Let Go of What You Know
Dealing with Drought in The Netherlands: Experiences with Theory U
by Simoon Fransen and Natasha Groot-Braaksma
This story is mainly based on an originally published article in ‘Tijdschrift voor Begeleidingskunde” (September 2020), a Dutch magazine focusing on the art of facilitation. In this article some changes were made because of a different audience.
Picture this: in mid-2019, leaders of various organisations were standing at the bottom of a dried-up pond in a centuries-old Achterhoek country estate (in The Netherlands). These ponds had never been dry before. While it rains during the day in Arnhem, it now remains dry in Achterhoek— just 5o kilometers further down Southeast. Climate change is tangibly present.
We are a working group, consisting mostly of representatives from governmental organizations. The initiative was led by three partners: the regional government (with Natasha), the Water Board and the collective of local governments. Our challenge was to address the issue of drought in the Netherlands. There had been so much talking, and so much undertaken — and yet it felt like not enough was being achieved.
On that day, Vitens (drinkwater supply), Natuurmonumenten (nature reservation), LTO (Land & Tuinbouw Organisatie; farmers union), Waterschap Rijn en IJssel(waterboard), Achterhoek Board (regional collaboration), ten municipalities and the province of Gelderland declared their intention to explore what answers might be conceivable to grapple with this difficult situation. Everyone knows that a lot is already happening, but is that enough? And how do we create more actions that are effective? After all, we have been talking for so long. A pragmatic exploration, producing advice within six months, was the assignment we decided to set for ourselves.
Why let go of what you know — why is it necessary, what is gained? And… how is is done — how can you deal wisely with the loss of truths that may no longer be relevant? Every change process requires questioning. This article is not about the results of the exploration — yet; we describe the process, the exploration of this question, including the moments that contributed to a foundation for the journey ahead. We describe Theory U as our conceptual framework, and illustrate this using the work process in the ‘drought exploration’. During some sessions, the project team came together with official representatives and leaders of the above-mentioned organisations. These people did not know each other yet, nor did they have any experiences with each other that coloured their relationship beforehand. The sessions are two months apart in time. What can you achieve in 3 half-days?
Session 1: Who and why
At the start we want people to relax “into” the complexity of the issue. After Natasha has explained the purpose of the exploration, she introduces Simoon as the facilitator. Simoon tells us that we are going to do a few things that can help us to understand each other and the problem.
We take the four levels of conversation as a starting point:
1- Downloading — Confirming what you already know. Defining a situation or problem as: “I have experienced that before.”
2 - Debating — Looking with curiosity at what is different from what you know and expect.
3 - Empathic dialogue — Talking from the other person’s perspective. Empathy as a muscle and an instrument, standing in each other’s shoes.
4 - Generative dialogue — Talking in a generative flow. Forgetting for a moment who is who, or who says what. With the guts to let go of knowledge and skills and to create space for the new.
After this explanation we get to know each other: ‘Why are you here, apart from the fact that it’s simply in your schedule? What does this issue mean to you? What drives you to do this work?’ The participants feel that there is an appeal for more than just knowledge or their position in an organization. They are asked to show more of themselves. There is room to want to discover more about each other and everyone’s wisdom and insights. We then introduce ourselves in “popcorn style” (each person speaks when they feel ready to “pop” instead of when it is their ‘turn’). After this everyone answers the following questions and writes down the answers on a post-it note, which is then stuck to the wall:
a) what are you (or your organization) called to do in this task? (in one sentence)
b) wouldn’t it be great if at the end of this session we …?
We read each other’s answers and each person explains their answers, in an active and curious manner. Whoever wishes to may ask clarifying questions, and there is room to adjust. It’s about sharing, listening, reading and landing.
We spend the half hour working with materials to depict the situation as it is now. For a joint, silent ‘3D sculpture’, we will pick up fabrics, threads and other objects and bring all essential aspects of the playing field — the stakeholders and the characteristics of the assignment — to the table. We build the area and represent current weather changes. Elements that are depicted are:
- small nature reserves, connections, river basins and streams;
- the stratification of the soil over which farmers exert influence;
- small village centres;
- the waterboard, with its roots in the area;
- Farmers Union and Natuurmonumenten as independent organisations with members and supporters;
- citizens, businesses and institutions;
- the drinking water that will become increasingly difficult to produce in the coming period.
Within an hour, the whole field is imagined and we see its richness. Lots of green, blue, cities, connections and actors: drought in the Achterhoek. After that, we set to work on a four-directions reflection, walking around the imagination.
- The first questions (East) are about appreciation: ‘Where do we get energy from? If this image could speak, what does it tell you or us?’
- The second set of questions (South), from truth and action, ask: ‘What are the main conflicts and junctions? What are the truths we have to face collectively? What is missing here?
- The third group of questions (West), in terms of perspective, read: ‘What ends in this situation? What stops, no longer works? What wants to arise?’
- We conclude with questions about the destination (North): ‘If this image was meant to teach us, what would it teach us? What destination for the future do we experience?
At the end of the day we ask questions again, this time about what surprised and touched us. It is noted that:
- There is no discussion of interests.
- Perhaps farmers and residents have sometimes resigned to simply surrendering to, and bearing the weight of, their “fate” despite the gravity of the situation and their perception of it.
- It is agreed that the agricultural sector bears the brunt of the area.
- Water, nature and the agricultural sector are keys to achieving a better balance.
- Nature development should be better positioned as a key, rather than the idea that nature can “do nothing” or needs to “wait patiently”.
- Dealing with dry and wet periods is closely linked to everything in the area.
- Apparently there is still no action, we don’t do and don’t know all this yet, although this day is a confirmation of known insights.
- All this takes (a lot of) time.
In total, the first work meeting takes three hours; in that short time a lot comes up and is shared. People express emotion and surprise. Connection has been established by paying attention to the common denominators, without losing sight of the differences. This shared awareness leads to the conclusion that there is a basis for the next meeting.
Session 2: Deepening and connecting
The aim of the process is to find out whether everything we are doing about climate change and weather extremes in the Achterhoek is sufficient, or whether something more or different is needed. This second half-day we want to give weight and meaning to the current initiatives together. More than fifty substantial programmes, projects, plans and initiatives and collaborations have been inventoried. Every week there is an initiative to think about and work on. To what extent these initiatives contribute to the task is more difficult to answer. What are the most important ones? What effect do they have? Which dilemmas and areas of tension remain untouched and unresolved?
The current plans are explained in advance via fact sheets focusing on various aspects, such as the contribution that the plans make to the issues that were mentioned during the first work meeting as being important for the task. Elements that emerge are that:
a) 57% of the initiatives are about knowledge development, awareness or agenda-setting and policy-making, and
b) most of the initiatives do not score high on action perspectives or measures that are practically feasible for farmers and residents (this was considered important at the first meeting).
Prior to this second meeting, we asked participants to answer some questions about the fifty projects via a Google form, such as: what are the top 3 plans and initiatives in which your organisation is most involved? What are the top 3 that you expect to have the most impact? What will be physically visible outside of these top 3 in about five years? What dependencies, what conditions are needed for implementation? And what kind of image or metaphor comes to mind in the overview of these plans?
At the beginning of the meeting we give all participants time to read each other’s answers. These vary widely; none of the seven organisations involved have the same top 3. However, we all have the idea that a lot is still needed for a good implementation, especially the courage to make decisions and to give a good administrative assignment. What does this mean?
After a half hour reading break, there is half an hour of work in small groups. The following questions are central to this: what stands out in all this? What works and what doesn’t (and why)? Where is there overlap or difference? How do the different organisations look at it? We also look at the four levels of dealing with change, mentioned above. Which level of dealing with change is particularly necessary or is lacking? We see enough initiatives that contribute to level 1 and 2 — instruments that contribute to short-term solutions, possibly with long-term effects (with the necessary uncertainty around if and when that effect occurs) — but do we also see solutions that contribute to other ways of looking at the area? If the area is at the limits of its natural capacity, should we reassess its current use or revise its value? Which courage and which conversation will be required and to what extent will we have that collective conversation?
After some time, we notice that the conversation threatens to get bogged down in generalities, such as: ‘Transitions take a long time’, or: ‘The work is already up to people’s necks’. Someone makes an interesting distinction: ‘Personally I think it’s too slow, but professionally I see that we are already achieving a lot.” A few people feel that we can’t do more, given consumer behaviour and regulations in the Netherlands, Europe and the rest of the world. Then Simoon, both inspired and frustrated by the impasse in dialogue, asks each of them individually to answer the question: ‘With these fifty initiatives, are we coming to the right level of impact, collectively and as individual organisations? What kind of change and action perspective does the task truly require?’ This shows that for some people there is a difference between what they do as single organisations, and what is done collectively. For example: we do the right things ourselves, but as a group we do not. However, the reason why we do the right things is as follows: We don’t know yet what to do’, and: ‘We don’t have an impact in this area anyway’.
At this point, everyone now sees: we don’t achieve the desired impact collectively, although we do some pretty good things. We don’t know yet what works, but what we do works far from maximum or optimal. In hindsight, this question is an impulse for collective connection. We only see the urgency, but the formulations we use as an explanation vary. Our chosen answers seem contradictory, but the meaning is more or less the same. There is a lot of discomfort in these minutes — which take longer instinctively. Here we encounter a ‘knot’ in the conversation and our explanations. The fact that we do enter the floor is due to the ‘security’ we have built up.
Afterwards we see that it is happening there, in this moment of silence and discomfort. Everyone present here experiences how differently we look at things, and that there is a commonality in our inability. We discover what we don’t know and can’t yet. This moment might have been lost if someone had, for example, analyzed something or added information just to break the silence. However, it is precisely in this moment that we learn; it is here that the ‘loss’ is felt.
It takes a lot of energy to be and “stay with” and stay in this moment. It is both an emotional threshold and access to ‘presencing’: being in the moment and seeing what we have to do: complementing each other and acknowledging what we do not yet know. Everyone has to get out of their comfort zone. If everything is right, if the question is asked that touches the deepest intensity, through that essence a collective voice or silence can arise and there is room for collective learning.
Session 3. Continuing as a group
The third physical work meeting was prevented by the COVID crisis. However, the group is working digitally on an interim report. During an online meeting, a month later, in which we present the results of our work to the Board, one of the leaders in the civil service working group says that all participants are personally very involved. Moreover, everyone has taken a step to see their own thinking and perspective in a different light; this is also necessary in order to be able to take the next step together with regard to the collective task. We are now still a small group; this process requires more people and needs time.
It is a moment that does not leave us unmoved. More collective insight has been gained into what we are doing and what we are not yet doing. We are working on a next step. What we want to share in this article is what can help in a collective context and in a short period of time to make progress in working together on a complex task. The following aspects are important here.
- Make it personal; this is not about the official or the organization that is being represented, but about the person who is sitting here.
- Ensure safety in order to cope with the difficulty of ‘not knowing’ and ‘not agreeing’.
- Use not only the work sessions themselves, but also the time in between, for example through ‘homework’ and analysis. This to keep the energy level high, nourish awareness and maintain the feeling of participation.
- Discuss essential questions about the weight and meaning of analysis.
- Share differences and similarities about what is surprising.
- Ask the difficult questions and wait until everyone has answered in their own way and in their own words.
- Tolerate and make use of any inconvenience.
- Postpone appreciation and judgment; later, together, meaning can be given to what has been shared.
- Realize that creating collective meaning also means partially losing one’s own unique images and language meaning; unfortunately, that experience is not transferable and will have to be created on a person-by-person basis.
Loss played a role in this process in various forms and we tried to deal with it as best we could. Loss has a negative connotation but we can also assign positive meanings to loss. In the U-process — in which literally the movement of the U is made, instead of the straight (fast) way from A to B — we try to find out and let go of what at source level is the cause of a problem by unblocking our deeper (collective) knowing. This as a liberation in order to find more lasting answers.
The complexity is omnipresent in this theme. There is social complexity, because of (supposed) conflicting interests. There is dynamic complexity, because it is impossible to determine exactly which factors and actors all play a role. And finally, there is ‘emergent’ complexity: the problem is unfolding. During the process, for example, the question regularly arose as to whether there would be another dry summer. And because of the COVID-19 crisis, we were confronted with even more uncertainty. This was unforeseeable and illustrative of the impossibility of ‘knowing’ (see figure 3) for the loss of our (illusion of) expertise. By looking collectively and consciously at what we do and don’t do, that fact becomes clearer. If we were experts, we would solve it. And even if it sounds logical that we don’t know, it is painful to acknowledge that in a world where we are hired for a certain expertise.
This loss of expertise — or letting go of the illusion of expertise — can be liberating, as if you lose an old coat that hasn’t been comfortable for a long time, but to which you were still attached. In the words of Otto Scharmer, founder of Theory U: it is about ‘Letting go, in order to let come’. This liberation is closely related to the (collective) acknowledgement that something is really going on.
In the second session there was the courage to acknowledge that something is really lost and in danger of being lost — biodiversity, farmers who don’t know what to do next, loss of identity, loss of perspective. This brought us to the essence of the challenge we face. By continuing to talk about and stay with exactly that essence, about what we do not want to lose — neither for ourselves and our children, nor for the earth as a whole — we can stay connected. And we lose it when we enter into debate and lose ourselves in procedures and jargon.
Scharmer, O. & Kaufer, K. (2018). The essentials of Theory U. Core principles and applications. Oakland, CA: Koehler.
About the Authors
S. Fransen, part of the core team of the Presencing Institute. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
N. Groot-Braaksma has been project leader for the province of Gelderland since 2003.