Theory U: A promising journey to embracing unknown unknowns

By Vanesa 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 (, 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: (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” (

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?

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.


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:

Why do we protect ourselves from unknown unknowns?

By 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

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.


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

Detecting non-linear change ‘inside-the-system’ and ‘out-of-the-blue’

Susan van ‘t Klooster and Marjolijn Haasnoot

Author - Susan van ‘t Klooster
Susan van ‘t Klooster (biography)

Change can be expected, envisioned and known, and even created, accelerated or stopped. But change does not always follow a linear and predictable path, nor is it always controllable. Novelty and surprise are inescapable features of life. Non-linear change can involve threats or opportunities.

Although it defines the world we live in, who we are, the outlooks we have and what we do, we often do not relate to non-linear change in a meaningful way. What is holding us back from engaging with it? How do we deal with non-linear change? And what are promising ways forward? Continue reading

Yin-yang thinking – A solution to dealing with unknown unknowns?

By Christiane Prange and Alicia Hennig

author - christiane prange
Christiane Prange (biography)

Sometimes, we wonder why decisions in Asia are being made at gargantuan speed. How do Asians deal with uncertainty arising from unknown unknowns? Can yin-yang thinking that is typical for several Asian cultures provide a useful answer?

Let’s look at differences between Asian and Western thinking first. Western people tend to prefer strategic planning with linear extrapolation of things past. The underlying mantra is risk management to buffer the organization and to protect it from harmful consequences for the business. But juxtaposing risk and uncertainty is critical. Under conditions of uncertainty, linearity is at stake and risk management limited. Continue reading

Blackboxing unknown unknowns through vulnerability analysis

By Joseph Guillaume

Author - Joseph Guillaume
Joseph Guillaume (biography)

What’s a productive way to think about undesirable outcomes and how to avoid them, especially in an unpredictable future full of unknown unknowns? Here I describe the technique of vulnerability analysis, which essentially has three steps:

  • Step 1: Identify undesirable outcomes, to be avoided
  • Step 2: Look for conditions that can lead to such outcomes, ie. vulnerabilities
  • Step 3: Manage the system to mitigate or adapt to vulnerable conditions.

The power of vulnerability analysis is that, by starting from outcomes, it avoids making assumptions about what led to the vulnerabilities. Continue reading