Projects and Collective Presencing

I haven't done a good job of expressing the vision that has come to me of Collective Presencing applying to particular real situations experienced by individuals, including (but not only) in their work lives. Here it is: I hold any outcome lightly.

The story so far

Back last autumn a small group of us, led by Pam Pence, wanted to explore the application of Collective Presencing practice to projects: we called it “Projects with Presencing”. This was at least partly inspired by the fact that Pam, I, and others had taken the Theory U “u.lab” course. Theory U is Otto Scharmer's approach to applying what he also calls “presencing” to organisations and their management. One of the techniques used in the u.lab work is called the “Case Clinic”, and a 2-page guide is freely available on Scharmer's Presencing Institute website, outlining how that works.

A core feature of u.lab's Case Clinic is the use of “generative dialogue”, which seemed close enough to Collective Presencing practice to raise the question, at least in my mind, whether this part of the Case Clinic could be extended from the nominal 20 minutes allocated in the Case Clinic guide, to see whether people could get deeper into a generative, co-creative space of emergent ideas. On the other hand, some aspects of the Case Clinic were not part of Collective Presencing practice. Was some kind of merging possible? And, would that merging give us some lead towards applying Collective Presencing to organisational, not just personal, life?

We set out, starting in December of 2020, to deepen our enquiry around these questions. Early on, we tried the classic Collective Presencing practice of focusing around a related enquiry question: an early question was “What if projects were elegantly stewarded with iterative processes, where action steps emerge from cohering and resonating in and between the people of the project and the field?” We evolved the enquiry towards imagining project environments where Collective Presencing would fit and make sense. And at the same time, there was a sense that we would find out more if we actually got right into it, rather than just talking about it. So, we experimented on a number of occasions with allowing someone to present their ‘case’, as if it were a Case Clinic, and to experience what happened if we treated it following Collective Presencing practice. There was as well a sense that, for us, ‘projects’ really needed to include personal matters, not just organisational ones.

As well as Theory U's Case Clinics, for me personally there was a connection with Parker Palmer's Circles of Trust, which comes from a Quaker background. I read around this and went to a workshop, but was still looking for an opportunity to experience that practice as well, which seemed to me better suited to personal matters, though again sharing quite a lot with Case Clinics, and Collective Presencing. How much did we want to explore organisational matters, and how much personal ones? If we encourage the group go down the personal path, following some people's apparent discomfort with the idea of ‘projects’, would we still be able to address what for me was an important part of the original attraction of this whole initiative, to apply Collective Presencing practice to situations at work? If we return to what was the original enquiry question, above, “What if projects were elegantly stewarded …”, can we get beyond that as an enquiry question, and actually go into the details of some people's projects?

This theme kept on coming back: several of us would really like to use Collective Presencing practices in the context of teams at work, most likely if we are in a leadership position, but also, if possible, when we are not leading. It was really unclear to me (and I didn't pick up any clarity in other participants either) just how to approach this. Do we need to focus on our own skills – like a kind of facilitation? And yet Collective Presencing is not a facilitation technique. Do we need to develop a set of abilities in work teams, so that then they would be ready for that kind of Collective Presencing in a work context? It's a tantalising prospect: if we were able to dive into that kind of collectivity, what amazing and unexpected ideas could emerge? This is the kind of thing that has been written about under the heading ‘collective intelligence’, but somehow that particular phrase seems to miss the target — often it shares assumptions with normal business. So, how do we apply Collective Presencing to work situations without being limited by normative conceptions of what work is?

Something slightly different needed

Before I go on, I need to say that some people seem content to carry on with what we have been doing, and I wish them the best of luck. I'll set out here why my sense differs.

We need to start with something that works. The form of Collective Presencing as it is now practiced has evolved over several years, and it works well. Equally, the Presencing Institute's Case Clinics have been honed over years. So have Parker Palmer's Circles of Trust. Of these three, the practice I currently have most experience of is Collective Presencing, so my inclination is to find an experimental ‘formula’ (as a first way forward, not as any kind of fixed ‘solution’) which builds on that, and I'll set that out below.

The alternative, trying out different mixes of Case Clinics and Collective Presencing, feels like attempting to make a new model out of parts from different building sets which don't fit together properly. As an experiment, this was interesting, but to me it hasn't worked out. Rather, it has “fallen between two stools”. But let's get back to the positive.

We need something with world-wide availability. This is something that the Collective Presencing community is currently getting to grips with, by setting different times that allow participation from different corners of the globe. Different people are available at different times of day, due to their lifestyles as well as their time zones. It's another case of one size does not fit all.

We want to support people in extending the practice. The Collective Presencing community has already drawn in many people who are more than just curious, who see it as offering new potential in areas where life has gone out of what is currently happening. By listening to people bringing examples of the very varied challenges that they face in their life and work, can we help them explore the application of this practice in areas that we haven't investigated?

We would benefit from having many examples of application of Collective Presencing. I imagine that applying Collective Presencing to varied and diverse work and life situtions would result in a harvest of very powerful source material, which could be drawn on to communicate what we are all about. Applying this to the emerging book is just the most obvious route.

This is why I would like us to be co-creating new containers that allow us to dive deeply into complex experiences of diverse people who want to practice Collective Presencing. I hope that is enough context to set out the vision that has been clear to me for a while now, and which I haven't communicated well enough yet. As with all source visions, it is not perfectly formed, and can only improve through dialogue.

A way forward as I see it

As mentioned, my own approach to this is to build on the already established working practice of Collective Presencing. To give a quick overview of existing practice, from my perspective:

  1. the hosting team discerns an enquiry question
  2. the team agrees who will host and frame each particular session
  3. in a session, the host gives some introductory general framing, as needed
  4. after check-ins, the host or co-host introduces the enquiry question
  5. there is dialogue with ‘the middle’
  6. as the time approaches the agreed end, the host invites people to check out
  7. there may be a kind of ‘de-briefing’ reflection afterwards.

How can this be adapted to respond to a situation in work or life that an individual wants to bring into this field of practice, in the hope of newly emerging insights, and ways forward that have not yet come into consciousness? This is a similar aim to that of bringing a ‘case’ to a Case Clinic, or an issue brought by the ‘focus person’ to a Circle of Trust, but the method is different. To do it in a Collective Presencing way, we need an enquiry question that addresses this individual person's situation. However, our experience is that many people are unclear about how to bring out a resonant, generative enquiry question from a personal situation. In general Collective Presencing practice, the hosting team arrives at an enquiry question collectively – we don't delegate it to one individual – because what feels like a resonant question for one individual may not resonate with ‘the field’. It may take a session or more for a hosting team to arrive at a question that seems to resonate properly in and with the field. And then, it takes a collective sense to know when a particular question has run its course and it is time for a new enquiry.

Our experience with ‘Projects with Presencing’ is that given the opportunity, several people will come forward to bring their individual ‘case’ to a circle. The ‘case giver’ (just using the terminology of a Case Clinic) communicates their interest to the hosting team, who then arrange a small circle with the case giver and some members of the team, to arrive collectively at an enquiry question – this question needs to closely related to the individual's concern, and also be resonant with a wider field, so as to touch the hearts and intuitions of other participants in an open session, not just their rational minds in problem-solving mode. This practice of discerning a resonant enquiry question not only parallels existing practice, but also is similar to the common coaching practice of asking what deeper question lies behind a surface question. Perhaps the surface question is tied to the particular circumstances of the case giver; but a deeper question can touch on some aspect of common experience, shared by most if not all participants in an open meeting, while still relating intimately to the original scenario as presented by the individual.

Along with discerning the enquiry question for this case, this meeting of case giver and hosts could also bring up a relevant check-in question to prime participants. Together, they will need to set a time to offer an open meeting around that agreed enquiry. The time of the open meeting, and its enquiry question, can then be advertised widely around the Collective Presencing network. As with any such meeting, not everyone will be able to attend, but it would be hoped that, as in Open Space, the people who will be there will be the right people.

At that open meeting, the ‘case giver’ will be accompanied by the co-hosts who have helped with discerning the enquiry question. After the check-ins, the best person to frame the agreed enquiry question will be the case giver themself, by telling some of the story that has led them to bring that case to Collective Presencing. The session then continues following the established working dialogue practice. Perhaps more time than usual can be given to check-out, during which the case giver can have space to reflect on the significance of the session for them. Also following current practice, after the formal close of the Collective Presencing, there can be a debriefing, where anyone who feels called to stay can help reflect on that session. It may be that there is feeling of completion; or maybe not. If not, then a follow-on session may be arranged; or some other way to blend in the harvest from that session into the wider field. As each of these sessions will be timed individually, and not in a set day-and-time slot, this should in no way prevent or get in the way of other people bringing their own cases. Cases may overlap; or there may be intervals with no active cases. What is important is not the regularity, but the responsiveness to the requests, and to the underlying needs that are shared by many in the field.

As well as bringing what an individual has experienced into the Collective Presencing field, what can be taken back into that individual's life and work? I see this as a completely open question, and I will be very interested to see what emerges. Perhaps one or more people may feel called to accompany and witness the case giver in their life or work. If it is work, perhaps some funding may be found to recompense whatever practical help is offered. Or, without offering any help, someone may feel moved to document it, to be the journalist or harvester, to represent the fruits of that experience to the field of Collective Presencing, where others may find it, and use that in their planting of new seeds.

And the potential of the new book, inspiring a wider audience, is calling.

Edited 2021-10-06

Topics: Collective Presencing

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