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Problem-solving abilities

What the future can teach us

Verkehrsplanung in Peking ist eine Herausforderung auch für aufgeschlossene Laien.

Verkehrsplanung in Peking ist eine Herausforderung auch für aufgeschlossene Laien.

There needs to be an international paradigm change among top decision makers, argue management scholars from the renowned MIT. Their advanced leadership programme ELIAS is supported by an international network of influential organisations from the private sector, government, multilateral institutions and civil society. InWEnt has a stake in this programme.

[ By Hinrich Mercker ]

Our present age is characterised by massive institutional failure. Health systems are not only overburdened, but one-sidedly geared towards illnesses prevalent in industrialised countries. Education systems are breaking down, or only imparting outdated knowledge in rigid curricula. Instead, it is crucial to think with an eye to the future and come up with new solutions.

Today, even decision makers in high positions feel overwhelmed in the face of huge challenges. Climate change has already begun, making it urgent to find forward-looking solutions to new problems. Moreover, humankind’s greatest challenges – poverty, war, organised crime, disease, injustice, environmental damage – are interrelated in so many different ways that the correlations are difficult to understand.

Consequently, the ability to enforce sustainable solutions is now rooted less than ever before in the authority to issue directives; but is more than ever based on cooperation, in which representatives from government, commerce and industry and civil society must take part. Otherwise, justice will not be done to the complexity of the matters at stake. Leaders with innovative approaches need partners in other sectors if their ideas are to have an impact throughout society – or even globally.

Nothing less than a global paradigm shift on leadership in terms of perception, thought and action is needed in the view of Otto Scharmer and Peter Senge, two management experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Their approach may seem far-fetched and even unrealistic, but the two scholars are implementing several tangible measures to trigger the hoped-for change.

One such tool is ELIAS. The acronym stands for the programme “Emerging leaders for innovations across sectors”. Scharmer and Senge have involved a number of well-known institutions in its implementation, including multinational corporate giants such as BASF, BP, Unilever and Nissan, non-governmental organisations with a global reach like Oxfam and the Worldwide Fund for Nature, government agencies (InWEnt and the Indonesian Trade Ministry, for instance) and multilateral institutions (such as the World Bank Institute and UNICEF). The first course began in March 2006 and finished a short time ago.

ELIAS is based on Scharmer’s theory about how inspiration occurs, and about how people drop deep-rooted patterns of thought and perception. After long years of diligent research, Scharmer has outlined a three-step process. According to him, it is essential
– first, to observe what is going on precisely, assuming unfamiliar perspectives,
– next, to reflect and find the inner peace required for inspiration, and
– then, to quickly develop, test and implement innovative measures.

Scharmer’s approach is about learning from the future, and shaping it, in an anticipatory manner. The subtitle of his book “Theory U” appropriately reads “Leading from the future as it emerges”.
The first ELIAS programme brought together 25 participants from the management of various implementing partners, at first at the MIT. Over a 15-month period, they then spent a total of 30 days together, in such diverse places as Oxford, Bejing and Washington. The aim was to further develop leadership competence together. The approach was by no means purely abstract – after all, a crucial principle of Theory U is to change perspectives.

Unfamiliar perspectives

One of the first ELIAS tasks, for example, was to come up with proposals for reorganising Boston’s subway system. Although there were no local transport experts among the participants, they developed new concepts by putting themselves in the role of “extreme users”. For example, they used underground trains blindfolded or in a wheelchair. On a trip in China, they similarly dealt with issues that normally require expert knowledge: traffic in Beijing, desertification in Mongolia or the controversial Three Gorges dam, for example. There were meetings with government advisors on foreign affairs, impoverished farmers, displaced villagers and prosperous business people in Shanghai.

ELIAS participants were constantly challenged to adopt new, unfamiliar perspectives. Meetings with marginalised people in large US cities served this purpose, as did synchronous, international video conferences. “Shadowing” allowed interesting insights into the work of another ELIAS participant: as “silent shadows”, partners accompanied one another during a typical working day. Doing so deepened the understanding of methods, constraints and work environments so far only vaguely known. Of course, ongoing debate in the randomly mixed group of participants from various countries helped them to identify and expand their own mental maps.

But there was more to ELIAS. “Presencing” is a word Scharmer coined combining the words “presence” and “sensing”. It literally means to anticipate the best possible future outcome right now. In other words, it is about an intuitive identification of new solutions and perspectives, which requires not only rational information but also inner reflection and contemplation. For this reason, a stay at a Chinese Zen monastery was part of the programme.

ELIAS’ ultimate objective, of course, was to use new insights and approaches for better cooperation involving government, business and civil society. Global problems, after all, require trisector cooperation, extending beyond classic corporate-social-responsibility strategies, governmental public relations campaigns or client-oriented NGO activities. Accordingly, partners need to know how to open up to new perspectives and ideas which may seem strange at first.

Tangible projects

The concept works. In the first course, ELIAS led to tangible new strategies for action. For example, InWEnt is cooperating with BASF, UNICEF and WWF on a training programme for young executives in the water sectors of Uganda and China. Invited by BASF, they will meet this month in Ludwigshafen to learn about innovative management concepts. They will then be supported by means of coaching, mentoring and access to institutional networks for the entire year afterwards.

Other pilot projects that emerged from the course are similarly building bridges between sectors. In Indonesia, for example, a trisectoral leadership programme involving the influential daily newspaper Kompas Daily, the Trade Ministry and the NGO “United in Diversity” is about to begin. Oxfam and Unilever are planning a joint training programme in South Africa.

ELIAS’ organisers feel it is especially important that measures are undertaken quickly. They have little interest in long-term action plans or extended government talks. A key notion is that one will achieve goals faster, the earlier one learns from mistakes. It is important to get started, to playfully try out options, and thus gain first practical experience immediately. Test, reject, modify – these three steps make it possible to move on fast from prototypes to serial reproduction. On the other hand, understanding ELIAS methods and learning to use them are just as important as the programmes’ immediate tangible results.
ELIAS 1.0 is over, and ELIAS 2.0 is in the preparation phase. Each ELIAS generation will be unique, but all will be supported by a growing network of regional and national ELIAS initiatives formed by former participants.

InWEnt will continue to make an active and formative contribution. After all, capacity building requires that programmes are continually developed and re-conceptualised. Otherwise it is not possible to impart relevant knowledge on a sustainable basis. In this respect, InWEnt regards itself as a learning organisation – and by no means just a teaching one. Needless to say, InWEnt is already using elements of Theory U for in-house staff development and executive training courses.