Exploring the Deeper Dynamics of Systems Change
In early May 2022 I joined a group named Organizational Development (OD) for Life including Bio Leadership expert Andres Roberts and Thrivability maven Michelle Holliday, exploring how this new initiative might shift the field of Organisational Development to one that puts nature primarily at its core. This is a super radical shift for an occupational field that is, for a large part, bound up in affirming and earning dollars, from the rapidly antiquating operational methodologies of many conventional for-profit businesses. Many of these established operations, however deluded in their mindsets, critically, have cash and resources to spend on Organisational Development, largely to increase financial value or shareholder profit maximisation, as opposed to cultivating and expanding social or environmental and climate impacts for example. Thus a group of 20 or so pioneering OD professionals entered the woodlands around Zeist in the Netherlands, to explore the improbably extreme notion that the field of OD can play a role in systems change, by centering it around thrivability or in other words nature’s own design principles.
Thrivability is an attempt to redesign human enterprises to work cooperatively and in harmony, with the inherent organic ways that living systems function. This is a massive shift from the exploitative, extractive, colonising design that is endemic, in so many corporate commerce and for profit businesses. Nature’s design is such that ecosystems usually develop in ways that enable the whole system to flourish. Thus they naturally move forwards on a path of thrivability where all parts and wholes of any system can thrive. Life’s universal design principles include divergent parts, dynamic interrelationships, convergent wholeness and are self-integrating and self-regenerating. (Michelle Holliday). Thus the OD for life movement is attempting systemic change by moving the current era of Organisational Design/Development from a mechanistic paradigm to an ecological one.
Backgrounds to Systems Sensing
A critical insight shared by Otto Scharmer regarding systemic change is to enable the system to see and sense itself. One method utilised in his U-theory-based systemic transformation programmes, is Social Presencing Theatre (SPT). The function of SPT is to draw from the original Greek sense of the word theatre, ‘to make visible’, to bring up to the surface new, deeper insights and data about whatever systems are being modelled. Other alternative systemic processes that attempt to shift stakeholder attention away from the head, from the overly analytical or merely cognitive, towards the lived, embodied experience of participating in a system, include systemic constellations, and to a lesser degree deep democracy.
The imminent importance of enabling systems to see and sense themselves, that conventional methods largely ignore, is for stakeholders to perceive, feel and experience the systemic energies, and the dynamic flows as an intrinsic part of themselves. This may even afford the insight that they have never not played a role in whichever system they act. Why might this realisation be critically necessary at this moment? One reason might be the urgent need to move from a rationalistic, objectifying, mechanistic worldview, to one that is integral, that privileges multiple views and ways of seeing reality, including moving hopefully also toward an ecological worldview.
Alienation and Isolation
Most of us involved in any sort of professional or organisational change will have surely noted the visceral sense that many employees carry that the organisation or system is ‘out there’, that their participation in it is negligible and easily discountable. There is some reasonable truth to this perspective. The perception of being commanded, controlled and deployed, very often in ways that take no account of inner human complexity and natural adult intelligence, it could be argued, actually produces these stifling dissociative sentiments.
In fact traditional modern business is inherently designed to exclude these types of human concerns, leading to experiences of alienation and separation. So these perceptions of being external to the organisation, are not completely untrue. An outside observer will still perceive the parts of the organisation mostly interacting and collaborating as a unit, to deliver the products or services that the company’s mission demands. To the external eye this company, business or organisation operates as a whole system, albeit a mostly mechanistic one. This stands in stark contrast to the aforementioned internal perspectives of the ‘automatised’ human parts operating within that system.
Nevertheless the plague of modernity is the Story of Separation, of detachment from self, other and nature. It is no surprise that, notwithstanding possibly years of employment in any field, professionals can feel an immense emotional and psychological distance from the entities to which they dedicate much of their waking lives. Additionally, one might consider the much utilised metaphor of the iceberg. The tip of the iceberg represents the areas upon which most organisations focus, on structure, production, strategy, personnel etc., while the greatest mass of the iceberg lies below water, unseen, unobserved and unaccounted for. Here the currents of culture, arrangements of systems, values and beliefs, can largely power the iceberg towards unforeseen, unforeseeable and indeterminate ends. Most importantly, at the base of the iceberg sits paradigms of thought or the Blind Spot of Leadership. Importantly, out of these hidden, unquestioned and unquestionable sources, many of the wrong-headed reactive strategies for change arise. The iceberg metaphor or model thus explains why, for the larger part, most organisational change strategies fail, or do not achieve their intended goals.
Thus the glut of current intersecting systemic crises seem to depend on radically alternative ways of knowing, doing, being and relating to systems. This does mean downgrading, but not totally abandoning analysis, computation, calculation and prediction, while prioritising, more timeless ways of sensing into systems. This requires us to tap into the evolutionary intelligence of the body and other sense-generated data, to get an inkling of which directions those unfathomable oceanic currents are driving most human organisational phenomena. Hence the yearning and the urgency of the call to reform and reorientate current day OD approaches, towards systemic change with nature or thrivability, as its guiding principle.
From Democratic Dialogue to Constellation
Our first day of the collaborative conference, set in warm hospitable surroundings, essentially built a platform of trust, connection and spirit. This was partly enabled by the B.Corp, Better Meetings, who manifest and express the principles of for-purpose businesses. We engaged in guided meditations, collective sensing motions exploring the principles of thrivability, went on empathy walks, combined with other smaller and large group explorations, including fireside chats while striving to form a shared basis of understanding from which to create a manifesto for a prototypical OD for Life movement. This notion swiftly morphed into a ‘maniflexo’ for our group to declare its purpose and existence to the world.
On day two, it was clearer that another level of sensing and cooperation needed to occur, for a more heartfelt mutually resonant sense of what our shared purpose might begin to look like. To aid us in this exploration we began a process of Deep Democracy, which substantially shifted as a process into one of Systemic Constellation. I would claim that this enactment of the dynamics of the relationships between the diverse roles of stakeholders in the system, resulted in powerful revelatory, shared insights and sense data. This might defy exact replication elsewhere, yet nevertheless it still exposed and plumbed the depths of the undercurrents mentioned above. The core dynamics of the underlying forces in this notional OD for Life system were made visible and were collectively witnessed, seen, sensed and experienced.
One condition that was critical to the powerful outcomes of the constellation was the facilitation and expert guidance of Din van Helden, one of the organisers and co-hosts of the gathering. In holding the space she displayed keen alertness, sharp observational skills, sensitivity and respect for the process, with a nourishing stewardship. She responded when needed to protect, conserve, encourage, attend, listen and guide the participants in the space, towards enabling a collectively shared and felt experience of the dynamics of the whole system.
Participants were invited to step into a large oval space created in the centre of the meeting hall and to take up a position in the space to use the space to create a shape or form that represented the role that their self selected stakeholder played in the wider field of Organisational Development. What unfolded demonstrated a striking contrast with conventional approaches to systemic change. The slow, painstaking pace with a marked freedom from habitual critique and over-analysis, also from the maintenance of appearances, all of which encouraged the formation of nascent respect for all the systemic roles, nodes and actors in the room. This spaciousness afforded an organic ebb and flow, unlocking mutual reciprocity as stakeholders inhabited their roles and embodied the system’s dynamics.
Evoking Deeper Dynamics
What follows is not an exact, linear, sequential description of the constellation’s unfolding, but rather an impressionistic outline, an evocation and partial recollection of what the system itself was calling for to move towards health and healing. Manyparticipants spontaneously felt pulled to model a role, a dynamic or to take the place of stakeholders as the constellation process unfolded in the space. Some crystallised, even dramatic moments stood out for me in the cocreation of this constellation, or if you like a 4d model of the current OD system state.
One participant strode into the circle as a stakeholder calling for all the underrepresented, unheard, unseen voices and actors to be acknowledged within the OD systemic space. Their declaration was an irrefutable claim for a truly global representative voice, insisting and even demanding a role in systemic change. A few actors had adopted a place, a role in the space, when I stepped in claiming a role in the centre of the formation, calling for a deeply held shared purpose for the system. Implied, but not explicitly stated, was the desire for whole systems evolution towards a higher purpose. Another stakeholder later reinvigorated this sense of connection to the wider system, by stepping into the role of the ecocentric, of the voice for the earth, taking up a very close position to my node while supporting and feeding into the groundedness of that shared purpose.
In reaction to these powerful statements, another player stepped in modelling a darker force. Emanating an unstated but compelling sense of omnipotence, ‘I make a stand to not participate and you cannot make me!’ This powerful and magnetic voice carried echoes and tones of the unspoken, sometimes perverse and unreasonable attitudes that demand recognition, but are mostly ignored and overlooked in organisational change processes.
This intransigent refractory expression mirrored the deepest unseen, unspeakable undercurrents, firmly rooted in so many human endeavours and enterprises. This role presented as an almost pubescent archetype with which I was very familiar from my previous career working with excluded young people and young adults. This wilful dynamic refused all conciliatory approaches, compassionate advances, and tentative offerings of healing from other actors drawn towards this compelling vortex of dissonance. Standing powerfully, wilfully and alive in its own passionate resistance, it exerted a gravitational force that grew in strength with each glance of attention paid in its direction.
Various stakeholder roles felt drawn to invite this outlying dynamic’s inclusion towards bridge building, reaching out as fellow colleagues, as mediators, as healers, wishing and inviting this player’s participation within the circle. Yet most approaches were roughly rebuffed. Nevertheless the shadow energy seemed to draw some solace from, or resonance with, the centre of shared deep purpose. If some reconciliation were to be achieved, it might only arise when that shared purpose was fully distributed across the system. Yet the dark archetype contained not only retaliatory fire, but was also composed of shadow, of the unknown and the generative womb, bringing a sense that these energies might also offer huge potential for healing across the whole OD system.
As these dynamics played out, the tension in the shared field was palpable with everyone’s gaze riveted to the action. The facilitator attended to slight shifts in body position, to attitude, to hesitation, as players doubted when, where and how to extend their insights into the field. How were they to represent their own sensory data in the emerging energetic web in the space?
For me, there was a further peak in creative tension which was instigated when an observer, seated on the rim of the field, pointed out that there were still players or energies that had been ignored or forgotten in the system. He indicated the dire need for the wisdom of the indigenous to be included in the circle, in the system. The young man, while white, was an initiate and conveyor of wisdom of the Māori. He himself had no desire to step into the system and inhabit the emotional position of representing and constellating this indigenous archetype. Yet his strong yearning, for inclusivity, awoke the whole group to another layer of potentiality and wholeness. In a moving and heartfelt gesture, he took a pendant off his neck, stating it was a gift from a Māori elder and brother. He stood up and temporarily hung the artefact around the neck of the figure playing the professional OD consultant.
I cannot truly fully convey how electric this moment was for me, for us, for the entirety of the system, both in and out of the room. I sensed a jolt of energy in the space, as the whole system experienced a supercharged sense of active wholeness and completeness. This inspired shattering of the veils awoke everyone to the potential of thrivability and health across the entire system. Somehow the exercise had plumbed and plunged into the depths of the iceberg. What emerged came not from analysis, maps, calculation or forecasting, nor techniques and tools, nor hyper-rational methodologies. It arose unbidden through the heart, souls and sensing capacities, of everyone present, as well as that often unexpressed yearning of the heart for the more beautiful world. This rare quality of alive, shared attention was all engrossing, it vibrated with the sense of latent potential. This act of inclusion offered a glimpse of the profound energetics required for authentic systems change leading to systemic transformation that is no longer blind to the root causes of problems, the often obscured mental models, out of which the debilitating, depressing current systemic conditions arise.
Another dramatic unfolding occurred in the space in this heightened state of aliveness. A participant felt called, although somewhat hesitantly, to play the role of the heart. Stumbling in and out of the periphery, ambiguous and torn, unsure whether to fully step in and play a role. The longing for this to happen was a strong attractor throughout the space and slowly this player finally joined, acting out a critical dynamic in the energetic network. This particle of the system gravitated towards the shadow, seemed attracted and open to stand and gaze without defence or pretence, into the whirlpool of the conflicted expression that the holder of the shadow space was emanating.
There was stumbling and vulnerability, as these two polarities came into contact. Uneasiness, awkwardness and ambiguity were evident in the body language of both. Eventually the warmth of the heart, its unpretentiousness, its simple act of witnessing, free from intent to bridge or heal, to alter their counterpart in any way, brought some equilibrium into the dynamic. Surprisingly, the former militant separateness of the shadow figure, toned down, as they were touched and felt utterly seen, exactly as they were, in their deepest being, unencumbered by any external impulse, to change a single smallest item in their existence.
This healing gaze of the heart, this embodiment of the best of humanity, brought the stakeholder circle and space into deeper harmony with each other. I was also conscious, as with any engaging drama, how all players within and without the system, were on tenterhooks. Once this exchange started to land in the group, the healers, fixers, mediators, those acting from compassion or love of doing good, were released from their constellation, recognising that deep reconciliation had occurred. In the wake of the emotional intensity, of the relentless magnetic pull of the shadow balanced with the vision of the heart. A liberating emergent buoyancy arose, as the spirit of lightness and creative energy was freed asthe work and dynamism of the constellation had created enough space for deep enjoyment and celebration in the system.
Systemic transparency and collective consciousness
Having been an early pioneer of ‘We-Space’ work, mostly focussed on the phenomena of collective enlightenment since 2001 I have had the extraordinary privilege of experiencing very touching, moving and spiritually inspiring ‘altered state’ group experiences of shared consciousness. These were rare occurrences of intimacy, of extreme vulnerability, of deep unity with an emergent shared wish for all the players in the system to flourish according to their best capacities and inherent limitations. I found these ‘We Space’ explorations activated our best humanity, while they also opened our eyes to how untapped human potential lay remarkably close at hand, yet unfailingly hidden away. In many ways one might interpret the climate and other ecological crises, as a failure in our collective imaginary to sense new possibilities, as we have no imminent awareness of how much potential lies untapped, in our shared consciousnesses.
Occasionally the direct focus of these explorations shifted away from sharing and expressing the collective spiritual best self. Usually through a participant’s piercing clarity and candour, deeper phenomena of culturally conditioned thought forms and beliefs were unearthed. This involved individuals with a specific national heritage communicating with searing honesty from their own experience. This brought the discovery through earnest acknowledgement and sincere transparency that the structures of nation state conditioning, absorbed at a soul level from birth, automatically create separation, division and conflict whilst causing immense difficulty for self and for others. These structures consequently extrapolate to friction between nations and even global systems. Yet the emancipatory ripple these authentic discoveries and soulful recognitions create in the wider whole is exhilarating.
These largely unexamined cultural programming are often hidden in plain sight, and are those to which nations are normally blinkered. Hence the old jokes such as hell is where the British are the cooks or lovers etc. etc. Each national identity has its own blind spots, which are obvious to the outsider, yet curiously invisible to the in-dwellers of that nation state. These unquestioned structures, like the undercurrents driving the iceberg unconsciously affect and determine each individual soul’s being in the world whatever, local, national or cultural upbringing.
Thus in the light of the non victimized responsible self-disclosure just described, the possibility of true existential levels of healing between opposing cultures for example can come into focus as a distinct possibility. heart-rending admissions included, the soul-level lack of worth that sits in a deep layer in the white US psyche. Or how some Australians felt a similar cultural void in their gut and how most of their behaviour was structured around a deep avoidance of this soul destroying absence. In moments of rare reflection and enlightened togetherness, enabling a space for heart-wrenching admissions, it was the collective lens of the unified whole that made the insights possible. In those exceptionally powerful instances, it seemed completely probable that no national problem or trauma was too great, to resist the pull towards love and harmony that these experiences provided. Nevertheless, the carefully crafted preparation and core conditions that made these communications possible, needed to be set up in the first place.
Possibly my alertness to the inter and intra-subjective space occurring in the constellated OD for Life systemic experience was deeply informed by the above experiences. My awareness was not solely with myself, being highly trained to expand my attention to the whole of the system. This might have enabled me to be alert more to the unspoken, unarticulated fluctuations in energy in the space around us. My interpretations of the variations in the field may not be shared by my brave fellow collaborators. Nevertheless, as my system absorbed, metabolised, and integrated the constellated experience, another even more important revelation occurred to me a day or so later.
I suggest that what we experienced and constellated together did not only apply to systems change in the field of Organisational Development. But the sheer depth of the work, the ubiquity of the dynamics, of the archetypes seemed to have value and applicability across any system, irrespective of specialism, sphere of influence, diversity of stakeholders and the wicked problems each system faces. The constellation revealed that the deeper dynamics, the blind spots, the mental models, across any discipline are largely universal. These shared streams of consciousness contain extremely rich, relevant and useful data, which in an era of likely collapse, can influence how we compost and hospice decaying man- made systems, while sensing and cooperating with the regenerative and restorative impulse of nature towards health and thrivability.
It appears to be of ultimate importance to design organisational practices that develop capacities of all stakeholders to attend to systems sensing, feeling and being. I would recommend that this needs to occur in regular and structured ways, especially even if just to press pause in everyone’s hectic organisational lives. These spaces and places importantly require us to take a breath, to stop and to sense, into the intangible undercurrents and the blind spots that drive organisational life.
I am of the opinion that for the Organisational Development for Life enquiry to take root and begin to grow, the capacity to sense as individuals and as a collective, from the three nested spheres of self, other and system, seems totally essential. Additionally, I suggest that what also requires cultivation, is the sense of an immutable heart based, visceral shared sense of purpose, experienced personally and held collectively. Ideally this could be felt as a sacred bond to manifest a thrivable world, through truly rewilding the professional field of organisational development.
Finally for those who have witnessed and participated in the dynamics of the emergence from constellating and bringing the invisible, the unseen and unspoken to light. For those that have witnessed and participated in the dynamics of that emergence. They might take from the constellation the urgent obligation to be guided by the yearning of the planet. for life and nature-centric Organisational Development, to swiftly coalesce together as a transformative force for thrivable change.
With deep thanks to Ginabonmariage for her proofing, corrections and suggestions for this article which were invaluable
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About the author Dave Pendle; I am synthesising almost 30 years experience in non profit enterprises with over 40 years of deep personal development experience. Passionate about enabling others’ sense of fulfillment, impact and trust, to engage wholeheartedly with inspiration and commitment to 21st century work and life. My new website is in development, so do please comment with how you best like to connect with me and or subscribe on Medium to stay in touch with my articles.