What would a workplace look like if there were a critical mass of self-awareness and compassion?

The benefits of mindfulness for individuals is now pretty well established. The simple practice of bringing attention peacefully to the present moment seems to help our minds undo the many pains and confusions that come from rumination, distraction and the type of overall disgruntled thinking that we all seem so prone to.

But if mindfulness helps us let go of our individual bad habits and live with greater flow and ease, could it help a whole team let go of typical team dysfunctions and work with greater flow?

Thinking bigger, could it even change the way a whole organization or system learns, adapts and transforms itself?

There’s promising reason to think the answer may be yes.

The secret is, we’re all human

That answer starts with a fascinating character named Dr. Otto Scharmer, senior lecturer in organizational development at MIT, and one of the first people to bridge the inner world of mindfulness with the challenges of team creativity and systems change.  A protege of legendary MIT systems-thinking founder Peter Senge, Scharmer has tested a new model for transformation and innovation in businesses, government and cross-sector collaborations.

The Scharmer’s model, called Theory U, is simple: Teams, organizations and systems are the sum of human minds and the things those human minds create (rules, physical workspaces, etc.). When something in that system seems broken or stuck—and, let’s face it, something always seems stuck in our lives—we can do the work of change, innovation and getting un-stuck from the inside out.

This requires the people involved to have an open mind, open heart and an open will (or, as I like to think of it, to let go of your agenda).

The importance of an open mind, heart and will is seen easiest through its opposites: Ever been in a problem-solving meeting where people weren’t open-minded? Or tried to respond to a complex change when distrust and disengagement cause people to withhold?

To use an example of some particularly difficult-to-change issues: If you’re interested in fixing systemic problems, such as climate change or racial discrimination, you’ve probably felt the pain of being in discussions where legacies of habit and hurt make it challenging for people to open up and see the impacts their actions have on others.

People talk about changing “the system” as if it were an inhuman thing, but the truth of course is that the systems we want to change are made up of humans.

The good news is, if you’ve ever been on a really excellent team you probably experienced what it was like for people to have an open mind, heart and will. Instead of focusing on ego-conflict, there was a sense of openness to learning, spontaneity and responsiveness to clients or to the environment you were working in. New ideas popped up out of nowhere.

Is there a way to create these kind of experiences more often?

From theory, to practice, to science

At a time when businesses are accustomed to constant change and societies are struggling to transform, having an open mind, heart and will seems like a worthy exploration.

And perhaps these shifts are part of what’s driving the widespread interest in mindfulness. We’re hungry for some other possibility for our individual lives and for our worlds that we can’t quite see and describe yet. But we know it’s not the course we’re on, so we see we need a way to pause and reflect. We need a way to release stress and confusion and rigid thinking and be more tuned in to what’s essential, to what’s possible.

That’s what mindfulness provides.

What Scharmer’s Theory U provides is a framework for people to do this together.

Putting it to the test, Scharmer and his team facilitated this process for two of the most challenging issues in the U.S. today: climate change and race.

I was intrigued when I heard these would be the topics. If this process can really help a group to open up and talk about these things, what can’t it do?

The participants were about 100 people from business, academia, government and meditation, attending a recent conference by the Mind & Life Institute, arguably the world’s leading organization in bringing together scientists and meditators.

In both, discussions started out as you’ve probably experienced. People have different views and are generally respectful and kind. A few ideas for solutions are offered up, with a few heads nodding, and also some uncomfortable silence. There’s a sense that the feelings and beliefs that really matter aren’t coming to light, that nothing different is really going to happen.

The process kept pointing us back to the fundamentals: open mind, open heart, open will. We started and ended the days with mindfulness practice and held discussions that included both dialogue with others and checking back in internally.

By the end of the week, hands were shooting up to share breakthroughs. One participant called the discussion on race “one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life”–never before had he let himself feel what it was like for another person to be disenfranchised and ignored. He felt a newfound openness to people of different racial backgrounds and a deeper understanding of how he was part of a system that often made things worse.

Another participant left feeling touched by an obligation to take action to live in a way that wouldn’t negatively impact the environment. He shared how he’d always wanted to do something, but never really felt the personal commitment for change until that day.

In the time and space we had, the process didn’t work for everyone. But undeniably change was in the air for these 100 participants. The common theme was this: If you want a new future—for yourself, your organization or your society—you have to be open to it first.

A new field begins

Where things go from here remains to be seen. Research on the group dynamics of mindfulness is just beginning. Scharmer continues to pilot the Theory U model around the world, and the Mind & Life Institute has begun to expand its research agenda to quantify changes in group processes.

As the field develops, there’s promise and hope in the ability to take back ownership of “team dysfunction” or “how the system works.” After all, these systems are sustained by beliefs and behaviors in human minds. And, fortunately, Scharmer’s model for system changes comes at a time when the science and practice of mindfulness and compassion are becoming part of our everyday culture.

—Peter Bonanno, SIYLI head of program development