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Book Review-Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges

I think if we dig deep enough we’ll all find a defining moment in our lives. It’s a moment when our past and our future seems to have hit an inflection point. At this point things changed for the better or the worse. Sometimes the change was immediate and other times it was just a crystallization of where we already were. I’ve had a few but one of the most compelling to me is when I managed to get caught up in a recruiting effort for the Church of Scientology.

It was early in my career and I was in my first conference in Boston. I was standing across the water from MIT and was thinking about what it would be like to get to go to college there. I came across a woman with a clipboard who asked if I would mind answering a few questions. In my mind she was a college student who was doing research for a class so I agreed.

She led me back half a block to a Church of Scientology building – a building I had passed without even really recognizing it. Once inside I took a standardized fill-in the bubbles type test – as quick as I could. I was evaluating test bias while I was taking it. “Are you often critical?” – Well, given that I was being paid to edit 16,000 pages of technical content per year, I answered yes. Realizing that the truthful answer might lead them to the wrong conclusions.

After getting finished I handed in the paper, it was scored by a computer and a report clacked out of the dot matrix printer. A man walked me to a small room and we began by him asking if I had any regrets. The honest answer – then and now – was, no. I like who I am and if I changed anything about the decisions I made or what happened to me, I wouldn’t be the same person. While I don’t like everything that has happened to me – or everything that I’ve done – I do like the outcome. For me, this was an inflection point. I knew more about myself after this moment than I did before I walked into the Church of Scientology building. (Probably not the way they intended for people to become enlightened.)

Otto Scharmer speaks about his own inflection point. In his case it was the burning of his childhood home. It was a point where he had to let go of the past and find a new way into the future. This forms the basis for his idea of Theory U. The idea is that one needs to be open to learning about the future – as it emerges. It’s a blend of being directed and following structure as well as being simultaneously open to the reality of the world around you and the field of things that are outside your cognition. It’s this balance that makes Theory U an interesting journey.

Open Mind, Open Heart, Open Will

At the most basic level, Theory U is about creating an open mind, heart, and will. That is moving from being closed and defensive in each of these three levels to a more open spot. We’ve all seen meetings where people have entered with their arms crossed and their mind closed. They didn’t want to hear what others have to say. I myself have walked into meetings this way.

Sometimes we walk into a group and our hearts are closed to their situation and their needs. We walk in focused on only our ability to function. This is a closed heart – being unwilling to be open to the needs of others. Finally there are times when we just want it done the way that we want it done. We don’t want to allow someone else’s approach – which may be equally valid – to be the one we do. We want our own way.

In Scharmer’s perspective we have to descend through being closed minded and closed hearted to being closed to other peoples wills and then climb up from an open will through and open heart and up through and open mind. This makes a big U. In fact Theory U uses the symbol of a U repeatedly, however, this image of the framework was the most compelling to me.

In the upper left there’s downloading. It’s a non-aware habitual listening that doesn’t involve being open to new ideas. Directly below this is seeing which is about being aware and open. Below this is sensing which is trying to see the whole of the situation. It’s seeing the system that’s operating. (See Thinking in Systems for more on systems.) Below this is letting go – that is realizing that it’s not our will that’s the important part. It’s what the Buddhists might call detachment. It’s removing ourselves from owning the outcome.

At the bottom is presencing which is what Scharmer would say is about connecting to a deeper source. From my perspective it’s about being OK. It’s about detaching from the outcomes and looking for our role in the future that will emerge. Overall Scharmer’s work is about looking for the future that wants to emerge – or looking with eyes that can see the opportunities that exist in the world. In this spot you’re seeking what you see without any judgment about it – without any cynicism about it – and without any fear. (More on judgement, fear, and cynicism later in this post.)

Coming down the left side is the process of opening up. It’s about becoming more open and able to accept what the world has to offer. At presencing we’re turning around, we’re moving from a perspective of being closed and moving towards being more open. It’s about slowing down and being more intentional about listening. As we transition towards climbing the right side of the U we’ll be moving to more and more focused action.

The bottom of the right is letting come – that is allowing yourself to become attached to a point of view, a perspective, a vision, and a destination. Having left everything at presencing it’s about picking back up things to hold on to. The first stop is crystallizing which is about developing that vision and creating an intention of how to connect to that future that you’ve found. Next up is prototyping. More than anything prototyping is learning in action what you couldn’t hear. It allows you to fine tune your understanding and test how what you heard works in practice. Once you’ve been able to confirm your future works in the small scale with prototypes it’s time to perform (performing) at a much larger scale.

The right side of the U is about focusing your understanding, intent, and purpose into a set of specific actions designed to accomplish the goal – and to refine your understanding.

Put Out the Fire


From my perspective the trickiest part of this process is the open will part. It’s almost impossible for humans to separate our desires from the perceived outcomes. How to Measure Anything talks about all sorts of biases that we have as humans and how they impact our estimates. These biases are hard to let go of.

For me open will is about trying to get rid of those biases – to let go of our preconceived notions and allow things to flow. One of the things that is often discussed in 12 step programs is the concept of surrender – surrendering one’s will. In fact, it’s step 3. It’s after acknowledging that you have a problem (step 1, our lives have become unmanageable) and accepting that there’s a higher power who can save us (step 2).

Sometimes you’ll hear a 12 stepper say that they’re really good at surrender. They do it daily – and then every time they take back control. So it’s tricky stuff. Surrendering your will, learning to let go and accept that there is a universe around you that wants good things for you. Surrendering your will and accepting that there is a field or presence that wants something for you – and that something is good – takes a high degree of trust and acceptance. (Learn more about trust in my post Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy.)

Approaching Perfect

Sometimes it’s less about the actions and mechanics of what is going on and it’s more about the intent or the deeper state from which we approach things. Richard Hackman in Collaborative Intelligence proposed that 60% of how collaboration would go was the setup of the collaboration. I know from my own experience that when I start out with the right approach I get better results.

I vividly remember my first simulated instrument landing in an airplane that went very well. I just happened into the right approach to the airport. I did the same instrument landing attempt another day and my approach was just a bit off – and I ended up chasing the simulated landing the entire time. Even just a bit of misalignment to the approach from the start was something that I had to struggle mightily to get past.

I’ve been struggling with this review for some time now. It seems like the techniques that I use and the way that I write wants to break things down into constituent parts. I want to cover one topic then the next before stepping back and taking a look to see the tapestry that has been woven. However, these techniques don’t seem to be all that helpful in the context of Theory U. Instead it seems that the real awareness comes from seeing the tapestry then starting to weave. Luckily we have that as an option.

Seeing Where You Are Standing

We’ve all got blind spots. We’ve all got things that we simply can’t see until we move. Take right now for instance. I know that you have a blind spot. You simply can’t see the spot where you’re standing. You can’t simultaneously stand in a spot and see what’s literally underneath your feet. You have to move your feet to be able to see. In other words, you have to keep moving to minimize the number of blind spots you have. You have to move your feet to see what was underneath them all the time.

In life there’s a need for two things to have a good vision. First, you’ve always got to keep moving – to see where you’ve been standing. And more importantly you need others. Others provide perspectives that you can’t see and are able to tell you when your motion is risky or when it’s time to slow down and focus on what’s around you instead of worrying about where you are right this moment. By being in a relationship with others where they feel comfortable to be completely honest with you.

Living Life on Life’s Terms

Are you going to be happy or sad? Are you going to lament your condition or rejoice in it? Are you going to feel privileged for what you have, or somber for those things you’ve lost? You can’t always control your circumstances. However, you can control how you feel about them. Sure you say, but I can control my circumstances – well, that’s sort of right. You can influence your circumstances. You can buy insurance for your house so that if it’s hit by the stray meteorite that you can get it replaced. If you’ve forgotten to buy insurance you can’t go back and do that once your house has been destroyed. You can focus on continuous learning so that you end up with a good, high-paying career. However, I can’t after 20 years in my career suddenly start learning and expect that I’ll instantly see changes.

Life has given you the circumstances that you have. Your situation may have been informed and influenced by the choices that you made but it was more than your choices that led you to where you are. That’s why you have to accept life for what it is – and be willing to do the work to change the conditions for the future.

So in Theory U there are echoes of Choice Theory and the fact that we have choices to make and one of those choices is to live life on life’s terms.

Demanding the Future

If you’ve ever tried peering into a crystal ball and have realized that the future doesn’t magically appear as it does in fairy tales, you know how frustrating it can be to demand that the future reveal itself to you. There’s no trick, no secret, and no tool that will reveal the future to you. You can’t demand that the future suddenly appear. The future is revealed to us day- by –day.

That’s part of Theory U – that you create an environment into which you can develop insight about the future. You can’t demand it. You can’t insist that it come into being now – or at all. It’s about changing the inner conditions of yourself such that you’re ready to see the future when it’s ready to be revealed.

Deep Assumptions

When I am talking about knowledge management topics I frequently ask my audience three questions:

  1. Which side of the mall do you walk on?
  2. Someone showing their index finger is indicating what number?
  3. Eating everything on your plate is rude or respectful?

The point of this exercise is that it exposes that frequently there is hidden assumptions about the context. For most of the world we walk on the right side of a mall because that’s the side of the road we drive on – but the opposite is true in parts of the world where we drive on the other side. There’s a subtle assumption that we should walk on the same side of the mall as we drive — -something that no one has ever discussed with you consciously.

Similarly, in the United States we start counting on our index finger. Thus if someone shows me their index finger I assume they mean one. However, in most of Europe counting starts with your thumb so the index finger means two. (I almost ended up with two pizzas in Germany because of this.)

If you’re in the mid-west eating everything on your plate is a sign to the cook that their food was good. It’s a respectful way of saying that you enjoyed the cooking. In the Far East, where food is scarcer, eating everything on your plate indicates that the host hasn’t provided you with enough food. As a result the host may be embarrassed by not having more to offer you – either way it’s considered rude.

We all have hidden deep assumptions about the way things work and the way people are. We rarely challenge these assumptions because they’re hidden from our view. We simply can’t consider every one of our assumptions – we don’t have the processing capability or the time to challenge everything. However, developing an open mindset that allows us to realize that we are operating on assumption creates the possibility to challenge those assumptions if what we’re doing isn’t working.

On the Shoulders of Giants

Ed Schein was asked how he knew that a particular part of knowledge was true and he responded “When my knowledge is helpful to the various practitioners in the field – that is the moment when I know that I know.” To be clear, that’s not to say that we should define our self-worth in the eyes of others. There’s something different happening here. This is about evaluating the value of what we know – and share with others. It’s about knowing that you’re on the right track with your thinking – not that you are or are not inherently valuable as a person.

The reality is that we’re all good because we’re standing on the shoulders of giants. I’m able to think about topics deeply because others have shown me – through their writings – the path. We’re able to present our ideas with clarity because the tools that we have today are so much better than the tools that were available a generation ago. I realize that as I read some of the classic works that have defined industries. I realize how easy it is for me to create graphics to support my data – and how difficult that was even 20 years ago.

Whether it’s looking at the tools we have to create new ways of sharing our knowledge – or it’s the clarification new have by learning from others – we all stand on the shoulders of giants – giants whose shoulders we found useful.

Compassion, Love, and Knowledge

Kitaro Nishida said “Knowledge and love are the same mental activity; to know a thing we must love it, to love a thing we must know it.” Buddhists (See Emotional Awareness) focus on the word compassion, however, this connects closely to the Greek word Agape that is God’s love. That is Buddhists seek to cultivate a compassion or love for all things – to know and accept it. Gary Klein in Sources of Power spoke of how to know fires, fire commanders knew their fires by building mental models of how they worked.

Theory U isn’t about walking blindly into a new area and expecting to be an expert. It’s about connecting through compassion and love for others. It’s about realizing that our desire to develop knowledge – about how the future will emerge – is our way of connecting with and loving others.

Conscious Consciousness

How many stoplights were red when you arrived on your way to work the last time you went in? Most of us couldn’t begin to answer that question. This is in part because as was explained in Thinking, Fast and Slow we have two systems of operation. There’s the relatively automatic System 1 which does all sorts of things to keep us going and system 2 – a more focused and conscientious thinking. System 1 is an unconscious consciousness. That is to say that we’re awake but we’re not paying attention.

One of the keys to Theory U is the practice of being mindful – or paying attention. That is staying focused on being in the moment and being present to where you are and what’s around you. Some might call this situational awareness – and certainly that’s a part – but it’s also more than that. It’s also being open to what isn’t yet in the situation.

From Whence Inspiration Comes

As was mentioned in the Innovators DNA – often innovators are sheepish to take credit for their innovations. They’re aware that they didn’t so much discover something as they connected things that were already there. Their contribution was to see what others didn’t. They were the cosmopolitans that Everett Rogers discussed in Diffusion of Innovations. So it’s in this context that I read Scharmer’s journey to find the source of a mountain stream. When he tried to track back the mountain stream to a single spot, he ultimately discovered that there was no single spot. There was no one place from which the stream sprung up. Instead all of the melting from all of the surrounding mountains came together to form the stream, slowly, subtly, drop-by-drop.

Much of our science has been focused on finding singular points of origin. We’ve been focused on isolating and breaking down and removing co-dependent variables, however, the essential truth that Otto discovered by tracking back to the mountain stream was that there is no way to divide and separate things. In my review of the Heart and Soul of Change I mentioned that psychotherapy struggles with the ability to eliminate the placebo effect and more importantly hope. We spend so much time in science discounting the internal state of the intervener a concept attributed to Bill O’Brien former CEO of Hanover Insurance – who said we fail to realize that it’s the internal state of the intervener that is the most important aspect of anything.

Love your work and work your love is an essential essence of the state of the intervener. It’s not that people spend more time doing things it’s the state in which they do it. (See Outliers and Extraordinary Minds for more on practice.)

Voice of Judgment

Whose voice do you hear in the back of your head? Associated with gaining an open mind Scharmer discusses a voice of judgment that is always judging your behaviors and is judging those around you. Sometimes the voice in your head is your mother. Other times the voice is your fathers. However, as you judge others and their perspectives that voice is your own. Judgment is about being focused on our perspectives instead of the perspectives of others. It’s our desire to control our surroundings to conform to the world as we see it. (See Choice Theory for quality worlds and Compelled to Control for understanding more about control.)

Voice of Cynicism

Opening our heart is about connecting to others – to being compassionate to their needs and to their perspectives. Cynicism is just one of the ways that we block our connection to others. At a broad level my readings about Buddhist teachings are the most compelling about compassion and the need to connect with others. (See Emotional Awareness.) More narrowly books like Change or Die speak to the need for close interpersonal relationships and how they improve your life in measurable and immeasurable ways.

There are some folks for whom connecting with others – intimacy – is painful. They believe intimacy is really “into me see” – and they don’t like who they are. See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy for more on intimacy. For these people they instinctively recoil from relationships particularly from intimate relationships. They develop their cynicism because of a desire to protect themselves. They protect themselves from the guilt and shame that they feel. (See Daring Greatly for more on guilt and shame.)

Our egos are noticeably fail and fragile things. The ego defends itself mightily as is documented in The Ego and Its Defenses. The Voice of Cynicism is how our ego protects itself from the views of others.

Voice of Fear

We all have to fight off the voice of fear at times. We’re hard wired with a part of our brain which emerged from our reptilian cousins. The amygdala is fast and efficient at identifying threats to our survival. Evolution favored a bias towards fear as if you thought there was a lion in the bush and there wasn’t you lived – however, if you didn’t think that there was a lion in the bush and there was one, you likely didn’t survive. Fear is deeply engrained in us – and yet it’s also something that limits us and forces us to be sub-optimal in the way that we live. Otto says that fear blocks open will. However, I can say from my experience on this planet that fear blocks us from much more than opening our will. Fear stops us from considering creative alternatives (as was discussed in Drive)

Acting without Fear

Sometimes when you listen to great leaders speak about how they’ve lead best or you read books on leadership you’ll find that they often lament about not making decisions fast enough. Even Jack Welsh in his book Jack: Straight from the Gut recalled being called “Neutron Jack” and at the same time lamenting how he wasn’t always making decisions when they needed to be made. The right answer for leadership isn’t making immediate decisions. Decisions will be perceived as being immediate in the span of history. The right posture to take with decisions is reaching the decision about what to do and then moving forward with that decision reflectively but without fear. Fear paralyzes. It creates stress and as we learned in Drive, stress keeps us focused on the problem so much that it excludes many valuable possibilities.

Finding the Future

The bottom of the U is presencing – how do you get to the point where you are being present in the moment and be ready for what’s going to emerge? Theory U holds the clues.

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