March 30, 2006

News & Opinion: Peter Senge On Presence

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 9:00 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

This week Doubleday/Currency released a revised version of Peter Senges classic The Fifth Discipline, a paperback with more than 100 additional pages. This new material is based on interviews with many practitioners of Senges ideas over the past 15 years, and includes 8 strategies on the art of implementing the principles of organizational learning. A terrific upgrade to a fundamental resource.
This release gives us a nice opportunity to mention Peter Senges most recent book, Presence. Senge produced this book with three co-authors and refers to it as a prequel of sorts to The Fifth Discipline. Heres a recent interview he conducted with us on the topic.
TE: You have referred to Presence as a prequel to The Fifth Discipline. Can you explain why?
PS: Presence deals with the state of mind, or state of spirit, of attempting to work with the five disciplines, in order to build a learning-oriented culture. There is an unexamined aspect of this process that the book explores. Otto Scharmer has referred to this as the blind spot. [Hanover Insurance former CEO] Bill OBrien referred to this as the interior state of the leader or intervener. When discussing how to build a learning-oriented culture, we often talk about tools and methods and frameworks, but rarely ask the question of where the heck is this person coming from? This matters quite a bit, because the first rule that we all know is that change is threatening. And if you are in an organization with pressures to perform and people trying to climb the ladder, you will always be dealing with the issue of whose agenda is this? To what extent are these ideas self-serving? Creating the foundation of trust means addressing where we are coming from. This enables people to explore the extent to which change is aimed at the benefit of the whole or towards individuals.
TE: Presence has four authors who carry on a dialogue. What led you to this particular format?
PS: It became clear early on in the process of doing this book that it needed a first person voice, and not just a third person voice. We couldnt just talk about these issues in the abstract. We laid out a theory by merging it with our own personal journeys of discovery and confusion. There are in fact many things that you dont necessarily figure out in life. And you need to learn how to talk about these things coherently, though not with a sense of certainty. This means making sense of your experience without necessarily reducing it to some absolute statements about the nature of the universe and organizations.
The leaders who I admire have a deep sense of confidence; but they also have a willingness to embrace uncertainty and their own ignorance. And in fact embracing their ignorance creates a lot of space for many other people to join them as co-leaders. Every change effort reflects this kind of paradoxical balance between deep confidence and immense uncertainty that gives people the opportunity to participate at a deeper level. It starts with leaders who reveal that they are as fearful and concerned as everybody.
TE: While your fieldbooks supplied a wealth of tools to compliment The Fifth Discipline, Presence goes in another direction. Can you explain?
PS: You go into a bookstore today and find a remarkable number of books on meditation, Buddhism, and other spiritual practices. I think the challenge is to connect this opening to the deeper personal journeys of development we are all on, with our work and our organizations and our role in society.
Presence is focused on the largest questions: the context for all businesses. We arent discussing any one business, but the subject of leadership in the broadest sense. Running around trying to make your company more profitable is not what we are talking about. Trying to make the business better so its more profitable is.
And so we made a choice not to focus on applications. At the same time, this book absolutely helps people in their business in a powerful way, which is awareness. We explore the extent to which people can learn to see beyond their preconceptions. One powerful application of this relates to seeing into shifts in the marketplace. This type of work has gained quite a bit of recognition with Brian Arthur, who has mainly consulted with business about how to sense these radical changes.
This book explores the process of continually suspending your habitual ways of seeing the world. We ask: how do you suspend everything you think you know and embrace the uncertainty? This means living in the question of what are we here to do, versus living in the question of how do we exploit these questions. Continually rediscovering what you are here to do is at the heart of what we are talking about.
TE: Most influential business thinkers build on their success by introducing new tools for businesses to be more productive. Yet while you continue to work on the fundamental issue of change, you are addressing an increasingly broad arena. Why is this?
PS: The further you go the deeper you get into the dysfunctions in our society. That is one of the reasons why the developmental method has become so marginalized in our society. We placate ourselves with lots of material goodies, choosing television not reflection. Its much easier to choose to be more comfortable than to pursue what you truly care about. A primary motivation for our writing Presence has to do with the condition of the world, which is of great concern.
Its always been clear to me that the work we are involved in deals with the very long term. I had hoped that The Fifth Discipline would be the springboard for many changes. But lets face it, it takes many hundreds of years to create techno-consumer changes. And thats where real change is needed. Ultimately, this work is about consumption, and our values as a materialistic society.
And we dont have an infinite amount of time. An awful lot of what is going on in the world is getting worse not better. People are scared and holding onto what is fundamentalism. All indications reveal that climate change is getting worse, with potentially catastrophic consequences. And what we need are truly radical changes. We need to get beyond talking about how many parts per million we will allow in the atmosphere. We need to start exploring whether we should, say, move to 200 mile per gallon cars? The point is that we have an enormous opportunity for innovation around this issue, and this will come down to how we frame the conversation. That is where the change is going to come.
TE: You published Presence independently, and only after a year released a trade version through Doubleday/Currency. What was the strategy for this?
PS: Two reasons. First, this was a very unusual book and we wanted a lot of feedback early on, to be able to refine it. Second, I wanted to get Society for Organizational Learning (SoL) into the publishing business. We have been too reliant on membership fees. Our model for Presence was designed to build knowledge for systemic needs. We formed a deal with Doubleday for wider distribution with a co-branded version of the book. We continue to publish the original edition, which is available with a workbook through SoL. We are also trying to build a brand with SoL. We are trying to get a message out into the world. We have a lot of knowledge in our network and we are trying to let people know about it.