Medium 9781523094424

The Essentials of Theory U

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Creating a Better Future

This book offers a concise, accessible guide to the key concepts and applications in Otto Scharmer's classic Theory U. Scharmer argues that our capacity to pay attention coshapes the world. What prevents us from attending to situations more effectively is that we aren't fully aware of that interior condition from which our attention and actions originate. Scharmer calls this lack of awareness our blind spot. He illuminates the blind spot in leadership today and offers hands-on methods to help change makers overcome it through the process, principles, and practices of Theory U. And he outlines a framework for updating the “operating systems” of our educational institutions, our economies, and our democracies. This book enables leaders and organizations in all industries and sectors to shift awareness, connect with the highest future possibilities, and strengthen the capacity to co-shape the future.

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1. The Blind Spot

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We live in a moment of profound possibility and disruption. A moment that is marked by the dying of an old mindset and logic of organizing. And one that is marked by the rise of a new awareness and way of activating generative social fields. What is dying and disintegrating is a world of Me First, bigger is better, and special interest group-driven decision making that has led us into a state of organized irresponsibility.

What is being born is less clear. It has to do with shifting our consciousness from ego-system to eco-system awareness—an awareness that attends to the well-being of all. In many places around the world we can actually witness the awakening of this awareness and its underlying force: an activation of the intelligence of the heart. Groups that begin to act from such an awareness can, in the words of UC Berkeley cognitive psychologist Eleanor Rosch, “be shockingly effective.”

The beginnings of this shift may seem small and insignificant in comparison with the vast challenges that we face worldwide. And in many ways they are. Yet I believe that they hold the seeds for a profound civilizational renewal that is called for in order to protect and further activate the essence of our humanity.

 

2. Theory U—Form Follows Consciousness

ePub

Theory U focuses on how individuals, groups, and organizations can sense and actualize their highest future potential.

You are probably familiar with the philosopher René Descartes’s famous statement, “I think, therefore I am.” That’s not where we start from the Theory U vantage point. From a U perspective we would say, I attend (this way); therefore it emerges (that way). For example: the quality of my listening co-shapes how the conversation unfolds. Or, speaking more generally, the quality of results in any social system is a function of the consciousness from which the people in that system operate. Boiled down to three words, the idea can be expressed as form follows consciousness.

Over the past couple of decades I must have seen this happen hundreds of times: groups, sometimes large, sometimes small, going through a subtle shift in awareness in how they see, sense, and relate to each other, to their system, and to themselves.

 

3. The Matrix of Social Evolution

ePub

One of my most important insights is that there is a blind spot in learning and leadership. This blind spot concerns the sources from which our action and perception originate. The aim of the Theory U method is to orient our attention to these sources of action and thought. Our patterns of thinking, conversing, and organizing create a global world of social complexity that we enact moment to moment. How can we investigate the process of creating social reality? How can we catch the process of social reality creation in flight?

In physics we learn that a material alters its behavior when it changes from one state to another. Water, for instance, at temperatures below freezing (32°F/0°C) forms ice. If we add heat and the temperature rises above 32°F/0°C, ice melts and becomes liquid water. If we continue to add heat and the temperature exceeds 212°F/100°C, water begins to vaporize into steam. In all three states the water molecules (H2O) are the same, yet the material behaves very differently. This is also true for other materials: The molecules are the same, but the behavior can change.

 

4. The Eye of the Needle

ePub

Often in my work with groups and organizations, I experience a moment that feels like approaching a threshold at the bottom of the U. If that threshold is not crossed, all the talk about change is hollow and disconnected. I sometimes call that threshold the eye of the needle. In ancient Jerusalem there was a gate called “the needle,” which was so narrow that when a fully loaded camel approached it the camel driver had to take off all the bundles so that the camel could pass through. Referring to this well-known image of his day, Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Likewise, in order to cross the threshold at the base of the U, we must drop everything that is not essential.

I have seen this subtle shift in many presencing retreats. When people return from their solo experience in nature, be it after one day, two days, or just a half-day, you see and sense immediately a shift of tone. In the circle sharing that follows the solo, when participants reflect on their experiences, many of them speak about their life and work journey as if a new pair of eyes had opened for them. They see themselves from a higher vantage point, and they look at the journey as a whole instead of as a series of daily situations. They recognize their habitual patterns, their deeper intentions, what matters most to them, their aspirations for themselves and for their community. In short, nothing is the same.

 

5. One Process, Five Movements: Innovating from the Future

ePub

Presencing is an innovation method that enables groups and stakeholders to co-sense and co-create the future. Profound innovation requires us to suspend downloading patterns in order to activate generative social fields. The five movements of the U process are:

Co-initiating: uncovering shared intention—building a first container

Co-sensing: seeing reality from the edges of the system—establishing the horizontal connection

Co-presencing: connecting to your highest future potential—establishing the vertical connection

Co-creating: prototyping to learn by doing—bringing the new into reality

Co-shaping: embodying and institutionalizing the new—evolving the larger eco-system

Here is a quick overview of the key principles and practices of this process.

The starting point of the process is to build a container for a core group that is going through the process together. This first stage lays the foundation for the later process and its impact. This first step of co-initiating focuses on uncovering common intention. Listening is the key:

 

6. Upgrading Society’s Operating System

ePub

When I talk to change makers, they all quickly agree on one thing. Even if their change initiative is wildly successful, the impact of their initiatives sooner or later hits a wall—the wall of the larger system.

Everyone understands that we will not overcome the challenges that we face today—the loss of our environment (to the ecological divide), of our society (to the social divide), and of our humanity (to the cultural-spiritual divide)—by adding one more initiative or idea to the mix.

To address these challenges, we need to step back and look at the bigger system. We need to update the mental and structural operating code. To use the language of smartphones, instead of just creating another app, we need to upgrade the entire operating system (OS). This chapter focuses on that larger narrative. How can we upgrade the economic, democratic, and educational operating systems in our societies? How can we make these systems sense and see themselves?

In the spring of 2017, I attended a meeting convened by the DOEN Foundation in Amsterdam that brought together key innovators working on ways to forge a new economy. It was an intriguing microcosm of change makers and pioneers, each of whom was focused on a different leverage point: eco-system restoration, cradle-to-cradle design, social entrepreneurship, impact investing, tax reform, technology for good, the sharing economy, collaborative leadership, cooperatives, local currencies, and so on.

 

7. Returning to the Roots

ePub

I started my journey on a farm. One day when I was five or six years old, a family friend visited. He worked in the state government in Hamburg. I was transfixed by the stories he shared about a world that was completely foreign to me and remember wondering if someday I might be connected to the world he operated in.

Later, of course, I became very interested in what was happening in the outside world and got involved as an activist in various social movements. During the heyday of the peace movement in Europe, I occasionally traveled back and forth between East and West Germany—until one day in 1984, when I found myself on a black list. I was barred from entering East Germany.

Then, in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. In 1990 the German government formed the Stasi Records Agency, which gave German citizens access to the files the Stasi (the East German equivalent of the Soviet KGB) had kept on them. Of course, I was curious to find out what was in my file. When I saw it, I was amazed how little they knew about me (we had overestimated their proficiency). The files had a very German bureaucratic structure. Each one included a section that described its subject and his or her activities. In my case they wrote, “He inspires leading circles of the opposition movement.” Wow, I thought. They had condensed to a single sentence what would have taken me days to describe! I would not have made that claim myself, but looking back, perhaps I have in some small moments been lucky to embody elements of that description.

 

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