CPYF november 2010 newsletter: Innovations Start Small
1. Dialogue Newsletter
November 2010 CP Yen Foundation
“Innovations start small”
[ Interview with C. Otto Scharmer ]
The following is an interview with Otto Scharmer, author of Theory U and an
action researcher dedicated to creating innovations in learning and leadership,
which he delivers through classes and programs at MIT, the Global Classroom
online programs, Presencing Institute programs and through innovation and
change projects within and among organizations and communities. The
interview below was conducted by Inwent - Capacity Building International; a
non-profit organization with worldwide operations dedicated to human
resource development, advanced training, and
Q: What must capacity building be like to enable people to tackle
the huge challenges humankind is facing?
A: It is certainly not enough to impart specialist knowledge to individuals in
any specific field. In my experience, if we want organisations to become
innovative, to change and to boost their performance, it boils down to four
3. prototyping, and
4. networking across sectors.
Q：Please elaborate some more, what do you mean by
Ａ：In this context, I am thinking of the positive, empowering force that
stems from bringing together people from different cultural spheres. We are
all grappling with the same problems and we can help one another, provided
we are networked in a meaningful way.
Ｑ：What is the personal dimension?
A: I mean the personal journey. It really is about getting in touch with the
core of human creativity:
– who am I?
– where do I want to go – and where do I feel a sense of possibility that pulls
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2. me towards the future?
– what purpose do I want to serve?
Anyone without a clear understanding of these matters is unlikely to find the
source of their creativity and strength. People who are under great pressure
and in positions to implement change need inner places of stillness; otherwise
they will not stay competitive and resilient. Meditation can help in this regard.
But other approaches are useful too, “journaling”, for instance: writing in a
reflective mode, guided by crucial questions allows individuals to better
understand their personal development.
Q: What about prototyping?
A: That is basically an emphasis on “learning by doing”. There is not much
point in discussing things only in theoretical terms; you have to try them out
and gather tangible experience. Otherwise, no lesson will really stick. All
major innovations have small beginnings. To get in touch with the decisive
innovative ideas of any community or individual, we need not only the
intelligence of the mind, but also that of the hands and the heart.
Ｑ: Your fourth point was cross-sector networking.
Ａ：Yes, and that is probably the most difficult aspect. When it comes to
complex systemic challenges, any single organization is normally too small to
have any meaningful impact.
Even large corporations today do not simply implement innovations at their
production sites. Rather, they involve their entire supply chain; they consider
the skills and needs of their suppliers and customers too. The most serious
global problems, from hunger to war to protecting biodiversity, will not be
solved unless all key stakeholders are involved in meaningful ways; and that
includes governments as well as civil society and the private sector. All
summed up, we tend to always come up against the same limits. We must
involve everyone concerned in creative dialogue, in a process of perceiving,
understanding and letting go of old patterns, allowing new relationships and
forms of action to emerge. And then we have to test them in small
Q: What do you have in mind as an alternative?
A: What is missing are two things: first, places that convene key frontline
leaders across institutions and sectors around specific issue areas; and
second, a process that allows such groups to move from normal stakeholder
debates to deep dialogue and collective action. In order for that to happen,
people who can make a difference in their respective institutions must get in
touch with people who operate in other contexts. That is how opportunities
for innovation emerge. Current stakeholder capitalism developed from free-
market capitalism in the 19th century by implementing significant innovations
in infrastructures. Today, we have to move on. We need another set of
innovations in infrastructures – new spaces for collective perception and
action – in order to rise to contemporary challenges. We need to shift our
collective awareness in a way that facilitates seeing and acting “from the
3. Q: The approach sounds fascinating, but I wonder whether it is
A: Well, I certainly see reason for hope. As I said, large corporations are
increasingly thinking in societal contexts, because they cannot enforce the
changes they require on their own inside their own business.
And that is also felt in other areas. Just consider health care, for example. If
reform efforts in this sector focus only on hospitals, because that is where the
greatest costs arise, they are doomed to fail. Reforms have to go to the
structural, social and spiritual root of the problems, the causes of illness and
health. It is all about how we live, work, eat, and relate to ourselves and one
another. Dealing with these issues is the only sustainable approach to
reducing the costs that result from illness. Understanding of such interrelated
phenomena is obviously growing.
Q: But it doesn’t look as though reforms have really got under way
accordingly. On the contrary, global challenges seem to be growing,
overwhelming governments and other relevant actors.
A: That is how many people felt at the time of the Industrial Revolution too,
and then social innovations came about which made the problems
manageable in the rich countries. When a social system hits the wall, there
are always opportunities and new ideas too. Innovations start small, and they
do not usually start at the centre. Those at the top have an especially large
number of interests to protect. On the fringes, however, there is more room
to experiment – and more contact with the outside, which makes new ideas
more likely. I have seen profound changes happen in many places and feel
that there is no limit to what people, once we tap into our real purpose, can
create and do.
Q: In view of the daunting challenges the human species is facing,
isn’t this process far too slow to really make a difference?
A: If you think like that, you will despair. I prefer to take the stance of
Margaret Mead, who said one should never doubt that a small group of
thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, because that is really
the only way in which the world ever was changed.
The CP Yen Foundation provides this interview as part of our Dialogue newsletter
series because of the connection we see between Theory U’s focus on shifting the
social field from ego-system to eco-system awareness and the Foundation’s mission
to foster the art of dialogue, facilitate positive social change, and forge sustainable
communities. We value the U-process as an effective means for connecting us
individually and collectively to what is emerging in the world through our emergent
authentic self. Once an individual and group operate from their authentic self,
oftentimes by way of a dialogue, they start to sense a new future possibility, the
conversation then shifts focus to how we each can function as an intentional vehicle
for the emergent future. Listening is a core discipline of the U-process and the art of
dialogue. We recommend you read the book Theory U by Otto Scharmer for great
detail of the process, or you can read the resource guide posted on the CP Yen
Foundation ning site here: cp-yen.ning.com for a step-by-step approach to practicing
the U process.
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