More Than Just a Friday Flashback: Presencing and Theory U

Otto Scharmer Theory U
Three years ago I reviewed, in glowing terms, and excerpted parts from, a book called Presence with four authors, one of whom is MIT lecturer Otto Scharmer, creator of Theory U, illustrated above, which is the backbone of the concept called Presencing, and of the book.

In light of yesterday’s post, in which I explained what “presence” has recently come to mean to me (a combination of self-awareness of which one of several dozen types of activities I am doing at any point in my day, and employment of the appropriate process for that activity, a process that has been allowed to emerge and continuously improve through practice), I thought it might be worth taking another look at my earlier review.

At the time, as excited as I was about the concept, I described the book and its ideas as flawed and tentative. Since then I have found the book really difficult to act upon. More and more I’ve come to realize that it was Scharmer’s Theory U that I liked, and that the rest of the book (notably Peter Senge’s apparent insistence on putting “institutionalization” at the end — top upper right — of the U, presumably to make it more appealing to business executives who want theory to be actionable in traditional command-and-control measurable-results terms) actually detracted from Scharmer’s theory. I’m pleased to see that Scharmer’s latest version, above, has eliminated the hierarchical junk from the model and made it more personal, where the assessment of learning and responsibility for action are left to individual team members, as they should be. Theory U is now more consistent with Open Space type methodologies that are trusting of individuals but allow the insights and actions to emerge from collaborative effort. In fact, his latest 2-page summary of the theory contains an even better, clearer graphic of the process:

Otto Scharmer Theory U version 2

Theory U is in essence a problem-solving (or more accurately perhaps a problem-addressing) process. Scharmer proposes this process to optimize both collaboration and innovation, and as a guide for coaches to use to enable collaborative and innovative capacity in individuals and teams working on (especially intractable) problems.

  • The co-initiating step includes self-organizing the team, studying patterns and paying attention — being aware. Its principal ‘product’ is an engaged and informed team.
  • The co-sensing step entails making sense of what you are now aware of. Its principal product is understanding.
  • The presencing step is the most challenging for traditional organizations to accept, I suspect. It is what Scharmer calls letting go and letting come, a being open to possibility, using imagination and critical and creative thinking. Its principal products are emerging approaches.
  • The co-creating step is one of iteratively exploring and experimenting with these possible approaches. Its principal products are working models.
  • The co-evolving step is the continuous and improvisational study, improvement and innovation of these models, collaboratively in peer production with the community of users of these models (the models ‘continuously becoming’ better and better products and services in practice — there is no longer such a thing as a ‘finished product’, just the latest and best evolved ‘version’). Its principal products are sustained innovation, relationships and resilience.

Those of you who’ve read the proofs of my new book Finding the Sweet Spot will probably recognize, as I did, that Scharmer’s U is a very similar process to the one I recommend for creating Natural Enterprises. These Natural Enterprises I’ve so long admired, places where work is responsible, sustainable, joyful, meaningful and natural, are theorganizational embodiment of Theory U.

And he says this about what happens to teams that have been through the U process together: “Often they begin to function as an intentional
vehicle for an emerging future.” So this process is also the process that Intentional Communities use to self-form and thrive.

Maybe I should get our mutual friend Andrew Campbell to introduce me to Otto.

Read my earlier review.

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3 Responses to More Than Just a Friday Flashback: Presencing and Theory U

  1. Don Dwiggins says:

    I’m happy to see the evolution of the Presencing and Theory U concepts. Looking at the 2 U’s, however, bothers me a bit. I seem to sense an unseen presence (?!) at the top of the U, something that ties the process into a loop (or better, a spiral). Take a look at my diagram at the bottom of; I’m thinking that the U process might come into play starting with the Tension/Conflict phase (or Laszlo’s critical phase), where “downloading patterns of the past” won’t cut it any more. I’m thinking that maybe Theory U provides a way to successfully negotiate a Bifurcation (achieve a 4b outcome rather than 4a). (Andrew can point you to more information on Bifurcations a la deLange.)

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Don. I’ve spoken with Andrew about bifurcations (still disturbingly close to dichotomies to me). Also met Gary Alexander when I was in UK. I don’t think the U lends itself to becoming an O (and spare me from spirals, especially the coloured Wilber type). Emergence, from what I can see, is a process that has a beginning and end, with no ‘feedback’ loop. It’s being repeated constantly in various systems but it’s not a cyclical process, IMO.

  3. Don Dwiggins says:

    I didn’t phrase it terribly well — serves me right for posting in haste. What I was trying to say was that the O I was sensing is something like the loop in the diagram I pointed at, and that the U provides a way to successfully navigate the bottom portion of the O, avoiding the Collapse outcome. So yes, the emergence has a beginning (the state of tension or conflict) and an end (resolution).As to spirals, they’re natural enough. In the diagram, the state labeled “Unity” (Sahtouris’ term) will be a different animal after a trip around the loop than it was at the beginning. (Otherwise we’d have learned nothing, and the trip would be a waste.)

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