Reflection on the Journey: Hosting the First Pitt U.Lab Hub

Top left: Taster session, August 2019; Top right: Social Presencing Theatre Workshop with Liz Alperin-Solms; Bottom left: community gathering for live session; Bottom right: u.lab hub in Pitt Parking Day

Co-authored by Gemma Jiang, Christina Ong, Stephanie Romero, Jackson Martin

2019 is the inaugural year of the Pitt u.lab hub. Before we embark on the u.lab 2x journey this spring, we would like to pause to reflect on our journey together during the past fall, from the perspectives of the setup of the hub, feedback from participants, and reflections from co-hosts.

The Pitt u.lab hub serves three functions simultaneously: community building with cross-sector leaders, awareness-based systems leadership development and social innovation support. The Pitt u.lab hub envisions a future with a cohesive ecosystem of u.lab hubs across the Pittsburgh region, where socially innovative ideas from grassroots are systematically identified, supported, and eventually formalized as sustainable projects that serve the well-being of local communities.

Like most hubs, the most basic function of our hub is to provide a place-based learning mechanism for the u.lab MOOC: Leading from the Emerging Future. To fulfill this function, we hosted four community gatherings that coincide with the four live sessions of the MOOC.

We were also fortunate to be supported by the PNC Charitable Trust. We were able to provide food for each of our community gatherings, as well as offering two Social Presencing Theatre (SPT) workshops and conducting action research to continuously improve the design of the hub. Both the SPT workshops and the action research have enhanced the experience of our hub members. We will share some of the findings from the action research in the following paragraphs; the SPT workshops led by Liz Alperin-Solms went so well that we are working on training our trainers so that SPT can take root in Pittsburgh.

Covenant (a.k.a roadmap for participation)

Since this was our first time hosting the hub and most people were not familiar with the u.lab hub concept, we started with two taster sessions in August 2019 to help those interested experience the U process in 2 hours. We had about 60 participants in the two tasters, and of them, about 30 participated in different activities offered by the hub from September to December. About 80% of them come from the University of Pittsburgh, and 20% of them come from surrounding communities.

Very soon we realized that to lead this group of u.lab hub participants, we needed to create an organizing structure that everybody could relate to. As the saying goes, working with volunteers is a true test of leadership, because there is no “contract” to enact. Instead, we created a covenant (see above), that specified the three levels of participation, and all the activities associated with each level. This covenant gave great clarity to the organization of the hub, especially related to the community building aspect of the mission.

Covenant

The Coaching Circles

We formed three coaching circles, each with five committed members. A coaching circle is an intimate group of five people taking turns to share their leadership challenges to help each other gain new perspectives. Constant change of circle members could be disruptive to the cohesiveness of the group, so we emphasized that coaching circles are a commitment.

To invite participation, we created an application form with questions to learn more about each person’s challenges and expectations. Then based on the information, we put people into three groups: one with a focus on mindfulness, one with an interest in teaching and learning, and one in deep personal transformation. Each of the co-hosts led one circle.

The Ideation Expo is an inflection point in the u.lab annual cycle. During the fall, we participated in u.lab 1x. During this time, the focus of the hub is to learn the principles and practices of Theory U as a social innovation technology. In the spring, we embark on u.lab 2x, focusing on the application of Theory U into participants’ local contexts. We have been accepted into u.lab 2x as an entire hub. The Ideation Expo is a declaration of participants’ intention and aspiration, after their personal transformation journey (u.lab 1x) and before their application journey (u.lab 2x).

Ideation Expo 2020: Ideas that Bridge Divides

We aim to provide this annual platform that kindles the flame for social innovation, connects innovative sparks with each other, and aligns resources for aspiring social entrepreneurs. We accept projects from both hub members and non-hub members; we bring together panelists who offer work, wealth, or wisdom to the projects; we also bring in a large audience that weigh in on all projects with votes and feedback.

Then all projects will go through the u.lab 2x process. We will help connect the high potential ones with local foundations to scale up. The u.lab hub serves as a container for social innovation by supporting sustainable projects that serve the well-being of local communities.

Through the action research, we were able to collect data through surveys, interviews and real time observations. Most participants appreciated the sense of community with diverse members, the personal and professional change they experienced, and the space for reflection that is so rare in today’s world.

One person said “the Pitt u.lab hub is building a 21st century Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in Pittsburgh.” With the release of the Hollywood movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and our geographical location in Pittsburgh, the comments seem so timely and appropriate.

Below are some themed quotes from participants.

Diverse Community

“When I came in August, I had no idea what I was stepping into. It’s been an interesting journey going to the Presencing workshop. I have a greater sense of what this is about and I feel more inspired. It’s been great to learn from others and hear their feedback on my project.”

Regarding the u.lab hub experience, I like “ the diverse expertise in the room and the interest in crossing the boundaries of the sectors we work in.”

“[From the coaching circles], I got a lot of clarity on my context, as well as learning about what is going on with others in different parts of the university.

Transformational Journey

“[In my coaching circle] each of us recognized we have each progressed personally and professionally such that we are all looking for or have interviewed for or secured a new position. Obviously, by virtue of a group of people gathering over time, there will be changes in various aspects of our lives, however, I find this shift quite profound.Perhaps we all sought to participate in u.lab because we sensed something in ourselves which recognized, we need a change.”

“I wish more people had access to Theory U. It is vital to provide this framework for people…most people and organizations don’t stop to think about [what makes us] ‘stuck.’ Instead they search or a quick and easy fix. It is this mindset which has brought us to this place now. SPT [and Theory U]epitomizes an opportunity to grow as individuals, as a community, and as a world.

Space for Reflection

“For most places on campus, you meet people with pre-determined agenda. The Pitt u.lab hub is the only place where you can just BE. “

“[I feel] gratitude for having the luxury to have the space to think and reflect. I am thinking about how helpful this would have been for students.”

“Even if [the hub] doesn’t go beyond the space of being together…it’s a great way [to know] what are different opportunities and challenges. [The hub is] creating opportunities to invite people into their own experience of awareness.”

The Pitt u.lab hub is led by a hosting team who serve as liaisons among the coaching circles, co-facilitate live sessions, make decisions for the well-being of the community, and conduct action research to continuously improve the design of the hub.

The hosting team for the 2019–2020 Pitt u.lab hub consists of the following leaders:

  • Gemma Jiang, Swanson School of Engineering, University of Pittsburgh (Pitt)
  • Stephanie Romero, Awaken Pittsburgh
  • Jackson Martin, Pitt Athletics (he has since left Pitt and started a new career with PNC)
  • Christina Ong, Department of Sociology, Pitt

Gemma

I first came to know about Theory U in early 2018, when I was searching for change leadership for the National Science Foundation grant I was working on. For a leadership scholar with an avid interest in complex adaptive social systems, meeting Theory U was like love at first sight. I appreciated the concept of making a system see and sense itself, which is the equivalent of “collective intelligence” in the complexity leadership realm. I also loved the call to “turn the beam of observation inward”, to “illuminate the blind spot of leadership”. This concept goes very well with my upbringing with Confucius teaching. As a matter of fact, Master Nan, one of the most influential people in the development of Theory U, happens to be the guide in my Confucius journey. Furthermore, I really resonated with the iceberg model of change, which points to the three leverage points to effect root changes. I realized that I am much more interested in the thought and source levels, and hence have developed courses and programs targeted at these two levels.

I went through the u.lab MOOC in fall of 2018 as an individual participant. Then we invited Otto Scharmer and Eva Pomeroy for a talk on transforming 21st century universities at University of Pittsburgh in March 2019. There was so much interest in this topic that I felt confident I had a good foundation to start a hub. Then I went to the Social Field Research summer school in Berlin in June 2019 where I met the best hub hosts from across the world, and really confirmed my intention to host the hub. Of course, the learning at the Presencing Foundation Program at Cape Cod in November 2019 helped to deepen my understanding and improve my interior condition, so that I can lead better.

I am most grateful to my co-hosts. Before they agreed to co-host with me, all I had was a strong intention; after they joined the team, I felt we were ready for business. They have been essential in every activity we offer, every decision we make, and every precious moment we share. They are all new friends who came to my life because of our mutual attraction to Theory U. My life is so much better because of them, and so is the Pitt u.lab hub.

Stephanie

It was a great honor to be invited to co-host the Pitt u.lab hub. Finding a community that values personal and social transformation is rare and then being accepted into that community is priceless. I was inspired to see so many people willing to look deep inside to see how they could support not just their own, but community and social healing while also holding space for others to do the same. The other valuable experience was joining together to learn and practice Social Presencing Theatre.

Especially for those of us who identify as intellectuals, it is very important to have the opportunity to tap into the wisdom of the body. I offer my gratitude for welcoming I felt from Gemma and Christina and recognize all their hard work and determination to coordinate, fund, and offer this U-experience from their hearts.

Jackson

My first exposure to Theory U was in Spring 2019 when Otto Scharmer visited the University of Pittsburgh’s campus as a guest presenter for the Organizational Innovation Lab. I was immediately intrigued by the connective tissue he described between society, science, and consciousness. Up to this point, I encountered no framework that described change in such an organic and humanistic manner. Immediately, I messaged Dr. Gemma Jiang to learn more. The conversations we shared were filled with enthusiasm, support, and a like-mindedness towards the power of community.

Flash forward to summer 2019, when Gemma invited me on the journey to serve as a hub host for the U.Lab on Pitt’s campus. The journey pleasantly took me down two paths: 1) a connection to a global community of practitioners who readily shared best practices for their U.Lab hubs, and 2) a powerful bond to fellow Pitt staff members in my coaching circle. In multiple weeks, the coaching circle and I described our unique circumstances and shared perspectives and feelings towards present-impediments.

At the end of the year, I feel empowered and stronger than ever as a professional and change-maker. Ultimately, this led me to pursue an opportunity outside of the University, but I hope to continue once again with Gemma and the global community to lead us to an emerging future with eco-system awareness.

Christina

Prior to fall 2019, I had never heard of Theory U, or the concept of u.lab hubs. I came to the hub with an open mind and open heart, but was really unsure of the journey I was about to embark on. Gemma’s leadership and belief in the Theory U process encouraged me to take a leap of faith to see for myself what the practice of engaging in a u.lab hub could do for the Pittsburgh community. As a sociologist-in-training, I have always been interested in how groups form and adapt to change. Working as part of the Pitt u.lab hub, I was given a front seat to witnessing people from various walks of life come together to form an intimate community. My first day working with Gemma, she told me to think of myself not just as a graduate student, but as a manager and co-creator for the hub. It was exciting for me to not just be an observer of Theory U, but an active participant!

Over the course of the past season, I have seen those involved in the hub share their grand, big, seemingly wild ideas with one another. The encouragement and sincere questions that each person receives allows for a deeper engagement in social innovation, and pushes each person to see their idea through until the end. I am constantly encouraged by the support I see hub members give to one another without any expectations in return. As we move into a new year and new decade, I am hopeful that the hub will continue to provide a space and active community for social change innovators across the Pittsburgh community.

Note: the Pitt u.lab hub would like to thank the generous support of the PNC Charitable Trust. To learn more about the Pitt u.lab hub, please visit: https://www.engineering.pitt.edu/oil/U-Lab-Hub/

Originally published at https://medium.com on April 10, 2020.

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Gemma Jiang, PhD

Senior Team Scientist, Institute for Research in the Social Sciences, Colorado State University; Complexity Leadership Scholar and Practitioner