Resources on Theory U

In the Leadership 2020 final residencies we work extensively with Theory U as both a framework for the final week’s design and as a method for change leadership. Our design and hosting team loves working with Theory U as participants both ‘see themselves’ within the model/method and discover a language and process that informs their work in the world. However, learning about and working with Theory U doesn’t need to wait until a formal residency.  It is learnable through self-study and practice, and applicable to the complex situations we frequently find ourselves in.

First some background: The ‘U Procedure’ or ‘U Process’ was first developed in the Netherlands in the late 60’s as a change management approach to address conflict and shift unproductive organizational behaviour. Otto Scharmer and his colleagues at MIT, The Society for Organizational Learning, and the Presencing Institute have been further developing the concepts as ‘Theory U’, for application in organizational, community and systemic contexts. They note that the deeper social, economic, ecological and spiritual challenges of our times cannot be addressed by either looking to the past for direction or by looking for simple solutions. Instead, this complexity work calls for “a new consciousness and a new collective leadership capacity to meet challenges in a more conscious, intentional, and strategic way.”

Theory U evolved after a deep and extensive inquiry into what effective leaders do when they successfully address complex challenges. Scharmer and his colleagues  discovered that “successful leadership depends on the quality of attention and intention that the leader brings to any situation. Two leaders in the same circumstances doing the same thing can bring about completely different outcomes, depending on the inner place from which each operates.” Theory U thus informs a way of being as well as offering a framework and method for change.

Central to this way of being is:

  • Shifting from reaction to inquiry and from acting alone to engaging with others
  • Cultivating the qualities of attention, observation, presence and deeper listening
  • Uncovering the voices of judgment, cynicism and fear that hold us back
  • Challenging these voices by cultivating an open mind, open heart and open will
  • Illuminating the blindspots that keep us stuck in old patterns (letting go)
  • Being willing to act in small ways to probe and test out ideas – and yes fail – in order to learn and evolve new solutions to complex issues.

A scenario might help to illuminate how Theory U can be applied. Let’s say that you and your colleagues are noticing that a growing number of youth in your community are engaging in high-risk behaviours and the community is becoming alarmed. Your agency is getting pressured to respond in some way – and quickly! Now what? When we are faced with such pressure, our response is often to act from what we currently know and do, for example, look to an existing program to address the concern, or seek funds to implement a known crisis intervention. While there might be value in these responses, Theory U encourages a deeper level of inquiry and understanding.

The first ‘movement in Theory U calls for ‘co-initiating’ – inviting and engaging with others who share similar concerns and interests in order to develop a shared purpose or intention, such as better supporting youth in the community, or stemming the high risk behaviours. At this point in the process, the voice of judgment often arises, in which we explicitly or implicitly look for and judge the circumstances or people that we believe might be causing or contributing to the problem. This sounds like, “Government cut our program and this is why there is a crisis” of “If the (agency, school, parents, etc.) paid attention, it wouldn’t have come to this”. The voice of judgment clouds our capacity to see what is going on beyond the obvious and narrows our views of what is possible – not a great way to begin approaching a complex situation. The antidote to the voice of judgment is an open mind as curiosity and judgment cannot co-exist. The open mind allows us to ask, with others, “What is going on here?” and “What do we need to learn in order to make sense of the situation?”

An open mind prepares us to engage in the second movement in Theory U – ‘co-sensing’ – in which those involved inquire and learn, to discover new information about the phenomenon, from multiple perspectives. The Presencing Institute website noted below offers an array of tools and practices that support this. I have assisted a wide array of organizations to engage in co-sensing processes – from small non-profits, to BC Women’s Hospital – and the results have always been illuminating and inspiring for the participants and frequently shift the course of action taken. 

As we go deeper into the ‘U’, we come up against another insidious voice – the voice of cynicism. This sounds like, “We tried this before and it won’t work” and “No one will support us, they won’t get it”. The antidote to the voice of cynicism is an open heart. This enables us to be available to the learning journey and discoveries, and to receive the gifts of diverse perspectives and offerings. From this openness we will receive insights or offers that we might have never conceived of, as we widen the circle of inquiry and engagement. At this point in the U process you may also hear the ‘realist argument’, which sounds like, “I am not being a cynic, I am just a realist – we haven’t got support before so we won’t get support now” or “How is it going to help us to talk to all these people? They don’t really know what is going on and we have to act now!” However, by cultivating an open mind and heart we can suspend judgment and cynicism and ask, “Is this true?” and “What can I understand about what holds people back?” and “What/who else is out there?” and “Who can help here?” Returning to our scenario, you might learn from all sorts of people that have not traditionally been involved in youth work, but who nonetheless have something to offer such as a unique perspective, assistance, support, critique, etc.

At the bottom of the U is the third movement – presencing. At this point, stillness is required. Rather than rushing straight from information to action, there is value in tapping into ‘the pause’ that we often talk about in 2020, so that our minds can be present with and available to what has been discovered. We can sift and sort, find patterns, discover dissonance and perhaps gain a more nuanced or broader understanding of what is going on. Sometimes in our field, even with the most complex and urgent issues, there is great value in “slowing down in order to go fast”. 

Another voice that often emerges as we approach this deeper level of understanding of the need to act is the voice of fear. This sounds like, “I/we don’t know how to do this and I/we might fail” and “If we fail, we will look foolish/incompetent/cause harm/waste resources” and “I/we will lose” and “Something terrible will happen here.” As you can no doubt appreciate from your own experience, fear is very incapacitating.  This is because our ‘survival brain’ is activated and the executive functions associated with our neo-cortex (our thinking brain) are hijacked. Instead of being able to see an array of possibilities for response, our repertoire is limited to fight, flight, freeze, or appease. The antidote to fear is easier said than done – open will. There is a quality of self compassion and empathy for self and others associated with an open will and it can sound like, “I/we might fail, but I am not a failure and I will figure it out” and “This is really important work and it matters to me/us so it is worth it to try”. In this way, we let go of our judgment, cynicism and fear and become more open to possibilities  

At this point of the U process we are ready to act – and act with intensity. This is a time for co-creating probes and protoyping – for trying out a number of ideas to see what difference can be made and what else can be learned. There will still be judgment, cynicism and fear lurking about, but the qualities of openness that have been cultivated and the joy of enacting things that have been co-informed and co-created can help to keep the voices at bay.  I will share more about probes and prototyping in a future communiqué but know that if we are going to address complex issues we will not ‘get it right’ the first time – or the second, third of fourth!  However, as we try, and fail, and discover, in small and low risk/low resource ways, we can learn and develop the ideas until such time as we are ready for the final movement of co-evolving. This is when we enact the new, well-informed and tested response to the complex concerns we identified at the beginning of the process.

Here is a visual that shows the five movements, three voices and three ‘antidotes’ to the voices:


For further reading:

Presencing Institute: Otto Scharmer and colleagues host a wonderful array of resources on their Presencing Institute website. Here is an overview of Theory U, and here are some tools for practice (especially in the co-sensing movement).