ana muenzner

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Making sense of an experience with large system processes using the Social Technology of Presencing

How to enable systems and its people walk the journey of successful transformation to create new and better realities?

How can a system reform itself?

Some weeks ago I had the opportunity to experience first-hand the dynamics of social change. Over 14 days I was part of the facilitation team to develop a process to coin the direction of the strategic plan of a development programme in the justice sector in Zambia. This phase of the process ended with a 5 days field study in a rural area of Zambia. I will describe in the following article what I found memorable in meeting so many people from different backgrounds and involving them in the process – from leaders in the government, civil society and community.

I was privileged to support the consultant Marc Steinlin from IPK[1] in designing a workshop programme which should help stakeholders to gain a shared understanding of the current state of the programme after being run for 6 years. The main goal was to maximize ownership and commitment among key parties for the new planning phase.

The justice system can be seen as a complex living system which behavior cannot be easily predicted. It was interesting to observe how difficult it was for participants, who held management and leadership positions in their organizations, to even formulate what their challenges were. Some spoke about absence of ownership; others emphasized on lack of political will or mentioned the hidden conflicts that have been carried on for years. As Adam Kahane[i] mentions in his book “Power and Love”, such challenges cannot be successfully addressed by experts or authorities, but only with the engagement of the actors themselves. Experiences of the past and “best practices” mostly do not provide the answers to solve such problems. Business as usual is not an option anymore. I read a quote from Albert Einstein once which says:  “You can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it “. The difficulty lies in finding new ways to go about it when things become so unfamiliar, undetermined and with a sense of “stuckness”. That is when innovative approaches like Theory U[ii] from Otto Scharmer become very appealing and worth a trial.

Accessing my own ignorance – The impact of learning journeys

Before the actual 5-days workshop, the organizational team went to a preparation field trip in order to sense the reality in a rural area of Zambia and learn from relevant actors of the justice system on the spot.

We had the opportunity to interview stakeholders, hear their stories and learn from their experiences. Suspending judgment and acting based on genuine curiosity was not always easy but those were the key elements that allowed us to depict reality. Seeing the reality on the ground is very different from what we can see or hear when sitting behind the desk in the office. At those instances I realized with all my senses the complexity of the system we were dealing with. The more we spoke to people the more we identified new actors who seemed to have relevance. Although (or because?) I consider myself all but not knowledgeable in any subject related to justice and laws, it became clear very soon that the traditional justice system plays a crucial role when accessing justice in a rural area in Zambia. According to local authorities, estimated 80% of the people accessed the traditional justice system which follows traditional rules and costumes of a specific group. The programme at stake focused basically on the formal justice system. In order for the system to be well represented in the workshop, actors from the traditional justice system had to be brought into the room.

During our explorations, many people indicated that the presence of a particular traditional leader would be extremely relevant. I was given the mobile number of a chief who represented the entire Province in the House of Chiefs and would therefore be the best representative for the traditional system and all leaders in the area of study. We discussed amongst the organizational team about the importance of this player in the room and, purely instinctively, I asked my interlocutor for some hints about the behavioral code when approaching “His Royal Highness” and got prepared for the call. The chief answered the phone himself. I briefly explained the context of my call and first asked for apologies because we, from the organizational committee, have overseen an important guest in the invitation list. I kindly asked if he would join us in the workshop at such a short notice and he immediately said “yes”.

Only later I realized the positive side of being ignorant about certain codes of conduct in Zambia. It could have gone wrong, but in that case it was a great asset. Only when a colleague from the organizational team arrived from Lusaka in the workshop location, he informed me that they actually considered inviting a chief, but changed their minds because dealing with chiefs in a workshop is generally a pretty sensitive issue and can involve quite some costs. The assumption that chiefs would generally request allowances, never walk alone and therefore generate more costs made the organizational team drop the name of any traditional leader from the invitations. Chiefs would also influence the atmosphere in the workshop because people would behave differently in the presence of an authority. From this perspective, it was decided not to include them.

“Who invited a chief?” was the question of a member of the organizational committee who arrived later. After explaining my reasons to invite a traditional leader and discussing the way to deal with the unexpected situation, including “un-inviting” the guest, we agreed to leave the situation as it was and trust a collective “gut feeling” which was saying that we would know how to deal with the situation when matters arise.

For me, it was a memorable experience to see a traditional leader speaking in a workshop at the same eye level as any other participant, engaging in group discussions, accepting the rule “pocket your status” – no hierarchy while in the room – and giving enormous contributions to the dynamic of the group and outputs of the workshop.

Being aware of assumptions and how our perception can deceive us

After the first day in the phase of “initiating” and two days in “sensing”, we started the phase of “presencing”. The group seemed to have settled. I believe that a shift happened the previous day as people were watching a film about selective attention (research from Simons & Chabris, 1999)[iii] followed by a discussion about assumptions just before the learning journeys took place. The film shows a number of basket players passing the ball to each other. The audience is asked to count how many times the ball is passed. While concentrating the attention in that question, 26 out of the 30 participants present in the room missed the gorilla that passes in the middle of the circle of basket players. What seems obvious becomes invisible. The conclusion was: When you focus on only one thing or on things that you already know, you often miss other unexpected events or disconfirming data. As people returned from their journeys that day, they kept on talking about the gorilla they saw or may have missed. The analogy worked very well and made complex concepts about the way our mind works very simple and experiential.

Power of presence

After the field visits and in the following days the conversations shifted from talking nice, polite and empty phrases into frank and reflective dialogues, touching on many key issues. Suddenly it became quite easy to have genuine attention and no distractions including answering mobile phones, what used to be a frequent reason of distraction before, even after having contracted to keep them on silence. The group was sitting in a circle as the facilitator explained the purpose of that phase, which was probably the turning point of the workshop. The use of the film “The legend of Bagger Vance” with analogies to the work context of the participants was very helpful to move their perceptions towards the essence of that phase. Participants heard attentively to the idea of “sensing the field” and finding the “perfect swing” in relation to achieving their goals. There was pure silence and attention in the room like never before.

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Circle of presence – Participants of the workshop (Photo: Ana Münzner, blurred for confidentiality reasons)

The facilitator asked the participants to go through their notes and the data they have collected over the past three days. After refreshing their minds on what they had learnt, observed and the ideas they had developed, they were invited to do some guided journaling to answer the following questions:

  1. When you look at yourself and your work, what are the biggest challenges that this justice programme presents to you?
  2. What is holding you back/ standing in the way of making progress in the programme at stake?
  3. What new aspects have you noticed over the last three days?
  4. If you consider these discoveries as seeds/ building blocks for the future, how could this look like in the justice system?
  5. If you look at this ideal future, what are the core tasks/ elements that we must tackle in order to bring that future into reality?
  6. Whenever we create something new, we have to get rid of something old that is like a burden, that we must let go off. What is that we have to give up so that we can move forwards and grow?
  7. You personally as… (some positions mentioned), what is your personal contribution, that YOU, as an individual, can give to make it successfully happen?

At this stage, 100% of the participants were actively participating and writing in their journals. That was never the case before.

After a break, where everybody was quiet and in which I observed many participants commenting on the activities and their experiences, we proceeded with the Bohm Dialogue[iv] – a big circle was formed.

The central question for discussion in the circle was: “How can we mobilize the system’s capacity to reform itself?”. This question was raised by a participant in the debriefing the evening before and it helped the group to move into very deep discussions. Participants addressed issues that really concerned them personally. They talked about what they heard, saw and experienced in their learning journeys and how they related it to reality. In that moment, the only participant who was still insisting in keeping his chair outside of the circle and letting himself be disturbed by external influences joined the circle. He grabbed the talking stick and I felt that he was speaking from the heart.

Power and love instead of power versus love

By the end of each workshop day Marc invited all participants for a volunteer debriefing about the day as a way to aggregate different views and perceptions. Some would prefer to call it a day, others would stay to give further feedback, suggestions and to raise concerns regarding the process. By this way it was possible to gather more data from the system which could not be easily observed during the day. The facilitator would attentively listen to all voices and identify reasons for fear, discomfort, confusion, inclusion or exclusion that should be addressed. As my friend and teacher Martin Kalungu-Banda says, “feelings are data”. They can give important information about what is really going on “under the iceberg”. If you ignore feelings, you are ignoring data and increasing the potential for conflicts. Marc would address it either through informal conversations or during the debriefings. This kind of dialogue uncovers what each of the actors is trying to achieve and realize. It uncovers certain relationships, which persons show resistance towards which topics, and implies that some people will have to be empowered while others will lose some privileges for the larger system to function.

In one of such debriefing conversations it became clear that one of the presently involved institution was about to become irrelevant to the future programme. When learning theory U I observed a tendency to focus strongly on love and compassion. There is a risk of losing sight of another important component of any social system which is power. Voices of power and voices of love became very evident during the debriefing conversations. The interaction between the different actors with their respective interests (funding, decision making, political influence, representation in civil society, etc.) was faster and much more direct than during the workshop. The power side would raise concerns about the distance between the discussions in the workshop and the actual piece of paper that had to be produced as a requirement for funding to be released. The love side would bring up statements such as the one of a participant who touched me and apparently the entire group: “Today we visited people in the local court and they asked if we were just one more of those organizations that come to interview people and find out about their challenges and nobody ever hears from them again. He continued asking: How can we make sure that we are not only one more of these organizations? How can we make sure that this is not going to be only one more strategic plan that will never get out of the paper but will really reach the target group?” – This person was requested to open the workshop the next day.

Marc helped me to change my understanding on how forces like power and love within a system can and have to walk together. It is necessary to balance both and not let them collide. That is the only way to change a system for the better even in the most complex, conflictual and challenging contexts as Adam Kahane mentions in his book. I was inspired by the way Marc gave space for both forces and managed to include all voices in the workshop, even when that meant letting go of his own agenda. Here, the capacity of attentive listening, “go with the flow”, authenticity and good questions combined with the willing to truly help the client were the elements that made a real difference.

Some final thoughts

To deliver meaningful and sustainable change, people must be part of the creation process. People support what they create. People are also willing to change their behavior when they truly believe that what they are doing is not working anymore. But in order for it to happen, people have to feel the problem close and strongly enough so that the pain of living with the problem becomes bigger than the pain of changing it.

It remains an open question, whether these efforts and form of dialogue have really inspired and strengthened the capacity of the participants to address their challenges in the justice system and to write a sustainable strategic plan. How can we identify if participants have really opened themselves to each other? What is essential for the system to get “unstuck”? If this process has really identified and touched the roots of the problems and unresolved conflicts remains for me the biggest question.

What works and what doesn’t can only be observed over time. Benefits from change are realized when a process is effectively designed, developed and delivered and that solution is embraced, adopted and used by concerned stakeholders. For sure there was a shift in the way the system thinks. Some sort of shared understanding has emerged. People stepped forward to engage in a collective experience in order to address the challenges of a system they saw themselves as part of. They saw themselves as part of an unhealthy and unwhole system that they were co-responsible to create and are co-responsible to repair. This could be observed by the feedback participants gave at the end when saying that this was not just one more workshop amongst many others, but an eye opener experience. If the final statement of an important stakeholder is true and valid for the entire group, all the work was worth: “This will not just be a strategic plan but our strategic plan.” But still some powerful stakeholders were too busy fixing problems outsideto have time to participate in such a process. I truly hope that whoever stayed in the room were the right people who will take ownership over the programme – what then maybe can be presented in a sequel of this article.


[1] IPK – IngeniousPeoplesKnowledge Consultants facilitate innovation and transformation processes that are driven by participants’ curiosity and motivation as well as their ingenuity, wisdom and resourcefulness. The methodologies applied originate from understanding the complexity of living systems and social processes, and enable synchronous learning amongst participants. IPK brings about a variety of holistic and innovative approaches to intervene sustainably in complex realities.


References

[i] Kahane, Adam. 2010. Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change. San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler

[ii] For more information about Theory U: http://www.presencing.com/

[iii] The invisible gorilla and other ways our intuition deceive us: http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com/videos.html

[iv] For more information about Bohm dialogue: http://www.david-bohm.net/dialogue/