Prototyping a Social, Digital, And Physical Future Workplace

ET Group’s 2019 Societal Transformation Lab

This is the story of ET Group’s (ETG) journey through the Societal Transformation Lab (s-lab).  ETG is a Toronto-based collaboration technology company that helps people work better together.

In this story we share:

  • Background
  • S-lab intention
  • What did we do?
  • How did it end?
  • The journey continues


The s-lab is “a multi-local innovation journey for teams who are co‑shaping more sustainable and equitable social systems worldwide”. It is a program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Presencing Institute.

The Lab supports teams and initiatives with some prior experience using Theory U to lead a change initiative. In 2019, the program supported and connected 300 teams across 35 countries to simultaneously tackle social challenges using collective systems mapping and design processes.

For more information on Theory U, please visit their website or listen to this podcast.

ETG’s s-lab

ETG’s s-lab was born in Toronto on November 22, 2018 and was active through June 2019. During a company visioning session, team members modelled the world of work.  The group created a physical model using their bodies. The team used a Theory U tool called 4D mapping. 4D mapping is part of the Social Presencing toolkit. The model depicted a global workplace challenge.  The systemic challenge was identified by the group as:

“Change in the world of work continues to speed up, while the WAY work happens, to a great extent is not moving forward.” 

The 4D map revealed new insights, questions, and opportunities.  These culminated in a realization that some employees felt left behind.  There was emphasis on client well-being over employee well-being. Thus, the team decided to take action through the s-lab.

S-lab Intention

The intention of ETG’s s-lab is, “to nourish the evolution of organizations to meet complex challenges by prototyping the social and digital into the physical to inspire collaboration.”  We are prototyping a future workplace on ourselves, and sharing that journey with the world.

Passion led us here

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

What Did We Do?

From January to June, we participated in

  1. Forming the team and setting the ETG s-lab intention;
  2. Applying Theory U co-sensing methods (3D Mapping) and systems-thinking analysis to the ETG initiative; better understanding how all stakeholders experience the current situation – particularly those who we know the least about; learning new ways of perceiving blockages, needs and opportunities;  identifying symptoms and deeper root issues at play;
  3. Sensemaking of observations gathered in February; applied Social Presencing Theater (SPT) exercise, 4D mapping, to model the ETG collaboration ecosystem; generating ideas for prototypes;
    • Enabling Personal Connection
    • ETG Collaboration Hub
  4. Exploring prototype ideas by doing, taking concrete actions to generate feedback from relevant stakeholders;
  5. Refining prototypes through knowledge capture and narrative creation;
  6. Reflection, next steps.
people sitting at tables

Photo by Jordan Encarnacao on Unsplash

Prototyping – Exploring the Future by Doing

Prototyping is a key aspect of the s-lab. It moves an idea into a concrete action.  Prototypes do not require a lot of investment as they are an early draft of what the final result might look like. We had to remember that prototypes are disposable tools, allowing the team to play,  test, and validate ideas.

Prototypes are not pilots.  See the differences in the chart below:

Experiment Plan
Rapid, Iterative Phased, careful, sequenced
Fail fast to learn fast Prove why this approach works
Learning and outcomes matter Only outcomes are important
Owned by (all) stakeholders Imposed from the outside

ETG Prototype: Enabling Personal Connection

We created a story around the Personal Connection prototype as follows. The storytelling begins with the s-lab, envisions key moments and paints a picture of the future.  We invite you to read our story below.

We are telling this story because currently people are disconnected.  People, space and technology can and need to be woven together as ONE THING.  As humans, we are becoming more digital. Yet, we desire to maintain social connections. Further, we want to come together in both physical and virtual spaces.  We want to bring the soul and quality of relationships back into our organization. We can remember what is was like to create community 20 years ago. We can recapture that experience into our present moment.

With this story, we want to reach non participants, all ETG people energizing roles, clients and partners, the S-lab community and the world.  We want people to remember that social connection is important & valuable. It takes intention and attention to make it happen. Being human in community is fun and makes a better workplace.  Everyone can take part.

hands holding tomatoes

Photo by Elaine Casap on Unsplash

The story of our prototype goes like this:

Once upon a time, ETG had a certain soul.  Today, people seem distant and our physical & virtual workspaces could be more fun.  Then, our team cooked, laughed and ate together. We made music together, had parties, played sports and games. We got the inside scoop on each other’s lives.  Fast forward a few months. We enjoy fun & meaningful connection, collaboration and communication together. We rediscovered and enriched our sense of soul.

Everyone at ETG is part of this story. with the whole self, bringing their many gifts, coming together to shape our soul.  The story happens in physical and virtual spaces. It happens in eating, music and playing spaces too.

The experience is human, fun, soulful, connected, with a lot of diversity and variety.  We are infused with the vibe of fun music, laughter. Food is always present.

At the end of the year, when reflecting on months passed, we will be able to tell stories of music, fun, laughter, great food, personal anecdotes, and new connections.

green bamboo in a white room

Photo by Riccardo Pelati on Unsplash

ETG Prototype: Collaboration Hub

We created a story around the Collaboration Hub prototype as follows. The storytelling begins with the s-lab, envisions key moments and paints a picture of the future.  We invite you to read our story below.

The evolving nature of work is creating a gap between people. There’s a need emerging for a workplace that’s a collaboration hub.

Our story goes like this:

Companies struggle with real estate. Costs are always increasing and there’s pressure to make the best use of what they have. Mobile technology means that people are often out of the office. Their space is unoccupied but paid for. Meeting rooms are either over-subscribed or empty for hours.

People struggle with workplaces. They often don’t even have their own desk anymore. Noise and lack of privacy intrude into productivity. Commuting gets longer and more frustrating every year. Why even go?

People struggle with technology. They avoid video, so everyone’s a disembodied voice. Engagement suffers. Technology fails to work as expected.

Our goal was to use our own space as a continuous prototype for a better way to collaborate. What we learn from this can help others on their own journeys.

We asked ourselves: How might we live the experience that we want our customers to have?

We will hear the “voice of technology” and connect everyone – simply and easily.

We will talk and eat with one another in spaces of comfort and sharing.

We will make our guests feel welcome and inspired.

We will come back to this place even when we are far away.

We will be connected.

airplane reflection in a puddle

Photo by Marc Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash

How Did It End? Individual Reflections

Two subteams convened for a reflective session on the s-lab.  Some highlights from these reflections are given below.

From this time together as a team…..

  • “We were very internally focused on space and people.  We did not spend time on the broader ecosystem.”
  • “We practiced letting go of outcomes, enabling playfulness, knowing that to impact the larger ecosystem we need to work on self, then team, then the outside world.”
  • “We learned the importance of making the time to do this work.  Some are committed to the self work, why not enable each person to do that, as part of their role at ETG.”
  • “I was surprised by some people who showed up at the 4D mapping and how cool it was to experience the participation and openness.”
  • hands on a tree trunk

    Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash

    “I noticed that I can keep doing things that feel right,  without asking permission. I know that I won’t be judged for this.”

  • “AT ETG we are taking baby steps with judgement, trust, self-management…..and now there is more rope to do something beneficial. I can bitch less, have coffee with others more.”
  • “When transforming people, space and technology, the hardest thing to change is people.  I realize that some really small changes, like having a BBQ, can have a big, positive impact.  Small things can have big, positive or negative impact.
  • “The biggest concern for any organization should be when their most passionate people become quiet.  I was bitter and jaded before. Then I noticed that my one, little, loud voice was heard. This was a big change for me. I learned that you have to change yourself before you can change an organization.”
  • “There is a realization that we have created a framework for change, but then there is the individual’s desire to change and exist in a new reality.  One big opportunity is individual development and acknowledging that you can’t push this on someone. At the same time, we have to accept that some people may not want to do self work.  We need to meet ETG where it is.”

We, as a team, see the following possibilities.

  • “We can sense back into the societal transformation lab’s intention and really realize it.”
  • window with ocean view

    Photo by Nicolas Jossi on Unsplash

    “ETG will be socially sustainable first.  Then it can focus on the environment.”

  • “There is power to engage with like minded companies in Toronto to have greater societal impact.”
  • “There can be two initiatives, ETG and an initiative of a group of companies.”
  • “We can create a satellite office.”
  • “There can be space in the office for socializing.”
  • “We can have BBQs and other social gatherings.”
  • ““The s-lab can live on through our playbook, the ET Group Way, as a mindset and as a collective movement.”
  • “We can introduce the symbiotic organization, to enable people to understand the importance of the evolution of the individual.”
  • “As individuals who participated in the s-lab, we can model that it is ok to develop yourself in the context of your ETG work.  ETG can invite that by not forcing people to take time off to do self work.”

The Journey Continues

The s-lab journey continues in a container, where learning is amplified, and we cultivate our social soil.

The container. Engaging as a team in the s-lab enabled us to build a container for change.  This container is the holding space for individual change, team change, organizational change and ultimately, societal change.  We are committed to continuously evolving this container for a generative social process. We recognize that this is only the beginning.

Learning amplified. We have experienced learning differently.  Traditionally, we are conditioned to learn mostly by reflecting on the past.  Now, we know that we can also learn and lead from the emerging future. Recognizing our humanness, we can sense and actualize a high potential future with the new practices and tools we have tested.

fresh soil and grass growing

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Our social soil.  We have awareness of our social field, both as a team and as part of a larger ecosystem.  This social field is the quality of relationships that result in patterns of thinking, communicating and organizing.  These patterns create practical results. Thus, we care about the quality of the ETG soil that nurtures the ETG field.

In conclusion, the s-lab lives on in our continuous evolution towards self-management.  It lives on through the ET Group Way. The continuation of the s-lab prototypes and the creation of new initiatives aligned with the ETG s-lab purpose, is held in the newly formed Teamwork & Relationships circle.

Stay tuned!

Featured image by Ian Stauffer on Unsplash


An Intro to Social Presencing Exercises: Applied

This is part of a series on Social Presencing. Find other posts here:

June 11, 2019 post, Social Presencing – A Practice for Tapping into Collective Wisdom
June 18, 2019 post Why Social Presencing?
July 3, 2019 post The Principles Applied in SPT
August 28, 2019 post Intro Into Social Presencing: Preparatory

I described the four preparatory exercises that are part of the main Social Presencing or SPT toolkit in this article.  The next four exercises that are comprised in the full eight exercises of the SPT toolkit are called APPLIED exercises. Variations of these exercises exist and a core SPT team at the Presencing Institute is prototyping new exercises and tools.

Applied Social Presencing Exercises

The following four exercises are useful for practical application in an organizational context for insight and innovation. For the group exercises described below, a facilitator guides the group through the exercises and facilitates the spoken reflections.

The Stuck Exercise

Stuck is a silent mindful embodiment and sensing exercise, practiced individually and in groups, which takes participants from a current reality to an emerging future in the physical individual or social body. The entire Theory U process is experienced.  Length of time varies greatly. Stuck is the core SPT exercise. 4D Mapping, Case Clinic and Seed Dance are variations of Stuck.

Hands are stuck

Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash

A Stuck is something a group or individual is trying to create, change or innovate which is not moving forward.   Stuck is not a problem and “you are not your stuck”. Stuck is not sustainable in any system. It will eventually emerge to a future state.  It is part of the creative process and can be a gold mine of information. Every individual and every group has many stucks.

In this exercise, participants can generate new insights fast which inform decisions and actions.  The Stuck reveals the creative process. Participants can release the same mind-sets or frames of reference which created the Stuck in the first place.  They are able to unearth blind spots, suspend the problem-solving habit and gain access to primary knowing. The group is able to build trust in the body’s knowing and tap into collective wisdom, gaining broader perspectives.

The key practice in Stuck is that participants suspend habitual problem-solving. Instead, they sense deeply into current reality using the body’s intelligence. They focus on physical, felt sensations rather than emotions or analysis.

There are two ways to practice Stuck, applying an individual or personal stuck or engaging group members amplify and inform the individual Stuck by forming a group Stuck.

Individual Stuck

In the Individual Stuck, groups of 3-5 people form seated circles.  Each participant writes down a Stuck from their own work or career. This is not shared with anyone in spoken or written form.

Man sitting in nature

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Participants reflect on the current state felt sense of the Stuck in their body.  The stuck feeling comes into the body as a physical shape or gesture, forming sculpture 1, the current state (SC1).  One by one, each person in the group makes their Stuck shape concrete and visible in the space of the group.

After each group member has shown their SC1 shape to the group, each person shares an experience about another person’s Stuck with the group, without analysis, focusing on a) what they physically saw (for example, “I saw your head go down” or b) what they physically felt in their own body (for example, “When I saw your Stuck, I felt a cramp in my stomach.”)  No one speaks about their own Stuck.

Next, each person repeats their SC1, without the spoken reflection afterwards.  Then they exaggerate the shape or lean into it. After pausing, the participant waits for their body to decide when and how the shape moves.  The shape keeps moving until it decides to stop, arriving in sculpture 2, the emerging future state of the Stuck (SC2). There are three parts to every Stuck, i.e. SC1, the transition from SC1 to SC2 and SC2. After everyone has completed their SC2, the spoken reflection from above is repeated.  The three experiences of SC1, the transition, and/or SC2 are shared.

Group Stuck

Now the group practices in the social body. Six to eight people form seated circles and sit for two minutes to sense the social body of the group.  There are two options for a Group Stuck. In option A, one person volunteers to embody their individual SC1 again. Option B applies if the group is a real team, working together on common goals. The group writes down a shared Group Stuck on a flip chart and hangs it on the wall nearby.  One person volunteers to embody their felt sense of the shared Group Stuck.

Group of people

Photo by Papaioannou Kostas on Unsplash

Next, applicable to A or B above, the volunteer instructs half of the other group members to be the sticking forces of their Stuck, to emphasize, exaggerate that Stuck.  For example, they may say, “Judy, please stand in front of me, close enough to block my vision. Bob, please push down on my head.” Once all the sticking forces are in place, SC1 has formed.  The other half of the group observe, mindfully holding the space.

The social body in SC1 exaggerates the Group Stuck, together, allowing the social body to decide when the shape moves.  When the shape stops moving, the group sculpture has arrived in SC2. This is the emerging future state of the Stuck. The volunteer does not move first to avoid giving directions to the social body.

Both participants and observers repeat the reflection described in Individual Stuck above.  They speak distinctly about experiences of SC1, the Transition, and/or SC2. In addition, they discuss differences between SC1 and SC2, the shape and the movement.  The group also generates dialogue around the following questions. “Where did movement being in the social body? What literally, physically happened? What insights or new questions arose? What ideas for prototypes emerged?  (Hayashi, Presencing Institute, 2018)

4D Mapping

This a mindful group embodiment and sensing exercise, using the social body to “map” or “make visible” the current reality and highest aspiration (potential future state) of a social system such as school system, health care system, government, cell phone market, fashion industry, etc.  Group size is ideally 16 or more. Time is 1-2 hours. 4D refers to the three dimensions of the human body plus the emerging future as the fourth dimension.

Participants can generate new insights fast. They may see something significant which was not visible in the system before, including leadership blind spots.  These insights inform decisions and actions. Participants see their own creative process and practice releasing old patterns, mind-sets or frames of reference.  Practitioners suspend the problem-solving habit to gain access to primary knowing and tap into collective wisdom. Teams gain the benefits of broader perspectives and the ability to build trust in the social body’s knowing.

Woman spreading arms

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

In advance of the exercise, the facilitator guides the client in the definition of eight to ten stakeholder roles in the system. The roles of Earth, Highest Potential (of the system) and representation from the most vulnerable, marginalized group in the system (for example, children) are always included.  The facilitator writes name of each role on a large sticker or card (string attached or taped) so that it is easily affixed to the body of the stakeholder. The cards with the roles are organized starting with most powerful role on top. The facilitator also helps the client define the system Stuck in advance along with a brief narrative (case) about the Stuck in the system and the stakeholder roles.  The client or designated team member describes the situation at the beginning of the exercise. A volunteer scribe is identified to help during the exercise. The scribe documents statements and insights.

At the start of the exercise, 8-10 stakeholders (players) volunteer to embody a stakeholder role.  The remaining participants are mindful observers (space-holders). Observers sit in a circle, leaving enough space for the stakeholders to move around easily inside the circle.  The case giver briefly describes the situation and the stakeholder roles (10 minutes maximum.)

The first activity in the exercise is co-initiation.  The facilitator guides the entire group through a mindfulness of body practice, seated, for about 2 minutes.  The following principles are reinforced: Avoid acting out preconceived ideas, beliefs, concepts about the system.  Allow system shifts to surface and notice their qualities. Allow movement to emerge in the social body. Avoid manipulation or moving the way you think it should be.

Woman in sunflower flied

Photo by Rowan Chestnut on Unsplash

The second activity is co-sensing.  The facilitator displays the card with the most powerful stakeholder role on it and invites a volunteer to embody that role in the 4D map. (Volunteers cannot embody roles they play in real life.)  The player affixes the card to their body so it is visible to everyone. The player embodies the current state of their role as a shape in the space. Roles can sit, stand, lie down, choose the direction and proximity of the body to others.  The role speaks a sentence from the “I” voice. This is repeated until all stakeholders are on the map. All are invited to make final adjustments to their position. SC1 has arrived.

The third activity is co-presencing. Players rest in stillness, letting go of outcomes, and allow the next movements to arise.  These movements represent the emerging future state.

Finally, the group starts crystallizing. Players continue to allow movement to arise in their bodies until SC2 has formed which can take several minutes.  In SC2, each player states an emerging future sentence in the “I” voice. Observers are also invited to make a statement.

As a reflection, players and observers engage in generative dialogue around the seen and felt sense of experience of the movements in SC1, the Transition, SC2.  They share their experiences related to sense of space, time, self and other. Participants answer the questions, “What top 3 features of the map changed?”, “What next steps will you take as a result of this experience?” “What ideas for prototypes emerged?”  (Hayashi, Presencing Institute, 2018)

Case Clinic

This is a mindful group embodiment and sensing exercise, using the social body to generate insight on a leadership challenge or a question.  Peers or team members are coaches to assist a case giver in a non-hierarchical manner. Three to six people can participate. Time is typically 1-1.5 hours.  In this exercise, participants develop new approaches to responding to the leadership challenge or question, accessing the wisdom of the group to help respond to an immediate challenge.

Rope around a tree

Photo by Markus Spiskel on Unsplash

First, the case giver takes 15 minutes to describe the situation and his/her intention about the future they are trying to create.  Then the group sits in stillness for two to three minutes. Each coach shares a shape which embodies the current situation based on what they heard.  Then a group sculpture is formed starting with SC1, then transitioning to SC2. The case giver observes. After SC2, coaches describe their experiences in the movement.  The key is that coaches do not give advice or try to “fix” the challenge. Rather, they listen deeply with the body and reflect.

Generative dialogue begins with the case giver’s reflection about the shapes and movements and states, “Seeing myself from outside, what touched me, resonated with me was….The new questions arising are…..”  Coaches reflect on the case giver’s remarks and offer observations, new perspectives on the situation. (Hayashi, Presencing Institute, 2018)

Seed Dance

This is a mindful group embodiment and sensing exercise, using the social body to bring a person’s future vision into practice through creative expression, resulting in concrete next steps.  The group size is four to five people. Timing is one and a half to three hours.

Seed Dance

Photo by Ricardo Gomez on Unsplash

Often ideas of what we want to create in world are muddled by hidden agendas, notions of success, etc., disabling our ability to answer to the question, “What is my real work?”  Seed Dance enables a practical answer.

In preparation, participants complete the Theory U, Field of the Future, forty-five-minute journaling exercise (not described in this chapter).  This journaling results in an articulation of a future vision. Participants take a silent walk for thirty to sixty minutes. Then, the following activities happen.

In Seed Dance, the group begins in the future state (SC2) and then embodies the current state (SC1).  This is the reversed approach of the Stuck and 4D Mapping exercises. First, participants practice mirroring.  Each person embodies their field of the future sculpture (SC2) in silence. Others mirror back the sculpture. The group allows a gap of non-movement between each sculpture.  The group has a short dialogue on the experience.

Next, the group forms a Field of the Future sculpture together (SC2-A).  One volunteer defines three to four elements that support their seed of the future (core team, location, funding, partners, other.)  The volunteer embodies their SC2 and invites people to embody one of the defined elements, instructing them where in the space, at what level, in what shape and in what direction they face.  The group holds SC2 and then sits back down.

Then the groups forms a current reality sculpture together (SC1).  The volunteer embodies SC1 and places the others as elements into the current state sculpture.  SC1 is held in silence and the group continues to hold the shape, sensing the social body and allowing movement to arise until a Field of the Future group sculpture arrives (SC2-B).  This future state may be the same as before (in SC2-A) but is likely more articulate the second time. Each person speaks a statement from the “I” voice.

Participants engage in generative dialogue via the following questions: “What were differences in relationship of the elements in Field of the Future vs. current reality?”  “Where did movement begin?” “What surprised you?” “What did you learn?” “What seed(s) of your future did you see in the sculpture?” “How is your future intention clarified going forward?” “What next steps related to any or all of the elements will you take?” (Hayashi, Presencing Institute, 2018)