Stories & practices that empower real change

Transcript – Peter Senge: The Heart of Transformation

In Dialogue with Walter Link

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Peter Senge

 

[00:00:12] I think what energizes the whole thing is that it ultimately has to be practical. And as I said before, I think that’s the kind of invisible side of spirituality. How do we transform our living? How does a family work differently? How does a relationship work differently? How does a team work differently? How do we become more and more able to accomplish what we really want to accomplish in ways that are elegant, nurturing and leave us feeling like, wow, that was really hard work but I’d be happy to do that again anytime because of the impacts on us as a human being.

 

Walter Link

 

[00:00:46] Welcome to GlobalLeadership.TV, my name is Walter Link. I’ve always been fascinated by the question of how we move from our many challenges into our full potential as individuals, organizations and whole societies. In this television series I inquire with some of the most innovative leaders from around the world about how they manage to move from inspiration to real change. Please join us in this exploration because we all make a difference and we all can get better at it. Therefore, on our website, we not only show other dialogues and publications but also the kind of practices that these leaders and their organizations use to move from inspiration to real change.

 

[00:01:41] Today I invite you to join my insightful dialogue with Peter Senge at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. There he teaches leaders from around the world how to integrate inner and interpersonal work, to empower the transformation of organizations and societies. The Harvard Business Review called his Fifth Discipline one of the most important management books of the 20th century. The Economist and Bloomberg BusinessWeek simply call him one of the greatest leadership gurus of our time. As you just heard, Senge points out that to become outstanding leaders we first have to become real human beings. But how do we develop such depths of humanity? Please join us as we explore with Peter Senge what is at the heart of transformation for individuals and teams, organizations and whole societies.

 

[00:02:51] You spoke in your latest book and also in prior publications about the need for revolution. Dramatic change due to our significant challenges both in the environmental and social arena. And you said also that in order to achieve that, a kind of systemic, profound innovation, we need a spiritual revolution. What do you mean when you say that, we need a spiritual revolution?

 

Peter Senge

 

[00:03:22] Well obviously, the word spiritual in Western cultural context is a very tricky word because it’s so intertwined with religion. So I definitely don’t mean it in the sense of any particular set of religious beliefs or attitudes. The simplest way to say it is, we need to learn what it means to become human beings. There’s an old saying in traditional Chinese culture, this comes in the Confucian tradition, to become a leader you must first become a human being. And I think that’s very much the spirit of it. So that’s obviously a big question. In our culture today we more or less think we are born human beings because we have a very materialistic, physical, physically-oriented worldview. But in many if not most cultures in most of human history, that wasn’t that confusion. Life was a journey of becoming human. So that’s exactly – when I say spiritual, that’s what I mean.

 

Walter Link

 

[00:04:27] So it’s a journey of maturation, it’s not just spending time on the planet, there is an actual process of development and maturing that makes you a human being?

 

Peter Senge

 

[00:04:38] Yes

 

Walter Link

 

[00:04:38] Which also explains why for millennia there have been all kinds of different methods and practices that support people to go through that process of maturation something that in Western culture is often ignored in terms of the personal and interpersonal development. You have to pick it up on the go. So you say, for example, that everybody needs a contemplative practice and there are many different ones but maybe you can say what you mean by contemplative practice and what is this contemplative practice actually doing for leaders in the world that do work?

 

Peter Senge

 

[00:05:19] In Western traditions you would probably call it something like contemplative practice. In Eastern you’d call it more meditative practice. But you have the same problem either way. What do you mean? How do you define meditation or contemplation? Or reflection which is a word that we often use a little more often which is just a little bit less confusing to people. But even reflection is not clear in terms of practice. When it’s all said and done this is not a philosophy or a bunch of intellectualizing. These are really either useful practices or they are not going to go anywhere. Our work is always in the context of real organizations. Businesses, schools, networks of organizations trying to work together on very complex change, aspirations. So you have to really be able to integrate it into the day-to-day in the context in which people are operating. And so you always find at least three levels, and sometimes there could even be a fourth, of practices. The first are personal. And I do think in some sense, since this is all about the journey of becoming human, there needs to be a personal grounding. What do I do? And there I think today probably moreso than any other time in human history we have an extraordinary variety of things to kind of choose from because for most of human history people grew up locally, they grew up in the context of their own history, their own cultural history and they had access to whatever was present in their culture.

 

That’s obviously still true, but now, for three generations, there’s been a huge increase in interest in Buddhism and Taoism in the West. That wouldn’t have been possible 75 or 100 years ago. There is a lot of crossing of boundaries now. And I think the fun thing about that is, since every set of practices that’s historic is embedded in a historic context, it’s embedded in a set of cultural associations. And it’s often very useful to disassociate that so you can get kind of the essence of the practice. I spent a lot of time in China. And China is very interesting if you look at it historically because it has three intertwined historical disciplinary threads. Taoism is the oldest. Taoism goes back to basically the indigenous people of China. You find native peoples all around the world, they relate very directly to Taoism because it’s about the earth is alive and it’s about how I understand the physical mind, body system. The source of all Chinese medicine is in the Taoist traditions. The I Ching is the oldest artifact of Chinese culture but that probably sits 10,000 years after the basic ideas of Taoism started to come together. So it’s very ancient and it’s very physically centered. The simple definition of cultivation or practice in the Taoist tradition is to transform the energetic system so that one can achieve enlightenment. But you start with what they would call the mind heart system, this energetic system. Buddhism is very mentally centered. It’s obviously the most recent of those traditions in China. It’s only 1600 or 1700 years old when it comes from India and Southeast Asia. And the third, which in many ways in traditional Chinese culture it’s best connected them all was Confucianism. At its roots – and that saying I used before, to become a leader you must first become a human being – comes from the Confucian tradition. Confucianism is a set of ideas and practice for cultivation, developing as a human being, in a social context. So there the focus is very much on relationships. And so that kind of gives a bit of also an overview of the different types of cultivation practice. There’s all kinds of ones that are physically centered. There’s yoga, there’s tai chi, there’s the Eastern ones, there’s Western once.

 

The main difference is in the West now it’s mostly today exercise. Yoga is much more than exercise. Yoga – and people will say traditionally – was actually to prepare yourself physically in order to be able to meditate. To have the body be able to be quiet, to have it be clean, clear so that the mind could really enter a different and quieter state. But there’s always these personal and physically centered. Then I believe there really are a set of interpersonal practices. In any organizational setting. You say, well, where do we start? We always start our work saying, well, what’s the team? Anything you try to do in any organization, including making this little video, usually there’s more than one person. So there’s always a team and a team – we’ve always defined a team as a group of people who need one another to get something done. Very simple, very generic definition. It’s not just formal teams. But if you look at work that way there’s always a network of kind of core relationships without which no way we’re going to be able to produce what we are producing right now.

 

I find that a very good entry point in most organizational contexts is focusing on teams. Because from that you can clearly get back to the individual. How is it that I’m operating that’s undermining the team? What are the challenges I’m faced with because this person over here I think is a complete idiot and we don’t think at all alike. But I can look at that as about him or I could also look at it as it’s about me. So the team context is basically families in organizations. It’s that intermediate scale of complexity where there’s a rich tableau of human relationships and a lot of personal stuff that gets brought up. So if you – assuming like the fifth discipline – I would say three quarters of the practical ideas in that whole tradition are really about how to make teams work better. And the reason for that is very, very practical. One, that’s where work gets done. Individuals do not produce work. And two, if you want to get onto some sort of a deep, transformational, cultivation developmental path, you’d better start there. Because you say we’re going to transform our organization.

 

CEOs don’t say, we are in this great transformation journey. I say, well, how is your team working? Oh, I haven’t thought about that. You are just dealing with abstractions. But you don’t have a way to bring it down to reality. But bringing reality at the level, there is some genuine interpersonal complexity because that’s what a team represents. And of course the next level would be that of an organization as a whole or an institution. Increasingly we do a lot of work in all kinds of networks, particularly those across organizations. A lot of our projects today are in value chains because I really believe we will be finding social and environmental issues becoming more and more part of business because people have to manage their value chains in a way that you really look at the whole of it.

 

If you’re in the food business, the health of that farming community is your business. You didn’t think about that traditionally because you bought food from a supplier. But that supplier bought food from somebody who bought food from somebody or bought fish from somebody. So if you’re not thinking about the whole of that system, you don’t have a system that’s going to be viable in all likelihood. And that’s true in all the food industry. I think there’s a big wake up in the food industry today. And the last level you might say would be beyond individual or obvious connections of institutions. Individual institutions. Or obvious connection. Which is really you might say more the contextual industry, societies, regional groupings where you have many different industries and types of organizations. When you look at, for example, food systems, eventually you get to the health and well-being of a farming community or a fishing community. Well, that’s a regional perspective that then pulls in all the industries, all the businesses. The schools. The families. Everything is there. Everything in our society is there in microcosm in any geographic locale. So that’s the hardest one to get your arms around – and the truth is they are all a progression. But it really helps to understand the progression.

 

Walter Link

 

[00:13:45] So you yourself have been involved in practice for many years and so I wonder whether you can say something about your practice and also how the gradual maturation, the understanding that occurred from that and then translated into your teaching and your consulting, your working with people?

 

Peter Senge

 

[00:14:06] It’s hard to know where one’s practices start because it’s like the question I get, where were you born? When did you become aware? And when did you forget and get confused again? So it goes on forever and ever. But at the personal level for me, probably just for me personally, I think sports was a very important part of my practice because I was always very much into sports. When I was in college – and then of course it was both individual and team so it got me sensitized to teams. I think when we work with teams we always ask people, first question is, when have you ever been part of a great team? Think of a theater troupe, think of a music ensemble, think of a sports team, doesn’t really matter. Because at some level they are all the same. But then also you take any of those and you can see the personal side of it. So how do I become a musician? How do I become an athlete capable of being part of an athletic team? Which doesn’t mean a lot. You could be in all kinds of stages but there’s always that personal level. When I was in college I had my first real introduction to Asian traditions. Now in fact it happened much earlier. I grew up in Los Angeles. My best friend was Japanese so I kind of grew up in part in a Japanese household. So I always had this deep interest in particularly Eastern Asian traditions. Japan, China. They were a very big part of my growing up. So probably not entirely surprising that my first real serious immersion in a cultivation tradition, it wasn’t Western. As I said, I grew up in a Christian home. There was plenty of cultivation in Christianity, you just had to look for it. It’s kind of hidden. That’s another story about the evolution of Western religions. It’s not hidden in Buddhism. So my first real experience was at a Zen retreat. Of course the term Zen is the Japanese translation of the Chinese term Chan. Chan is a very interesting tradition in China because it really – Buddhism is a very fluid sort of religion. In fact the Dalai Lama always says, Buddhism is not a religion, it’s a science. It’s the science of consciousness or an approach to the science of consciousness. But it’s very fluid. So Tibetan Buddhism is very different than Vietnamese Buddhism, is very different than Chinese Buddhism. Because Buddhism itself is a tradition of practices which tends to evolve a lot depending on the context. In China it started to integrate with Taoism very early and that is how you got Chan.

 

So Zen is an approach to Buddhism that is very minimalistic. Not a lot of theory. Tibetan Buddhism is very elaborate. In fact at the roots of Indian source – if you understand Indian culture – it’s very, very intellectual. But in Zen it becomes kind of streamlined and very direct about experience and cultivation practice, sitting practice. So I did my first meditation retreat probably when I was 20 years old. 20 or 21 in college and it was a Zen retreat. And it was just the right kind of thing for me because, again, I had this deep interest in Eastern Asian cultures. And of course I’d read a lot. But I never really had an opportunity to be immersed, even for a few days. Whenever Zen is established in any area, they establish a city monastery and a country monastery and the monks will move back and forth. Obviously the country monastery is more for real contemplations. It’s a natural environment for that. But it’s very important to do it in the city also because you are trying to transform your mind, body system wherever you are. So I was at the country monastery that was first established – first Zen country monastery in the US called Tassajara in California. So just being in that community in that physical setting for three or four days was very short but I learned that the cats were really different. Everything was really different. You could just feel, there’s something really different here. So that was where it started. And it was again, a very fitting start for me.

 

Walter Link

 

[00:18:17] And how did it continue and then as it continued how did it impact your work? You are at a very intellectual institution and that does not easily proclaim these kind of practices or ideas. And yet you are successful in this institution and in institutions of Western business and Western society. So there is something that got nourished in you that allowed you to succeed in these contexts.

 

Peter Senge

 

[00:18:52] Well it all starts with your very first question. What is spiritual? Becoming human. It’s hard to find people who don’t have some innate interest in becoming human. Again, it all depends on how you communicate. If you say, well, this is about Buddhism or even about meditation, if you use any of those kind of labels they tend to separate people who don’t feel connected to those traditions. But if a person gets separated from the question like, how do I become a better person? Well, that’s a different problem. That’s a little more unique problem. So then I think it’s very important as I was emphasizing before to keep finding ways to get it practically grounded. Yes, it’s about becoming human so that our team works better. So that what we’re doing can flow more easily. I mean most everybody has an interest in, one, being able to be more effective in accomplishing what they want. And, two, the quality of the process. If you ask anybody, do you like how much you have to work? They almost always say no. Do you feel like you work more hours a day than you worked 10 years ago? Almost everybody will say yes. What’s the effect it’s having on your health, on your psychological, emotional, physical health? On your family? On your relationships? Do you feel really comfortable about that? Not many people say yes to all those. Oh, yes, everything’s great. So you have to get it anchored in practical context. And I think that’s actually what spiritual development is always about.

 

Peter Senge

 

[00:20:44] If you go to the Zen monastery, they are sitting, two, three, four hours a day and then they are working in the garden, they are cooking food, they are living. They are doing all the practical things that they need to do to have a healthy community. They are dealing with conflicts. All spiritual cultivation is to be human in the places where I’m trying to be human, where I’m trying to live. So you always have to make it practical. Now MIT is an interesting institution. And I always felt that in some ways it was easier in certain ways to do this work here. Even though on the surface it might look to be a very odd setting. But if you look at MIT’s history and its culture, because all of course organizations have these you might say, cultural DNA. Who are we? Who are our mythic heroes? What are the times when we have done things that we’re really proud of? When you ask these questions of any organization and you start to reveal the underlying mythos.

 

MIT’s mythos is practicality. If you look at the iconic image of MIT in its greatness, laboratories. Not classrooms. Laboratories. People doing something in a lab. The key is they are doing something. Now I have a particular point of view about this because I had a mentor here for 10 years. And to me he was an iconic MIT figure. His name is Jay Forrester and he led the team that built the first general-purpose digital computers. He invented core memory. He is in the inventors Hall of Fame with the Wright Brothers and Marconi and Edison. I mean he is an eminent technologist. And that project went on for about six or seven years. IBM was the contractor, that’s how IBM got in the computer business. His students started Digital Equipment so he was literally at the beginnings of the computer industry. He used to joke, yeah, we worked for seven years and at the end of seven years we wrote a four-page paper. But what they did is they built 28 of the first digital computers. IBM was the contractor, they installed them around the country for a very practical purpose. He had convinced the US Department of Navy that the threats to the US in the beginnings of the Cold War were such that you needed a coordinated air defense system for North America. And the amount of data – it all sounds bizarre today – the amount of data you would have to process was way beyond what human operators could process. Therefore you needed a machine environment.

 

So the important point of all that is it was a very practical context. A real issue that people had legitimate reason to be concerned about. And from that he had ideas about the way technologies could help. Now that’s obviously a story about technology. But what I also learned from Jay – I probably learned more from Jay about vision than any teacher I ever had because of the way he operated personally. He used to often joke to us and say – imagine we were a bunch of graduate students sitting around with this character, I mean a unique figure in technology history – he used to always say, well, everybody’s got about the same amount of time. Why would you spend your time doing anything but the most important thing you could be spending your time on? That was just his attitude. And if you looked at his career he would take these huge challenges. Before digital computation he led the team at MIT while he was a graduate student to build the first operating radar. And if you look at the history of World War II in the Pacific it was radar that turned the tide of the Pacific. It wasn’t the atom bomb. That was the exclamation point at the end. But the Japanese Air Force was destroying the American Navy. Once they had radar they could see the planes coming. He not only developed the radar, he installed the first operating radar on MacArthur’s flagship in combat. So when you grow up with stories like that, your sense of the DNA of the institution is that, when all is said and done, what have you done for the world? What have you done that’s had a practical consequence to the world?

 

So I’ve always felt that our work fits very naturally within the MIT context. We’ve always been very focused on practicality. We also have this big tradition of understanding systems. That’s actually what Jay’s work became, because after he kind of left behind the technology side of digital computation what he was really interested in was understanding systems. And so we bring that part of the MIT tradition with us. But I think what energizes the whole thing is that ultimately it has to be practical. As I said before, I think that’s the kind of invisible side of spirituality. How do we transform our living? How is it that a family works differently? How does a relationship work differently? How does a team work differently? How do we become more and more able to accomplish what we really want to accomplish in ways that are elegant, nurturing and leave us feeling like, wow, that was really hard work but I’d be happy to do that again anytime. Because of the impact on us as a human being.

 

Walter Link

 

[00:25:39] That sounds to me like a term that I sometimes use is inspired pragmatism. You bring together the deep inspiration that is at the core of really human being, spiritual in that sense, and you bring it into real living. And what I observe when I look into all the different sectors of society, even though there are so many problems and so many challenges, you can see really that around the world every single sector is transforming. And to me it appears transforming along similar lines with similar values. And that really there is a new civilization, if you want, emerging. And it’s hard to see it because the media is very oriented on specific stories and most people –

 

Peter Senge

 

[00:26:33] And mostly negative stories.

 

Walter Link

 

[00:26:35] Negative stories. And most people look into their sector so there are few generalists left in a certain sense. Yet you are agreeing. So say something more about what you think is true about this overarching phenomena and how it is kind of evolving. Like the developmental movement that is really taking over the whole of society.

 

Peter Senge

 

[00:27:03] I believe the awareness of being in a time of crisis is growing. I think very few people don’t have some version of that. Then obviously it’s a question of, how do you perceive it? And then how do you see the possibilities for appropriate response? So there’s a lot of variety there. I mean look at one appropriate response to a crisis is, defend yourself. So we see that all around the world. Particularly true in this country. There’s a very defensive attitude in the United States today. We are trying to keep from losing all the things that we’ve got, particularly our material affluence. But there’s other responses as well. So I think around the world, you see this, I would say, explosion of extraordinary stories of the transformation of key systems that shape how we live.

 

[00:28:20] I mentioned the food system a minute ago. We’ve been involved now for almost 8 years in what is the largest systems change effort I’ve ever been part of. It’s basically now about 60 or 70 of the largest food companies and NGOs in the world working together on how to bring – what they say, how to bring sustainable agriculture into the mainstream. Not just a few little pockets of organic farms that you buy on Saturday morning from a local farmer. But imagine that’s healthy, sustainable agriculture was the mainstream system. In terms of the quality of the food but also the impact. The social, environmental impact. Because farming or fishing all depend on the well-being of the ecosystems. Our harmony with mother nature is what gives us food, in a nutshell. And you destroy that harmony, you don’t have food sooner or later. You don’t have food you can really eat.

 

So I believe that’s the first industry that’s really starting to wake up because I think there’s enough people and enough organizations that are starting to see that if we keep heading in the direction we’re going, we are really going off a cliff. We have lost half of topsoil in the world in the industrial age and the global food system is I think the largest generator of poverty in the world. In order for you and I to have cheap melons in the middle of winter in a northern climate where it’s basically pretty cold, you have to hook up everybody’s agricultural markets into huge commodity markets and in big commodity markets you drive prices down relentlessly and production up so you can reach more and more markets at a cheaper price. Unfortunately those falling prices are falling incomes for farmers. 50 million to 70 million a year migrate into slums and shantytowns because they no longer have a viable rural economy. And all that is being exacerbated by climate change, changes in weather patterns, all that. But there is a set of dynamics there that even go beyond climate state change. There’s a globalization of food. So tomorrow we have MIT’s 150th anniversary celebration. They asked me to organize the closing session and they wanted a bunch of CEOs. I said, oh, don’t waste your time, they’ll be so boring. We’ve heard way too many CEO talks in our lifetimes. All of us. And I said, let me think about it a little.

 

So tomorrow we’re going to close MIT’s 150th anniversary by two people will join me for a conversation. Barbara Stocking who’s the CEO of Oxfam and Paul Pohlmann who is the CEO of Unilever. Those two organizations have been working together now for almost 15 years. They helped us organize the sustainable food lab. Oxfam reached out to the NGO world, Unilever reached out to the food industry and they both said the same thing: These problems were bad and they are getting much worse. None of us can solve this problem by ourselves. We all are going to have to work together. The NGOs have knowledge about the environment and social conditions and cultural realities that we in business don’t have. On the other hand, the NGOs can say, the businesses know something about commerce and innovation because we’re not going to solve these problems except through profound innovation at many, many levels. So today Oxfam and Unilever have a board-to-board strategic partnership to collaborate, to bring a half-million smallholders into Unilever’s global food chains. That’s a huge stretch. All around the world you see stories like that. So that’s the food industry. Very few people in the West, certainly not in America – like nobody in America – knows that actually the Chinese party, the Communist Party, has now committed to a massive pace of decarbonizing the Chinese economy. So there’s these stories all around. We work a lot in schools. I actually believe the industrial age school is finally dying and something new is being born. But in all these cases you have the same phenomenon. You have an example here, an example here, an example here. For every one Unilever, believe me, there’s 20 competitors who kind of all say the right words but they don’t have the depth of commitment. They don’t see it in a truly strategic matter.

 

If we don’t embrace this set of questions we don’t have a future. And if we do, we could lead in innovating and create a future that we’d really like to live in. And don’t get me wrong, whenever you get close to anyone of those examples – of course there are always shortcomings. These are living systems, they are not perfect. Unilever is not a paragon. It just happens to be a company that really sees this global food system as a strategic matter for innovation. So I think there are so many examples, almost none of which are visible to most people. So first it’s a course to make them visible. The second is to really commit ourselves to interconnecting them and helping them see each other and find each other. Who knows how close we are to a critical mass? You can only tell that in hindsight. 50 years from now people will look back and say, oh, that happened in 2005 and that happened in 2008 and 2011 and 2015 these things happened. And before you knew it, you had a worldwide revolution occurring in education. Or in how businesses manage value chains. So all I know is there’s so many inspiring stories around. And of course they’re all grounded, they are all in very practical contexts. So your phrase, inspired pragmatism, would characterize any of these people.

 

Walter Link

 

[00:34:13] I know that you are working exactly on trying to find how do we bring it to scale and I think that’s a conundrum that many people are working with because partly also because this becoming human, this human maturation, traditionally was a process that took time. And it seems like there’s such a sense of urgency and how can we spend time on the practices that it takes to cultivate human maturation when there are such pressing issues? So how do we address this apparent contradiction?

 

Peter Senge

 

[00:34:48] Well, you really have two questions there. The first one is actually very easy. That doesn’t mean it’s simple or very easy to do, but it’s not complicated. How do I get the time? If it’s important, you make the time. You brush your teeth in the morning, probably, all of us do that. You could meditate for 15 or 30 minutes. Believe me, you have the time. It’s nothing to do with time. There’s only so much time, we know that. It always comes down to priorities and discipline. If you are serious and it’s really important, you do it. I meditated on and off ever since I went to that first retreat when I was in college. I felt like it. An hour here, half hour there maybe three or four times a week. It was good, it was very helpful for me. And then I happened to meet a person who became a teacher for me in China. And he said, well, it’s time for you to get serious. You should meditate every day. And, as I say, you brush your teeth in the morning, I guarantee you can – I do an hour every morning and a half hour every evening. And I’m as busy as probably most anybody. You have the time. So that’s a different issue. That’s an issue. But that’s only on the surface, about time. That really is about choice. As I say, it’s not necessarily easy but it’s a simple issue. It’s not complicated. Do we have the time? And given the urgency of the ecological and social stresses in the world. Are the things that are happening happening fast enough at a scale large enough that you could say, we have a reasonable chance of averting disaster?

 

Well, the truth is, we’ve got disaster right now. It’s important to recognize that. We have a billion people who don’t have clean drinking water. That’s a disaster. The World Health Organization says it could be as many as 3 billion by 2020. We have fisheries in collapse all around the world, as I said we’ve lost half the topsoil in the world. Farming communities are in distress around the world. I mean we are in a disaster right now. So you want to see what disaster looks like, we should open our eyes. No one can answer that question, do we have enough time? Nobody has crystal ball. So I think that is a totally different kind of question. It does not have an answer at all. You have to ultimately kind of hold the question, live with that question. I think when you do you start to realize some important dilemmas. You pointed to one right at the beginning. Let’s just take the team example. To build our capacities as a team, we will need to take some time to reflect on how we work. I mean the first way I ever saw this done on a team who got really serious about building their capacities to reflect together, they ended their official weekly team meeting and then they took an hour afterwards. And in that hour afterwards they just spent time talking about what had happened, how they felt. All the things that you don’t normally do because you’re busy trying to solve problems. You are very task oriented. But they said, no, this really matters. So, yes, you have to create some time. There are natural rhythms in this. The other point you were making at the beginning.

 

In Buddhism, Taoism, any of the spiritual cultivation traditions, there is understandings that these things do really take some time. It depends on who you are. Of course the Asians will say, it depends on your karma. If you start with this karma, it may take a long time. So regardless of whether or not you have adopted that point of view, everybody knows that it takes time. And there are natural rhythms. So you have on the one hand this huge urgency. And then you have the developmental dynamics that always take investment and time. At an individual level, collective levels. Teams, organizations, networks. In the food lab, for example, when they have a meeting – that network I was talking about before – so you’ve got all these NGOs and businesses, they come together once a year for a two- or three-day meeting. Now they’re doing projects all the time. So they are sharing their projects. 2/3 to 3/4 of the people will come at least one to two days early for the meeting so they can go on learning journeys. And what that means is they will go visit farmers wherever they are having the meeting. So see the reality of the agricultural sector wherever they having the meeting. And then they will spend time talking about it. And that seeing something concrete sparks a lot of things. So the learning journeys are not really about going someplace. The learning journeys are about seeing something that normally I wouldn’t see but seeing it directly. And then what does that bring up in me? How does that evoke a different awareness? And of course you have an NGO civil rights activist or an environmental activist and a commercial person, they are going to see a different world. So that conversation that ensues afterwards – because they see totally different things – is actually why you do it in the first place. Because you are trying to help everybody become more and more attuned to the reality of each other. That’s a cultivation practice, that’s the basic cultivation practice of teams. But you have to have the time to do it. These people feel a lot of urgency. And believe me most of them participating, they can see the urgency of transforming the global food system. But they also have come to a conviction that there is no way to do it. You cannot transform a system without transforming the relationships and the consciousness of the people in the system. So it’s a strategy. So you basically have to find things you feel are solid and useful to help in your practical work. And then you do have to create the time for them. And who knows how long it’ll take? But you basically have one of two options. Keep doing stuff that’s not working at all or try something new.

 

Walter Link

 

[00:41:00] So you are pointing actually to an important practice that I think is often not paid much attention to which is to have conversations. We do that all time and in fact we are of course also in the university and science, all throughout society we are engaged in some kind of inquiry that is personal and then an inquiry that is shared. And a lot of the Eastern traditions of course were more focused on contemplation and meditation while ancient Western traditions, especially of course Socrates and then Plato and so forth, were using an integration of meditation and inquiry. Individual and collective. And so I wonder what you think about that? Of learning really how to converse and how to inquire in a way that has the same kind of methodological clarity and depth that you would bring to meditation.

 

Peter Senge

 

[00:42:12] That’s a great way to frame it because I think you’re right. The same sort of methodological rigor, depth you might say theory and method that you would find in an individual cultivation traditions. So I agree with you completely. I mean, first off, another way to say what I was saying before about teams are so important, how people work together who are trying to get something done, is that how they are with one another, how they relate to another, how they talk with one another. So we have found for years, again, it’s very important to always keep coming down to tangible, concrete things. How did that conversation go? How do you feel about it? What didn’t get said? For example, I told you the team that first got serious they said, we will have our regular weekly meeting and then we’ll take one hour afterwards. Well over time that one hour got longer and the meeting got shorter because in the hour afterwards the first thing they would say is, what didn’t get said? Well, I was thinking this – I didn’t say any of that because I didn’t want to piss off old Joe over here. So kind of that collective reflection. And then of course it becomes very real. It’s not abstract, it’s not theoretical. We all know that conversation is important and it’s very complicated. Because there’s so much going on in us and we’re always dealing with the dilemmas. Do I say that? Do I not say that? Would it hurt the person’s feelings? Would it insult them? Sure, the Asians are extreme in that way because the Asian cultures, Eastern ones particularly, tend to be very oriented toward face-saving. But it’s no different in the West.

 

We all are concerned at some fundamental level about what we should and shouldn’t say. But as a result of that, we often don’t say a lot of things that would actually be crucial to move into. And typically we say, well, I didn’t want to hurt the person’s feelings, we didn’t have enough time. If I would’ve brought that up, we would’ve been there for the next three hours. But we had an agenda. So we have to create a space. We used to often call it a reflective space. But your goal is very simple. To transform listening into transform conversing. Because I do believe at the social level it all starts with the quality of our listening and the quality of our conversation or communication. And it’s very transcendent. It’s in all settings. Think of any place where that’s not important. And conversely, when you start to realize that and then you go into settings where people are really struggling and where there is real dysfunction. Go to Washington DC and I’ll guarantee you one of the things that will just break your heart is the degenerated quality of the conversation. No one would talk to their kids the way they talk to each other in the Senate. No one would do that. So somehow a set of norms develop where kind of the most fundamental things we know as human beings kind of get left aside and we develop a whole new set of norms of beat the other person. Make the other person look bad. Win, don’t lose. All that kind of stuff becomes the norm. And the essence of human relating disappears. So until you can reestablish, again, that pragmatic connection, we will not be effective collectively until we can be effective relationally.

 

Walter Link

 

[00:45:26] So if we consider that and see how important it is for society as a whole, how would we re-envision our educational system where a lot of this is set up? What would we change so that education would really help us to become human, to develop both the aspect of inspiration and also the pragmatism to get things done in this inspired way?

 

Peter Senge

 

[00:45:57] Well, there’s an old saying in traditional Chinese culture that the mark of every golden age is that children are the most important members of society and teaching the most revered profession. We all know that the education system is the window into the future in a very fundamental sense. It’s the only institution in society that has a 60 or 70 or 80 year time horizon. Inherently in its work. The impacts you have on those young people will have an impact in your culture over many, many decades. That’s not true of any other institution. So it’s kind of obvious how important it is. So for that reason a lot of us have put a good deal of our focus on education. I think there’s plenty of evidence – we have a big meeting coming up in July where people are going to come from all over the world to just hang out amongst extraordinary innovators in education. It really can be done in regular schools. Public schools funded by the government, nothing unusual, a lot of the concentration in the last 10 years has been in poorer schools because it’s one thing to say, well, you’ve got a bunch of upper-middle-class kids. But then you’ve got these kids in the city. You know, the plight of kids growing up in our cities is pretty severe today in America. So you have to work in those places. You have to work where the toughest – but in some ways the toughest settings aren’t that tough.

 

People know things have to change. So I believe that if you kind of looked at key institutions and you say well ultimately this is about individuals, it’s about teams but it’s also about institutions and organizations and communities. That whole continuum. If you looked at key institutions and you kind of rank ordered them in terms of importance, the two that would jump out at you would be business because it’s so powerful and education because it’s so important. So those are the two places we’ve always concentrated our work on. And the good news is, they really are full of kids. So what does it take to transform a school? Well, a couple of basic things. We all know them. First is respect. You really must respect the child. You must respect that the child has their own way of understanding, their own way of learning. The industrial model of schools, which became the model for the world starting almost 200 years ago in northern England, Northeast United States and you know you go into a high school in Beijing and it’s no different than a high school in the West. They’re all the same. Same curriculum even. Same grade 1, grade 2, grade 3, grade 4. All industrial model. And all about standardization. The industrial model. It’s about an assembly line. And yet you have the fact that every single human being is unique and if you want to transform the education process you must start first with profound respect. You watch little kids in any group of adults. They’ll go to some adults and not others. Very quickly. They’ll go to the adults who listen to them. They immediately can tell if an adult really gives them respect. And they might not even have the word or the concept but they know energetically the difference in a conversational adult that’s like this and a conversational adult that’s like this.

 

So the first foundation of any learning process that involves multiple people is respect. The second is what I already said, that individual nature that kind of goes with respect. The nature of everybody’s consciousness and sense making and learning process, it’s very different. You know there are some kids – some people who’ve got to touch things, they are very concrete learners. If I’m not touching it, if I’m not doing it, I can’t learn it. There are other people that actually can take in a lot of information. They are more kind of quiet in their style. So people are all very different. Some people have to learn interpersonally. Other people, it’s enormously distracting to have to have too many conversations because I can’t concentrate. So that’s the variety. Secondly, it all comes back to what we all know about learning. We know a lot about learning. If only only applied it. Where did you learn to ride a bicycle? Well, you learned to ride a bicycle in the places you wanted to ride a bicycle. Now you might have started on a grassy field so when you fell down you didn’t hurt yourself too much. But you didn’t want to ride on a grassy field, you wanted to ride with your friends down the street or to the playground. So all learning is contextual.

 

You learn and develop the capability in a context where you are trying to accomplish something. And thirdly, we all know how you learn. You learn through doing. That’s the only way anybody ever learned anything. Trial and error. You do it and it doesn’t work. Which means by implication that to learn anything, you have to be very comfortable with failure. Because you fall off the bicycle a lot more often than you ride the bicycle when you’re learning. And we all know this. So the thing is, it’s not complicated but to actually imagine a school that’s based on profound respect where the learning is really about the child’s life and learning things that really matter in their life circumstance and it fundamentally respects the importance of action and reflection as the foundations for any learning process. And the fourth is that it’s always both individual and social. So your relationships with one another are really, really important.

 

[00:51:23] I have the pleasure to be a part of the first school in China since the Cultural Revolution that’s been sanctioned by the party based on traditional Chinese concepts and practices of education. It’s really interesting. How did the Chinese people educate a five-year-old 2000 years ago? And you see some things very interesting right away. First off, the kids are outside playing all the time. They are climbing trees, they’re doing what a five, six, seven-year-old would do. They are outdoors much more than they are indoors. Secondly, they study the mind-body system. They study traditional Chinese medicine. Thirdly, they all do tai chi. So every day they do at least a half-hour of tai chi. So mind-body system. And fourthly, and the one that’s the most subtle, because you have to understand Chinese culture to understand this, they do what they call recitation. They literally recite Confucius. They recite Mencius. Western educators looked at that and said, oh, that’s just rote memorization.

 

But if you listen and if you know anything about the tonal structure of the Chinese language, in a minute you’ll know, oh, these children spend two hours every day chanting. It’s not about the content, it’s about participating in a collective vibratory field. Because they understood that was the foundation, along with your relationship to the earth, to social well-being. So if you spend two hours everyday chanting – imagine that, age of five, age of six, your sense of connection with one another beyond the intellect. It’s an emotional and physical phenomena. Because chanting is a vibratory field. Oh, and by the way, when you talk to someone who’s learned that education – there aren’t many in China, they are over 60 or 70 years old now because it’s been wiped out by the party, this is the first school that’s allowed it back in in the mainstream – they will say, did you understand Confucius when you were six years old? Oh, no. I understood it when I was 42. And so you are implanting these seeds because you all know it, you know the words, you know the rhythm of it just sitting there until a moment in your life context where it’s needed. So there’s a very different approach to education. And I think if you look at the really good schools, they are all doing these sort of things. They are very attuned to the social reality. How we create a sense of harmony and a sense of efficacy. They are very attuned to the well-being of the kids, they are very attuned to the uniqueness of the kids. And of course it’s ultimately always about our connection with each other and with mother Earth.

 

Walter Link

 

[00:54:15] Everybody wants to be innovative, everybody wants to be creative and everybody talks about change. So if we look more deeply into these terms, what’s really at the core of creativity and innovation? What have you learned over your many years of innovating yourself and being with many innovative people and supporting innovative processes, what’s that living being, that living human being living in those conceptual terms –

 

Peter Senge

 

[00:54:49] I forgot one thing about the school. The other thing that the kids spend at least an hour every day doing is calligraphy. So they are immersed from a very early age in the creative process. And to watch a group of six-year-olds very kind of quietly doing their calligraphy. So what’s going on there? Well, in calligraphy every stroke is unique. You learn to pay attention to the uniqueness of things. This is a blind spot of efforts to innovate because it’s always about what can we create here. So innovation has a lot to do with awareness. Your ability to pay attention. And then of course there is the suspension of the normal way our judgmental mind. Well, my stroke isn’t going right right now. So there’s a little part of ourselves – it’s not a flaw, just human – to be very critical. But critical not in a good sense but critical in a way that actually interrupts our flow. Think of anything you’re doing where there’s a flow, where you are running or particularly something that’s a little challenging. Skiing or playing something difficult on a musical instrument. If you stop and think in the middle of it – and particularly if you stop and judge yourself – you’re dead. The whole flow is interrupted. So to learn how to really pay attention and to learn how to pay attention to a flow of something that’s unfolding, that is the creative process. The creative process are participation consciously in the unfolding of the universe.