insight

Kristofer Olsson

Why Digital Entrepreneurs Need Contemplative And Systemic Practices

In the field of digital innovation, the solution is almost always an app or a platform, regardless of the problem. Contemplative practices can facilitate deeper innovation.

Technology
Why is it, that despite many innovative new technologies that disrupt entire business systems (e.g. Spotify, AirBnB and Uber), we’re not even close to solving the big challenges of our time?

Climate change, political polarisation, mass burnout and stress. In order to properly address these problems, we need to change the way we think about the system and ourselves.

I work in the field of digitalisation and innovation. Unusually for my field, I’ve spent a decade cultivating contemplative practises - mainly poetry, martial art and meditation in nature - as well as studying the work of biologist and neuroscientist Francisco Varela and anthropologist and philosopher Gregory Bateson. 
When we feel that everything is connected and integrated we no longer feel separated from the problem and its solution.
I have found that poetry gives me the clarity needed to exist in complex systems construed with words and stories. Poetry is used in many traditions to transfer knowledge, and the transformation process occurs when reading the same poem daily for weeks and months. Meditation helps to cultivate the mind (e.g. mindfulness) and heart (e.g. compassion), and Qigong helps me to relax in difficult and tense situations, allowing me to respond more fully. 

Seeking solitude in nature away from the distractions of normal life can create a deep connection with our natural environment. When I perform my morning Qigong outside, surrounded by mountains, forests and lakes, I relax faster and more deeply compared to doing it indoors. Many contemplative traditions and systemic theories have their roots in nature. 

One very useful practical approach is a retreat in the wild called Nature Quest, established by the environmentalist and Tai Chi master John P Milton. Spending time in nature without food, cell phone or other distractions will facilitate the cultivation of perception, relaxation and awareness.  It will connect us to the entire natural system and all its forms. When we feel that everything is connected and integrated we no longer feel separated from the problem and its solution. This can give us a sense of where to begin the transformation and change, as it becomes clear that we are part of Nature, it is not an entity we own, to be disposed of as we please. Instead we realise that we need to adapt in order to nurture a healthy planet.

“Seeking solitude in nature away from the distractions of normal life can create a deep connection with our natural environment."

I believe that digital entrepreneurs can benefit from the integration of these contemplative and systemic practices into their work. However, as I’ve tried to integrate the awareness I’ve gained from these practises into my field I’ve noticed three major challenges.

The first challenge is one of complexity. Recently I was hired as a digital expert in a large project that aims to enable residents to share space, objects and services in their local community. This project is sponsored by a Swedish innovation agency, and as we are all complex individuals I show up not just as digital expert, but also as a tenant, Swede, male, father, taxpayer and so on. 

What I have found is that as I am acting in the capacity of company representative, I don’t feel like I am expected to contribute with the full extent of my knowledge and skills. 
The adaptive approach means that we must learn how to pay close attention to things others have not yet seen or thought.
I explained my concerns about this to the project management, pointing to other projects with similar problems (Design Thinking Is Fundamentally Conservative and Preserves the Status Quo). I also proposed the systemic practice The Warm Data Lab as a complementary approach, since this is designed to perceive our many relationships and perspectives and to observe how we relate, think and act differently in different contexts and fields. 

Nora Bateson, the originator of Warm Data, points out that “with our whole selves we can perceive the complexity" and I agree: If we were to encourage more people to ‘show up’ in a role as their full, complex selves, then we would be better equipped to solve complex problems. There are both contemplative and systemic methods for this.

The second challenge is the adaptivity of our mindset. With a colleague, I started a ‘future group’ together with some of our customers, with the purpose of learning more about digitalisation and innovation. We used The Lean Startup method, but quickly found that even though we have many great methods for working with innovation, the people in the room often overtake the agenda, interrupting the ongoing flow. Established habits and mindsets of an individual or organisational group tend to overrule fragile insights.

“The solution is almost always an app or a platform."

One reason for this is that all the participants in our group are digital intrapreneurs in our respective home organisations. Typically, we are overwhelmed with our day-to-day work and operate at a high stress level. Our work is difficult, and we are not always sure what the problem is. We often lack the resources we need, and are not entirely sure what we want in the long term. 

Using the terms of Robert Kramer, it can be hard for us to separate the technical problems (digitalisation) from the adaptive problems (innovation). In his article From skillset to mindset: A new paradigm for leader development he defines technical problems as problems that can be solved with the application of existing expert knowledge while adaptive problems involves new ways of seeing and thinking. The adaptive approach means that we must learn how to pay close attention to things others have not yet seen or thought. To get a more adaptive mindset, our mind needs to have a structure that embraces what is happening in real time, in the room moment-by-moment. Contemplative practices are particularly useful for developing an adaptive mindset.

The third challenge is the quality or depth of the innovation. The solution is almost always an app or a platform, regardless if the problem relates to communication, parking, parcel deliveries or e-commerce. It seems that we have decided on the solution, regardless of the nature of the problem. This is of course to be expected since we work with digitalisation, but it is not always effective. If we really want to solve the root cause we need to broaden the scope of innovation to include everything, even ourselves. 
Contemplative transformation is about letting go of thoughts and habits that no longer serve us. 
Contemplative practices can facilitate deeper innovation. One example of this is that we become more autonomous and self-determining when we are aware of our thoughts and feelings. This is one of the key characteristics of an innovator. Another example is the innovation process itself. When we marry innovation with contemplative and systemic practices the innovation can go deeper and result in a totally unexpected product, service or organisation. It can also result in you innovating yourself. 

In his book Innovating, Luis Peres-Breva explains that an innovation starts with a hunch that eventually will reveal itself if you find ways "to discover which parts to keep, which to discard, and which to acquire that you don't yet have, along with which people you need and which people you don't as you evolve your hunch." 

For me, writing poetry has proved to be a good training method in finding these ways. A poem starts from a hunch, often in the form of a feeling, a word or a sentence, which then evolves through adding new words or removing existing words. The only way I can transform myself in the process is by letting go of the final result. In the beginning the hunch is blind, but it ends up becoming a poem (actually, this text was created in the same way). 

“A poem starts from a hunch, often in the form of a feeling, a word or a sentence, which then evolves through adding new words or removing existing words."

Contemplative transformation is about letting go of thoughts and habits that no longer serve us. It is about opening a space for new insights, then welcoming and developing them. This kind of innovation naturally builds on the argument that real change comes from “being the change you want to see in the world," that famous quote from Mahatma Gandhi not all innovators seem to embrace.

What will make digital innovators cultivate themselves every morning? What would motivate them to explore the many traditions that foster contemplative practices, like poetry reading and writing, movement and meditation? 

I do not have the answer to these questions but I can almost hear the voices of past and present masters encouraging us to move on. My sincere hope is that more people become engaged in contemplative and systemic practices, transforming themselves in the process, so that we may solve the largest problems on earth together.

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Words by Kristofer Olsson
Kristofer Olsson works as a product strategist in a software company and lives in the village of Åre in the Swedish mountains. He is also a published writer of poetry and leadership.