A conversation between Otto Scharmer, Peter Senge, Chuck Peters, Peter Pula, and Nathan Senge, from September the 2nd, 2016

by Nathan Senge

In my preliminary drafts of this conversation, I was working with a flavoring of salient points, as I often do. But something compelled me to offer an unabridged transcript, with those points underlined, which is the form the following document takes. I think this occurred because, to me, the most pressing point of this conversation was that ‘evolutionary process’ operates with unknown targets. Over and over again, preliminary objectives are abandoned en route to something else that needs to emerge. This often happens after an initial group is whittled away, leaving only a few people who them collectively stumble into an impasse, a blockage, a frustration, a silence. At this point, it is possible that something new leaps to form, and galvanizes those exhausted participants. They then work ferociously, taking off with the new idea, which has the interesting effect of drawing others back in with a renewed focus. In light of this, it felt cheap to only offer the good kernels that came out of the conversation. I wanted to offer the many circuitous routes we took together to arrive at those points.

Chuck: This work started in earnest seven or eight years ago to re-imagine media companies, and then a little over three years ago Peter Pula and I met with Peter Block and Walter Brueggemann and John McKnight in Cedar Rapids and said we had to develop better ways for a community to have authentic networks locally grown so those communities could have discussions about developing a more sustainable alterative future. We’ve been bouncing around in practice and theory and obviously our theory has been heavily influenced by both of you, Peter and Otto. To have the opportunity to review our current expression of the theory with the two of you could provide insights that would be very beneficial in many communities using these approaches, as my experience is that people can be reluctant towards the conveners, at least initially. So, clarifying this theory base is critical.

My experience in many convenings is that the people who are convening are reluctant to step out of their paradigm, which oftentimes they cannot even see. They suffer from a kind of fish-in-water syndrome. They don’t want to hold the space. It’s critical to understand this in order for those convenings to succeed, to have a strong theoretical underpinning backing the convening practice.

Nate: In this, there are three points I’d like to discuss. First, our current theoretical template—does it need refining? That template of course being the five conditions of generative community and the two modalities through which they are expressed. Secondly, and speaking to that, is the fifth condition more appropriately thought of as a third modality, or even as a replacement of narrative, in some communities, for instance in design-based ones? And thirdly, is the consultant model and/or emergent design model truly complementary with generativity theory? Does the latter ‘prepare the soil’ for conclusions arrived at by either of these other two methods, or is there a better way for thinking about their relationship?

Peter Pula: I’ve been very deep in the practice world lately, trying to really jump into the water for the last nineteen months, and I’ve benefitted a great deal from checking in about the practice. As I’ve watched the concepts come together in the text, I’ve been finding out that what has been put together all strikes me as true—it makes sense. But I’m also interested in the nuances of the practice. They are very important, and I’m finding that, in some of the expansive conceptualization and even the strengthening of distinctions therein, sometimes I feel like I am losing track of the essence and nuance of the practice. I’m here to learn but also to play the role of a guardian of some of the nuances from a practitioner’s perspective.

Otto: It sounds like very intriguing work from what I’ve seen so far. I want to learn more about the different strengths put together here and how to think together about how to move forward on two or three questions. First, I didn’t see specified yet what the practice background is for this work. What is it embedded in or arising from? I saw the theoretical references, but I’d like to see or to learn about this in other parts of the paper, or just to learn this in conversation. And then I’d like a little more on the first five core elements. How you call them for the most part is self-explanatory, these conditions of generativity. But there is one with a strange choice of header, and that is ‘informing.’ Usually, if you inform something, it is me doing something to you—it is the absence of community. So, that one’s not so self-referential. If you overlay the U-process on this, informing is where the bottom of the U is, and it’s really more of an ex-forming that occurs there.

The second area of inquiry for me is the choice of words given in the epistemological section at the end. You have the mind and the heart but what about the will? There is this narrating and convening but what about group activities wherein can you activate the senses? This is a crucial and often underrated function of community building. Without this emphasis, people may misunderstand what’s in the text in terms of thinking people just coming into a room and talking forever and then disbanding and putting something together and coming back together as a part of how the community arises, but when you talk about generative community it’s not only through talking and being with each other, it’s in doing with one another. So you need the action part and the dimension of intention. There’s a little on this around the Montessori quote you give at the end. The community arises when our own intention is aligned with something larger and connected with the larger social global field. She calls it the ‘universe–‘ when you bring conditions of alignment into the space of a different kind of community arising. You have this in there but it’s not quite on the level of a key concept yet. That might be a header itself. The ‘power of intention,’ or what Martin Buber called the ‘distinction between the small will and the grand will.’ It’s the most beautiful and precise definition of this distinction I have seen, not in the context of a community explicitly but with great relevance to community.

Peter Senge: I had a few similar reactions before going into those different questions. You need to help us to get grounded in what’s useful to you. The document is good—there is substance in it. In this conversation, we’re groping for what you are looking for here, specifically in this conversation. Is there anything you can say that will help us focus on what is most useful to you? Otto and I are used to the ‘framework questions’ territory, and we tend to gravitate towards framework conversations—which term one uses for this and that—but is that what you’re looking for here?

Nate: Actually, instead of going into framework analysis, can we discuss how to layer in or interweave—or perhaps they comprise their own section—the upcoming case studies? How do we make these sensorial? Evocative? Less strictly explicating? Less like the general timbre of the text, in order to balance the text tonally. We have three main case stories right now and we’d like to gather more.

Peter Senge: If these three cases are the archetypal exemplary cases, what jumps out at you as you bring them forward that you think is essential about them?

Peter Pula: Well, embodying and activating the senses is the deepest work I’ve done in Peterborough. We’re lucky enough to have art promoters wind up in our space to help us host dialogues. The thing that has struck me are that the arts and embodiment—whether involving physical movement or not—are best when there is both visual and audio art-making in which people are in strange interactions with each other and it creates a way for people to be in a generative community with all its complexities and choices. So, it’s almost like connecting the work with intention is critical. In every gathering hosted, there is a question of whether something will be done in five hours together or in twenty-five hours together, and the intention piece always has got to be at the beginning or we end up getting ahead of ourselves. Ideas are cheap now, but what can we land in that can actually happen based on our intentions, and how do we make that real given the limitations of our time together? The narrative piece includes all of that. So it can be phrase poems that come out of a gathering, a news story, a sense-making theory piece that can be a video including all these embodiment pieces that are really important and imaginative—those tend the field, the soil for unexpected change. I’ve been struck with how important it has been to be aware of all that when I think a certain thing ought to be happening because that will blind me and others to what actually wants to happen. Powerful moments have come out of embodying and activating the sensing piece.

I’ve also been surprised about how convergence and divergence patterns seem to have people come together in relationship with an intention of seeing each other and then in that process something happens between them and makes something new possible. I’ve watched how many times those groups who decide to come together on an ‘energy point’ to create something often get smaller and smaller and they end up fearing nothing will happen and then the group becomes two to three people and then something happens and then this large thing starts to open up that no one expected. So the thing they thought they would create together at the beginning was a first best approximation, but it was not until they chipped away to get to a small number of people that there arose a moment when people stopped talking, paused, and then an agitation set in that could reduce the number of people into a land without guidance or structure, or at least with minimal structure.

Peter Senge: Can you give us a bit more on this second part? The group collapses to a small number and then there is this great example of something generative and new that emerges that was not there before and which no one had in mind. Certainly not collectively, at least. Then describe what happens after that, after that point—what happens?

Peter Pula: That small group can then come together to make something clear and start to move to attract new peoples’ energies to come in, but the result is that they now have a clear, strong view and an intention is held by the people who are left that seems to hold the field of intention and that invites new people into what’s interesting. We’ve taught people how to host in a five-step pattern, connecting insights with what we want to explore and offering to each other what we want to receive and then setting the intention about what’s next. We’ve taught people how to host their work sessions in that pattern and it’s been interesting to watch how some people come in, two to three people perhaps, and then the larger group wants to take a certain part of the project out of the whole group and it doesn’t necessarily want to agree or want this particular thing to happen. So you see pockets of people around the field of intention burst off into divergent patterns—some of it is killed off if the intention isn’t strong or doesn’t serve. So if there’s not an energy point in it it falls out, but sometimes you need to express energy outwards to see that there’s no life there, so the group holds with permeable boundaries, the group is changing but the intention is held after that reducing pattern. We didn’t expect that when we started figuring out how to do design labs and prototyping, but the amount of stuff I saw die only for something new to come out of it after something had died seemed to be an almost necessary pattern.

Otto: There were a number of important points there. I heard three or four different topics there, and the first one is that you can use artistic practice as a way of embodying and activating the sensing dimension of the social field. And then you talked secondly about your own experience as a facilitator. So, on the one hand you have this ‘Plan A,’ and on the other hand you have your own inner dimension of process where you need Plan A and a letting go of that process and then a connecting with what’s emerging from the group. One thing needs to die off for a deeper layer to come up in the inner dimension, in the inner cultivation of a particular skill, activating a letting go of a discerning part and then a letting go and a letting come part. Thirdly, there’s the piece of how it really happens on a group process level, which is almost like an evolutionary process. A contraction comes and things die off as a new core forms and is connected with a deeper energy that can then realign elements and constitute a more generative field. Those are compelling patterns and everyone conducting these processes know this—it’s good stuff.

In my own experience there is what one does with people in the room—that’s one piece, but there’s also how people in such a community form a breathing organism. People come to this room with this experience but then retreat to the periphery and make what happens through empathy a journey of sensing. It’s a journey to see what happens when one moves out of various contexts and then makes them connect with each other to make this part of the process and brings this back into the next cycle. I think this is a key dimension of community development. We’re all here as individuals, connecting to a social body, but also as sensing beings connecting with the other stakeholders outside of the room in a different way. That’s a key leverage point—we talk about all that but people don’t do it. It’s the doing of that that also contributes to what we’re describing.

Peter Pula: Thanks for that. There’s also the reconvening process of becoming small unto becoming big again. That pattern is critical. For the past nineteen months, I’ve been in one of my favorite groups re-convening a large summit. Forty-five people watched how the group becomes small, and then you invite more people and each time you invite them a large group is again appearing. For almost two years now new people have been coming in with new energies and possibilities for the larger group that are very different from what was there before. In the meantime, people are connecting with people and building trust and relationships so they can come in and out and still have a deep sense of connection to the community. From what I’m seen it has been very well done. It’s done best in a place where a sense of being in that place is very important, so we’re not always weaving interconnections widely geographically. The sense is when this hasn’t been happening it’s harder to hold the field and to witness outcomes because the activity becomes too diffuse and we can’t see it.

Chuck: To me, there is the importance of telling stories but we are so much in the beginning phase that we’re just trying to get straight amongst ourselves what game we are playing. We created this paper and put it out for comment because basically we’re looking for how we can create an operating framework to do some work. I remember a quote from you, Peter Senge, from when I was at a Theory U gathering two years ago when you said you had been working with school systems all over the world and everywhere people were doing good but nowhere were they having discussions about what it was that they were actually trying to do. Manus Jain looks at the current form of education as a systemic form of colonization. We need students sense-able and response-able, not captured by existing tools or fear of the existing system, so that when we’re doing this work we need to be able to be facilitators who have a shared understanding of what game it is that we’re all playing together. We’ll develop stories of connecting with other stakeholders, but before we can do that we have to do something that has some energy in the form of a grand will.

Peter Senge: A richness came into the conversation and the whole conversation shifted when Peter began reflecting on what he had seen first-hand, and then all the abstract questions concerning frameworks all went away. It was something we could touch and feel. You could feel something real in his experience. As Otto said in his third point, we need a larger organic sense of this, not to prescribe it as a way things happen but describe it as one way they can happen. A lot of facilitators don’t know about this. It’s an organic process and you have to work hard for it, and if it doesn’t work out you’re still left with this cauldron of content out of which something might come later. I agree that ‘generative community,’ as a phrase, sounds abstract. But when you describe a story in which something generative emerges, we become engaged. It’s something new that’s created that no one expected and it just shows up. We need stories of that happening. I noticed how my listening changed when Peter’s story began. This is the beginning for all of us. No one really understands how this works. It’s entirely new. So given where we’re at now, in light of that, what’s the best thing for us to do right now?

Otto: To second that and offer another data point, I also felt that way listening to your story, Peter. Right before this call I had a debrief of a case with the World Bank about instituting universal healthcare world wide. The bottom line is that the clash between very skillful facilitators and high-level players is a key problem, that some people understand process the way you did in your story, Peter, and some do not. If you go through such a process, there is this concentrated need to cultivate an inner perception to know when to let go of something and tune into something else, and even though on a surface level everyone would buy into that kind of concept, which is what the U tries to embody on a doing level, half or three quarters of the facilitators—like a staffing group of mind teams—couldn’t do it because they have a purely linear way of operating.

Oftentimes, there is conflict because some people don’t understanding why they need to perhaps slow down and shift their attention to something else. I offer this as a data point because this is happening every day in our big and small institutions and communities. I remember Ed Schein saying that while he hates to categorize people into camps, one thing that remains true is that there are people who understand process and people who don’t. I think the story I just shared from the World Bank exemplifies that and points towards possible practical contributions of your paper so that when you further investigate that field maybe you come to know how to deepen that sense of process so that it all just happens when it happens. But how is it that done at times when there is conflict with another way of operating that is so dominant in our mainstream institutions today?

Chuck: Thank you, Otto. Peter, those comments were very helpful. And Peter, it was not a non sequitur at all. I’ve had many people react to the words ‘generative community’ with a feeling that it’s not very alive. If we used words like ‘being generative,’ making new things happen, would that be more lively for you?

Peter Senge: Anything that gets away from descriptors is a good thing. It’s how things get made in communities and the processes they undergo that can transcend our understandings of how something new, which is pertinent to a set of problems for a particular set of people, can emerge. I’m not too worried about labels right now. I think I’m saying this in part because our time is up—so what’s your next step? I like the way you’ve pulled this material together. There’s a lot here and I get the feeling that there is lot behind the surface, and when Peter Pula began to talk you can really feel that. How do you pull more of what’s below the surface onto the surface? For me, that is a really practical contribution you could make right now. Who are you in the context of this larger community? You’re a group reflecting on your own beliefs and experiences but obviously we all connect in certain ways. There is a larger community that is laboring in this field. I’ll leave you with those questions. I’m happy to continue the conversation.

Otto: I’m also happy to continue the conversation in a Part Two. I agree with what Peter said. Bringing in your own experiences of these deeper processes is really the key, and paying attention to what is happening across communities right now. What is this larger field? Those are very relevant questions that will make your potential contributions to the larger community much more clear.

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