The foundation of systemic phenomenological work


25 June 2019| Other, Transformation

The pupal stage in Transformation

I asked our daughter – who is an entomologist – which insects go through a pupal stage. We often use the butterfly as an example of transformation, and in this way we introduce a romantic image of transformation. As if the caterpillar voluntarily becomes a pupa because it knows that with a little patience, he or she will become a beautiful butterfly that will delight everyone.

Wasps, mosquitoes, moths, one-day flies, dung flies and many other crawling, flying and stinging insects go through three completely different stages of life: the larva/maggot phase– underground, in the water or above ground, and sometimes in a host animal –, followed by a pupal phase – often attached to something hung, or spun –, and then the fertility phase, in which they mate and lay eggs, after which they die.

When we talk about transformation, we often create a romantic image: “We let ourselves float on the flow of life and everything will be fine.” Then you have that romantic butterfly image of the final phase in mind. But transformation is about the preceding process!

If I imagine what it is like in that first phase, when I look at the swarms of swimming mosquito larvae in a ditch, or at the caterpillars that grow thicker and thicker every day by feeding on my cabbage plants, it looks to me like a great life: food, food, food – and in the case of the mosquito larvae, also some swimming with your siblings. No worrying about getting fat, because you simply shed your skin about three times, and after that you can get even fatter.

By the way, shedding skin is also quite a job that sometimes takes a whole day. You could compare it to your entire body being covered in support stockings, right up to your finger and ears. And then without the help of a caregiver or home help, you have to try to worm your way out of them… But if you succeed, oh, then you can finally go and eat more.

By the time we humans would already be nauseous, or have a gastric disorder or diabetes, the larva stops eating, and a strange degradation and building process begins. It becomes a “pupa”. On the outside, the pupa appears to be at rest, while on the inside the organs are getting broken down and converted into the organs that the adult insect will need later on…

And now, a bit about us, humans. We work in larger systems: organizations. Organizations are confronted with a changing society. And one answer to that is “we have to transform”. The butterfly is often used as an example of that change, as it is a conceivable and predictable transformation. We use this metaphor because we actually cannot even imagine what that transformation will look like.

But that “conceivable and predictable” is precisely the problem of transformation. Whenever you make plans about what you will be(come), you make a future based on the patterns of the now and the past. That is change, but it does not make you let go of the patterns. The tricky thing about transformation is the pupal phase. The phase when as a whole organization, you get into a stage in which it seems as if everything has come to a standstill, or perhaps it is experienced as being stuck. A stage in which you are broken down from the inside. The insect is probably not aware of this, but we humans react immediately in such a situation. We respond instinctively. We go into survival mode. We defend or attack. Your worst “me” stands up in order to survive.

If you could only imagine all those employees in such a state… it would be completely untenable! How could you ever get the whole thing transformed?

Perhaps we can learn something from those insects here. This pupal phase is characterized by the fact that the body of the larva is packed very tightly. It is swaddled. Just like a baby for whom the transition from the womb to total freedom of movement is suddenly too big of a change. It is lovingly swaddled, or it is wrapped in cloth and held close to the body.

Apparently, that is necessary, that tight, loving, temporarily forceful holding space, in order to allow the breakdown process to take place inside, so that new organs and functions can be built up for the next phase of the organization.

These qualities are therefore required from a (beginning) leader who will be involved in a transformation process. Being able to create that holding space for the demolition process and for all the defensive and survival reactions that the parts of the system will exhibit. A holding space for yourself, to endure everything that will be projected onto you from that survival. And to guide it in such a way that it remains a process of the whole, while continuing to support the parts in their personal process, and – and that is the most complicated thing – having no idea what, who or how you will be as an organization after this transformation.

You would almost need supernatural powers! And still, this is what Mother Nature does every day, has been doing for millions of years, with mosquitoes, wasps, woodworms, beetles, moths, butterflies and flies!

It seems that transformation needs this “narrowing” as a phase. Apparently, the force needed to push through a birth canal is also needed to enter a new phase as an organization.

Perhaps a midwife is someone who knows most about the holding space that such a process requires from a transformation supervisor. Except that a transformation in an organization does not take a few hours, but rather several months…

But the most important thing a midwife does, is be and remain fully present.


Bibi Schreuder

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