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/

Transdisciplinary action research: A guiding framework for collaboration

By Steven Lam, Michelle Thompson, Kathleen Johnson, Cameron Fioret and Sarah Hargreaves

author-steven-lam
Steven Lam (biography)

How can graduate students work productively with each other and community partners? Many researchers and practitioners are engaging in transdisciplinarity, yet there is surprisingly little critical reflection about the processes and outcomes of transdisciplinarity, particularly from the perspectives of graduate students and community partners who are increasingly involved.

author-michelle-thompson
Michelle Thompson (biography)

Our group of four graduate students from the University of Guelph and one community partner from the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario, reflect on our experiences of working together toward community food security in Canada, especially producing a guidebook for farmer-led research (Fioret et al. 2018). As none of us had previously worked together, nor shared any disciplines in common, we found it essential to first develop a guiding framework for collaboration. Our thinking combined the following key principles from action research and transdisciplinarity:

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Kathleen Johnson (biography)
  • reflexivity,
  • participation and partnership,
  • methods and process, and
  • integration.

Reflexivity

Reflexivity was designed to support the on-going scrutiny of the choices made during the research process; this occurred in the form of reflexive journaling and weekly meetings for collective reflection and sense-making. The self-reflections helped ensure that our goals, needs and expectations were met through the decisions made.

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Cameron Fioret (biography)

Participation and partnership plus methods and processes

Partnership and participation refer to the quality of the relationship formed with stakeholders and the extent to which stakeholders are appropriately involved in the project. Methods and processes refer to the extent to which the action research process and related methods are clearly articulated and illustrated.

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Sarah Hargreaves (biography)

In practice, we found that these two principles were inseparable. Because we four students didn’t know each other before this project started, we invested the first two-months of the project in relationship building, attending workshops and meeting weekly to talk about motivations, previous experiences and expectations for the project. It was not until after that process that the collaboration with the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario started. That involved similar conversations around expectations and priorities, as well as new conversations around community needs and potential solutions. By month four, a clear workplan was co-designed.

The last four months of the project focused on co-developing the farmer-led research guidebook. Roles and responsibilities based on our strengths and interests were assigned. The students contributed to data collection and analysis, while the community partner shared local knowledge, relevant reports and a guidebook outline, as well as connecting the students with farmers and other farmer-led organizations. Co-authorship was achieved through all of us contributing equally to the conceptualization, writing and dissemination of the guidebook.

Integration
Sharing responsibility for the project design, implementation and outcomes created strong avenues for partnership, participation, and knowledge integration within different aspects of the project. In particular, we experienced strong collaboration in the joint designing of the project, its methods, technical content and delegation of tasks. Since the project dealt with the need for supporting farmers in research, the community partner (as a farmer herself) was more familiar with the problem context and the actors involved than the students. Her expertise was helpful in framing the report in a way that is useful, relevant and accessible to farmers and farmer-led organizations. The guidebook is considered to be a success and an important document.

Nevertheless, most of us expressed frustration with different aspects of co-generating the farmer-led research guidebook and our expectations for integration were not entirely met. For example, Steven felt uncertain about “the relevant tools or paradigms from different disciplines and how to integrate them to address a shared problem in the context of food security.”

Conclusion
Based on our reflections, we note that the success of this joint inquiry depended on certain conditions, such as individual team member’s reflexive ability, sense of mutual responsibility, humility and deep respect for one another. Furthermore, the time invested in dynamic weekly exchanges between students and community partners was essential to build relationships and led to an enhanced understanding of community partner needs and solutions. Early delegation of roles and tasks led to high levels of efficiency and prevented the risk of one perspective taking over the research process. Finally, we found early efforts of “opening communicative space” to be helpful, whereby issues were opened up for discussion, experiences were shared and we all strived toward “mutual understanding, intersubjective agreement and unforced consensus about what to do in any given practical situation.”

Overall the framework helped us, to a ‘good enough’ extent, integrate our work which led to the co-publication of the Farmer-led Research Guidebook.

For us, engaging in reflection has made a substantial difference in the quality of our work. If you have worked in transdisciplinary teams, especially as (or with) graduate students, what framework or guiding principles did you follow? What did you achieve and what felt missing?

lam_arell-food-institute_transdisciplinary-action-research
(photo credit: Kelly Hodgins)

To find out more:
Lam, S., Thompson, M., Johnston, K., Fioret, C. and Hargreaves, S. K. (2019). Toward community food security through transdisciplinary action research. Action Research (OnlineFirst, Open Access): https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1476750319889390

Reference:
Fioret, C., Johnston, K., Lam, S., Thompson, M. and Hargreaves, S. (2018). Towards farmer-led research: A guidebook. Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario: Guelph, Canada.

Biography: Steven Lam is a PhD student in the Department of Population Medicine at the University of Guelph in Canada. His research focuses on how evaluation can better support efforts toward food security, climate change adaptation and gender equity. He also works as an independent evaluation consultant.

Biography: Michelle Thompson is a PhD student in the Department of Plant Agriculture at the University of Guelph in Canada. She is currently researching endophytes (beneficial microbes) in corn that provide a natural immune system-like defense against disease.

Biography: Kathleen Johnson is a Master of Applied Science student in the School of Engineering at the University of Guelph in Canada. Her research is conducted through the G360 Institute for Groundwater Research and focuses on understanding the flow and fate of contaminants in the fractured bedrock aquifer beneath the city of Guelph.

Biography: Cameron Fioret is a PhD student in the Philosophy Department at the University of Guelph in Canada. His research focuses on property, political philosophy and environmental philosophy.

Biography: Sarah Hargreaves PhD is currently research director with the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO), where she launched Canada’s first Farmer-Led Research Program to help farmers combine their curiosity with scientific rigour to answer their most challenging on-farm questions.

Why do we protect ourselves from unknown unknowns?

By Bem Le Hunte

author-bem-le-hunte
Bem Le Hunte (biography)

Why do very few people enjoy sitting comfortably with their unknown unknowns? Why is there an uncomfortable liminality ‘betwixt and between’ the known and unknown worlds?

How can we explore unknowns in a more speculative, playful, creative capacity, through our imaginations? How can we use lack of knowledge to learn about ourselves and let it teach us how to be comfortable and curious in the midst of unknowing?

The power and allure of unknown unknowns have long been recognised by creative practitioners as a holy grail for inspiration. Continue reading

Decentering academia through critical unlearning in transdisciplinary knowledge production

By Gabriela Alonso-Yanez, Lily House-Peters and Martin Garcia Cartagena

author-gabriela-alonso-yanezetal
Gabriela Alonso-Yanez (biography)

How can academic researchers working in transdisciplinary teams establish genuine collaborations with people who do not work in academia? How can they overcome the limitations of their discipline-based training, especially assigning value and hierarchy to specialized forms of knowledge production that privileges certain methodologies and epistemologies over others?

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Lily House-Peters (biography)

We argue that to truly engage in collaborative work, academics need to participate in deliberate processes of critical unlearning that enable the decentering of academia in the processes and politics of transdisciplinary knowledge production and knowledge translation. What we mean by this is that academics have to be willing to acknowledge, reflect upon, and intentionally discard conventional avenues of designing and conducting research activities in order to be authentically open to other ways of exploring questions about the world in collaboration with diverse groups of social actors. Continue reading

How can resilience benefit from planning?

By Pedro Ferreira

author - pedro-ferreira
Pedro Ferreira (biography)

Improved resilience can contribute to the ability to deal with unknown unknowns. Dealing with uncertainty is also at the core of every planning activity. The argument put forward here is that planning processes should be considered a cornerstone for any given resilience approach. An outline of planning and resilience is given, before presenting fundamental aspects of planning that should be strengthened within a resilience strategy.

Planning

From attempting to do as much as possible within a day’s work, to launching rockets into space or managing a nation, everything requires planning. Continue reading

Facilitating serendipity for interdisciplinary research

By Catherine Lyall

author-catherine-lyall
Catherine Lyall (biography)

How can institutions facilitate the serendipitous encounters that so often appear to characterise interdisciplinary careers? Is there an inherent hypocrisy in university leaders, research funders and policymakers claiming that they want to facilitate interdisciplinarity and then not creating the conditions that experienced interdisciplinarians say they need in order to foster this style of working?

Here I examine the importance of informal interactions, physical locations, the ‘small stuff’ and ‘slow research.’ Continue reading