply to making systems-level change, but this is more difficult to achieve because of the need to move from ego-awareness to eco-awareness. This is the barrier that MIT-IDEAS Indonesia has sought to overcome by pulling together leaders from business, government, and civil society for tri-sector learning journeys that start with dialogue, listening, and growing trust. Over the course of 10 years, Ben and his colleague Frans have shepherded six cohorts of 30 people each through the Program.
One of the projects Ben is most proud of is his work with the state-owned bank of Indonesia (BNI), which, following the liberalization of the Indonesian economy, needed to transform from product-centric to customer-centric. Ben and Frans led 100 of the senior bank managers through the U process; they then turned to both the bank’s board of directors and to the branch managers to share their learning. They found themselves facilitating and coordinating the U process for 1,000 branch managers all across Indonesia — a three-year real-life experiment in scaling up!
Looking ahead into 2019 and beyond, Ben senses that this work is currently “riding a wave of transformation.” As “Industry 4.0” is taking shape, he says, we humans run the risk of “becoming technology” ourselves. In order to prevent that from happening, we need to create “Education 4.0,” compassionate-systems education that anchors us back to our humanity. He is especially excited by the prospect of the U School Asia Pacific (USAP), a project that he is developing with United In Diversity, which already owns the land for an extensive creative campus in Bali. They are planning a 2020 kickoff for the new U School’s programming, which will include cohorts from up and down the Asia Pacific region, focusing on themes such as food, energy, water and education.
Ben looks forward to including many young people in Theory U learning journeys for “entrepreneurs with heart.” He notes that young people have less baggage, which makes it much easier for them to start “letting go” and “letting come.” For some adults, he says, thinking of himself, “it takes a catastrophe.” No matter who he is working with, young or old, Ben brings his authentic self to the interaction, inviting others to do the same.
Watch Dr. Ben’s video-interview here: