Uncovering the Grammar of the Social Field

If you are interested in the invisible dimension of leading profound social change — and in a blend of action science and consciousness to illuminate that blind spot – then read on…” This was Otto Scharmer’s invitation on his Huffington Post blog recently. Otto went on to explain “Today, in most social systems, we collectively produce results that no one wants. These results show up in the form of environmental, social, and cultural destruction. The ecological divide (which disconnects self from nature), the social divide (which disconnects self from other), and the spiritual divide (which disconnects self from self) shape the larger context in every large system change today.

The intention of Otto’s article was to “uncover the grammar of the social field — the key variables that make it possible for the operating logics and modes (states and stages) of a social field to shift.

social field Scharmer

Matrix of Social Evolution: Four System Levels, Four Fields of Operating

The following are some of the learnings that struck me from his article:

  1. Where does the real (most important) work of leaders, change-makers and consulting organisations such as Future Considerations lie?   I heard Otto say that the real work lies in cultivating what he terms the social field. By social field, he means the form and shape or anatomy (structure) of relationships among individuals, groups, organisations, and systems. It is this structure that ultimately determines the behaviours and outcomes of different systems. Like the good farmer who does not simply look after his crop but tends the soil in order to improve its quality; leaders, change-makers and those of us committed to doing ‘on-purpose’ work must dedicate effort and skills to preparing the soil from which eventually the good crop comes.

  2. What happens when we do not attend to or work at the level of social field?   We are like someone who wishes to empty a stream while standing somewhere mid-stream and using a cup for the task. Sooner, rather than later, the ever-flowing water of the stream will drown our efforts because we are not working at the source of the stream. Coming back to our analogy of the farmer’s field, no matter how well the farmer waters his/her crop, if he/she does not attend to the soil in which the seed (and eventually the plant) are, the result might be a poor yield or possible death of the plant.  When the social field is not attended to, Otto says, we collectively generate the results we do not intend or want: Broken political and education systems. Climate change. Hunger. Declining quality of health. Financial and economic collapse.

  3. How then do we “tend” the social field?   Otto suggests a number of practices and ways of being for tending the social field:

Begin with bending the beam of (scientific) observation onto the observing self.

Bending the beaming of observation is the practice of leaders, change-makers, helpers or consultants learning to see themselves as if they were seeing ‘other’. Otto says when this happens at the individual level it is called mindfulness. When it happens at a group or organisation level it is called dialogue. He says that dialogue is not people talking to one another, but the ability of a system to see itself. “What’s missing in today’s capitalism is a set of enabling or mirroring infrastructures that would help our systems to sense and see themselves and thereby unlock the deeper blockages that prevent profound institutional systems change,” he says.

Pay attention to the eco-system rather than ego-system.

Help systems (individual, group, organisation, and society) grow their awareness of and the need to pay attention to the eco-system rather than ego-system. When a system learns to see itself from an eco-system perspective, it tends to act from the “whole” rather than from simply its narrow interests (ego-system). The gap between “them” and “us” collapses when a social field sees itself from the whole. This experience of the gap collapsing is also known as “crossing the threshold”. When this happens, a system begins to play a completely different game. Otto gives examples from sports people who when they cross the threshold, play their best game. The game is great not only for one team, but for everyone – opposing team and the referees or umpires.

Sensing Journeys

One of the ways of helping a system cross the threshold is through sensing journeys. This is the practice of the system going to people and places of most potential for seeing things through the eyes of others. In a subtle way, sensing journeys allow the system to see itself and the larger eco-system without being coerced.

Followed by Deep Dialogue

When sensing journeys are followed by deep dialogue, the system has a chance to connect to ‘source,’ that is, “…being present and acting from a direct connection to our deepest source of creativity and self”. This experience of a system being in touch with and connected to its real reason for existence actualises its highest potential. And so can unleash a system’s highest form of creativity.

The analogy of the soil and the social field, for me, sheds light on the deep work we often have to do as practitioners on ‘Self’ and the ‘structure and quality of relationships’ in a system. The good crop we sometimes see is a product of the soil quality beneath the surface. In the social system, this quality of ‘soil’ has to be worked on. We, in turn, need to develop and sharpen the skills for enabling this quality of soil.


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2 responses to “Uncovering the Grammar of the Social Field”

  1. Jules Fell says:

    Thank you, Martin for a stimulating interpretation of Otto’s article. This is, of course, highly pertinent to the ego-leadership driven behaviours that are undermining many sectors, including the recently shocking revelations about VW. My hope is that more leaders will quickly start to hear Otto and you and realise that eco-leadership is not an option but a necessity.

  2. Catia Stasi says:

    Thanks for sharing article. I believe it is really relevant to read what Otto is saying about social change. I strongly recommend to follow his online course at the edx platform, it is called the ULab and it is really worthwhile. Cheers.

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