Think Differently and Lead from the Emerging Future

Albert Einstein wisely observed we cannot solve problems with the same kind of thinking that created them. 

Well, we’re in a whole world of problems these days and definitely need a different kind of thinking to break through the constraints of our broken systems.  

Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer of the Presencing Institute propose what that different kind of thinking might be in Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System Economies.  Now the title is a mouthful and the frameworks and concepts in this book are a mindful.  But don’t check out just yet: this is a great read for change leaders open to a new kind of thinking.

“This inner shift, from fighting the old to sensing and presencing an emerging future possibility, is at the core of all deep leadership work today……It is a shift from an ego-system awareness that cares about the well-being of oneself to an eco-system awareness that cares about the well-being of all, including oneself.  When operating with ego-system awareness, we are driven by the concerns and intentions of our small ego self.  When operating with eco-system awareness, we are driven by the concerns and intentions of our emerging or essential self—that is, by a concern that is informed by the well-being of the whole.”  That’s what Scharmer and Kaufer say and anyone exhibiting this much idealism better have a good theory and a strong set of grounded practices. They do.

The theory is Theory U, a deep process of observing, reflecting and acting that does accurately describe how we experience change—whether or not we bring consciousness and intention as Theory U encourages.   As Scharmer and Kaufer write, “The quality of results produced by any system depends on the quality of the awareness from which people in the system operate. The formula for a successful change process is not ‘form follows function’ but ‘form follows consciousness.’  The structure of awareness and attention determines the pathway along which a situation unfolds.”  By moving through the steps in the U process, an individual or group gains the ability to understand what is happening, invite the emerging future, and act in ways that invoke the promise of that future.

This book isn’t an airplane read—easily consumed in one flight—and promptly filed away as fodder to sound clever at your next professional gathering.  It demands a lot of its readers by challenging assumptions about how the world has to be organized, asking us to understand jargon-heavy explanations of important concepts, and accepting a can-do spirit of optimism and empowerment.  If you would rather window-shop before buying the book, Scharmer provides a good overview of the key concepts here.  And the Presencing Institute offers a number of useful resources including an overview of principles and glossary that would have been helpful as an upfront resource in the book.  For longtime fans of Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, Scharmer and Kaufer are colleagues and leaders among the cadre of scholars developing the science and art of organizational learning and presencing.  

If you don’t agree we have a world of problems, Scharmer and Kaufer innumerate them as a set of interrelated disconnects and “acupuncture points” for intervention.  They challenge us to use awareness-based collective action to find solutions that curb negative externalities and spread mutual benefit across the eco-system of stakeholders.  These eight opportunities for change are:

  • Nature—unify production, consumption, reuse and recycling. 
  • Labor—transform work (jobs) to Work (passion) by building new entrepreneurship infrastructures that ignite the connection between self and Self.
  • Capital—Redirect the flow of capital from speculative investment into ecological, social and cultural-creative renewal (through gift money and intentional capital). 
  • Technology—Focus technology creation on societal needs, particularly in underserved markets (through needs assessment and participatory planning).
  • Leadership—Connect leadership to the emerging future of the whole (through practices of co-sensing, co-inspiring, and co-creating). 
  • Consumption—Shift economic output to the well-being of all (through conscious, collaborative consuming and new indicators such as GNH or gross national happiness). 
  • Coordination— Coordinate the economy from advantaging the parts to serving the whole (through ABC, awareness-based collective action).
  • Ownership—Align ownership rights to the best societal use of assets (through shared ownership and commons-based property rights that safeguard the interests of future generations).

None of these changes are possible without a new kind of thinking.  If this is your vision of the emerging future, you do need to study and practice Theory U and presencing. Leading from the Emerging Future explains why you should care and how you can acquire these habits of mind and heart.