Theory U key principles and concepts

1. History

Theory U (the U is expressed by the arrow in the various diagrams) has been developed since the beginning of 2000 by Otto Scharmer, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, as a way of effecting in-depth transformation in social systems : private organisations, NGOs, public services, multi-stakeholder partnerships, local and national political initiatives, etc. The U (both a conceptual and a methodological framework) is indeed very useful as a way of enabling dialogue between partners with different perspectives, who wish to create together desired futures in which everyone can have his/her place. It is particularly potent in situations where the initial conditions are sufficiently complex that not one particularly “obvious” solution can emerge, making it necessary to create the conditions for stakeholders to imagine together their desired future. For example, Theory U was the process that enabled Canon to create a photocopying machine 100% recyclable, with 0 impact on the environment; it also enabled the major stakeholders in the US building industry to create together a regulatory framework making it easy and inciting to use green building principles. It is being used as a process to enable Ethiopia to transform its agriculture, and was also used by ActionAid International to completely rethink its strategy as an NGO …

More broadly, Theory U can be seen as one of the more recent innovations at the heart of the ‘Learning Organisation’ approach, an approach led by people such as Peter Senge (“The 5th Discipline”), William Isaacs (“Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together”), or Arie de Geus (“The Living Company”).

Co-sensing (Sensing together): the idea here is to open up our fields of perception of the world in which we live, to broaden out our access route to the social reality in which we work. This work is a collective one; its aim is to enable the emergence of as much information as possible about this social reality; what is important here is not only the “deliverable” (i.e. data/information), but also the process of developing this collective capacity to connect to and make sense of this reality. The key question at the heart of this Co-Sensing phase is: what is this unfolding world in which we live, beyond what we thought we knew about it up to now?

Co-presencing (Accessing Presence together): a deep and collective sensing of reality can make it possible to perceive what possible futures could emerge in our current reality. Copresencing connects a work-group to its possible futures; the clarification of collective intention opens up the possibility to choose amongst those possible futures. The key question at the heart of this Co-presencing phase is: who do we want to be, and what do we want to do in this unfolding world?

Co-creating (Creating together) : the clarification of both intention and vision leads to being able to outline the social system that we want to create, to establish a strategy that can make it a reality, and to start implementing it. The key question here: how do we (re)organize our resources in order to give our best possible presence to this unfolding world?

3. Interior dispositions to adopt

One of the strengths of the U is that it offers collective possibilities to co-create what Scharmer, Senge and others call “desired futures”. It is based on several methodologies around collaborative work, including those developed by William Isaacs in his approach to Dialogue, where listening plays a central part. In fact we can even talk here of generative listening, that is to say a way of listening that transforms both the one who is speaking and the one who is listening, and which in that way generates new possibilities, hitherto unavailable to one or the other.

Beyond this listening, the movement of the U requires other dispositions:

An Open Mind: this one enables the entering into the U, in response to the Voice of Judgement (it’s no good, who do we think we are, that’s not the way to do it, this has nothing to do with the issue we’re trying to deal with, etc.). An Open Mind makes it possible to get out of one’s habitual thinking patterns, to embrace a spirit of curiosity and discovery.

An Open Heart: when curiosity brings us to new discoveries, soon their implications are felt about the necessity to adapt, to modulate our behaviour in order to be better aligned with the world in which we live. In the face of these implications, the Voice of Cynicism (we’ve done this before, it’ll never work, do you think we are the first ones to discover this, etc.) comes in to counter the emerging movement towards transformation, with the aim of reinforcing the current status quo. The opening of the Heart is an internal disposition that enables us to go through the Voice of Cynicism, by anchoring us in the present moment and by enabling us to remain open to what is asking to be born

An Open Will: this is the disposition to adopt if you want to cross the Voice of Fear, which pops in right at the time when we’re about to implement a change that is asking to be born, to move towards this Unknown called innovation, to “get out of the boat and walk on the water”. It will open the way to Presencing, i.e. the anchoring of collective intention; it is through an opening of will that we make possible the emergence of collective intention.

Letting Go: this disposition is required in order to fully complete the “Sensing” phase, and therefore engage in “Presencing”. It implies letting go of things we have been hanging on to but are proving to be no longer useful; letting go of outdated mental models; to free ourselves from our own certainties; and, concretely, to let go of certain activities in order to create space – because it is only where there is space, emptiness, that the New will be able to come through. Letting go (letting die) is thus essentially an act of Faith: there is no guaranty, no bargaining at this stage of the process …

Letting Come: this disposition is needed to climb up the U; the experience of Presencing has just happened, revealing who we are called to be in this world; letting come helps crystallise the new form that our “Being & Doing” in the world will take.

4. The importance of Sensing

As we have just seen it, the U is truly of path of transformation, a path of Faith which asks of us that we resist the temptation to “jump” from the beginning of the U straight to the end of it – to jump from the problem straight to the solution. It is a path of co-creation, where one moves forward in a disposition of “Not-Knowing”, “Not-Controlling”.

On this path, we can see that the first phase – the “Sensing” phase” – is vitally important. It is the very process of going towards / into the external world, towards that which we don’t know, and to allow oneself to be transformed by these experiences rather than try to get them to fit into familiar patterns of understanding, that is vitally important. The issue indeed is not to understand the world; nor is it to analyse it and make sense of it. The issue is to open oneself to the experience of what is not known to us, or comprehensible, or familiar; to have a lived experience of things that precisely are not close to us, but seem however to be full of energy and vitality in this world – so that this “making sense” of these new lived experiences help us transform our outlook on the world, our mental models (inevitably biased) about the world. This will enable us to be more aligned with the vitality of the world around us, to be a Body with a fuller sense of vitality.

This “Sensing” phase enables us therefore to enact a necessary and fundamental shift: rather than me describing what the world is, it is the world that lets me sense what it is. It is therefore a shift from a deductive mode to an inductive mode.

Deductive means that I start from my head. I try to understand the world through my own grid of understanding, which was developed through my own education, experience, culture, etc.

Inductive shatters all this. It is about letting oneself be filled with the vitality of the world, by its fire, as a way of discovering new forms of meaning. My “brilliant old-time friend” that is my brain can’t walk along with me in the same way anymore. I need to call on other aspects of my being, such as my ‘guts’ or my ‘heart’. This process therefore relies strongly on the 5 senses – and “Sensing”, therefore, is about “making sense”, through an inductive mode, of everything I picked up about the world whilst opening up my 5 senses.

5. Another way of using the U

This U is also used by Otto Scharmer to identify the different levels of organisational functioning, and discern amongst them where the most efficient leverage can be found to operate a desired transformation. Indeed, usually the first reaction is to changing the structures (restructuring), or perhaps to modulate the processes that bring life into those structures (reengineering of processes). But often the issue at stake is deeper, in the way perhaps in which people take up (or not) their role, and in the mental models through which they actually construct their role. A transformation of mental models, anchored in a reconnecting of our Purpose and why we are here, can in that case become a much more potent leverage point.

Example: a food bank operating in disadvantaged areas in a large city comes to the realisation that its work is failing to contain the flow of families more and more in need of help with food. As a consequence, teams are slowly losing their motivation, turnover is on the increase, which makes the work harder for those who are staying, thus setting a vicious cycle at the heart of the process. Initial attempts to solve this problem looked at the structures of the teams, and a better geographical location as a way to better respond to increasing needs; it was then followed by a reengineering of decision-making processes, as well as resource-allocation processes, which initially led to some improvement with the situation.

However, the problem continued to amplify, which led the food bank to a rather different approach. Through launching a strategic re-orientation process involving not only all the teams, but also an important number of external stakeholders (users, social workers, government agencies, etc.), this NGO soon discovered the complexity of the ecosystem in which it is operating, identifying not only the obstacles to succeeding in its mission, but also resources and leverage points that it had ignored up to now. Refocusing around the question: “Who are we, and where does our commitment come from?” then helped the collective to revisit its “vocation”, which is to eradicate hunger in the inner city, and to reposition its activities much more upstream in the process, by working now on the causes of poverty in these inner city areas, rather than its symptoms.

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6. Conclusion

Described as a technology for the in-depth transformation of social systems, Theory U is therefore, as we’ve been able to see it, a mainly inductive process. Even if some key principles and concepts can help engage in the process, it is important to use them as guide, and to ensure we are not falling (back) into a deductive process by trying to apply them too literally; by trying to get reality, however new it might be, to stick to this framework. The U is a path of innovation, a path of Faith – for it is this Faith, in the midst of the unknown, that enables us to keep going. The U is a path of co-creation, of a future aligned with our intention, with the purpose of our being here. Bearing in mind, to use the words of Margaret Silf1, that “The future is not some place we are going, but one we are creating; the paths to it are not found but are made, and the making of those pathways changes both the maker and the destination.”

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