by Frank White and Charles E. Smith
the Earth from a distance
has changed my
The pity of it
is that so far the view…
has been the
of a handful of
rather than the
who need this
or the poets who
The Overview Effect is an
experience that has been reported by
astronauts and cosmonauts who
have traveled into Low Earth Orbit or to the Moon.
There are many
aspects to the Overview Effect, but at its most basic level, it
represents a cognitive shift in which one sees the Earth as a planet
moving through a star-filled universe. (1)
For most, there is also a
realization that there are no borders or boundaries on this planet,
except those created by human beings.
Many of these space travelers returned to Earth with an altered
point of view about possibility, collaboration, and the future of
our species. Some of them considered the experience to be
transcendent and life-changing.
The astronauts have received a message from the universe about who
we are and who we might become. Now, we need to transmit this
message throughout society in a way that makes a difference.
question before us is this:
can this shift in awareness be taught
within corporations, universities, and government agencies so that
they begin to operate from the perspective of a unified whole
We believe that the answer is yes, and that
"Bringing the Overview
Effect Down to Earth" offers such a learning opportunity.
convinced that the message of the Overview Effect is not only for
astronauts but for all human beings.
It is urgently important to teach this perspective and reap its
remarkable benefits, yet there is no need to make enormous changes
in organizational structures.
Only our mindsets need to change, but
that may be a greater challenge than might be expected.
advancing a radical - even revolutionary - notion:
if the cognitive
shift experienced by astronauts can be reproduced in other settings,
the world will change in subtle yet profound ways as the consequence
of millions of brain cells reorganizing themselves into a new
In the years since the first astronauts left the planet, the
coupling of the Overview experience and the hard-edged excellent
performance required for space travel has infrequently found its way
back to Earth in government, universities, and business in practical
As astronaut Ed Gibson put it:
Our coming back and sharing our experiences is like a drop of dye
going into the ocean; it is quickly diffused. (2)
Gibson is right, and yet the experiences of only 500 plus people
have already had a huge impact on our thinking, bringing a great
boost to the environmental movement as only one example.
The Phenomenon and the Abstraction
The Overview Effect is both a phenomenon and an abstraction.
what we can say about it is an abstraction, a description of what
someone else experienced. Words do not do it justice, any more than
the feeling you have on seeing your firstborn child, or falling in
love with your soul mate, or hearing a great piece of music.
years, the astronauts have been describing the feelings evoked by
the Overview Effect, visions of the possibilities of a world without
boundaries, a lifting up of one's own spirit, and a sense of
connection with others and the planet.
However, the phenomenon
itself is almost impossible to communicate with enough nuance,
detail, color, and emotion to capture the sensation of rushing
around the Earth at 17,500 miles an hour, or standing on the surface
of the moon and looking back at your home rising in a star-filled
Beautiful pictures and videos are helpful and some have succeeded in
creating "aha" moments for viewers on Earth.
However, none of these
are the phenomenon itself. Regardless of the challenges, when the
astronauts return to Earth, they are asked to describe it, and they
do their best.
To date, one of the most successful efforts at
communicating the Effect has been accomplished by a group of young
filmmakers from the United Kingdom, Planetary Collective.
short film, "Overview," has now been played by 1.7 million people on Vimeo:
The Problem on the Surface Goes Deep
The authors have been facilitating organizational change for more
than 50 years.
They have found that corporations, universities, and
government agencies are divided into parts that are isolated from
one another - "silos" - wherein lack of communication, superficial
relationships, and individuals and departments going their own way
In many cases, knowledge about the workings of the
whole system accompanies this isolation and a grand future for the
organization is beyond the vision of the people in it.
The primary issue for all organizations is identity.
For the most
part, people hold onto their individual identities as a necessity
for their survival. They contrast this individual identity against
that of the larger whole.
When individuals are successfully
integrated into small teams, they then contrast the team against the
larger organization or other teams.
This tendency leads to "turf
wars" and failure to get the most out of everyone. Leaders too often
seek local intelligence rather than "Collective Intelligence."
Institute says the following:
Collective intelligence is the intelligence of a collective which
arises from one or more sources…
Intelligence is variously defined
as 'the capacity to acquire and apply knowledge,' 'the ability to
effectively adapt,' or simply 'the ability to solve problems.' (3)
In general, institutional intention to develop collective
intelligence is rare because their leaders have not heard of it.
They know they have a problem, but they have no concept of a
solution. And all too often, bureaucracies turn the natural energy
of people away from collective intelligence and toward individual
All of these characteristics of organizations reflect the fact that
on the surface of our planet, we see a great deal of diversity or
chaos, depending on how it is interpreted.
The wonder of the
Overview Effect is that some 500 plus people have now risen
above the surface, and seen that for all the apparent disjointedness
of the parts below, it suddenly reveals itself as a beautiful whole.
The Overview Effect Points to Co-Intelligence
The Overview Effect points directly to the existence of
In one of the authors' books on this subject,
Overview Effect describes a "planetary overview system" that
includes the physical system we call Earth, the human system we call
humanity, and the global technological system, technos. (5)
An overview framework creates the infrastructure for co-intelligence
not only on the planet itself but also in all organizations that are
a part of it.
The Overview Effect creates the awareness that it can
be brought into existence on the Earth, and then to the various
parts of the global human system, such as companies, universities,
Our task now is to bring the Overview Effect "down to earth" so that
leaders, managers, and participants in a system can experience the
overview and masterful performance at the same time.
through a designed mix of work relevant experiments, education, and
individual practices that bring out collective intelligence and
release participants' holding onto the boundaries of what they
already know. In other words, these organizational systems need to
see themselves as overview systems.
We believe the first step lies in learning four distinctions that
are inherent in the astronaut experience of the Overview Effect and
practicing them as they apply to the context of one's own work and
Distinction One: Knowing vs. Experiencing
The astronauts did not come to
"know" something new when they saw
the Earth as a planet moving through the universe at a high rate of
We, and they, already "knew" that, but they experienced it.
As the first American in space, Alan Shepard, put it:
I had been well briefed on what to expect… But no one could be
briefed well enough to be completely prepared for the astonishing
view that I got. (6)
Most organizational behavior is driven by what people think they
know, what they already like or dislike, what they're attracted to
and what they avoid.
It's important for us to be "right" about what
we know and it's threatening to have that called into question.
tendency accounts for the stultifying effects of left/right politics
As one of the authors of this paper (White) is fond of
pointing out, however,
"A planet has no sides."
A lack of "overview thinking" makes fundamental change a threat to
A merger becomes an attack on personal survival for
leaders and administrators who have identified themselves with one
company, and with policies and practices, that already exist.
contrast, space exploration is a grand experiment.
It's in the
nature of an experiment to discover what new things might take
Distinction Two: Earth vs. Space
The astronauts experienced the reality that the distinction between
Earth and space is a false one.
The Earth is in space, has always
been in space, and will always be in space. All of us are
crewmembers on Spaceship Earth, but we don't behave in that way
because we don't have the context to do so.
And the astronauts
not only saw the Earth from space but also in space. (7)
In the words of shuttle astronaut
Jeff Hoffman, speaking at the
world premiere of the film, "Overview" about the view he had from
You do, from that perspective, see the Earth as a planet. You see
the sun as a star. You are seeing it from a cosmic perspective. (8)
The transformation from an organization with segmented goals,
dissociated policies, and limiting relationships among the parts
cannot happen without altering the meaning that people give to their
experience, moving from the limits of their individual identities as
a point of view to a holistic view of themselves and the system as
occurs in seeing the Earth from space.
Most efforts to change or improve a system involve changing
structure or process, which does not change mindset or context.
simply changes the form. The personal meaning people give to their
experiences is a function of the context, their point of view, which
is emotionally driven.
The new perspective made visible by the
Overview Effect comes from
just such a change in context.
When this change is deliberately put
into practice in companies and schools in service of high
performance, there is a surge of human energy and cooperative
Distinction Three: Unity vs. Diversity
In our own work, we have demonstrated repeatedly that transformation
begins with the ability to distinguish content from context.
Similarly, from the surface of the planet, it is hard to see the
reality of co-intelligence because our senses are overwhelmed by a
chaotic swirl of diversity.
From orbit or the moon, astronauts see
that unity appears as the context of that planetary diversity. The
two coexist, but we will see one or the other as primary or
secondary, depending on perspective. (9)
This ability to clarify content and context brings the
Overview Effect down to earth
in ways that can transform organizations and the people in them.
We all have seen co-intelligence in action in great sports teams,
wondrous musical performances, moments of intimacy, friendship, and
sharing, or in hot projects that achieve goals everyone is proud to
These are moments of a cognitive shift, even of transcendence,
becoming more than yourself, in a boundary-less condition.
Bonnie Dunbar said:
Team participation is the key. Being on a mission is like playing
team sports or being on an air crew. (10)
As International Space Station (ISS) astronaut
Ron Garan puts it:
If I had an epiphany [in orbit], it is the sobering contradiction
between just how unbelievably beautiful our planet is versus the
reality of life on the planet for many of her inhabitants, so it
caused me to ask how we can use that perspective to inspire people
to make a difference and make life for the inhabitants of our planet
as beautiful as our Earth looks from space. (11)
Garan is himself
working on a number of projects to use his insights from space
exploration to improve life on Earth. (12)
In the course of work and life on the planetary surface, the unity
recedes into the background.
If we can discover how to communicate
the Overview Effect and bring this perspective to individuals'
commitments to high performance, magic will happen.
If we can
trigger this cognitive shift, we will begin to see non-astronauts
working together in the way that astronauts do and that will be the
beginning of something really new "under the sun."
Distinction Four: Cognitive Shift vs. Masterful Performance
For some astronauts
- and for many who have heard about the
experience - the essence of the Overview Effect is transcendence:
state of being above and beyond the norm...
But without masterful
performance back on the surface, transcendence is a fleeting
experience and loses its credibility and power.
That is why we
prefer the term "cognitive shift," something that is more easily put
Bringing the Overview Effect down to Earth will eventually involve
many more people going into space. The impact will be even greater
if it can be done with some training and preparation of the "new
However, we don't have to wait.
taking place on a large scale, can be achieved through training and
coaching leaders in a company, school, or government agency to
appreciate the Overview Effect through simulations, dramatic,
powerful visuals, listening to astronauts talk about what it is
like, practice in focusing on their experience rather than what they
already know, clarifying content and context, and appreciating the
power of collective intelligence.
There can then be a movement from an identity of disparate parts to
one in which people see themselves as functioning within a
collective intelligence that has the capacity to acquire and apply
knowledge, effectively adapt, and solve problems.
Then, thousands of
leaders would see the content of their work from the context of the
Overview Effect and Collective Intelligence.
embracing these concepts, it would not only give their school and
companies a creative edge but would also advance planetary
civilization as a whole.
To quote shuttle astronaut
"Ultimately, nothing matters except performance."
"Overview Effect: One Sheet," The Overview Institute,
White, F., The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human
Evolution (second edition), American Institute of Aeronautics and
Astronautics, 1998, p. 204.
Institute for Co-Intelligence,
White, The Overview Effect, 1998, pp. 28-29.
Ibid., pp. 73-83.
Ibid., pg. 27, 28.
This is a point that White's colleague and co-founder of the
Overview Institute, David Beaver, frequently makes.
Panel discussion at premiere of the film "Overview," by Planetary
Collective, at Harvard University, December 7, 2012.
White's Kindle book, The New Camelot: Volume One: Camelot and the
Overview Effect, goes into much greater detail on the
White, The Overview Effect, 1998, p. 265.
Interview by Frank White with Ron Garan for third edition of The
Overview Effect (to be published fall 2013), 2012.
Garan's numerous projects include,
Fragile Oasis, a website dedicated
to sharing "the orbital perspective" with astronauts and
non-astronauts with the goal of improving life on Earth
Node, a universal open source platform for global
collaboration that humanitarian organizations can
use to work together toward common goals
Manna Energy, a
social incubator committed to the eradication of
poverty through the implementation of sustainable,
environmentally sound technologies
Manna Energy Ltd.,
which Is leveraging the carbon market to provide
clean water to millions
This is a topic that deserves much greater attention as commercial
spaceflight becomes more commonplace. We want to note, as well, that
Anna Hill is working through her company, Space Synapse, to bring
"space to Earth" in a variety of ways. (Frank White is a consultant
to Space Synapse.)
Discussion between Story Musgrave and Charles Smith.
Down To Earth
- The Overview Effect - by NASA
In "Down to Earth - The Overview Effect"
NASA astronauts discuss
a shift in worldview from their time
living and working in space.
The phenomenon is described in space
philosopher Frank White's book,
The Overview Effect: Space Exploration
and Human Evolution.