If you’ve read other of our blog posts, you’ll have picked up by now that here, at Nexus, we use the U process to design pretty much all of our interventions. So I’m not going to go into details about the process itself; my purpose here is to describe a methodology I’ve been using at the bottom of the U, in that Presencing stage where a group, with Open Mind, Open Heart, and now Open Will, is invited to open up to ideas, possible solutions or ways forward, that may be coming from the situation itself – “from the field”, as Otto Scharmer puts it.


Picture this: a group of 39 people has just been working on painting together a collective picture of their lived, organisational reality, and how it connects to its context. They’ve identified their organisational strengths and weaknesses; they’ve named the opportunities and the risks around them. They’ve even dived into the shadows of their organisations: those issues that everyone knows about, but no-one dares addressing – well this time they have, and they’ve shared, deeply, about what all this is triggering in them.


The obvious next step then is: well, what shall we do about all that? What strategy, what action plan should we develop to engage in the innovation, the transformation that we need to engage in?


At this stage, the risk of “jumping the U” is at its highest – i.e. the risk of wanting to jump straight from an assessment of the situation, to a solution to remedy it. Why is it a risk? Because it is so hard to stay in the “Not Knowing”, especially when the collective picture we’ve just painted is so intense, and seems to be calling for us to act. Perhaps also because we have all been trained to ‘problem solve’, and that we derive a sense of worth out of doing so, far from the powerlessness we would sense creeping in us if we just stood still and held the space for just a little while for the ‘truly new’ to emerge …


What’s wrong with problem-solving though? Well, nothing. In fact the U process, in a way, is a problem-solving tool. But moving from the assessment straight to a proposed solution carries with it a major risk: that the solutions that come forth will only be individual proposals; ideas that come from some members of the group, particularly disposed to problem-solve, and whose ideas may have been present, in their minds, before the workshop started. In that way, we’d end up with solutions based on a pre-workshop assessment of the problems, and with a process that would be shifting from collective discernment to a debate around whose idea is better, and is the one we should follow.


The challenge at the bottom of the U is therefore clear: how do we accompany the birth of a set of solutions based on the collective picture of the reality – in all its depth and complexity – that has just been co-created by the group? And how do we ensure that the proposed solutions have really been authored by the collective – so that its members will be much more energised to implement them?


Well, this is how I did it with this group:


First of all, I gave them all some personal reflection time, in silence, around the following question: when you contemplate this collective picture of your reality, that you have just co-created, what is it saying to you? What is it pointing to?

As you’ve probably picked up already, the trick is to invite participants into a disposition in which the solutions will no longer be coming from them – but from beyond them. The trick is to help them tune into the collective intelligence that has already been mobilised, and to do that, one has to turn off one’s ego for a moment, and let that collective intelligence speak – let the picture speak, and point the way.

This is best done by extracting ourselves from the working spaces used so far, and by engaging in more meditative mode: a walk in the garden (or the forest!), if you have one around your conference centre, is ideal. Alternatively, you can invite participants into a shared silence, with a soft music playing in the background.


Once they’d had sufficient personal reflection time, I invited them to create 13 trios, and gave them time to share in trios what they’d picked up about what their reality was saying to them – what directions were emerging from the collective painting itself.


Then 10 trios were invited to pair up: putting two trios together to create a group of 6. We formed 5 groups of 6; whilst the remaining 3 trios were invited to form a group of 9. All newly formed groups were given the same task: to create 2 sentences that would capture all the various things that each member picked up about what future direction the collective painting was pointing towards. For most groups, this meant that 6 people had to agree on just 2 sentences – an even harder task for the group of 9! – which really helped them focus on sentences where everyone could feel that their own experience of what the picture was saying was being included.

In a true U process spirit, I invited them not to get on with the final objective straight away (creating 2 sentences), but rather to spend time listening to one another’s experience of the collective painting, and how they felt it had spoken to them about the way forward. After that initial dialogue, I invited them to pause, for a minute, in silence, in order to connect to what was being said not just by the group members, but by the group itself: what are all our sharings put together speaking about? After that silence, it was time to share about their sense of what their group was capturing – still without trying to create 2 sentences. After a while, a new invitation for a minute of silence, this time to ponder on the question: what 2 sentences could best capture what we’ve just said our group has been connecting to? Then, and only then, was it time to craft those sentences.


When they came back to the plenary, I invited them to approach those 2 sentences with the analogy of the photo and the landscape: a photo is an instant capture of a lived experience – but it is not that lived experience. So a photo of a beautiful wild field might help me connect to that experience of the field when I was in it (the scents, the breeze, the buzzing insects, the sun warming my skin…), but it is not the experience itself – it can only be a prompt to jog my memory.

Similarly, those 2 sentences where the photos of the deep conversations they’d just add; they could trigger their memories of the meaning that flowed in their dialogue, but the real thing was the dialogue itself, not the sentences.


That preamble was important to share with them, because I then invited them to merge into bigger groups, and repeat the task! So suddenly we had 2 groups of 12, and 1 group of 15, and again each of these groups had to produce 2 sentences only. In other words, everyone had to let go of what they felt was “their” sentences, in order to produce a new pair, inclusive of all 12 or 15 experiences.


When we finally all came back in plenary to share those final 6 sentences, the experience was just spectacular: I invited each group to speak its 2 sentences, with nothing else – no introductory explanation, no particular comment – just their text. After the first group, we held a minute silence for the sentences to echo in us, and moved to the second group, and then the final group, with a 2-minute silence at the end to take it all in.


The connections, the resonance between the groups were amazing, and the room filled with a sense of awe at realising how the group, the collective intelligence, had found its own voice.