Over the last 18 months, we, at Nexus, have been working on a large scale organisational transformation project with an international organisation. We based our design on Otto Scharmer’s U process, which we have adapted, over years of practice.


In our approach, we put a lot of emphasis on the Sensing phase, to ensure, right from the start, that people really get out of their everyday reality, so that their mind, and their heart, can start being stretched a little. In other words, Sensing, for us, needs to operate at two levels simultaneously:

  1. Content/data: what am I learning, what am I discovering, what’s the new info, the new trends that I’m picking up, the new insights for me?
  2. Process/emotions: what is happening to me as I am discovering all this? How am I being touched, being moved, being challenged by it? What, of my assumptions, my mental models, are being challenged by this learning and this discovering?


So with that in mind, we designed a Sensing process that invited the members of our client organisation, from everywhere around the globe, to move out of their bubble, and start Sensing both their Context (the world around them), and their System (their own organisation, and what, in it, felt life-giving or life-draining).


The take-up was good. More than 300 people engaged in authentic dialogue about their lived reality, and about the world around them. At regular intervals, we brought about 50 of them together, to feel the pulse of that Sensing, and gauge how far they’d got, and how much the Sensing itself was already having a transformative effect.


At the second of these “pulse-taking” events, it became clear that not much was actually shifting in their own perception of themselves, and how they operated. Or, to be more precise, any insight felt ‘out there’, disconnected from them; as if the issues they were discussing during those ‘Sensing’ meetings – however pressing and pertinent – only belonged to those discussions, and business as usual could nevertheless continue once those meetings ended.


In other words, Sensing was having no real impact. Yes data and insights were being generated, but there was no bridge from insight to action. Sensing conversations remained intellectual exercises, welcome by some as a breath of fresh air (at last, we’re talking about things!), and perceived by others as a waste of time (we’re busy, why waste our time on these conversations, we’ve had them before and nothing changes).


So was the organisation actually doing Sensing, and it just didn’t work for them? Or was the lack of impact in itself a sign of them not actually engaging in Sensing? And how could we gauge which hypothesis was right?


In grappling with these questions with our client, we came to discover a tool which, since, has proved very useful. We’ve called it the 3 Ds – thus coining the term of 3D-Sensing. Those 3 Ds refer to 3 characteristics that any real Sensing of the reality should demonstrate. And to know whether these are present, it is very simple. Anyone actually engaging in Sensing should feel:


Displaced: as if you’d been uprooted in some way, taken into a different reality – or at least, as the English poet T.S. Eliott would put it, as if you were seeing your own reality for the first time. Sensing is like travelling in some way, and you should be feeling like you’re loosing your bearings somehow; things feel, and taste, a little different; the light that is shining on your reality should create a scenery that you’ve never quite seen before. You should be saying things like: “wow, that’s us?” or “wow, that’s the world around us? I’d never realised it was like this before!”

Disturbed: not feeling so good, because in some way what you held dear in your heart, the things that you thought you knew, are being challenged. Sensing should generate what some people, nowadays, like to call “unlearning”, i.e. the letting go of certain of your beliefs, your assumptions, your mental models about the world, and your place and role in it – in order for new ones to emerge, more in tune with what the Sensing helped you make sense of. And, in turn, this can generate what the British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion called “the fear of catastrophic change”: this sense that the solid and reassuring ground of knowledge on which on current functioning had been based, is about to disappear from under our feet – which, as you can imagine, is quite a disturbing feeling

Disrupted: there are some discoveries, some insights that create a “before/after” kind of effect; when nothing will never quite be the same afterwards: removing a plastic straw from a turtle’s nose, or eating an organically grown carrot for example. In some way, Sensing, in and of itself, should have an impact on your behaviour, because the disturbance created by the experience has offered you unmediated data that touches you right at the core of your being – not just intellectually, but also emotionally, and spiritually. In such a way that you won’t want – you simply won’t be able – to return to your previous behaviour for a while (this effect wanes with time, so this is what Sensing need not be a one-off experience, but rather an on-going disposition in our relation to the world). This echoes one of Daniella Meadows’ (a brilliant systems-thinker) 12 leverage points in organisational transformation: direct, unmediated access to data, and in particular to those that highlights the consequences of your own behaviour


As I mentioned earlier, this tool became very useful for this group – and others – helping them gauge whether they were indeed engaging in Sensing or just pretending, so that they were, if needed, able to adjust the types of conversations they were having, using the Generative Speaking framework  to challenge one another in a helpful, constructive way.


Since then, I’ve been reflecting more, trying to unpack what may be holding us back from experiencing fully the 3Ds, and my hypothesis at this stage, is that it is the 3Cs that hold us back from being in 3D:


  1. Comfort: organisational beings have a tendency to seek out stability, predictability, and, consequently, to avoid anything that might displace, disturb, or disrupt them. There are powerful homeostatic dynamics in any living system, many of which are at the service of its survival, so they’re not to be looked down at just because they prefer comfort to transformation. It’s just that we need to be aware that Sensing is not meant to be comfortable, and that, in order to engage with it, we need to be prepared to loosen our desire for comfort a bit.
  2. Collusion: many of the things we will uncover when we sense our own system’s functioning – if not all of them in fact – are things that we actually do. Not somebody else; no, us. So diving deep into our functioning is bound to shine light on things that we do, problems that we actually collude with. And that, in itself, is particularly uncomfortable, and disturbing. No wonder then why we sometimes stop short of actually engaging in real Sensing, for fear of having to acknowledge our own part in the problem that we seemed, only earlier, so keen to resolve. But as Adam Kahane, the ‘father’ of the Transformative scenario process once quoted in his book about scenarios, when describing difficulties or resistances triggered in participants by an imminent insight of their own collusion with the difficulties they were facing: “if you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution”. So let us not only acknowledge, but perhaps even celebrate, how we are contributing to, or colluding with, the dysfunctional situations we’d like to transform – because that’s a key to transforming them that we got in our hands now.
  3. Compensation: one particular collusive dynamics that we find in dysfunctional systems is one when some people end up doing what others should be doing, often for fear of the latter failing to actually achieve what they’re meant to do. Rather than calling them to account, and helping them grow into the responsibility of ensuring that they do what their role requires them to do, we tend to do it for them – a behaviour that I like to call ‘compensation’. Sensing tends to shine light on these dynamics, which are particularly uncomfortable because we tend to feel powerless in transforming them, for it would require us to loosen of desire for control, and inject more accountability in the system. In Kleinian terms, it might feel better to be perceived as a good object, an overcompensating good mother doing everything for her little ones, than as a bad object, a stern and demanding father figure.


In conclusion, perhaps we can look at these issues through the lens of Regeneration: if we want to engage in the kind of Transformation that brings new life and energy into our organisational system, Sensing is surely a key step on that journey, as we need to let the world in – as much as needing to open the door and get out into the world – and challenge our own habits, assumptions, and mental models. That journey will need to be a 3D journey, where we accept that being displaced, disturbed and disrupted is a sign of new life flowing through our veins, and to achieve that, we will need to let go and grieve of 3Cs.