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Otto Scharmer: Egosystem to Ecosystem

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Otto Scharmer Awakin Call

One of the mottos of ServiceSpace is change yourself, change the world. Many of us who have to deal with larger systems and institutions often face the nagging question of how can we change these systems as an individual or small group?

In this week’s Awakin Call, Otto Scharmer, author, thought leader, and senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, shared a moment of clarity he had 10 years ago during His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s first visit to MIT. The Mind and Life Institute was conducting a dialogue between mindfulness practioners on the one hand, and cognition researchers and brain scientists on the other hand.

According to Otto, the 1 ½ days conference was an inquiry between two things—science and consciousness or science and spirituality. In his moment of total clarity, Scharmer realized that something was missing—“not only science and spirituality but profound social change.” He knew at that moment exactly what he was meant to do in his lifetime.

During the course of the Awakin call, Scharmer, author of Theory U, Presence, and Leading from the Emerging Future, laid out both the framework and method of how a change of consciousness in an individual can transform larger social systems and vice versa. The following is a list of key points, although the list is by no means comprehensive.

Walk the Edges

Like a diligent meditator, Otto Scharmer advises that the first step in the process of transformation is to “observe, observe, observe.” He then guides us where to observe: “go to the edges of the system, experiencing the system from the most marginalized members of the system.”

This willingness to empathize with all members of an organization, institution, or system is the key to real change. “The future never shows up at the center first. The future shows up at the periphery first.” For example, when he was involved with reinventing a health system in Namibia, he learned to understand the system by “walking in the shoes of the most remote patients with very little access to the clinic.”

A good starting point is to ask ourselves, “In order to change the system, who are all the different players that need each other to change the system?” And don’t leave anyone or anything out.

Move from Ego to Eco

Growing up on a biodynamic farm in Germany shaped Otto’s thinking in many ways: “From that I picked up that...everything is connected to everything else.” The farm was eventually turned into a cooperative. This unconventional upbringing laid the seeds for Scharmer’s theory of eco-systems: “What influenced me was the idea that the eco- and the social and the spiritual one way or another are related.”

Otto explains how ecology and economy come from the Greek root “oikos” which is the larger house of being we are living in. The original meaning of the word “economy” emphasized the well-being of the whole house.

Scharmer differentiates ego-system awareness which is focused on individual concerns from what he calls eco-system awareness--”an awareness driven not only by my own well-being but by wanting to serve the well-being of all, including the planet.” At ServiceSpace we call this movement from me to we.

Change How We Learn

In the past 20 years of studying organizational learning, Scharmer discovered two ways of learning. One is learning by reflecting on the experiences of the past.

The problem with this type of learning is that many modern organizations face challenges of disruptive change--”a type of change in which yesterday is not a good predictor of what will happen tomorrow.”

Because reflecting on the past is not good enough for challenges faced by both individuals and organizations, Scharmer explored a different kind of learning: “one allowing us to sense and merge with emerging future possibilities and then to operate from that connection.” He came up with the term “presencing” which is a blending of two words, “sensing” and “presence.” Through presencing we can sense and actualize emerging future possibilities and connect with our emerging self.

Talking to social innovators, people in technology and academia, and artist, Otto and his team confirmed the possibility to access a different source of intelligence. Tapping into this “deeper sense of knowing” also moves us from ego to eco: “the experience of the self morphs from a single point (ego) to a heightened presence and stronger connection to the surrounding sphere (eco).”

Let Go, Let Come

Scharmer points out that this new type of learning demands “the courage to step into the unknown, to pursue something that you can feel but can't have certainty about.” Presencing, also known as U-theory or the U-process, is “organized around something that is emerging, so by definition you don't know exactly what the result will be.”

By letting go of control or outcomes, one allows the possibility of something new arising. Scharmer summarizes this openness as a trinity: open mind, open heart, open will. “An open mind means seeing with fresh eyes. An open heart means seeing through the eyes of another, of accessing your empathy and compassion. Open will is about the capacity of letting go and letting come.”

A working example of how these steps can enact transformative change in a system can be found in U-Lab, a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). Scharmer and a small group of collaborators co-pioneered this free online offering “designed to transform higher education as we know it.” Out of the 28,000 registered participants from190 countries, 50% said it was an “eye-opening” experience and another 37% said is was a “life-changing” experience.

U-Lab walks the edges by including empathy practices that challenge participants to connect with others who are completely foreign to their social sphere. The course was designed as an eco-system with self-organized learning hubs in 300 places around the globe and over 700 coaching circles that set their own meeting times and engaged in a structured deep listening and dialogue process.

The whole U-Lab project is “presencing” an emerging future of education that is “democratizing access to education globally’ while building “deep learning” experiences through self-knowledge and community involvement. During the U-Lab experiment Scharmer found that when he let go of control of the learning environment, a new global social field was activated which opened up new possibilities of online learning and education.

Scharmer’s framework and methodology for transforming systems applies equally as well to individuals. When we as individuals empathize with our shadows, move from ego to eco, presence into the emerging future, and let go/let come, we can ascend to a higher form of consciousness that inevitably alters the systems with which we interact. Ultimately, Otto Scharmer gifts us with a powerful path of changing ourselves and changing the world.

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