Theory U is a change management method and the title of a book by Otto Scharmer.  Together with colleagues at MIT, he conducted 150 interviews with entrepreneurs and innovators in science, businesses, and society and then extended the basic principles into a theory of learning and management, which he calls Theory U. Particularly the work of Brian Arthur, Francisco Varela, Peter Senge, Ed Schein, Joseph Jaworski, Arawana Hayashi, Eleanor Rosch, Friedrich Glasl, Martin Buber, Rudolf Steiner and Johan W. v. Goethe have been critical.

Today, Theory U constitutes a body of leadership and management praxis drawing from a variety of sources and more than 20 years of elaboration by Scharmer and colleagues. Theory U is translated into 20 languages and is used in change processes worldwide. The principles of Theory U are suggested to help political leaders, civil servants, and managers break through past unproductive patterns of behaviour that prevent them from empathizing with their clients’ perspectives and often lock them into ineffective patterns of decision making

The Role of Presencing

The author of the theory U concept expresses it as a process or journey, which is also described as Presencing, as indicated in the diagram (for which there are numerous variants).

At the core of the “U” theory is presencing: sensing + presence. According to The Learning Exchange, Presencing is a journey with five movements:

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).

On that journey, at the bottom of the U, lies an inner gate that requires us to drop everything that isn’t essential. This process of letting-go (of our old ego and self) and letting-come (our highest future possibility: our Self) establishes a subtle connection to a deeper source of knowing. The essence of presencing is that these two selves – our current self and our best future Self – meet at the bottom of the U and begin to listen and resonate with each other.
Once a group crosses this threshold, nothing remains the same. Individual members and the group as a whole begin to operate with a heightened level of energy and sense of future possibility. Often they then begin to function as an intentional vehicle for an emerging future.

The core elements are shown below.

1. Co-initiating common intent: Stop and listen to others and to what life calls you to do.5. Co-evolving through innovations: ecosystems that facilitate seeing and acting from the whole.
2. Co-sensing the field of change: Go to the places of most potential and listen with your mind and heart wide open.4. Co-creating strategic microcosms: Prototype the new to explore the future by doing.
3. Presencing inspiration and common will: Go to the threshold and allow the inner knowing to emerge.

“Moving down the left side of the U is about opening up and dealing with the resistance of thought, emotion, and will; moving up the right side is about intentionally reintegrating the intelligence of the head, the heart, and the hand in the context of practical applications”.

Leadership Capacities

According to Scharmer, a value created by journeying through the “U” is to develop seven essential leadership capacities:

  1. Holding the space: listen to what life calls you to do (listen to oneself, to others and make sure that there is space where people can talk …)
  2. Observing: Attend with your mind wide open (observe without your voice of judgment, basically means to get rid of past cognitive schema)
  3. Sensing: Connect with your heart (facilitate the opening process, i.e. look interconnected wholes)
  4. Presencing: Connect to the deepest source of your self and will (act from the emerging whole)
  5. Crystallizing: Access the power of intention (e.g. make sure to find a very small group of key persons commits itself to the purpose and outcomes of the project.)
  6. Prototyping: Integrating head, heart, and hand (basically, it means that one should act and not let various sources of paralysis like reactive action, too much analysis, etc. interfere)
  7. Performing: Playing the macro violin. (e.g. find the right leaders, find good social technology to get a multi-stakeholder project going)

Adapted from