Excavating the ‘Social Field’

I’m currently reading a great book entitled Theory U: Leading from the Future As It Emerges by Otto Scharmer. In his book, Scharmer speaks about a concept he calls the ‘social field’. This is the field of social interaction, awareness and understanding that is the glue that holds together our society and activity, be that within a team, a company or indeed for a country.

The book focuses on an interesting notion: that in order to embrace the future, we do not need to plan for the future in a linear fashion. What we should rather do is draw the future towards ourselves through tapping into the deep reservoir of understanding that we each have and that the social field has as a collective. That is my take on it anyway.

There are so many interesting concepts and layers to this book that I will share over time, yet the key feature for now is this idea of the social field. Scharmer says that the are two levels to the social field: the visible part of our interactions and connections; and the invisible social field below the surface that we are plugged into yet are not consciously aware of.  Just like seeds buried beneath the surface, which are already germinating even if we cannot see them.

In the Lego® Serious Play® (LSP) methodology, there is a great resonance with this idea of the social field through the role of the landscape and connector application techniques in the methodology. Part of the process, depending on the journey that has been designed, is to build a landscape. This is a layout of models and concepts that are positioned in relationship to each other. The idea is not dissimilar to the family constellation methodology, where insights are achieved by understanding how different parts of the whole are positioned in relationship to each other.

In the social field concept, creating greater awareness within the social field requires that parts of the system, using systems thinking as a principle, become aware not just of how the system is impacting the individual but how the individual is impacting the system and all the pieces within it. The landscape application technique in the LSP methodology creates a visual and 3D experience of the social field, be that of a particular team or of the organisation’s social field itself.

In the process of playing with what seems to be a child’s toy, and creating metaphors and stories around challenges and concepts within the social field, there is a magic that happens. The team or organisation suddenly becomes more aware of itself and the impact that the individuals within the team or group have on the overall outcome of the unit. I also think there is a clear demonstration in LSP of the ‘letting go’ concept that Scharmer speaks about: by using bricks and story-telling you change the form of team engagement  for ideation and problem solving. Individuals simply have to let go of their stuck records and habitual views in a team context. You have to look at the ‘system’ with a different perspective.

The second facet is an application technique that uses Lego® connectors. This is where specific flows and interactions are modelled between parts of the overall model and between individuals and parts in context of the company or the team. There are an amazing variety of shapes and sizes of connectors within the LSP kit and each one carries with it deeper meaning. If someone builds a connection between two agents using a chain-like connector, what does that mean? If it is a rigid pipe that connects two elements, what is that mean? Or if the connector is actually a Lego® cannon, what does that mean? The connectors add another level of richness to describe the interface between the different parts of the system or the social field.

My experience of working with developing people and building teams, is that the moment you become aware and conscious of an issue, 90% of the work is done. It is the unconscious and unaddressed issues that lie below the surface of the social field that are the most treacherous. They continue to impact people and teams like a hidden third force. Bringing the issue to light creates visibility on the issue and its impact, and, suddenly, a release of energy within the team can take place.

The LSP methodology is incredibly powerful because it magically allows someone to draw out of their hidden recesses the ideas, challenges and issues that are unseen. By bringing them to the surface and building relationships and connectors between each individual, the organisation, its challenges and opportunities, there is a visual and visceral shift that takes place. When the social field becomes more conscious of itself, there can be a massive surge forward in growth because each individual part of the system now understands how their action or non-action impacts the well-being of the entire system.

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