Essentials of Theory U – book review

At the Susanna Wesley Foundation, we find Theory U a valuable resource for working with transformational change. Here, our Communications and Resources Officer Emma Pavey reviews the 2018 book Essentials of Theory U, a shorter introduction to the theory.

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The Essentials of Theory U emerged as a 160-page alternative to the 500-page Theory U tome, the latter now in its second edition. It presents a condensed introduction to Theory U, described by Scharmer as an “awareness-based method for changing systems” (p.ix). Despite the brevity of this book, Theory U aims to be an expansive framework, method, and narrative for understanding and engaging in societal change.

The book is presented in three parts: the first part consists of four chapters and presents the underpinning framework (what Scharmer terms the ‘grammar’), the second part – only one chapter – describes the method, and the final part comprises two chapters describing Theory U as a global, evolutionary movement (a ‘narrative’).

It is a book about leadership as a capacity rather than a role, and especially not a role of a single individual. Rather, leadership, according to Scharmer, is the ability of a system to “co-sense and co-shape the future” (p.xii).

Instead of settling on one set of terms for describing transformational change processes, Theory U presents several integrated ways of labeling the process. This means that its diagrams are complicated, and the terms overlap in what they convey. In Essentials, effort has been made to simplify the diagrams to their ‘essentials’, though the book is still ambitious in its application of the models to all levels of communication in all sectors.

Like the longer Theory U book, Essentials is mainly about the principles and premises of Theory U, along with examples, but it has one chapter of the seven devoted to method that can be used to formulate a Theory U approach. Even here the stages are mainly exemplified rather than explained.

Theory U relies on idiosyncratic terminology (‘building a container’ and ‘generative social fields’, for example) and Scharmer’s explanations tend to remain at a metaphorical level. So, for example, ‘building a container’ is explained as building a good holding space or space for interactions. Social fields, meanwhile, is essentially the Theory U word for relationships. The unnecessary terminology obscures rather than illuminates, when simple, existing language is available.

A key argument for Scharmer is what he terms the ‘blind spot’ of leadership, management, and social change: while we look at the what and how of leadership, we do not examine the “source from which we operate”, which Scharmer calls the “who” (p.6). By connecting with this ‘source’ we can start to ‘learn from the future’. In other words, Scharmer is proposing the careful listening of reflexive and reflective action, but with an orientation towards the emerging future.

Theory U is very much future-orientated. Attention to the present moment is the pivot, but rather than interrogating the past, it asks the question “how do we learn from the future as it emerges?” (p.ix). It is not proposing fortune-telling, but rather an attentiveness to the present that is open to the new. Presencing means “to sense and actualize one’s highest future potential” (p.10).

The presencing phase of the Theory U process seeks to answer the questions “Who is my Self? and What is my Work?”(p.98) so it seeks to address questions of identity, vocation, and authenticity; it speaks of “[s]trengthening the sources of Self” (p.101). These are curiously individualistic questions for a model that emphasizes a desired shift from ‘me’ to ‘we’, towards collaboration and community (p.98).

It is unclear what or who we are directed to be present to in the ‘Presencing’ phase, a crucial liminal space at the turning point of the ‘U’ that embodies curiosity, compassion and courage (p157). Scharmer describes is as a phase of deliberate ‘opening’ but also a letting go, connecting to “sources of creativity and Self” (98). ‘Self’ (as opposed to small-s ‘self’) is ‘who I might be tomorrow, my highest future possibility’ (p9). Scharmer explains, “[p]resencing uses your higher Self as a vehicle for embodying the future that wants to emerge” (p99). Scharmer elsewhere speaks of, “[e]stablishing the vertical connection” (p77), implying (but only implying) a spiritual component.

Thus, the question arises: Does this new insight or possibility enter from outside the self, emerge from within the self, or is it something that emerges in community? Scharmer describes the future as something with a will (p99). Is it constructed, (co-)created, or revealed from outside?

What The Essentials of Theory U argues for is the vital importance of acting in an attentive, listening, reflective, open-minded way at all stages of a change process. The process that this involves, and which is described in this book, requires immense patience and deep trust, although Scharmer does not use these words with frequency. These two characteristics are often lacking in processes of institutional change. As a book that taps into a deep listening posture as an essential character of healthy, forward-looking communities with distributed leadership, The Essentials of Theory U is a valuable addition that seeks to understand and experience transformational change at all levels.

 

Otto Scharmer, (2018), The Essentials of Theory U: Core Principles and Applications (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler).

 

To learn more about Theory U, start with our one-page quick guide, found here.