Theory U: A promising journey to embracing unknown unknowns

By Vanesa Weyrauch

author-venesa-weyrauch
Vanesa Weyrauch (biography)

How can we best live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world? How can we shift from a worldview that looks to predict and control what is to be done through plans and strategies to being present and flexible in order to respond effectively as unexpected changes take place? How can we be open to not knowing what will emerge and embrace uncertainty as the opportunity to co-create and learn?

One powerful and promising way forward is Theory U, a change methodology developed by Otto Scharmer and illustrated below. Scharmer introduced the concept of “presencing”—learning from the emerging future. The concept of “presencing” blends “sensing” (feeling the future possibility) and “presence” (the state of being in the present moment). It acknowledges that we don’t know the answers. Staying at the bottom of the U until the best potential future starts emerging requires embracing uncertainty as fertile soil.

Scharmer’s focus, building upon two decades of action research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is on leadership capacities for individuals, teams, organizations and large systems. The aim is to address the root causes of social, environmental, and spiritual challenges.

According to Scharmer (https://www.presencing.org/aboutus/theory-u), we are “blind to the deeper dimension of leadership and transformational change”. This “blind spot” exists both in collective leadership and in everyday social interactions. We are blind to the source of effective leadership and social action. “We know a great deal about what leaders do and how they do it. But we know very little about the inner place, the source from which they operate”.

The process of Theory U enables us to connect with that deep source. The methodology proposes a journey to the bottom of the U, where lies “an inner gate that requires us to drop everything that isn’t essential”. As shown in the illustration, the journey involves moving down one side of the U “(connecting us to the world that is outside of our institutional bubble) to the bottom of the U (connecting us to the world that emerges from within) and up the other side of the U (bringing forth the new into the world).”

The diagram illustrates that as we move down one side of the U (connecting us to the world that is outside of our institutional bubble) to the bottom of the U (connecting us to the world that emerges from within) and up the other side of the U (bringing forth the new into the world).
Source: https://www.presencing.org/aboutus/theory-u (NB Under “1. Co-initiating” ‘intend’ should be ‘intent’.)

Theory U enables the emergence of the best potential of a person, a group, an organization and/or a system. Within a group or organisation, the Theory U journey requires everyone to participate through active engagement and group work. There is no single leader who makes decisions or frames discussions. The constant interactions of all participants lead to emerging common ideas and patterns that are then worked upon by the group. This leads them to decide concrete actions and steps that can be implemented and refined.

What emerges are prototypes that go through iterative processes, and are open to continuous change and improvement based on feedback. Concrete outputs and outcomes cannot be promised ahead of time since no one knows what can emerge from the deep connection, conversations and interactions of stakeholders who are willing to really listen to themselves and each other.

Other methods

Theory U is one of many evolving methods that perceive the unknown and uncertainty as rich doors to new possibilities. These methods tap into the best potential of individuals, groups and organisations building on collective intelligence. When collective intelligence is activated, the prototypes that emerge from a deeper sensing and knowing are not rigid and fully known ways forward. Prototypes go through several iterations before achieving a final result. “A prototype is a practical and tested mini-version of what later could become a pilot project that can be shared and eventually scaled” (https://www.presencing.org/resource/tools/prototyping-desc).

Other methods include ‘art of hosting,’ agile methods and ‘liberating structures.’ They aim to enable horizontal and co-relative spaces where people come together with open minds, hearts and hands to co-create prototypes and preliminary ideas or solutions. They operate under similar principles such as promoting equitable participation, recognising the value of diverse perspectives to attain more holistic approaches and fostering deep conversations that use our rational minds, the wisdom of our bodies and the emotional intelligence of the heart.

In closing…how are you welcoming uncertainty?

These new roads are being increasingly used by many individuals and organisations, and they evolve as we share what we learn from applying them. What has your experience been with methods that use collaboration and co-creation to embrace the VUCA world? Have they helped you acknowledge and take in all that we do not know? Do you have examples to share of the power of collective intelligence?

References:
Scharmer, O. (2016). Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges. 2nd Edition, Berrett-Koehler Publishers: California, United States of America.

Scharmer, O. and Kaufer, K. (2018). The Essentials of Theory U: Core Principles and Applications. Berrett-Koehler Publishers: California, United States of America.

Websites:

Biography: Vanesa Weyrauch is the co-founder of Politics & Ideas, a think net focused on the interaction between research and policy, and co-founder of Animarnos, a space to co-create a new way of leading and transforming organizations in Argentina. She has worked in the policy and research field for the past 17 years. She has created several online courses and works as a mentor with several think tanks in developing countries, particularly in communications, policy influence, funding, and monitoring and evaluation. She has also developed and implemented a program to help young leaders co-create new approaches to global challenges.

This blog post is part of a series on unknown unknowns as part of a collaboration between the Australian National University and Defence Science and Technology.

For the eleven other blog posts already published in this series, see: https://i2insights.org/tag/partner-defence-science-and-technology/

16 thoughts on “Theory U: A promising journey to embracing unknown unknowns”

  1. Thank you, Vanessa, for sharing this post and connecting the readers of this blog with Theory U. We share a similar toolkit. What patterns have you noticed in the characteristics of participants, organizations or themes that are especially receptive (or closed off) to these methods? I have observed that Theory U and other participatory approaches invite groups to stay in a place of uncertainty longer than we’re accustomed to in “business as usual” gatherings. Communicating that what we are doing here will be different and may be uncomfortable seems to ease anxiety,

    Reply
    • Thanks, Anne, for yor interesting question. It is so true that it is challenging to leave the comfort zone of business as usual, so communicating effectively about the why this might make sense helps a lot. In terms of participants, I have been surprised by the willingness of so many to participate in something different, this works much better with young people in general…those like me who are +40 tend to stick much more to what we are used to. I have used them in very different settings but most of them had to do with people and organizations who want to learn: at masters degree, or within alumni of masters who want to continue learning together, or workshops at corporations which were not mandatory. However, participants have sometimes also taken the tools into their regular meetings and have shared that it has really helped them connect with their teams in a new way. It is very important that these methods are deployed within a safe environment, this means that people feel they can try them out without being judged or evaluated. When bosses or CEOs where present they were willing to express their vulnerability: what they don’t know, what they are not liking in the way they lead, what they need from their teams. This creates a holding space where participants feel emotionally safe and can then gradually lose some degree of control and allow their bodies and emotions come into the space.

      I have also worked on my own vulnerability: sometimes doing an exercise myself before asking them to do it. Or asking them if they are willing to try something and being totally OK if they say no, without feeling a personal rejection.

      Another pattern is that the more the same group practices, the better outcomes that emerge…these methods require changing some habits, softening natural resistances, avoiding to work in an automatic mode…therefore it is also helpful to say: this might not work perfectly the first time, you might have challenges in connecting to body language, for example, or in giving quick rational advice…let´s practice together!

      Reply
    • Hi Bethany, thanks for the candid sharing of your current obstacle: could you tell me a bit more about their reactions? Did they have trouble in letting go and letting emerge without using rational arguments? Did they find the results not so useful? Have you talked with them about this to understand how they perceive them? This will help me to provide with some focused and relevant advice.

      Reply
      • I’ve suggested such practices in several in-person meetings with this group. There was either no response or they suggested we try it later at the retreat (which we’ve never scheduled). Once I was allowed by the meeting planners to try it. It was an online meeting with the same group. The meeting planners explained they had allowed me to plan the meeting because they believed it could be helpful. I first explained the purpose of the meeting was to generate consensus on a path of action for a large writing project and that I believed some semi-structured activities could help us make an overdue decision respectfully & efficiently. When I instructed participants in what to do (it was a break out ‘9 whys’), they were silent & their affect was resigned. Upon returning, one participant chatted to everyone “Did everyone enjoy Bethany’s little activity?” or similar. They did not have anything to say about what happened in their groups. I took the jab and concurrent silence as evidence they did not find it useful. I tried to move forward from there in a ‘min specs’ discussion but scrapped the ‘1-2-4-all’ activities that were meant to help us choose a path of action, and replaced them with (guess what?) open discussion. I am a junior member of this team and given the strong, negative reactions, I did (and do) not feel comfortable talking with them about their reactions since I fear being mocked and silenced again.

        I share this as one anecdote but it is not unique to this team. In my experience, lots of academic teams resist semi-structured activities, especially during the presencing phase.

        Reply
        • Wow, Bethany, thanks so much for being so candid and also connected to your own vulnerability. I can totally understand how difficult and even painful it must have been to receive that silence back…however I would still encourage you to talk about what happened with one or two colleagues whom you trust and use this as a chance to learn for next time around.

          I totally agree that there will be high resistance among many teams to these methods and this is OK. We don’t need to push them nor market them: we can offer them and be open to the outcomes too: this is what Theory U also proposes to us, to allow the uncertain outcomes to emerge. We cannot control what will happen, and staying present and open (open mind, open heart and open will as Theory U proposes) is a way to let our own better future version emerge from the experience.

          However, it is also true that we would want to enjoy the methods so I will share some food for thought so that we can together learn from experience but also unravel the potential that walking out of the comfort zone brings (please also see my reply to Anne about some patterns that might be helpful for you in the future:

          1. Start small: even when the case you mention is rather small (one activity with a small group), sometimes the best way is so start with a real small group, or even with one work colleague, to sense how ready they are to try out new and open methods. You might even share with them that you are practising and/or testing the method and express your doubts of concerns. Framing the experience as a learning experience where you together try this can diminish resistance.

          2. Ask colleagues what is not working well enough for them when trying to devise or implement a large project: the star fish exercise is a good starter that can then lead to look at a menu of potential methods and have the team select one or two they are willing to try out. People are encouraged to think about what the team should:

          Stop doing
          Start doing
          Keep doing
          Do more of
          Do less of

          This diagnosis can pave the way to proposing new ways of working together.

          3. Prefer face to face events rather than online gatherings to test these tools: when being able to see each other, sense each other, hear tones, etc. participants can better slow down and connect to each other. There are some quick and fun exercises that we usually deploy to help people move, do things with their movements and bodies that reveal the power of collective intelligence, the power of stopping and just being there without a specific purpose, just as a gift to themselves of this moment…some methods require a more gradual and softer approach building first on personal connection, to then think about methods to connect to each other to co-create.

          Hope these reflections trigger more from your side, and again, thanks for sharing and staying open to learn and try again!

          Reply
          • Thanks Bethany for sharing that experience. I expect many readers will identify with the experience of “no sign of any connection”. Vanesa has offered some useful suggestions for proceeding. Bethany and others, I wonder what you have tried after such an experience either with the same group or other groups? How does one pick oneself up and try again?

            Reply
            • Thank you, Vanesa & Gabriele, for your affirmation & advice. I have continued to work with this group, but I quit trying these exercises. The costs of trying again were too high for me to bear given my other responsibilities and what I needed from the group. In short, I didn’t pick myself up and try again, although I do recognize that was a conscious choice and thus that I could make a different choice in a future scenario. Honestly, from where I sit as a low-power person in that group (and many groups), I’ve decided the calculus tilts in favor of withdrawing rather than engaging. I think this is a familiar calculus to people with marginalized identities or other characteristics that lower their power in the group.

              I don’t think the only or best advice in such situations is to encourage the low-power person to “pick yourself up and try again,” because the material costs can be very high and irreversible. Rather, I genuinely wonder if the better advice would be for someone in power to change the power structure? Or for the low-power people to protest?

              Although I do recognize and appreciate the wisdom of Vanesa’s advice such as starting with just one other colleague as a “learning exercise”. Maybe that in itself is a power-shifting tactic.

              Reply
              • Hi Bethany,

                Your points are well taken. By trying again, I don’t mean bashing your head against a brick wall. I agree it’s often better to conserve energy, reflect and learn, so that it’s possible to recognise a more fruitful environment for trying again.

                There’s a whole lot to discuss on the power dimension!

                Reply
              • Bethany, thank you for being so honest and candid. I really appreciate that you dare to share your truth, even if it is painful for you right now.
                It is very true that these methods work much better in more horizontal organisations and teams. They require some degree of readiness and openess that seem not to be present in your group/s today, so I find it wise to withdraw (or we could also describe it as save that energy and creativity for more fertile soil).
                Yet, if you are sharing all this, it is because it matters to you. Please keep that desire to be engaged alive, I am sure it can be of real service for other people…and to learn -while you wait to find a better holding space to try again (with a colleague or even with a group of friends)- can empower you to assess how and when it could work in other settings, and dare when time has come!

                Reply
  2. Thanks so much for all your thoughtful and interesting reflections and contributions, Darryn.

    Regarding your first observation, it is true I focus part of my blog post in how to lead organisational change, linked to many projects I have participated in during the last decade. The large distance between intentions and plans (mostly defined and developed with a managerial approach) and what came out of those projects in so many cases led me to explore leadership with depth…and that´s where and how I found Theory U. However this method can be applied to individual, group, organisational and systemic change. Indeed their first online course is directed to the individual: only by experiencing your own relationship with embracing the unknowns and uncertainty and trusting in what emerges when you are willing to open your mind, heart and will with the future that wants to emerge can you then develop this muscle with a team or an organisation.

    In terms of your second observation, I really like your suggestion of looking for clarity by focusing on the knowledge that emerges from the iteration of prototypes. Prototypes are indeed a very concrete opportunity to learn and to learn together. However, rather than using prototypes as hypothesis to be tested, they are considered as approaches, strategies, projects, ideas, etc. that will evolve in time, by undergoing the U process again and again. As the Presencing Institute describes it, “the purpose of prototyping is to create a microcosm that allows you to explore the future by doing. Prototypes work on the principle of “failing early to learn quickly.” (they invite us to learn more about this at IDEO.com since prototypes are a core element of their human centered design method). Thus, exactly as you argue, instead of seeking for confirmation and ignoring evidence on the contrary until one can no longer pretend success which is such a common practice in teams and organisations (and in our own lives too!), prototyping embraces continuous change and adaptation acknowledging it is just a “draft” version. This does not mean that there are no underlying patterns that remain fixed and certain, and this is a very interesting contribution, and as far as I know (which is not extensive yet) it has not been discussed among those applying this type of methods. I welcome this idea and will share it with other colleagues using this or similar approaches since we are currently thinking about ways to enhance how we monitor, evaluate and learn from these prototyping experiences. Thus, I am very thankful for this good reflection and open to new ideas.

    Reply
    • Hi Vanesa. Thanks very much for your reply. I’ve read through it a couple of times, and was browsing the references you provided quickly while scoffing down lunch before another meeting. Agreed that the span across individual, group and organisational change was apparent in the method, though it looked as though organizational evolution was a primary focus; but yes, of course, leadership in the sense of making judgements under deep uncertainty very much applies beyond organizational decision-making. I guess the main thing I saw was the part about using prototypes as approaches, strategies, ideas, etc: I would regard any strategy or approach or idea as really a form of theory (or hypothesis prior to its surviving sustained scrutiny); it’s just a theory in the sense of being a proposed solution to a methodological problem. You might even say it’s a meta-theory, or a meta-hypothesis (I just emphasized the latter here in the spirit of what I think your post was also emphasizing, namely the provisional nature of the objects that serve to encapsulate current knowledge for both the purposes of implementing it and of testing its veracity). So I’m left thinking we merely have a terminological difference, and are probably stressing pretty much the same things. Thanks again for your reply.

      Reply
      • Indeed, Darryn, using your definition of a strategy or approach as a form of theory I understand better now your point. I agree we are moving into similar directions but I think I may be stressing too much what is variable, unpredictable and unknown and you have brought a more inclusive approach by bringing in the fixed and invariant aspects as well (even if the stable thing is a meta-hypothesis). This is very important. I truly appreciate this. Theory U also emphasises the benefits of tapping into collective intelligence, thus its efforts to develop and implement tools to be able to listen and connect with the others: the social field changes when we are able to do this. To me, this exchange (and this series in fact) has been a prototype of how we can interact and learn together around uncertainty in a co creative way.

        Reply
        • I’m very pleased to have been able to make some comments that are useful. There’s a lot of recognition and subsequent debate in economics theory about uncertainty, but what has been lacking is a comprehensive account of its fundamental nature as the manifestation in complex systems of underlying paradoxes that limit the possibility of knowing, and subsequently a comprehensive account of just what to do about such situations. The mathematical basis for this lies in the fact that uncertainty in any problem is bounded by some kind of limiting condition – the usually hidden stable thing – and this will be a meta-hypothesis that captures some higher-order property of the environment. So you might say that paradoxically dealing with uncertainty means finding some bounding stable complex of conditions that characterizes the problem environment. I think this is very much what your prototypes are effectively capturing, and I like your approach because it is all about developing prototypes through iterative development with a variety of types of test of their mettle.

          We have a substantial and growing national transdisciplinary research focus centred on this basic observation about the nature of uncertainty underneath its many practical manifestations, specifically about using this in a variety of different high-value problem settings that have previously been only inadequately addressed or even completely impenetrable. If you’re interested in these ideas or in any of the many application areas we have in mind, let me know!

          Reply
          • Yes, Darryn, I am interested in learning more about those problem settings that have been inadequately addressed because that was mainly the reason I started to explore alternative approaches such as Theory U. If you have some paper/s and/or article/s with hypotheses or findings to share I would be keen to read them. Thanks so much!

            Reply
  3. Thanks for your article. I will read the references later, but at first blush it appears to me that the main target here is organizational management practice (which, overall, I think bears a strikingly less healthy relationship at times to management theory and microeconomics than what we might like). I also think that management in practice has a relationship with deep uncertainty that falls somewhat short of warm embrace and this is the cause of a great deal of problems that eventually show up as potentially massive lost productivity and susceptibility to catastrophic failure. At its best, management means developing and applying reliable procedural solutions for repeated common problems. At its worst, it might be described as the formulation of rituals for the denial of uncertainty, which I think is driven by mistaken underlying beliefs that all uncertainty is bad and all certainty is good. I like to contrast this with leadership, which is fundamentally about exercising choice and hence can only occur in the presence of deep uncertainty, and this brings me to my first observation: the article and the background behind it appear to me to be dealing with leadership rather than with management.

    My second observation is that I propose that a lot of clarity might be afforded by casting the relationship between the prototypes iteratively developed in methodological terms. The clarity shows up as practical method for dealing with uncertainty by placing the growth of relevant knowledge at the centre of organizational activity. In this view, each prototype in sequence (and parallel?) becomes a testable hypothesis (comprising a web of propositions, lets say) and the iterative development is then driven specifically by attempts to observe their refutation, because of changing conditions in the problem world, because their unintended consequences may be unacceptable, or because they may turn out to be just plain wrong. Notice how this runs diametrically opposite to management practice, which, I think, is often single-mindedly obsessed with obtaining comforting ‘confirmation’ that we imagine to make the bad stuff (i.e. uncertainty) go away. Various literatures are not sparse with accounts of this sliding all the way into wilfully ignoring contrary evidence until it cannot be ignored anymore because of some abject manifest failure.

    Insofar as uncertainty is concerned: your prototypes, as hypotheses, are essentially sets of *invariant conditions*, or abstract statements about what remains fixed, which each correspond to an underling *symmetry property* hypothesized to hold in the environment. The absence of deep uncertainty corresponds to the symmetry property that the future and past are symmetrical so that collecting past evidence is conveniently equivalent to collecting the un-collectable future evidence of future outcomes. The presence of deep uncertainty means that this degenerate symmetry is broken, but, extending from the concept in your article, a prototype comprises a set of weaker symmetries encoded as corresponding weaker invariants that can be tested for reliability. This means that evidence seeking should then be about looking for change against the hypothesized symmetry properties captured in prototypes as invariance conditions.

    What we then have overall is a campaign to understand a changing uncertain world for the purpose of reliable decision-making by establishing, possibly across different timescales, just what underlying properties of the problem environment really do remain fixed and certain.

    Reply

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