Plain English introduction to U Theory: how to create innovative solutions collectively

Three steps of the U process

Source: The Presenting Institute

U Theory in plain English

U theory is a process that is profound, powerful and practical. But it seems to me that U Theory believers use so much jargon that they are in danger of turning it into a cult. One day I decided to try to explain U Theory in plain English. The is the result.

U Theory is a collaborative process for discovering innovative solutions in a complex world

U Theory is about helping people to make change happen together. U Theory is a collaborative three-step process designed to help people dealing with change and complexity discover truly innovative solutions. U Theory is used in all sectors, from communities to businesses, to generate creative responses to both challenges and opportunities.

Where does U Theory come from?

U Theory was developed by Dr Otto C Scharmer, Senior Lecturer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and founding chair of the Presencing Institute, together with a number of colleagues including Peter Senge who pioneered the concept of a learning organisation.

U Theory is simple and elegant

U Theory may seem complex at first, but in fact it the process is simple and elegant. The language Scharmer uses to describe the different stages of U Theory can be off-putting. So what I have tried to do here is describe the key elements of the U Theory process in plain English. If you would like to learn more, you can go online and watch Scharmer himself talking about U Theory. Or read one of the recommended texts below. I highly recommend ‘Presence’ as an introduction to U Theory as a means of exploring climate change, complexity and change.

U Theory is about how we learn

Scharmer started with the notion that most people learn from experience. We have an experience, we reflect on it, we make connections and form ideas. Then we apply our idea to a new situation and reflect again. As a result, most problem solving is based on what happened in the past. We download concepts and models, apply them to different contexts, and expect them to work. As Einstein remarked, we can’t expect to solve problems with the methods that created them (or something like that!).

U Theory is about keeping an open mind

As a result of spending time with inventors and innovators, Scharmer came to the conclusion that innovators learn in a completely different way. What Scharmer discovered is that innovators learn from “a future that is emerging”. In everyday language, what this means is that innovators are good a noticing what is happening and spotting emerging trends and changes. They keep an open mind, they listen and observe, they are in touch with their feelings and what really matters to them. When they get an idea, innovators try out ‘prototype’ solutions immediately. They don’t waste time writing a business plan.

U Theory in action

Here is graphic showing the key stages of U Theory:

Three steps of the U process

Three steps in the U Theory Process

Step One: Observe Observe Observe

Suspend the way you think. Focus on listening to people and observing what is going on around you. This might mean spending more time with your staff or your customers and clients. It could mean going into the street and talking to strangers. This stage is also called ‘Sensing’.

Step Two: Retreat and Reflect: Allow the inner knowing to emerge

What this means is we need to take time to reflect deeply on all that we have seen and heard. We need to slow down in order to notice solutions and ideas that maybe emerging. We need to give ourselves space to connect with what is important for us, for our community and / or our organisation. This stage is also called ‘Presencing’

Step Three: Act in an instant

The third stage is about rapid prototyping of an idea. Scharmer says this is like working with designers. You take an idea and try it out quickly without getting bogged down in writing a business plan. This stage is also called ‘Realising’.

U Theory and Leadership: how to make U theory work for you

To make U Theory work for us we need to practice a number of key leadership skills and abilities. We need to be exceptional listeners and observers, able to gather information from different sources in order to deepen our understanding of the context. We need to be able to connect and work in close partnership with other people. We have to be authentic, able to use our head and our heart to decide what matters most and where we want to go. We have to be comfortable with risk, able to learn from failure, and not fear it. And we have to stop being cynical.

Want to know more?

ReadPresence: Exploring profound change in people, organisations and society’, Peter Senge, C Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski and Betty Sue Flowers, Nicholas Brealey, London 2005

Watch Otto Scharmer talking about U theory

Download U Theory resources and summaries  here and here








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