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July 21, 2016

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Seeing whole picture vital to tomorrow’s leaders

TO instill leadership excellence, the School of Public Policy and Management of Tsinghua University has teamed up with Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Sloan School of Management and Giti Group UID Foundation to set up a “U School for system leadership,” featuring methods and tools based on MIT’s philosophy of learning through doing and Chinese traditions of inner cultivation.

During the recent “Three Talk” event co-chaired by Meng Bo, associate dean for development and international cooperation at Tsinghua University’s School of Public Policy and Management (SPPM), and Cherie Liem, Chair of Three on the Bund at the Space by Three, MIT researchers Peter Senge and Otto Scharmer, together with Xu Aihua, section chief with the Policy and Regulation Department of Shanghai Development and Reform Committee, shared their insights on “System Thinking” and “Theory U.” Specifically, they discussed how government, business and universities can apply these ideas to problem solving and decision making.

Otto Scharmer, founder of Theory U, said: “What we pay attention to, and how we pay attention to it, is the key to what we create. In a world burdened with too much information, we are often prevented from seeing the iceberg of reality. System thinking helps us trace down to find root causes.

“The principles of Theory U, on the other hand, are suggested to help political leaders, civil servants, and managers break through past unproductive patterns of behavior that prevent them from empathizing with their clients’ perspectives and often lock them into ineffective patterns of decision making.”

The creators of this theory describe the U shape learning journey as a process of five movements. As Scharmer explained, we move down one side of the U (connecting us to the world that is outside of our institutional bubble) to the bottom of the U (connecting us to the world that emerges from within) and up the other side of the U (bringing forth the new into the world).

“Moving down the left side of the U is about opening up and dealing with the resistance of thought, emotion, and will; moving up the right side is about intentionally reintegrating the intelligence of the head, the heart, and the hand in the context of practical applications,” Scharmer explained.

Xu Aihua, who has just graduated from a 9-month long System Leadership training program, which is designed and developed based on System Thinking and Theory U, said the five movements of the U shape learning journey offers “a genuinely new idea about how to perceive, think about, and act on our overly complex world.” Fueled by the driving forces of globalization, the dependence and integration of political, economic and social fields is increasing. This brings systematic challenges and higher levels of complexity and uncertainty to economic, social and ecological development to China, resulting in growing ecological, social and economic divides. “I see these three divides as dilemmas which pose huge challenges to the future development of China. If we don’t treat or address them properly, they will lead to huge catastrophes,” Xu said. “To bridge the three divides requires cross sector cooperation and coordination.”

The Chinese government’s 13th Five Year Plan includes plans to firmly establish and implement innovation, coordination, green growth, opening up and inclusive development concepts, thus providing significant guidance for bridging the three divides. To understand such guidance and explore cross-sector solutions requires leaders to become true “system leaders” who learn from the emerging future, catalyze collaboration for systemic change in government, business, academia and social sectors.

Peter Senge, author of “The Fifth Discipline” and developer of the notion Learning Organization made it further clear that, in the long run, the key sustainable competitive advantage for an individual, organization or government, is its ability to bridge ecological, social and spiritual divides by putting together cross-sector collaboration and wisdom.

He said the recent collaboration between the food industry and environmental NGOs in China is a good case in point. “By working together to conserve water and clean the land, we shall make a profound change in securing a healthy food system in the process of transforming relationships,” Senge said.

Referring to MIT’s philosophy of learning by doing, Senge explained that “presensing” is a process that cannot be controlled, but unfolded. “It’s like learning to ride a bicycle by falling of the bicycle.

Persistence, determination and willingness to make mistakes are how we are able to shift our awareness to allow us to connect with our best future possibility,” he added.


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