Tuesday, 10 February 2015


 When Sathya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, advised a female employee to accept her Karma he blew up a huge controversy, rightly though – if Karma needs to be accepted, it is true equally for female and male employees. But the larger question is ‘do philosophy and theology have a place in management?’ Peter Senge, the celebrated author of what HBR called one of the most seminal books on management, The Fifth Discipline, thinks philosophy does have a place in management. Senge, along with co-authors C.Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski and Betty Sue Flowers, take a philosophical journey in their curiously titled book Presence. Sathya Nadella may draw some comfort when they quote the archetypal book on Karma, the Bhagawad Geeta, to say that your actions are guided by nature – “All actions are wrought by the qualities of nature only. The self, deluded by egoism, thinketh: I am the doer.” Senge and his colleagues, though address all managers, not harassed women.

Senge and his co-authors take forward his idea of organizational learning in this work. “All learning integrates thinking and doing. All learning is about how we interact in the world and the types of capacities that develop from our interactions. What differs is the depth of the awareness and the consequent source of action”. But the most important capability to understand the future is ‘presence’. Our habitual ways of thinking and perceiving is based on our mental models – reflections and our past experience. Imagining the future, on the other hand requires the capacity to ‘suspend’ which helps us to “see our seeing”. It helps us to observe ourselves. We need to suspend forming immediate opinions, knee-jerk reactions and instant judgments.

But managers are people in great hurry. They need to take decisions fast – that is what they think they need to do. In the age of quarterly financial reports and instant-profit-seeking investors, they believe they do not have the luxury of “presence”. Opinions cannot be delayed; decisions can be put off only at great peril to their own jobs. They need more of everything – data, turnover, margins, profits and investment – and for all that they are victims of extreme time poverty. Impoverished for time they cannot suspend anything!

But what is on offer from Senge and his co-authors to these badgered souls?

They prescribe a new theory of deeper learning consisting of three steps:
  1. Sensing which means observe, observe and observe and become one with the world.
  2. Presencing, which means retreat and reflect and allow the knowing to emerge.
3.  Realizing, that is, acting swiftly with the natural flow.

Senge and his friends provide an alternative to the much discussed and written visioning and strategizing. To quote them, “Standard theories of change revolve around making decisions, determining ‘the vision’, and very often acting through a charismatic figure who can command people’s commitment to the vision. Here we are talking of reaching a state of clarity about and connection to what is emerging, to an ‘inner knowing’, where, in a sense, there is no decision making. What to do just becomes obvious and what is achieved depends on where you are coming from and who you are as a person”.  

In effect, presencing constitutes a third type of seeing, beyond seeing external reality and beyond even seeing from within the living whole. It is seeing from within the source from which the future whole is emerging, peering back at the present from the future. This involves bringing something new into reality, just as in the standard model of learning – but this action comes from a source that is deeper than the rational mind. 

At its core, their theory poses a question: “What does it mean to act in the world and not on the world?” In the standard model the change leaders or leaders are separate from what they are seeking to change. They are seen as change agents trying to change their organizations. The change is not generated from within, but by the change agent. What Senge and his co-authors do is enabling the leader to see the Generative Process that is “Seeing from within an organization”. They do admit that seeing from within the organization or seeing from the “whole” organization is, indeed, difficult.
Yet, notwithstanding the difficulties, it is possible. The first step is the shift from reactive learning to deeper levels of learning. In reactive learning, thinking is governed by established mental models (read Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline for more on Mental Models) and our actions and behavior are governed by established habits. Generative process involves learning to be more attentive and genuinely curious about the cultures we live in and enact. Learning is at deeper levels which create increasing awareness of the larger whole - both as it is and as it is evolving – and actions that increasingly become part of creating alternate futures.

By V.K.Talithaya

On 2/10/2015


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