red tulips | copyright Jill J. Jensen

 

 

Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change
in People, Organizations, and Society

Peter M. Senge, C. Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, Betty Sue Flowers
New York: Doubleday/Currency, Society for Organizational Learning ©2004, 2005


In the more than 15 years since the publication of Peter Senge's book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, the concepts of management, organizations, systems thinking, leadership, and education have roller-coastered their way in and out of favor with business executives, front-line managers, academics, and the media. Some years, everyone's on the bandwagon, thinking they know exactly what to do. Some years, no one has the faintest clue.

For those who think Senge was/is onto something in The Fifth Discipline and its subsequent incarnations (The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook; The Dance of Change; Schools That Learn), his latest, Presence, may serve, more than anything, as a reminder about the length of the transition and how much further we have to go. If human beings were more adept at and comfortable with 'change' as a perpetual component of life and as an on-going process, we'd be living in a much different world right now and we'd probably all be much happier about it.

An early example in Presence illustrates the challenge we face simply in grasping the concept of 'change:'

"The inventor Buckminster Fuller was fond of holding up his hand and asking people, 'What is this?' Invariably, they would respond, 'It's a hand.' He would then point out that the cells that made up that hand were continually dying and regenerating themselves. What seems tangible is continually changing: in fact, a hand is completely re-created within a year or so. So when we see a hand—or an entire body or any living system—as a static 'thing,' we are mistaken. 'What you see is not a hand,' said Fuller. 'It is a pattern integrity, the universe's capability to create hands.'"

How can we retain the vision of pattern integrity while moving through a day-to-day world of cars, kids, computers, and concrete?

Senge and his Presence co-authors are collaborators in a nonprofit MIT-spinoff venture called the Society for Organizational Learning (SoL, pronounced soul). For the book, they interviewed and researched the work of 150 "scientists, social leaders, and entrepreneurs" — from Lao Tzu to biologist Rupert Sheldrake, from Carl Jung to economist Brian Arthur.

Findings are shared as a 'conversation' on paper, with elements that build upon concepts found in The Fifth Discipline. The format may be an attempt to overcome unproductive "mental models" — our concepts and views of the world we inhabit, whether or not they're accurate. And it may be a way of exploring the very human tendency to "shift the burden" — to find quick fix for a symptom (aspirin for a headache) rather than make the effort to figure out and address the underlying cause (stress from overwork/overcommitment). As the authors point out in Presence, humans have become so immersed in such behavior, we don't see that it often leads to a whole host of unintended consequences that create even more problems.

Whether or not you feel Presence breaks new ground or has something valuable to say to you may depend more on where you are in your life than on anything particular in the book itself. If you read The Fifth Discipline, you'll find some of its concepts appear in Presence in a more story-like form. Maybe if more of us had been able to grasp and apply these ideas after reading the earlier book (and others in the genre), we wouldn't need this one. Or maybe we simply learn better when there's a more emotional or story-like quality attached to the intellectual concepts.

Presence also asks us to grapple with the paradox inherent in change — that we must be active and involved, but when we stop trying to make something happen and open ourselves to the infinite grace of possibility, we always get what's best for us, which is often exactly what we want. Try telling that to your boss or CEO or business partner and see how far you get.

Such is the dilemma for the authors, all of whom have worked both sides of the street — business and academia. In a sense, that netherworld of the middle ground may be exactly where Presence aims. Earlier works by these authors dealt with the foundations of the theories; Presence tries to bring them together and broaden the scope. Connections are made to global wisdom traditions, theories in science and economics, and personal experiences in nature. The inner shift that needs to happen for the concepts truly to be internalized are often difficult to put into words, and readers can be skeptical of the emotional nature of the attempt.

But that connection between heart and mind is exactly the point. Many of us feel disconnected and alienated from our work, numb to the goings-on of life, and helpless to do anything different precisely because our organizations, institutions, businesses, and interactions discount our hearts and spirits. We do things individually, thinking we're contributing to the greater good — or at least not making anything worse — only to find that the accumulated effects of our actions have likely undermined the whole show.

Shortly after I finished the book (pasting the margins full of Post-it® flags), I felt moved to share it with a colleague, so I logged on to Amazon.com to check availability and read the posted reviews. That exercise proved to be an interesting experience. The most prominent review, posted by someone labeled a 'top 100 reviewer,' was essentially dismissive of any value in the book, although he gave it three out of five stars. The review itself was full of the author's own attempt to establish his credentials of criticism — identification of other/better books and a continual characterization of Presence as "annoying" because it apparently showed how little the authors knew of a literary canon familiar to the reviewer. I could almost see the head-shake and finger-wag. Obviously, you'll have to decide for yourself — or, at least, I hope you will.

As you assess the variety of opinion (including this one) about the value of this book and its cohorts, perhaps it's worth considering that 'education' happens all the time. We all teach and we all learn during every encounter, even if the messages that come across might not be anything remotely connected to what we initially intend. While we can only be responsible for our half of the communication equation (and each of us hauls our own duffels full of baggage to such encounters), we can benefit most by bringing an open mind to the opportunity. That may truly be the point where the authors of Presence ask us to start. And it would actually be quite a dramatic example of the change described as presence.

 

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