Theory U

We live in a time of massive institutional challenge, in which we collectively create results that (almost) nobody wants. The list is well known: Climate change. Hunger. Poverty. Terrorism. Violence. Destruction of communities, nature, life—the foundations of our social, economic, ecological, and spiritual well being. These times call for a new consciousness and a new collective leadership capacity to meet these challenges in a more conscious, intentional, and strategic way. The development of such a capacity would allow us to create a future of greater possibilities.

How do you learn and lead in times of disruption when you cannot rely on the experiences of the past? Otto Scharmer posed this research question at MIT 20 years ago. The result was the method and framework of Theory U and Presencing.

What is it?

Theory U is an awareness-based method for changing systems. Theory U blends systems thinking, innovation, and leading change--from the viewpoint of an evolving human consciousness. Drawing on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) tradition of action research and learning by doing, Theory U has evolved over two decades of experimentation and refinement by a global community of practitioners. At its core, Theory U comprises three main elements:

  1. A framework for seeing the blind spot of leadership and systems change: the "interior condition" from which we operate;
  2. A method for implementing awareness-based change: practical methods and tools for change makers. The focus is on building the collective capacity to shift the inner place from which we operate;
  3. A new narrative for evolutionary societal change: updating our mental and institutional operating systems in all of society's sectors. What does it take to redesign societies in ways that address the pressing challenges of our time? What does it take to apply the power of mindfulness and awareness to the transformation of the collective system?

Theory U integrates these methods and lineages for effecting change:

  • Action research and organizational learning in the tradition of Peter Senge, Ed Schein, Donald Schoen, Chris Argyris, and Kurt Lewin;
  • Design Thinking in the tradition of Tim Brown and Dave Kelly;
  • Mindfulness, cognition science and phenomenology in the tradition of Francisco Varela, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Tanja Singer, Arthur Zajonc, and David Bohm;
  • Civil society movements in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and millions of others who are mobilizing change in their local contexts. 

Theory U draws our attention to the invisible source dimension of the social field, to the quality of relationships that we have to each other, to the system, and to ourselves. "In order to operate in the complexity of this century we have to do some inner work." - Otto Scharmer, Senior Lecturer at MIT, Founding Chair of Presencing Institute. Author of Theory U: Leading from the Future As it Emerges

The movements

When we move down one side of the U we allow ourselves to connect to the world that is outside of our institutional bubble; then, to the bottom of the U, to connect to the world that emerges from within; and then, up the other side of the U to bring forth the new into the world.

At the bottom of the U lies an inner gate that requires us to drop everything that isn’t essential. This process of letting-go (of our old ego and current self) and letting-come (our highest future possibility, our best future Self) establishes a subtle connection to a deeper source of knowing. The essence of presencing is that these two selves—our current self and our best future Self—meet at the bottom of the U and begin to listen and resonate with each other. Once a group crosses this subtle threshold, nothing remains the same. Individual members and the group as a whole begin to operate with a heightened level of energy and sense of future possibilities. Often they then begin to function as an intentional vehicle for an emerging future.


Leading From the Emerging Future

You cannot engineer creativity, you cannot engineer a generative social field (a great school, organisation, team or society), but you can cultivate the outer and the inner conditions that allow us for such a field to be activated and to be cultivated. And that is something that great teachers and great leaders have always been doing intuitively. But we need to learn now that we live in an environment that’s a lot more toxic than it used to be. So, we need to strengthen this capacity. Great leaders do that, as individuals, more out of an intuition and great teachers do the same thing. But we are now moving into greater disruption and toxicity, with more mental health issues all around us, distractions and pressing issues growing louder. This environment requires us to upgrade our capacity to create these holding spaces. And this is not only what great individuals have to do, but it is something that you do as a whole team and community. 

Leadership essentially is not what a person or an individual does, that's the biggest misunderstanding. The essence of leadership is the capacity of the system, in which everyone is participating, to sense and shape the future, and to be in touch with what is wanting to emerge, and then stepping into that. That really is what leadership is all about. And that's why leadership is a distributive phenomenon. It needs to include all of us, it's not something we can delegate to the one person at the top.

Theory U revolves around a core process of co-sensing and co-shaping emerging future possibilities. Here's the essential leadership capacities needed to address the root causes of today’s social, environmental, and spiritual challenges: 

Theory U offers a method for rethinking the parts and the whole by making it possible for the system to sense and see itself. When that happens, the collective consciousness begins to shift from ego-system awareness to eco-system awareness - from a silo view, to a systems view.

Learn More

Theory U | Otto Scharmer | MIT

Learning from the future as it emerges | Otto Scharmer | TEDxTUHH


The Essentials of Theory U: Core Principles and Applications

by Otto Scharmer, 2018

A useful pocket guide for practitioners that distills all of the research and materials found in Otto Scharmer's seminal texts Theory U and Leading from the Emerging Future.

A short handbook that focuses on the core principles of Theory U, the key movements that makes the process of Theory U, and social applications, to be used as an introduction to work in the field of Presencing.

Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges 

2nd Edition | by C. Otto Scharmer, 2016 

In this ground-breaking book, Otto Scharmer invites us to see the world in new ways. What we pay attention to, and how we pay attention - both individually and collectively - is key to what we create. What often prevents us from "attending" is what Scharmer calls our "blind spot," the inner place from which each of us operates. Learning to become aware of our blind spot is critical to bringing forth the profound systemic changes so needed in business and society today. By moving through the "U" process we learn to connect to our essential Self, see our own blind spot and pay attention in a way that allows us to experience the opening of our minds, our hearts, and our wills. This wholistic opening constitutes a shift in awareness that allows us to learn from the future as it emerges, and to realize that future in the world.

Free download:
Intro and Chapter 1

Audiobook available now:

Link to figures and images

Executive Overview:
English | Chinese | French | Hebrew | Italian | Japanese | Korean | Russian | Spanish

Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System Economics

by C. Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer, 2013

We have entered an age of disruption. Financial collapse, climate change, resource depletion, and a growing gap between rich and poor are but a few of the signs. Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer ask, why do we collectively create results nobody wants? Meeting the challenges of this century requires updating our economic logic and operating system from an obsolete “ego-system” focused entirely on the well-being of oneself to an eco-system awareness that emphasizes the well-being of the whole. Filled with real-world examples, this thought-provoking guide presents proven practices for building a new economy that is more resilient, intentional, inclusive, and aware.

Free download: Intro, Chapter 1 & 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapters 4 & 5 | Chapter 8

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