Over the last few years I’ve been heavily inspired by work out of the Presencing Institute and by the concept of presencing itself. The term presencing refers to a process of becoming present and it implies a way of encountering the present from the potential of the future. It is a way of “sensing” future possibility from the present moment.
Presencing revolves around bringing awareness to what is emerging through an iterative process of intention setting, observation, stillness, crystallization and action with an emphasis on stillness and being with what is unknown. By willfully stepping into the unknown, attention is directed towards emergent possibilities and something new has the potential to be generated.
This way of being with the unknown can be uncomfortable and challenging, particularly in situations where a clear plan of action for the future is called for. Over the last few years, I have used this kind of process to build Sutra and this post will explore what has emerged through this journey as well as thoughts on presencing in practice.
The originating intention behind Sutra was to cultivate more love in the world through mutually supportive, co-creative interaction. The heart of our aspiration was to foster deep levels of meaningful human connection – particularly around creative work. We spent the first two years testing different ideas to see what would stick. Eventually, our intention evolved into an effort to help people share knowledge and resources within community.
The work began with an initial direction that involved facilitating small group formation within the context of a larger community. A prototype was rolled out to a co-working space in New York City a few months after the first line of code was written in early 2015. Through an iterative process of observation, interviewing, presencing, and developing we followed an emerging thread to build the Sutra software.
One of the biggest challenges with this approach is that we have never really sure of what we are building. Even today, the product is constantly evolving and can be difficult to describe. This is a problem for a startup because success often depends on clarity of communication. So we are gradually finding new ways to describe our effort, emphasizing why over what and more focused on process than outcome.
The practical challenge of working with the unknown in this way should not be understated. It has been very difficult for us to not know what we are building over the long term. In many ways, this has required a great deal of surrender and trust – words not commonly associated with a tech venture.
Our intention to foster genuine human connection through collaborative community interaction has always been clear. Progress has involved a multitude of test driven iterations aimed at understanding how to accomplish this through real world exploration and experimentation. One of the earliest obstacles we encountered was community engagement and participation. It can be very challenging to get a community of people to start using a new piece of software.
A major insight came to us through our work with the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma. In 2016, we had an opportunity to run the online component of their seven month blended learning program on Sutra. We adapted our software to deliver a small group oriented learning experience to support their course and observed that a learning experience can be a significant catalyst for engagement.
Consequently, much of our work has focused on building community through learning. We have found that building community this way is part technology, part process, and part content. For example, much of the success of an online small group oriented learning experience depends on the first week of the course – how the energy is set, the safe space that is created, the way expectations are communicated, and the feedback that people get to reinforce those expectations. We have developed a set of best practices in conjunction with features designed to optimize group engagement.
The process by which we develop new features is partially intuitive based on observation and partially practical in response to feedback. We continually navigate a territory between our core intention and real world usage. For example, at the conclusion of a learning experience, we encourage participants to continue communicating with their community through the platform. The software is intentionally built in the form factor of a basic messaging platform to encourage easy interaction and collaboration. However, there is a cognitive leap that must happen for people to use the platform as both a learning tool and a collaborative utility. Our challenge has been to understand how to expand their context of use beyond the initial learning experience.
One example that we’ve seen work particularly well, is a new course community emerging from an existing course community. In the Harvard program mentioned earlier, a student decided to create her own mindfulness oriented course for humanitarian aid workers in the refugee space. Many of the students from the Harvard program went on to participate in her course.
We continue to experiment with unique approaches to participation feedback and collaborative knowledge building. There seems to be tremendous opportunity to harness the knowledge and wisdom of course participants in a way that builds community and adds value to each member. This is a pedagogical approach to community building that is based on a teacher-student and student-teacher paradigm. We are looking at ways of collaboratively capturing wisdom and knowledge shared through course conversation as a way to deepen engagement while building collaboratively generated sources of knowledge.
Each community that we work with usually cycles through several iterations of a course of learning. Each iteration is an opportunity for us to experiment with different approaches to engagement and community building with an entirely new cohort of people. At the conclusion of each experience we usually do extensive interviews with both participants and creators. The cycle is like a mini presencing process, enabling us to sense into what is emerging through real world observation and feedback.
What has been emerging through this work is a collection of tools and best practices that support co-creative interaction based on presencing and collective intelligence. Our evolving effort has focused on building a co-creative utility that can be used seamlessly in the context of real world interaction, so as to blur the lines between learning and collaboration. A system that bridges learning, being, and doing with an emphasis on authentic human connection.