Presencing in Practice

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.

A New Podcast on Community and Co-Creation

Over the last three years I have endeavored to bring people together online in deeply human ways.  The origins of this work started in 2011, through a sort of personal epiphany.  At the time, I felt a deep call to bring more love and peace into the world through my particular domain of work – internet technology.

The years since have been a journey of trial and error, deconstruction and reconstruction, iteratively approaching an understanding of how authentic community and connection work online.  Out of this work, Sutra has emerged as a kind of co-creative utility designed for community, collaboration, and learning.

As this work continues to crystallize, I am realizing that this is just the beginning.  There has never been a greater need for presence in the world.  Not just presence with ourselves.  But presence with each other and particularly presence with ourselves when we are with each other.

Examining how to practice interpersonal presence and give people direct experience of collective connection has been a central focus of our effort.  We have worked with organizations, educators, and individuals who have been willing to experiment, fail, and succeed together in learning how to build genuine community based on dialogue and deep listening.

Every community and course we have worked with has taught us something new about how people experience empathy and connection.  Through each experience we have tried to distill best practices and create features that support safe spaces for online interaction.

To me, quality of interaction is the foundation of co-creation.  Unlike collaboration, which is a function of sharing knowledge and resources, co-creation is a function of the quality of presence that people share and the knowledge and resources that emerge out of that interaction.  Our aspiration is to build software that facilitates co-creative interaction across many domains of human endeavor.

Every day this work unfolds in new ways.  There is so much to learn and much of this wisdom is located in the vast untapped reservoir of collective intelligence.  To that end, I am launching a podcast featuring interviews with leading experts and inspiring humans involved in the heart of community and co-creation.  Each week, we’ll explore themes related to community building, practical presencing, deep listening, dialogue, and emotional intelligence.  We will deconstruct the understanding of my guests to help you create your own higher quality co-creative interactions.

This is an ongoing exploration and co-creation.  I invite you to participate as you feel called to.  Sign up for our newsletter to receive email updates on each new episode.  The first podcast interview will be sent out next Tuesday, May 1st.

If you wish to learn more about our work, please reach out to us.  You can also read about Sutra here and here.

On Sutra

Truly transformative learning often happens offline, in person, and in small groups.  People have an opportunity to spend time together in community and experience new ways of being together.  The idea behind Sutra revolves around delivering this kind of experience online. Our work emphasizes dialogue based experiences that involve deep listening, presence, holding space, and a willingness to be vulnerable.

The heart of this process is driven by small group interaction.  The small group is a space for people to get to know each other in a real way.  One of the key functions behind Sutra is the ability to take any number of people and break them up into small groups.  Once we have a group of five to ten people in a group, usually strangers, our efforts revolve around creating a safe space, “breaking the ice”, and optimizing ongoing engagement.

Bringing a group of strangers together, online or offline, usually involves some level of awkwardness.  Nobody wants to be the first to speak and everybody is afraid of being judged. With guided in person interactions, some sort of group ice breaker is often used to bridge the social gap.  It might be a silly question or some sort of activity to get people moving and playful. Or it might be a moment of stillness or collective intention sharing, something that brings the group together into the same flow.

In an offline workshop or meetup, you have a person’s undivided attention.  However, online, you might have an hour of partial attention at a time to work with and, if you’re running a multi-week experience, you’re competing with an array of inevitable personal priorities.

The usual approach to online learning is low touch.  Course content is posted and there might be a discussion forum or Facebook group on the side for questions.  And for some courses, that is a perfect set up. It’s easier and requires a lot less nurturing.

Our work revolves around building real relationships and community through the learning process.  This takes time and attention and there is generally no one size fits all approach. But there are common denominators and that is what we try to optimize the Sutra software for.

Part of the experience is content – the actual knowledge that is being imparted.  Part of it is the process – the way the group experience is architected over, say, a six week period.  This might involve group video calls with a particular interaction format, or a sequence of discussion prompts.  And part of it is the safe space that is created – asking the right questions to open up and make everyone comfortable, setting expectations, giving positive feedback, and following up with people when they are falling off.

Facilitating an engaged and effective group experience online is part art and part science.  The benefit is that you deliver a much more embodied learning experience. In the pursuit of practical knowledge, we have the opportunity to cultivate wisdom.  People can learn to listen and cooperate. They can relate to knowledge more deeply through shared personal experiences. And they can learn to hold space for those experiences – both their own and those of others.  Everyone can become more self aware and connect with deeper sources of understanding on a collective level.

A learning experience is more than just the knowledge that is being taught.  It is also the experience of learning. This experience offers an opportunity to learn new ways of relating to the world, ourselves, and other people.  A collaborative learning process can introduce people to new forms of collective interaction.

Alex Pentland, the director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab, goes into detail about the potential of collective intelligence in his book, Social Physics:

“Groups of people, as well as communities, also have a collective intelligence that is different from the individual intelligence of each group member.  Moreover, this group intelligence is about as important a factor in predicting group performance as IQ is in predicting individual performance.”

According to Alex, the single largest factor in predicting group intelligence is equality of participation, or what he calls idea flow.

“The pattern of idea flow by itself was more important to group performance than all other factors and, in fact, was as important as all other factors taken together.  Think about it: Individual intelligence, personality, skill, and everything else together mattered less than the pattern of idea flow.”

Beyond equality of participation, we consider how to improve the quality of the interaction itself by emphasizing the quality of presence that each participant brings.  The Presencing Institute, also out of MIT, categorizes different levels of interaction which can help conceptualize somewhat intangible attributes such as listening and presence: downloading, factual, empathic, generative.

Much of our aspiration revolves around shifting interactions towards more empathic and generative levels.  What we try to optimize for is somewhat intangible and difficult to measure. How do you measure the quality of an interaction if you are not part of it?  Is it measured by how people feel afterwards? Is it measured by some sort of productive output? What are the characteristics of good conversations and is there a way to quantify and optimize for that in a piece of software?  How do you measure things like listening, empathy, or generativity?

There is a broad spectrum of qualitative experience when it comes to collective connection, at the peak of which is generative interaction.  This is a type of collective flow state that can be difficult to describe. Professional athletes often talk about experiencing a certain flow state at the height of a game.  MIT Professor Otto Scharmer, who leads the Presencing Institute, shares the following anecdote:

Bill Russell, the key player on the most successful basketball team ever (the Boston Celtics, who won 11 championships in 13 years), described his experience of playing in the zone as follows:

Every so often a Celtics game would heat up so that it became more than a physical or even mental game, and would be magical. That feeling is difficult to describe, and I certainly never talked about it when I was playing. When it happened, I could feel my play rise to a new level. It came rarely, and would last anywhere from five minutes to a whole quarter, or more. . . . At that special level, all sorts of odd things happened: The game would be in the white heat of competition, and yet somehow I wouldn’t feel competitive, which is a miracle in itself. I’d be putting out the maximum effort, straining, coughing up parts of my lungs as we ran, and yet I never felt the pain. The game would move so quickly that every fake, cut, and pass would be surprising, and yet nothing could surprise me. It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion. During those spells, I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken. . . . My premonitions would be consistently correct, and I always felt then that I not only knew all the Celtics by heart, but also all the opposing players, and that they all knew me. There have been many times in my career when I felt moved or joyful, but these were the moments when I had chills pulsing up and down my spine. [William F. Russell, Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man, 1979].

Approaching this quality of interaction in a small group is both mystical and practical.  Most importantly, we believe that it is accessible and beneficial to almost any learning experience.  The ability to tap into deeper sources of collective insight can only serve to enrich both knowledge and learner.

These are fundamentally new skills that most people are never taught.  It’s almost like active co-creative meditation. There’s no doctrine or philosophy that needs to be accepted.  Just a willingness to be increasingly attentive and receptive to the collective experience. When a group of people connect with genuine presence and shared intention, the intelligence of the experience takes over and naturally guides the interaction.  In the process, a joyful energy emerges that serves to build deep relationships and lasting community.

Creating the conditions to support this kind of interaction is the guiding intention behind Sutra.

On Co-Creation

When I was a child co-creation meant playing cops and robbers in the front yard.  In my teens co-creation happened through deep existential conversations. In my late twenties it meant participating in the creativity of Burning Man.  Now well into my thirties, I’m asking myself what is co-creation and where can I find it?

You see, my early interests in social structures, connection, and creativity have converged into an adult yearning for a social structure based more on connection and creativity and less on cops and robbers.

I love the concept of co-creation – like actually creating something together.  As I’ve dived into the world of co-creation over the past few years, it’s come to mean something more than just collaboration though.  Co-creation implies a quality of presence that is not necessary for just getting work done together. So if collaboration is sharing knowledge and resources, co-creation is a function of the quality of presence that people share and the knowledge and resources that emerge out of that kind of interaction.  The difference is both subtle and significant.

There is a sense of being in an elevated energetic state whereby you are able to tap into some form of higher collective intelligence.  I’ve encountered echoes of this process across many domains. The Presencing Institute has done a really good job of creating language to describe this experience.  You can find similar approaches in the traditions of Quakers, Ba’hai, and many tribal cultures. These types of cultures are often both small group and community driven.

Co-creation works well in small groups because it is based on genuine connection and it naturally extends into community because this quality of connection creates deep relationships.  A co-creative community is a unique form of self-organizing social structure that is in every way more than the sum of its parts. The requisite attributes are deep levels of presence, listening, and authenticity between people.

So, where do we find examples of such communities today?  Mostly in the playground of our childhood imagination. Seriously.  Today such communities are rare and, despite my efforts, challenging to define.

Recently, our dog ran away and she wasn’t wearing her collar or any identifying information.  After hours of searching for her, my wife posted on a regional Facebook group and shortly thereafter someone reached out with our dog in hand.  What a great example of community coming together in a time of simple need. But is this the kind of transformational community we’re talking about?  Is there any true empathic relationship building happening? The experience was nice. It was nice in the way a Facebook status update can be nice. It’s there and then it’s gone.

How often do we experience a true sense of community where we feel connected, accepted, seen, and supported?  Maybe in church groups. And for good reason. Churches often use small groups to ultimately foster real relationships through meaningful interaction.

But not everyone wants to join a specific faith based organization, nor should anyone have to for the experience of real community.  Many people yearn for more belonging and meaning. This quality of interaction is delicate and subtle. The possibilities of human connection are vast and most modern interactions barely scratch the surface.

I don’t know about you, but I want more.  I want more connection, more love, more acceptance, and more creativity.  I want all that embedded and prioritized in the society that I live in. And honestly, I’m sick of this competition and cut throat economy shit.  It just doesn’t make sense.

How about a co-creative world where we engage in cooperative and deeply present ways that manifest stuff that is literally beyond our individual imagination?

To start, we might imagine a new form of community based social structure that supports economically sustainable co-creative interaction.

But never mind the community part, let’s just start with ourselves.  No system of economy or governance will solve our problems if we do not individually shift our way of being in the world.

As a child I was rarely listened to.  It took me years of self exploration to grasp and heal the very real trauma of not feeling heard.  Listening has become my super power. Not because I’m that good at it, but because I’ve become hyper aware of my own quality of listening and that of others.  And more than any other personal attribute, I find it is the quality of my own presence that creates higher quality interactions.

We are constantly modeling the world to each other.  Our natural predispositions and patterns intersect with the natural predispositions and patterns of those close to us to create all sorts of mischief.  Look no further than your daily newspaper to see the collective product of this mischief. The challenge with these pesky patterns and predispositions, both ours and those of others, is that they piss us off and we can’t see them.  It’s like that game Operation. Except you’re blind folded and someone keeps slapping the back of your head. It’s an emotional obstacle course between you and the rest of humanity.

To work our way out we need skills in deep listening, presence, and vulnerability.  Listening creates a holding space for all things to be observed, inward and outward.  Presence is a capacity to respond to what is observed with reflection and intention. And vulnerability sows the ground for meaningful connection.  This is the definition of emotional intelligence.

It’s difficult to practice emotional intelligence alone.  Take nature as an example. There is no forest without trees.  Each tree in a forest is interdependent with every other tree. Between their branches and their roots they share the same resources of sun and soil.  And they do so with a seemingly natural intelligence. Similarly, emotional intelligence is a collective process. It is learning to live in harmony with each other as one human ecosystem that is also sharing the same sun and soil.  Our interdependence is real and needs conscious attention.

And beyond just living together, just surviving, it is about next level creativity and co-creation.  A forest is more than the sum of its trees. It is a thriving ecological community which continually gives birth to new life.

We need opportunities to practice things that cannot be learned in a book and must be experienced directly – new ways of being that can extend into everyday life.  To quote shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown:

“The vulnerability journey is not the kind of journey we can make alone.  We need support. We need folks who will let us try on new ways of being without judging us.”

We need supportive, safe spaces to explore new ways of being and practice collective connection.  And we need the capacity to extend this connection into real world community as a way of life.

As humans, we love to organize and separate things into isolated silos like education, work, governance, economy, and spirituality.  But what is needed here is integration. Learning and practicing new ways of being while growing into real world co-creative community.  In the same movement we are learning, being, and doing. And if technology has been a source of social distraction, then it should be technology that is the source of social cohesion.

Some platforms are designed for learning.  Some platforms are designed for collaboration.  Some platforms are designed for community. None are designed for quality of presence.  Why should all these functions be integrated? First, because knowledge, work, and community are intimately related.  And second, because if we want to learn and model new ways of being in the context of real world twenty-first century interaction, we need software that supports that full spectrum of interaction – in the real world.

What I’m describing is at the edge of imagination and requires collective manifestation.  It calls for a new kind of social technology that emphasizes quality of presence over quantity of content.  An open source and decentralized utility that merges functions of community, learning, and connection into a singular experience.

If you don’t quite grasp what I’m saying, that’s ok because, honestly, I’m just grasping it myself.  Three years of working with communities as diverse as Harvard and Burning Man have taught me that I know little about how communities actually function but that this approach works better than any other I’ve seen.  Most of all, I am continually reminded how many people yearn for new ways of being. It’s those rare honest conversations that keep popping up again and again. Softly spoken echoes of – I want more depth, more connection, more authentic experience.  I’m searching for something deeper. How about you?

Community is Dead. Long Live Community.

This is an essay about online learning, the future of work, and building community. It is about learning together, collaborating with the people that we learn with, and cultivating real community through co-creative relationships. And it is about Sutra, an open source software project that supports the integration of these functions.

As an adult, most of my structured learning happens online. Since I no longer have the childhood luxury of spending days on end in a classroom with my peers, I am left wondering why my learning experiences cannot be more connected. I am sure that I am not alone. I am not the only person who loves to learn and enjoys learning with other people. Moreover, I am not the only person that wants more meaningful connection in my life.

If you’ve ever tried to take a course of study online, you know that the hardest part is actually completing the material. In an industry where people spent over $107 billion in 2015, attrition rates are as high as 90% for some online classes. People who learn together have much higher completion rates but most online learning experiences are incredibly solitary.

Knowledge has been decentralized but the classroom has not. People are left to learn on their own and, in the process, must hold themselves accountable every step of the way. Yet online education offers an opportunity to connect people in unparalleled ways. There is massive untapped co-creative and community building potential all around us. Mutual support, deep listening, sharing knowledge and resources, working together, feeling a sense of community – these are all experiences that most of us aspire to have more of in our lives. These are all functions that a shared online learning experience can offer.

The shifting trend in education mirrors a shift in our work life. The economic fabric of our world is rapidly changing. We are becoming a society of independent creators and free agents, constantly learning and collaborating outside of traditional organizational structures. Just in the US, over 75% of all businesses are one person enterprises. Large organizations are being replaced by small independent projects and loose collectives of people. Our capacity to collaborate and succeed depends on the quality of our relationships and the communities that we are connected to.

Traditional communities have deteriorated. Internet connectivity, consumption economics, and pressures of time and money have all contributed to making people less connected to any sense of true communal identity. We are now confronted with an opportunity to define modern community in a new way. As independent creators we can learn together, we can create together, and we can find opportunities to support each other in the context of these experiences. Learning, in particular, gives us opportunity to experience community through the practice of collaboration.

Every structured learning experience is a vehicle for community building. It is a chance to connect deeply with and support other people learning the same thing. Learning is simply better when other people are involved.

I believe that online learning experiences can connect people in much deeper ways than they do today.

Connection happens through collaboration. Sharing any constructive experience together is collaboration. Learning together is a form of collaboration. Listening deeply is a form of collaboration. Working on a project together is a form of collaboration. When we experience true collaboration with another person we feel more connected to them. That feeling, when it happens, is a deeply fulfilling experience. It is the basis of meaningful human relationships and genuine community.

Every group of people learning something online can become a community and every community can learn together. My observation has been that community is built through collaboration and collaboration happens in small groups. Meaningful connection happens in small groups of people with a shared intention where people have an opportunity to actually build relationships with one another. This is true for communities in general. Every project, every start up, and every organization begins with a small group and grows from there.

Interaction protocols are simple templates that can be used to self guide a group through a structured process. This can give people direct experience of true dialogue and collective intelligence, in a sense modeling a new way of being. The material becomes almost secondary to the process itself – holding space, deep listening, mutual support, and collaboration. These are things that can only be experienced with another human being and, when personally experienced, can be tremendously uplifting. Modern life lacks precisely these qualities and most people, knowingly or not, are starved for this kind of much deeper level of human contact.

Sutra is an open source software project aimed at integrating the functions of learning, working, and community building. In Sanskrit, “sutra” means “thread of knowledge”. It is a metaphor for weaving a new social fabric based on open collaboration through shared knowledge and learning. The intent of Sutra is to create a collaborative utility designed for small groups and communities. A flexible tool that can facilitate the formation of any number of small groups to learn together or collaborate around any purpose within any kind of community. A platform that can seed, support, and grow genuine community through small group interaction, providing resources and tools for optimal group connectivity.

This entails three primary functions:

  1. Facilitating the formation of small groups within the context of a larger community.
  2. Supporting the content delivery, communication, and collaboration needs of those small groups in a lightweight and flexible way.
  3. Providing resources to maximize the value of small group interaction inside of and outside of a learning experience (general purpose interaction protocols and support for educators who wish to deliver high quality small group oriented learning experiences).

Relevant software platforms today are either learning tools (Schoology, Canvas, Udemy, Coursera, etc) or organizational productivity tools (Asana, Trello, Slack, etc). They are centralized and do not offer the resources necessary for optimal small group formation and interaction in a decentralized environment with self led groups. They do not take into account the changing work / life dynamics of our times. As independent creators we are constantly learning, working, and socializing at the same time. These are not separate functions that happen in separate silos. They are, and should be, integrated. They should all reinforce one another and serve to build a foundation of strong co-creative community at the center of our lives.

A decentralized free agent workforce needs better ways of fostering collective collaboration and mutual support. In the past, traditional corporations have provided a hierarchy of structure by which groups of people could work together to get things done. The promise of a decentralized workforce is that each individual has more say and more independence. The dark side of this is isolation and lack of coordination. We uphold our individuality above all else but miss the fact that the only way to realize our full potential is through the support of others. Collaborative learning experiences offer the seed of co-creative community structures. They enable our society to explore new models of interaction that give people an experience of collective wisdom and leadership.

Real community transcends social aptitude. It supports our evolution as human beings. Genuine community upholds our full expression as unique individuals in service of shared humanity. As we become a society of free agent creators we have a responsibility to co-create a new world based on harmony and mutual respect. To do this we have to examine practical ways of bringing widespread community and cooperation back into our everyday lives.

This essay presents a broadly outlined proposal for how to cultivate a more co-creative society. It is a seed that needs much more thought, development, and contribution from many people to truly come to fruition. My partner and I have actively tested these concepts for well over a year. Through iterative development and feedback cycles with real world communities we have built a working prototype of the Sutra software with the intention that it eventually become an open source project.

I invite you to share this essay or contribute as you feel called to. Please reach out to me at lorenz at sutra.co to share your thoughts. Thank you.

Community is dead. Long live community.