Leading from the Future.

C. Otto Scharmer: Theory U

Leading from the Future as it Emerges.
The Social Technology of Presensing.

Barrett-Koehler Publishers 2009 San Francisco, USA

During these times of change I, like many others I assume, have been reading a lot on change. There are many books available on the topic, and quite a few more probably coming when everything that has been written during the pandemic, and the self-isolation caused by it, is published. 

We are all aware that things around us are changing at the moment. The question is more how profoundly things are changing. This could be seen on any level; how much are we personally changing, how much are our organisations changing, and how much are the societies and world around us changing. Many have said that we are now at a major paradigm shift, were much of what we have considered “normal” practices will change. Where do we want this change to head?

Despite the current situation and its specifics, I have chosen to go back to a book that was written a decade ago. I think it is still highly relevant and gives answers and frameworks to many of the questions we have at hand today.

I know that we are all bound by our own contexts and tend to see things that are familiar to us. To me, this book is very closely related to design and current movements within the field. Therefore, I will try to link some of the more theoretical points the book makes with examples from design. 

Scharmer starts the book by stating that any societal shift, like the one we are experiencing now, will be met by three types of reaction: 1. Retromovement activists are stating that we should return to the orders of the past. This approach we have seen plenty of even before the covid19-pandemic, as populistic leaders have been rising around the world. 2. Defenders of the status quo. These people focus on just keeping going, focusing on doing more of the same by muddling through. This position is, according to Scharmer, grounded in the mainstream of contemporary scientific materialism. And 3. Advocates of individual and collective transformational change.  Here the question is if there isn’t a way to break the patterns of the past and to tune in to our highest future possibility, and to operate from there. Needless to say, Scharmer prefers the third, and directs his book to leaders and change activists in corporations, governments, not-for-profit organisations and communities.

The core of Scharmer’s theory, Theory U, is the U. The U is a journey or a process (and later also practices and principles), that describe the different levels of change.

The U takes you from challenge (top left) to solution (top right). Scharmer’s point is that you shouldn’t try to jump directly from challenge to solution, or you will only find solutions that are already available (more of the same). If you want to achieve true radical innovation and change, you need to go deeper into the U to get there.

The right side of the U,  going from crystallising an idea (vision and intention) to prototyping (co-creating strategic microcosmos, creating new core activities and processes), and then to new structures and practices in order to reach new solutions, is fairly similar, in my opinion, to that of many other theorists in the field, both in design, leadership and product development (see for example John Kotter, Peter F Drucker, Ulrich&Eppinger etc).

What is interesting is Scharmer’s connection of this to the left part of the U. His point is that if you aim to jump into the right side directly, to go straight from idea to solution, you will not find truly novel ways of thinking. Hence, he connects a process of “going deeper” into the U. This left side of the U consists of downloading, seeing, sensing and letting go (presensing) through taking the time to truly reflect at the bottom before you head into exploring and implementing the new solutions. Scharmer calls this “opening up of the U”, and in my mind it is very close to many of the practices that have been evolving with and through design lately. I will come back to this.

According to Scharmer, how far down the U we are willing to go also depends on from which viewpoint we are seeing the challenge we have at hand. Scharmer calls this our field structure of attention. If we see us or our organisation as the centre of attention, like the sun around which everything else is circling, and include our current habits and routines, there is a risk that we are just downloading new information around us, but not much more. When we start shifting our attention to the periphery of the sphere, looking at the blind spots we do not yet know, and at the edges of our organisational boundaries, we shift from just downloading to seeing. 

When you start acting from beyond your organisational boundaries, your perception begins to happen from the whole field. Scharmer relates this to Peter Senge and his theories of systems thinking. This is when you start thinking outside your own organisation, you immerse into the field, you focus on the experiences of that world and you reframe it. Scharmer calls this sensing and co-sensing. He also claims that most cross-institutional change processes fail because they miss the starting point: co-sensing across boundaries. I tend to agree. We have many examples of this around us; a Finnish example would be the renewal of our healthcare systems where the different actors from politics, health care providers, municipalities and the like, seem to have challenges in seeing the issue from any more viewpoints than their own. The chance of finding truly new solutions with this setup seems quite slim. 

When you open up your approach, or field of attention, even more, you reach the bottom of Scharmer’s U, which he calls presensing. Presensing is the combination of presence and sensing, and Scharmer also talks about this as “tuning in” and acting from our highest future potential. He admits that it is a deep threshold to cross, but also reminds us that it is what we need to do for creativity and our real source of power. He asks the question “What is the essential activity that actually helps people becoming more creative?”. This requires both letting go of many things, such as your previous preconditions, but also a redirection and operating from what you love and loving what you do. This includes a fair amount of inversion, or like Scharmer formulates it “turning inside out and outside in” or “going through the eye of a needle”. His point is that it isn’t easy, and that it takes time and reflection to be done. This relates him back to most theories of creativity, which say that creativity needs space and time to happen, and is very unlikely if you are stressed or on a tight timeframe.

In my viewpoint all of these relate to current areas and concepts within design. If we look at the level of seeing with fresh eyes, many of these practices are in most designers’ toolboxes; end-user journeys, immersions, insights&foresights etc. When we start looking at the whole field, and including all the different actors within it, we come very close to the different approaches of social design, and reframing like Kees Dorst’s Frame Innovation. Create New thinking by Design. The closer we get to the bottom the closer we get to various theories on creativity and to Transition Design. As an example, Terry Irwin reminds us that from reframing the present and future we go to designing interventions and then to waiting and observing, before we can reframe again. The waiting and observing comes very close to Scharmer’s idea of retreat and reflect, allowing the inner knowing to emerge. I could easily continue this comparison between design and Scharmer’s theory, with co-creating etc, on the right-hand side of the U. 

Towards the end of the book Scharmer also gives practical how-to advice for the different stages, and many of the different practices he recommends, like engaging with the users and stakeholders, listening to them, creating and prototyping together, sound in my ears exactly like the work designers do in organisations.

The fact that it is so easy for me to find the likenesses in my own field of knowledge and in Scharmer’s theory is no surprise. I think that is one of the most uplifting parts of the book, where Scharmer shows that actually, theories in various fields of inquiry have come closer to each other in newer approaches of leadership (see picture). He also links this to higher levels of complexity.

So all our fields are actually coming closer to each other, and what we call these things or what terminology we use to describe them is of lesser importance. To someone who loves to work in transdisciplinary environments and with radical creativity this is naturally a great joy to see. My only objection would be (or maybe more of a wish than an objection) that as Scharmer is now starting to populate the blank space in the middle, which he calls Field 4, he places his Theory U in this crossing point. I clearly think it belongs there but I do not think it is the only thing that does. I think that we could continue on Scharmer’s previous thought that many fields are reaching similar thoughts and approaches, and just calling them differently. So my wish would be to make room for more viewpoints in that Field 4 too, and maybe include some design approaches in it…. All of these fields head towards the same conclusion that the new kind of leadership is about inspiration and collective action.

Scharmer is also very good at, much like Mazzucato, connecting his theory to previous theories of thought in the field.

Clearly, I recommend this book if you are interested in change and organisations today. I think it is a great piece of work that draws from thorough insight in the “real world” and makes a clear and comprehendible set of theory out of it, with practical examples on how to execute on the theory. 

So do I have hesitations about it, or objections? Some. Most of these are probably academic hair-splitting and not worth mentioning here. As a designer I also think that Scharmer’s diagrams are great in explaining what he means, but they could have been designed a little bit further. Now they sometimes repeat and lack a little bit of simplicity. The same goes for the length of the book – it is a wonderful read and well worth its length (see the picture of my copy with all its notes) but for a broader public the 530 pages might be a little lengthy. However, this is something that I suspect the author has also noticed. As the whole approach of Theory U has gained massive attention through the covid19-pandemic (see for example Scharmer’s article on A New Superpower in the Making: Awareness-Based Collective Action) I recently learned that in 2018 Scharmer has published “the Essentials of Theory U”, an abbreviated version of the book I just reviewed. I haven’t read or seen this abbreviation, but my guess is it might be what many people are looking for. 

Now that the Summer and the holiday season is approaching, we can also use Scharmer’s theory on an individual level. Taking time to reflect is a vital part of his thinking, and the covid19 has been a moment of reflection for many of us, all around the globe.

Interestingly, Scharmer mentions that when he visits Finland, he sees parents go with their children to simple cabins in the woods. He says that people in the Nordic countries spend more time in nature and have it as a regular individual and collective practice, to connect and to calm down.

This is a Nordic oddity that I often find myself explaining (or maybe defending?) to some of my colleagues in other countries. When the Summer comes, Finns just disappear from the cities, take several weeks off (and off typically means to the level of no email etc), and leave for simple Summer cottages. Tiny places to retreat are of course not just a Nordic phenomena, the same concept exist in different corners around the world. My dear friend just reminded me that in New Zealand, you call the cottages Bach‘s.

While at the cottage, there are three things we typically do that we can now finally have a reason for and tie them back to Scahrmer’s theory.

  1. We experience the forest. You can walk in it, you can think in it, you can see yourself as part of a bigger ecosystem in it, you can get lost in it, you can focus on the details in it, and you can follow the yearly cycle happening and compare it to what happened at the same time last year. Or twenty years ago. 
Currently, the blueberries are ripening in the Finnish forests, in a few weeks people will be picking them to use over the winter. And a month later it is time for mushrooms.

Experiencing nature is something that has become increasingly popular during the covid19, not only in the Nordics. Natural parks draw record numbers of people, and hiking has become trendy. In a more urban setting, you can get a similar feeling of wonder from experiencing and getting lost (in your thoughts) at an art exhibition.

  1. We build something out of what we have around us. There is a lot of jokes about this, when the summer cottage becomes a working camp and the (typically male) Finn thinks he can build anything on his own. In this culture, you don’t outsource things that someone else could do a lot better than you can. You build it yourself. There is a saying (from an old power-tool advertisement) that with your two hands and some tools – you can make anything. It brings a feeling of accomplishment, and it is different from your normal office job.

Scharmer talks about “letting your hands know”, when you feel connected to something deeper and your hands are co-creating with this, and you intuitively know what to do, and just do it. It is the essence of the creative process. I suppose Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would have called it flow.

Tinkering, crafts and creating stuff from what you have around you has also been extremely popular during the covid19-pandemic. Never have so many sour-dough breads been baked or home-fixing videos been uploaded to YouTube.

My own example of building something from things that are available (still unfinished). The box for the gooseberries is built out of lumber that was left over from a sauna extension project in the mid-nineties, the vertical surface is a repurposed old dock and the greenhouse-like construction is a repurposed window that was left over when they replaced our windows in town. The soil is a compost of previous years leaves, twigs and food scraps.
  1. The third activity most people do during at these summer houses, and that people from the outside of the Nordic region tend to find really weird, is that they sit in silence on the end of a small dock or pier and stare at the water. Most of the cottages are situated near the sea, a lake, or a pond.

Now this peculiar habit finally gets a reason through Scharmer’s theory. He tells the story of Apollo astronauts, who at the end of their mission had some extra days and spent the time just staring out of their window. Looking out at the world their mind shifted, they understood that the world had no borders and that the role of humankind was different then they had first thought. 

Scharmer calls this intentional silence, and recommends us to pick a practice that helps you connect to your source. 

He shows us that these age-old funny habits aren’t a waste of time although they are sometimes seen as such in the buzz of todays fast-paced world – on the contrary they are something you need to do if you want to be a better leader for the challenges ahead, and create more successful visions, strategies and solutions once the Autumn arrives. I suspect that the time of the pandemic has been a moment of reflection for many of us. Cherish that – we need it to be more creative and capable to tackle what we have around us.

I hope you will all find the opportunities to experience some nature, tinker on something, or stare at the water, during the Summer. We need to change the world around us, and passionate and inspired people to do it. Take care.

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