Useful Voices: Anastasia Totok and Oksana Zheleznova on Looking Inward to Solve Business Problems
Anastasia Totok and Oksana Zheleznova know that running doesn´t help entrepreneurs. On the contrary, slowing down and paying attention while letting new ideas emerge inside us is what helps us find new direction and keep the ship stable when the tide becomes too high.
We love their definition of slowing down:
«Slowing down doesn´t mean being passive. It is more about coming out from the routine, taking a look at the big picture, and questioning our habits and convictions.»
During the pandemic Sonia, Heather and Torill started a podcast, Resilient Business Podcast, to help entrepreneurs navigate the difficult waters. At the same time, Anastasia and Oksana started a project with a similar goal. They came up with the idea of organizing a workshop to help entrepreneurs slow down and reinvent their businesses in order to adapt to a rapidly changing reality.
Below, Oksana (pictured to the right above) tells their story about how they got the new workshop going and what process they took the participants through. Hopefully you will find this inspiring in your own quest to get new products and services to market!
Entrepreneurs: Slow Down, Look Inward to Solve Business Problems
Our reality as entrepreneurs has been characterized by a lot of uncertainty since the Covid-19 pandemic began. The conditions and the context we live in are changing very rapidly, bringing new challenges our way almost every day. How should we react to keep going on with our personal and professional projects?
This was what we, Anastasia Totok and Oksana Zheleznova, were thinking midway through 2020. During one of our conversations, we came up with the idea of organizing a workshop to help entrepreneurs slow down and reinvent their businesses in order to adapt to a rapidly changing reality more effectively.
Anastasia is the host of the Presencing Institute in Russia and is an evangelist for Theory U, which we’ll explain in more detail below.
We decided to take the Theory U framework and add some strategic marketing principles and tools to make the experience more transformative and, simultaneously, more down-to-earth. We also wanted to focus on helping entrepreneurs cope with the current problems they were facing during the pandemic.
Why Rushing Doesn’t Help Entrepreneurs
Before delving into Theory U, it’s helpful to look at the philosophy of one of the most beloved tales of all time, Alice In Wonderland:
“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
The Red Queen's race seems like the most logical and obvious solution. Slowing down and paying attention to what we have inside us seems counterintuitive and even absurd.
However, this practice can be our anchor, helping us balance and keep the ship stable when the tide becomes too high. But how exactly are we supposed to do it in order to achieve the results we need and not just lose precious time?
This is where Theory U comes into play.
3 Principles of Decision Making in Theory U
The Presencing Institute was founded in 2006 by MIT Sloan School of Management Senior Lecturer Otto Scharmer and colleagues to create an action research platform at the intersection of science, consciousness, and profound social and organizational change.
Over the past two decades, The Presencing Institute has developed Theory U as a change framework and set of methodologies that have been used by thousands of organizations and communities worldwide to address the most pressing global challenges in the fields of climate change, food systems, inequality and exclusion, finance, healthcare, and education.
The Presencing Institute team is the first to openly discuss the importance of intuition and empathy in decision-making on the highest scientific and business levels.
The critical advantage of Theory U is that you don't need to have some special skills or props to apply it. The only requirements are:
open mind (curiosity, sincere interest in others),
open heart (empathy, readiness to stand in others' shoes),
open will (courage to break the habits and act in a new, unusual way).
Those three principles help to see the patterns that don't work anymore, explore what is relevant to stakeholders' needs, and find the best way to serve them.
Putting Together a New Workshop
We decided to make our journey in a small group to be able to pay attention to each entrepreneur so they could take maximum advantage of the workshop. We also wanted them to be people from our audience that are already familiar with us and our approach. Several posts on social networks and an invitation sent to our mailing list resulted in seven entrepreneurs from Russia, Lithuania, Spain, Germany, France, and Canada registering for the workshop. Regardless, those people had different backgrounds; they were immersed in the same process and could complement each other. For the successful application of Theory U principles, diversity is vital. Theory U shows we have much more in common than we think.
The workshop took eight weeks and was designed to go through the seven stages of the U-process (one week for each step). Then we took one week to rest in the middle of the program and to digest all the work we had done before.
We had one live 2-hour group meeting weekly on Tuesdays at the same time. While there were few theories, there was a lot of practice and homework between meetings. You may wonder: “Wait, and what about slowing down?”
Well, slowing down doesn’t mean being passive. It is more about coming out from the routine, taking a look at the big picture, and questioning our habits and convictions. However, in the fourth week, we had no calls and no homework and asked our participants to do nothing related to their businesses for at least 48 hours. We did this for two reasons. First, we wanted to make a workshop more bearable to keep all the participants on track. Second, it is essential to give our intuition some space to feel whatever wants to be revealed through us.
The 8 Steps of Theory U
Here is what each stage of Theory U deals with:
1. Downloading past patterns.
The foundational capacity of the U is listening. Listening to others. Listening to oneself. And listening to what emerges from the collective. Listening encourages the ability of a leader to create and hold a space where the voices of all stakeholders will be heard.
During the first icebreaking week, we helped our participants:
determine goals and objectives for the program,
remove the status quo from the old methods and ideas about their project and their place in the market,
clear the perception of habitual patterns, and make room for new solutions.
Stop the "voice of judgment," focus on nonjudgmental observation of what is happening, and collect factual information, not preconceptions. During the second week, we encouraged our participants to take the position of an observer, reveal "blind spots," and figure out a request for exactly what they wanted to change.
The goal is to feel the context in which you are, to reveal the hidden needs of stakeholders. It is helpful at this point to have conversations with people involved in the situation. The most critical thing in these conversations is to turn off the voice of judgment and the desire to conclude quickly. We aim to feel the context and feel ourselves as part of this context. This stage allows the mind to hear the feelings. If something inside worries, it will manifest itself at this stage, which means you can do something with it before the decision has already been made.
In the third week, we analyzed the system as a whole, our place within it, and interviewed the stakeholders. As a result of the interviews, our participants updated their ideas about their consumers and what they need.
4. Letting go
We let the old ideas die and get ready for something new to come at this stage. It is an essential stop for deep reflection and preparation for strategic changes. We did not have a meeting in the fourth week and asked our group members not to do anything related to their business for at least 48 hours.
The capacity to connect to the deepest sources of self. Presencing means to be in touch with feelings here and now. After downloading information into your mind from the previous stages, it is crucial to take a break so that external information connects with internal wisdom and the subconscious. This is where we find a connection between our innermost motives and other people's needs, where some new natural and authentic ways to express ourselves are born. We explore how we can improve the world in new ways and be rewarded for it.
After the reboot from the Presencing stage, ideas begin to take shape, and creative solutions emerge. At this stage, one needs to express their feelings about what is happening: You can draw, write words or assemble an image of the solution from Lego blocks. Vision must be conveyed to the team without being distorted verbally. Feelings are sometimes difficult to express in words, so it is better to use improvised means at this stage. The main task is to present an image of the desired future to the world and understand what resources are needed to turn the idea into reality. After this, we can discuss the original ideas in groups, brainstorm to clarify them, and look for suitable ways to bring these concepts to life.
We construct a solution, take everything we have previously collected, and express it through ourselves. Prototypes and minimum viable products (MVP) are created with the team. This stage is about acting and implementing what was planned in the previous steps. Connect mind, heart, and hands. Don't forget to check with stakeholders on how relevant your solution is.
The moment where intermediate conclusions are made and the work done is evaluated. Here, information is collected and analyzed about how the decision affects the overall situation, how it is helpful for the stakeholders, and whether it brought you or the team closer to the desired future you want to create. In fact, this is a return to the beginning of the U curve - clarifying the situation and collecting information on it.
The U-process is an endless way to create and test innovative solutions and products. As you can see, the process is intense, so taking a break and a deep breath in the middle is essential before moving on to create something new.
Obstacles on the Road
Each stage brought some difficulties for our workshop participants that they had to overcome. In the beginning, it was hard for all participants to stop using judgment and adopt the observer position. However, with the help of the group and some practice, it became a new habit.
For leaders who are used to being constantly on the move, the most challenging part was doing nothing and just waiting for insight. But this point of stillness (Japanese culture has a particular term for it — Ma) is where the real transformation starts and the new ideas come almost magically.
In the opinion of one of the entrepreneurs, interviewing stakeholders was a massive task that could not be accomplished in a week. Finally, she conducted ten interviews, which was an astonishing result for her and for us.
The Importance of Group Work for Entrepreneurs
The workshop relied heavily on group work. By doing so, we not only worked with each participant's case individually, but also created an environment in which the participants could learn from each other, feel like one, and realize their unity through one social body. All of us humans are one social body called humanity. Connecting within this social body is how we can feel the needs, goals, and relationships of others. This also helps us better understand and connect with the consumers of our products.
In this age that lets you find anything on the internet, there is no lack of information about any tool or method. There is a free MOOC about Theory U on EdX so that anyone can learn about it. But our workshop gave the advantage of providing a safe space for practicing with immediate feedback from fellow members. We also provided extra motivation to go out and conduct interviews with stakeholders, which is fundamental for a successful marketing strategy. But entrepreneurs very rarely take this initiative by themselves.
The participants provided great feedback afterwards. Here is what they wrote in the questionnaire we sent them after the workshop.
“I discovered a new approach, I am glad to meet new people and feel the group energy of unfolding projects and meanings”
“I liked the intimacy, attention to each participant, thoughtfulness of information, excellent presentation of the material”
Three months later, we followed up with the participants on an additional zoom session to know how they were feeling and how their things were going. We just wanted to ensure that our workshop was not a simple boost of motivation but had led to some real transformations. The feedback stayed positive, and the entrepreneurs shared with us some stories of how our group work helped them take their businesses to the next level.
Continuing with the Workshop after the Pandemic
Our approach and methods stay relevant regardless of external circumstances. No matter whether the economic indicators go up or down, or whether optimism or pessimism rules the air, it is always beneficial to slow down. This allows us to connect with our core values and our stakeholders, checking whether we truly serve them or we simply live in a fantasy. Revealing the truth and taking the right actions is not easy, but we believe the U-process to be one of the shortest ways to do it.
Mid-2020 brought another set of challenges. After the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine started. Inflation rates in Europe and the U.S. reached historic levels, while economists talk about a global recession. At the political level, we are witnesses to a huge democratic crisis. The future doesn’t seem bright, and the uncertainty remains with us.
However, to build resilience, to turn challenges into new possibilities, it is essential to take a step out of the routine and find some time to listen to our inner voice, connect with the deep knowledge we all possess, connect with others, and build a future we want to live with an open mind, an open heart, and an iron will.