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Theory U

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Shows how leaders can access the deepest source of inspiration and vision

• Includes dozens of tested exercises, practices, and real-world examples

We live in a time of massive institutional failure, one that requires a new consciousness and a new collective leadership capacity. In this groundbreaking book, Otto Scharmer invites us to see the world in new ways and in so doing discover a revolutionary approach to leadership.

What we pay attention to and how we pay attention is key to what we create. What prevents us from attending to situations more effectively is that we aren’t fully aware of and in touch with the inner place from which attention and intention originate. This is what Scharmer calls our blind spot. By moving through Scharmer’s U process, we consciously access the blind spot and learn to connect to our authentic Self—the deepest source of knowledge and inspiration—in the realm of “presencing,” a term coined by Scharmer that combines the concepts of presence and sensing. Based on ten years of research and action learning and interviews with over 150 practitioners and thought leaders, Theory U offers a rich diversity of compelling stories and examples and includes dozens of exercises and practices that allow leaders, and entire organizations, to shift awareness, connect with the best future possibility, and gain the ability to realize it.

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22 Chapters

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Contents

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Chapter 1 Facing the Fire

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When I left my German farmhouse that morning for school, I had no idea it was the last time I would see my home, a large 350-year-old farmhouse thirty miles north of Hamburg. It was just another ordinary day at school until about one oclock, when the teacher called me out of class. You should go home now, Otto. I noticed that her eyes were slightly red. She did not tell me why I needed to hurry home, but I was concerned enough to try to call home from the train station. There was no ring. The line was obviously dead. I had no idea what might have happened, but by then I knew it probably wasnt good. After the usual one-hour train ride I ran to the entrance of the station and jumped into a cab. Something told me I didnt have time to wait for my usual bus. Long before we arrived, I saw huge gray and black clouds of smoke billowing up into the air. My heart was pounding as the cab approached our long driveway. I recognized hundreds of our neighbors, area firefighters and policemen along with people Id never seen before. I jumped from the cab and ran down through the crowd, the last half mile of our chestnut-lined driveway. When I reached the courtyard, I could not believe my eyes. The world I had lived in all my life was gone. Vanished. All up in smoke.

 

Chapter 2 The Journey to “U”

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Theory U Interview with Brian Arthur at Xerox PARC Francisco Varela on the Blind Spot in Cognition Sciences The Inner Territory of Leadership

As just discussed, the blind spot concerns the structure and source of our attention. I first began noticing this blind spot in organizations when I spoke with Bill OBrien, the former CEO of Hanover Insurance. He told me that his greatest insight after years of conducting organizational learning projects and facilitating corporate change was that the success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener. That struck a chord! So its not only what leaders do and how they do it but their interior condition, that is, the inner place from which they operate—the source and quality of their attention. So what this suggests is that the same person in the same situation doing the same thing can effect a totally different outcome depending on the inner place from where that action is coming.

When I realized that, I asked myself: What do we know about that inner place? We know everything about the what and the how, the actions and the processes that leaders and managers use. But what do we know about that inner place? Nothing! I wasnt even sure whether there were only one or many of these inner places. Do we have two? Ten? We dont know because its in our blind spot. Yet, what I have heard time and time gain from very experienced leaders and creative people is that it is exactly that kind of blind spot that matters most. It is that blind spot that sets apart master practitioners and leaders from average performers. Which is why Aristotle 2300 years ago made a distinction between the normal scientific what knowledge (episteme) and the practical and technical how knowledge (phronesis, techne) on the one hand and the inner primary knowing of first principles and sources of awareness (nous) and wisdom (sophia), on the other.1

 

Chapter 3 Fourfold Learning and Change

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Levels of Learning and Change Thought Leader Interview Project The Split Between Matter and Mind Two Sources and Types of Learning Organizational Learnings Blind Spot

In Chapter 1, Facing the Fire, I recounted how, as a young boy in Germany, I was literally shaken into a new level of experience or being by our family farms fire. In retrospect, I see that experience as a gift life handed me: the gift of experiencing a profound shift in my attention field, in the way I attend to the world. Thats the easy part.

The difficult part is to perform this shift in the context of groups and organizations. How can we as a group shift our attention field so that we connect to our best future potential instead of continuing to operate from the experiences of our past? And how can we perform this shift of attention without having our family farm burning down every day? That is exactly the challenge that brought me to the MIT Organizational Learning Center in the mid-1990s.

When I arrived in Boston in the fall of 1994, I had just completed my Ph.D. in economics and management. My thesis, Reflective Modernization of Capitalism: A Revolution from Within, argued that in order to cope with the challenges of our time, societies need to develop the capacity to learn across institutional boundaries.

 

Chapter 4 Organizational Complexity

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Dynamic Complexity Social Complexity Emerging Complexity The Managers Job From Product to Process to Source Leading with a Blank Canvas The Co-Evolving Context of Organizations The Institutional Blind Spot

Leaders in all organizations and institutions face new levels of complexity and change. I decided to take a closer look at where that complexity originates. Inspired by the work of Senge and Roth and their distinction between dynamic and behavior complexity, I found three different types of complexity that impact the challenges that leaders have to deal with: dynamic, social, and emerging complexity.

Of the three, dynamic complexity is more often used and most often easily recognized. Dynamic complexity means that there is a systematic distance or delay between cause and effect in space or time. Take, for example, the dynamic complexities of global warming. Our emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2)—one cause—will have a long-term impact on the future of our planet. The greenhouse effects that we observe today are caused mainly by emissions from (and up to) the 1970s. If my organization decides to reduce its emissions of CO2, we will reduce our impact on the global climate. But what if our products are a part of a larger product that increases the emission of CO2? Or what about emissions produced by the transportation of our goods? The longer and more complex this chain of cause and effect, the higher the dynamic complexity of the problem. If the dynamic complexity is low, it can be dealt with piece by piece. If the dynamic complexity is high, a whole-systems approach that pays sufficient attention to cross-system interdependencies is the appropriate approach. The managerial implications of dynamic complexity are straightforward: the greater the dynamic complexity, the higher the interdependence among the subcomponents of a system, and, therefore, using a whole-systems approach to problem solving becomes even more important.

 

Chapter 5 Shifts in Society

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The Genesis of a New World The Rise of a Global Economy The Rise of a Network Society The Rise of a Cultural-Spiritual Shift Three Movements, One Stream Arenas of our Social World Societys Blind Spot

At the end of Chapter 4, we came to the conclusion that because our institutional blind spots permeate both our institutional leadership and structure, we are met with a challenge: How can we produce productive conversations among all key stakeholders? How might we gather together the key players in order to co-create our future? To better understand how we might do that, we first turn our attention to some major shifts in society—major enough to be called the genesis of a new world.

When the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989, followed by a ripple of disintegrating socialist systems in Central and Eastern Europe as well as the Soviet Union, many people felt the world was entering a new era. Nobody expressed this sense of anticipation more eloquently than the playwright and Czech President Vclav Havel, who said in a speech in Philadelphia, It is as if something were crumbling, decaying and exhausting itself—while something else, still indistinct, were rising from the rubble.1

 

Chapter 6 Philosophical Grounding

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Our Field Walk Ontological and Epistemological Grounding

Lets pause for a moment to reflect on where our field walk or learning journey has taken us up to this point. First, we investigated how the blind spot shows up on the level of individual experience—as in my story about the fire. It was then that my own journey began, as I felt my old world going up in flames and the ground pulled out from under me. At that point I connected to that other part of my self that I didnt even know existed.

We spent a fair amount of time becoming acquainted with the U and started to identify with its parts. Then we investigated how the blind spot pops up in the experience of teams and how they learn. Teams face new challenges that cannot be addressed by relying on learning from the past. So we have to let go of the past, let it go up in flames and open up to the future that wants to emerge through us. This we call Level 4 leading and learning.

Next we investigated how the blind spot takes shape in the context of institutional experience. Leaders face new types of challenges that cannot be successfully addressed by conventional problem-solving methodologies. In order to deal with emerging complexity, we have to learn to drop our old tools in order to attend to and operate from the perspective of the blank canvas—that is, the source where organizational value is created.

 

Chapter 7 On the Threshold

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Crossing the Threshold The Signature of Our Time

At the beginning of our journey, we posed the question: Where does our action come from? To answer that question, we took a walk through the social field. We found that there is an invisible shift going on in the world. Its as if we were standing on a threshold, about to cross through a new doorway into rooms we could never before access. But something is keeping us from moving into these rooms and seeing the world from them. That hidden barrier is our blind spot, as well as our teacher. You will remember that we tracked the emergence of that blind spot across systems at all levels:

At the individual level, we met the blind spot metaphorically described as flames, capable of destroying my old identity and clearing a space in which to encounter previously unknown aspects of my self.

At the group level, we faced the blind spot as a team; our old approaches to learning—learning from the past—arent getting us anywhere, and thus we raise the questions: What would it take to connect to the subtle fields of future possibility? How can we learn from the future as it emerges?

 

Chapter 8 Downloading

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Patterns of the Past The Field Structure of Downloading GlobalHealthCompany Four Barriers to Organizational Learning and Change

What we do is often based on habitual patterns of action and thought. A familiar stimulus triggers a familiar response. Moving toward a future possibility requires us to become aware of—and abandon—the dominant mode of downloading that causes us to continuously reproduce the patterns of the past.

When the Berlin Wall collapsed in the fall of 1989—followed by a ripple of collapsing socialist systems throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union shortly thereafter—Western governments were quick to announce that this event had come out of the blue and that nobody could have anticipated such a geopolitical shift. Was that true?

Just two weeks earlier, I had been with an international student group on a study trip around the world, including through Central and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. During that trip, we talked with representatives of the official system as well as grassroots activists in civil rights movements. In many of these conversations, especially with the activists in Central Europe, we sensed that they anticipated a profound change. It was in the air. A pattern of the past was about to shift dramatically.

 

Chapter 9 Seeing

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How We See The Shift from Downloading to Seeing Seeing in Action Field Notes

When we stop the habit of downloading, we move into the state of seeing. Our perception becomes more acute, and we become aware of the reality we are up against. If we operate from this cognitive space, we perceive from the periphery of the organization, at the boundary between observer and observed. Take, for instance, what happened when Goethe tried to see Newtons phenomenon of colors, as the physicist Arthur Zajonc recounts in Catching the Light.1 It was January 1790, and Goethe was being pressured to return a box of optical equipment hed been keeping in his closet. In the box was a prism. A servant stood waiting to retrieve the box as Goethe hastily pulled out the prism in a last attempt to see the rainbow that Newton had seen. Instead, he saw something very different in the January light. Arthur Zajonc explains that Goethe looked at the white walls of the room expecting them [according to the Newtonian theory] to be dressed in the colors of the rainbow. Instead he saw only white! In that moment, he knew Newton was wrong.

 

Chapter 10 Sensing

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The Patient-Physician Dialogue Forum The Field Structure of Sensing Principles Sensing in Action Two Types of Wholeness Epistemological Reversal Field Notes

When moving from seeing to sensing, perception begins to happen from the whole field. Peter Senge believes that this turn is at the heart of systems thinking. Its about closing the feedback loop between peoples experience of reality (what the system is doing to us) and their sense of participation in the whole cycle of experience. When that happens, he said, people say something like Holy cow! Look what were doing to ourselves!

It was time to review the voting. This (Figure 10.1) is what people saw.

As you recall from the previous chapter, we asked the forum participants to vote. Each participant could place two dots onto the iceberg: a blue one to mark where they believed the current health care system operated and a white one to mark the level of their desired future health care system.

FIGURE 10.1 ICEBERG MODEL OF PATIENT-PHYSICIAN RELATIONSHIPS

 

Chapter 11 Presencing

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Seeing from the Source Two Root Questions of Creativity The Field Structure of Presencing Two Types of Knowledge and Knowing Moments of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Principles of Presencing Field Notes

Presencing, the blending of sensing and presence, means to connect with the Source of the highest future possibility and to bring it into the now. When moving into the state of presencing, perception begins to happen from a future possibility that depends on us to come into reality. In that state we step into our real being, who we really are, our authentic self. Presencing is a movement where we approach our self from the emerging future.1

In many ways, presencing resembles sensing. Both involve shifting the place of perception from the interior to the exterior of ones (physical) organization. The key difference is that sensing shifts the place of perception to the current whole while presencing shifts the place of perception to the source of an emerging future whole—to a future possibility that is seeking to emerge.

 

Chapter 12 Crystallizing

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The Patient-Physician Dialogue Forum The Field Structure of Crystallizing Principles of Crystallizing Field Notes

The last chapter described the bottom of the U process, Presencing. Earlier, as you might recall, I described presencing as the eye of the needle or the process of Umstlpung (turning inside out and outside in). In ancient Jerusalem, there was a gate called the needle which was so narrow that when a fully loaded camel approached the gate, the camel-driver had to take off all the bundles before 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.1 Likewise, at the bottom of the U lies an inner gate, which requires us to drop everything that isnt essential.

What is it that constitutes this eye of the needle at the bottom of the U for groups, organizations and communities? It is the connecting to our authentic or higher self, to our capital-S Self. If this connection is established, the first thing that happens is: nothing. No-thing. Its just a connection. But, when we succeed in keeping that connection to our deeper source of knowing alive, we begin to better tune into emerging future possibilities. Acting now, from a different place, we are able to begin to operate from a different source. We envision, prototype and embody the new.

 

Chapter 13 Prototyping

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Health Care Network The Field Structure of Prototyping Principles of Prototyping Field Notes

Having established a connection to the source (presencing) and having clarified a sense of the future that wants to emerge (crystallizing), the next stage in the U process is to explore the future by doing (prototyping). Prototyping is the first step in exploring the future by doing and experimenting. We borrow this term from the design industry. David Kelley, founder and long time CEO of the influential design firm IDEO summarizes the approach to prototyping succinctly: Fail often to succeed sooner.1 For example, prototyping means to present a concept before you are done. Prototyping allows fast-cycle feedback learning and adaptation.

Dr. Schmidt and his colleagues left the dialogue forum with the intention of moving their system from Levels 1 and 2 to Levels 3 and 4, but they knew they needed different types of collaborative platforms to make it happen. So they decided to start by holding regional conversations among the key institutional players about practical issues they faced in their work. First, they defined the people who own the problems, the people who have the competence and responsibility to make decisions in their own institutional system. We want to convene groups of practitioners who need one another in order to take effective action, said Dr. Schmidt.

 

Chapter 14 Performing

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Playing the Macro Violin The Field Structure of Performing Principles of Performing Systemic Integration Innovation Ecosystems Field Shift of the Evolving Ecosystem An Evolutionary View of the Modern Health Care System Field Notes

We have just spent some time on prototypes, an experimental exploration of something new. A prototype contains some of the essential characteristics of the final product or ecosystem but is only the first of many iterations. The final product successfully incorporates all of the best features of its earlier forms.

Now we focus our attention on how presencing embodies itself into everyday practices. It may be helpful to think of the theater. Youre fortunate if youve ever been in a live production because you will recognize how the actors get input from one another as well as guidance from the director and the performance benefits from that refining process. Things are added; things are removed. Theater is a living structure—contained, honed, and refined. Only after many rehearsals is the curtain ready to go up. And still it evolves, but now with the added component of the audiences energy and presence.

 

Chapter 15 The Grammar of the Social Field

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A Brief Introduction Our Social Environment and Human Consciousness Social Field Theory

When people experience a transformational shift, they notice a profound change in the structure, atmosphere, and texture of the social field. But in trying to explain it, they have to fall back on vague language, and even though people can agree on a surface description of what happened, they dont usually know why. So we need a new grammar to help us articulate and recognize whats happening and why.

Taking up that challenge, I have devised twenty-one propositions that summarize and name what happens when a social change occurs. Because this actually outlines an advanced social field theory, it could be a book in itself. If you are less interested in learning more about field theory and wish to go directly to our actions, Chapters 16 through 19 are waiting for you. But if you wish to ground yourself in the deeper epistemological and ontological aspects of social reality creation from the viewpoint of the evolving entity (self), youll find it here. 1

 

Chapter 16 Individual Actions

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Learning from a Three-Year-Old The Theater Stage and the Collective Field Hitlers Secretary

One day, as I was filling the dishwasher, I ran out of detergent. I wasnt sure the box next to it was the right kind of soap, but I thought, what the heck, and used it anyway. A few minutes later, foam began streaming from the machine. Damn! I stopped the machine. Wiped up the foam. Inspected the mess: the machine was filled with water, dishes, and vast amounts of soapy foam. Since it seemed impossible to empty the machine of its water, I decided to forge ahead: to let it run and to simply mop up the foam for as long as it continued to pour out. While preoccupied with my mess, I was joined by our three-year-old, Johan-Caspar, who was fascinated by the show. He began helping me wipe away the endless white stream. As the rate of the streaming foam began to slow just a little, Johan-Caspar took some short breaks. During these breaks he started talking to the machine in a low, intense voice. What are you saying? I asked him. I am talking to the foam, he replied. The foam? I was surprised. Because the poor foam hasnt got eyes to see. Thats why he cant find the right way. Thats why he keeps coming out the wrong way.

 

Chapter 17 Conversational Actions

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Clashing Views Download Debate Dialogue Presencing Conversational Fields and Their Antifields Using Dialogue Interviews in Organizations Evolutionary Pathways of Conversational Fields

At the beginning of this book, I compared our family farms agricultural fields to social fields that describe the quality of social interaction. Conversations are the living embodiment of social fields, and they are an important starting point for improving social interaction. In my research in and my work with organizations, I have made two observations that are relevant to improving conversations: (1) conversations are enacted in patterns or fields, and these patterns of conversational interaction tend to remain the same; and (2) there is a very limited set of generic field patterns that you can see in conversations—so far, I have observed four. They are: downloading (Field 1), debate (Field 2), dialogue (Field 3), and presencing (Field 4). The four fields differ in terms of the inner place in which conversation is formed: speaking from what they want to hear (Field 1), speaking from what I really think (Field 2), speaking from seeing myself as part of the larger whole (Field 3), or speaking from what is moving through. A field structure of conversation is a pattern of interaction that, once introduced, tends to be reenacted by all participants in that conversation. When you see a conversation shift from one pattern (such as being polite) to another (such as speaking your mind), it usually does involve all the participants in the conversation, not just a few of them (see Figure 17.1).

 

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