Theory U

Oct 20, 2022 | Virtues of the Heart

A road map to higher consciousness and a new future

In my explorations, one of the best methods I found for accessing this hidden creative flow is from Otto Scharmer’s books about Theory U. For me, Scharmer’s method include working on the heart and opening the heart’s intelligence. What follows is an edited chapter on Theory U from my book Creativity: It’s not what you think.

Scharmer is an MIT senior lecturer and co-creator of Theory U, cofounder of the Presencing Institute, chair of the MIT IDEAS program for cross-sector innovation, and has a PhD in economics. He has spent decades studying and teaching leadership for sustainable change and innovation to businesses, government agencies, healthcare institutions, NGOs, and communities that are looking for real sustainable change and problem solving. As an academic with a science and business focus, he seemed like an unlikely source of wisdom about creativity. 

But I quickly learned that he knows that real change requires activating all our senses to fully connect to and learn from what we choose to direct our attention to. What intrigued me about this method is his holistic approach to change, which includes connecting to self, connecting to others, and understanding and being sensitive to the social field around us. This is the path to accessing that inner source all the masters alluded to. Scharmer includes the big picture in a practice that raises our consciousness to a new level of awareness and understanding where the natural outcome is something new. This outcome is what he calls the emerging future or higher consciousness.

Theory U is a change management method that helps business leaders, political leaders, civil servants and managers as well as individuals break through old, unproductive patterns of behavior while fostering a state of being where more creative and innovative outcomes can flourish.

Theory U starts with the premise that most of us view the world we live in from the perspective of what we know, or what we have accepted as true. Drawing on this limited knowledge base to inform my behaviors, which in turn created the limitations of the world I lived in. This closed system is like a karmic loop, repeating much of the past over and over. Staying inside this system, being creative is almost impossible.

Theory U provides us with a process that moves us from not seeing, not knowing, not sensing, to shifting our focus and awareness onto what is essential, what was hidden, and creates a space or landing field for our inner source to emerge through us. We have, for the most part, always learned from experiences of the past, but Scharmer says this is not enough anymore. We must open our minds, hearts and wills to access a state he calls “presencing.” In this state we let go of our old ego and old beliefs and let something new come into this open space of presence. In this state of presence we see and sense ourselves at a much deeper level of awareness. We become open and neutral. Once we become aware of this new system we have two choices:

  1. We can continue the past by repeating old behaviors based on old beliefs, which prevents any new ideas or creativity from emerging. It has been the dominant system of humanity for hundreds of generations, with exceptions.
  2. We can use this state of presencing as a portal to become more conscious and open up to new emerging future possibilities. When we see that something is hidden or we are open to the possibilities, we recognize how we have maintained or defended our limited beliefs, old patterns and ego self-interests. We can let go and move into something new.

Theory U is based on the premise of two ways of learning: from the past and from the future. It focuses on creating future possibilities by moving beyond fear. Scharmer suggests that we sense and feel our way toward the future as it emerges. Presencing, as he calls it, means engaging in the present moment, which is our gateway to a field of new possibilities.

Think U

The Theory U process is illustrated above. We start on the top left with “downloading” from what we already know: old patterns of thinking, judgments, behaviors, and our Ego-Self. This state is like a closed loop in which nothing new can enter, much less creativity.

Moving down the U, we start sensing and listening by opening our minds and our hearts. Doing this, we begin to look inside and gain a broader perspective of our inner world. Coming to the bottom of the U, we begin presencing. We have to let go of our old beliefs, patterns, assumptions, judgments, and Ego-Self. As we enter the present moment with open minds and open hearts, we cross a threshold to emerge as a new Self with unlimited possibilities. Letting go of what is not essential creates a space for something new to emerge.

Moving up the other side of the U, we begin crystallizing, experimenting, and doing, without the limitations of our old patterns. Creativity is born out of this deep connection to the present moment and sensing a new future as it emerges through us. Prototyping is exploring by bringing new forms and ideas into reality.

We operate from wholeness using head, heart, will and hand to manifest what wants to be born through us.

Performing is adopting behaviors that embody this new system. We are an integral part of the whole, co-creating with our intuitive knowing for the benefit of all.

Scharmer states it this way:

“The quality of results achieved by any system is a function of the quality of awareness that people in these systems operate from. In three words: Form follows consciousness.”

If we want to change the quality of our life we need to increase the quality of our awareness or consciousness.

The Theory U process dovetails very nicely with my practice of the six heart virtues. In my opinion, it is another example of an effort to move the human experience from Duality to Non-Duality, which is where Humanity must evolve to solve the vexing global problems of our times.

It is worth noting the following quote:

“Consciousness is the engine of life. Everything external is an Extension of consciousness: it is modulated by consciousness into existence. Therefore, if consciousness is locked into the ego-mind, It will manifest from that level.”

– Mahu, The Weather Composer: The Battlefeild is Born (1918) p.137

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