Theory U

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1 Definition

The Theory U (also called "U" methodology) is a change management method targeting leadership as process of inner knowing and social innovation developed by Otto Scharmer and originally based on a process known as the U-process or U-procedure (also called 'bath tub' and 'U Way') developed by Dr Friedrich Glasl and Dirk Lemson of the NPI (Netherlands Pedagogical Institute) in 1968 (Bos, 1974 and Friedrich Glasl & Leo de la Houssaye, 1975) and presented systematically from the 1980s. It has been a valuable tool in organisation development and social development since that time (Allison, 2008, GOSH Trust, Büchele, U). Recently it has been elaborated as Theory U by Otto Scharmer.

2 U-procedure or U-process

The U-procedure was used extensively in projects in at least USA, Brazil, Europe and England, South Africa and New Zealand by members and associates of the NPI (see Crum, 1977, Glasl 2008) and subsequently by members of the Association for Social Development [1] (accessed 19.11.2009) (see for example Büchele, 1997 and ), where it was discussed in the 1997 Conference in Spring Valley, USA. Dr Glasl, later Professor Glasl, published the method in Dutch (1975), German (1975, 1994) and English (1997). Glasl taught classes at the Witten Herdecke University where Dr Claus Otto Scharmer studied the method and interviewed Dr Glasl during his doctoral studies, as well is attending the 1997 ASD conference.

The initial method developed by Glasl and Lemson involved a social process involving a few or many co-workers, managers and/or policymakers proceeding from diagnosis of the present state of the organisation plans for the future. They described a process in a U formation consisting of three levels (technical and instrumental subsystem, social subsystem and cultural subsystem) and seven stages beginning with the observation of organisational phenomena, workflows, resources etc., and concluding with specific decisions about desired future processes and phenomena. The method draws on the Goethean techniques described by Dr. Rudolf Steiner, transforming observations into intuitions and judgements about the present state of the organisation and decisions about the future.

The seven stages consist of:

1. (Factual/phenomenal level, technical and instrumental subsystem) Observation of phenomena. How do processes and workflows function? Instruments, resources.

2. (Imaginative level, social subsystem) Forming a picture of how the organisation works. Understanding the social subsystem and how functions, roles and management are distributed.

3. ("Inspirational" level; cultural subsystem) Idea. Understanding the implicit/actual values, rules and policies that shape the organisation. How and why things happen.

4. Is this what we want?

5. (This maps onto 3.) What values and guidelines do we want for the future?

6. (This maps onto 2.) What does that mean for new functions and roles? How should the organisation of the future be visioned?

7. (This maps onto 1.) How can processes be developed in future? What phenomena and facts will characterise the organisation of the future?

Otto Scharmer took the basic principles of this process and extended and enriched it into a significant theory of learning and management, which he calls Theory U (2007). The principles of Theory U can help political leaders, civil servants, and managers break through past unproductive patterns of behavior that prevent them from empathizing with their clients' perspectives and often lock them into ineffective patterns of decision making. (Frannie Léautier, retrieved 15:53, 27 July 2007 (MEST))

3 Some notes about the "U" Theory

3.1 Fields of attention

  • thinking (individual),
  • conversing (group),
  • structuring (institutions)
  • ecosystem coordination (global systems).

3.2 Presencing

At the core of the "U" Theory is presencing: sensing + presence.

According to Learning Exchange (retrieved 15:53, 27 July 2007 (MEST)), Presencing is a journey with five movements:

We move down one side of the U (connecting us to the world that is outside of our institutional bubble) to the bottom of the U (connecting us to the world that emerges from within) and up the other side of the U (bringing forth the new into the world).

On that journey, at the bottom of the U, lies an inner gate that requires us to drop everything that isn't essential. This process of letting-go (of our old ego and self) and letting-come (our highest future possibility: our Self) establishes a subtle connection to a deeper source of knowing. The essence of presencing is that these two selves-our current self and our best future Self-meet at the bottom of the U and begin to listen and resonate with each other.
Once a group crosses this threshold, nothing remains the same. Individual members and the group as a whole begin to operate with a heightened level of energy and sense of future possibility. Often they then begin to function as an intentional vehicle for an emerging future.


Various variants of "U" pictures can be found in on-line publications (see below). Since they are strongly copyrighted (a bit strange if one looks at the political aims of this theory) we just produce an ugly ASCII graph for now, hoping that you can perceive the "U" form :)


1. Co-initiating common intent:                  5. Co-evolving through innovations:
Stop and listen to others and to                 ecosystems that facilitate seeing 
what life calls you to do                        and acting from the whole


   2. Co-sensing the field of change:      4. Co-creating strategic microcosms: 
   Go to the places of most potential      Prototype the new to explore 
   and listen with your mind and           the future by doing
   heart wide open
                   3. Presencing inspiration and common will: 
                   Go to the threshold and allow 
                   the inner knowing to emerge

3.3 Leadership Capacities

The point of journeying through the "U" is to develop seven essential leadership capacities:

  1. Holding the Space: Listen to What Life Calls You to Do (listen to oneself, to others and make sure that there is space where people can talk ...)
  2. Observing: Attend with Your Mind Wide Open (observe without your voice of judgment, basically means to get rid of pas cognitive schema)
  3. Sensing: Connect with Your Heart (facilitate the opening process, i.e. look interconnected wholes)
  4. Presencing: Connect to the Deepest Source of Your Self and Will (act from the emerging whole)
  5. Crystallizing: Access the Power of Intention (e.g. make sure to find a very small group of key persons commits itself to the purpose and outcomes of the project.)
  6. Prototyping: Integrating Head, Heart, and Hand (basically, it means that one should act and not let various sources of paralysis like reactive action, too much analysis, etc. interfere)
  7. Performing: Playing the Macro Violin. (e.g. find the right leaders, find good social technology to get a multi-stakeholder project going)

“Moving down the left side of the U is about opening up and dealing with the resistance of thought, emotion, and will; moving up the right side is about intentionally reintegrating the intelligence of the head, the heart, and the hand in the context of practical applications” (Scharner, 2007).

4 Discussion

5 Links

6 References

Bos, A. H. (1974) Oordeelsvorming in groepen: Polariteiten riture als sleutel tot ontwikkeling van sociale organisenen. Veenman & Zonen BV, Wageningen. University of Wageningen doctoral thesis.

  • Glasl F. and de la Houssaye, L. (1975) Organisatie-ontwikkeling in de praktijk, Amsterdam/Brussel: Agon Elsevier ISBN 90 10 105474, pp. 135 ff. This was subsequently translate into German as Glasl F. and de la Houssaye, L. (1975.) Organisationsentwicklung. Das Modell des Instituts für Organisationsentwicklung (NPI) und seine praktische Bewährung. Bern/Stuttgart: Verlag Paul Haupt ISBN 3-258-02387-5, pp 114 ff.
  • Crum, D. (1977) Interdingen door DC Erjdens het derde blok. Leergang Organisatie Ontwikkeling, 8-11 Feb 1977. Archives of the NPI, Zeist.
  • Glasl (1994) F. Das Unternehmen der Zukunft. Freies Geistesleben, Stuttgart, Germany. ISBN 3-7725-1234-8, pp 67 ff. Published in English as Glasl F. (1997) The Enterprise of the Future: How companies Develop. Hawthorn Press Stroud, England.
  • Glasl (2008) Enriching Conflict Diagnosis and Strategies for Social Change. A Closer Look at Conflict Dynamics. Published in Martina Fischer, Hans J. Gießmann, Beatrix Schmelzle (Ed, ) Berghof Handbook for Conflict Transformation. Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management, www.berghof-handbook.net. Accessed at http://www.berghof-handbook.net/uploads/download/dialogue6_glasl_comm.pdf on 21.10.2009
  • Ballreich, R. and Glasl, F. (2001 ) Team Development and Organisation Development as a Means for Conflict Prevention and Conflict Resolution. Pub. Berghof Handbook for Conflict Transformation. ISSN 1616-2544. Accessed at http://web.mit.edu/peso/Pes2/team%20development%20for%20conflict%20avoidance1.pdf on 21.11.09
  • Büchele, U (1997)Modellversuche: Erkenntnisgewinn für Forschung und Praxis? in Euler, D. (1997) Berufliches Lernen im Wandel Konsequenzen fur die Lernorte? Dokumentation des 3. Forums Berufsbildungsforschung 1997 an der Friedrich-Alexander-Universitat Erlangen-Nurnberg. Institut fUr Arbeitsmarkt und Berufsforschung der Bundesanstalt fur Arbeit, BeitrAB 214. Accessed on 21.11.09 at http://www.dgfp.de/perdoc/document.php?id=67494
  • Developing a Managed Health Partnership - Organisational Development Toolkit, Management Process, Tools and Tips, GOSH Trust, wwwgosh.nhs..uk/cypph . Co-developed by the Partnership Development Team at Great Ormond Street Hospital and Relay Consultants. Accessed from http://www.ich.ucl.ac.uk/cypph/downloads/Organisational-Development-Toolkit.pdf
  • Report of the Facilitating Group, ASD, 1997
  • Scharner, C. Otto (2007), Addressing The Blind Spot Of Our Time. An executive summary of the new book by Otto Scharmer Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges. HTML, retrieved 15:53, 27 July 2007 (MEST).
  • Scharmer, C. Otto (2006), Theory U: Learning from the Future as it Emerges, Fieldnotes: An online Newsletter of the Sahmbhala Institute for Authentic Leadership. PDF. Can be found at http://www.ottoscharmer.com/ (how I hate these Flash sites ...)
  • Scharmer, C. Otto (2006), Excerpt from: THEORY U: Leading from the Emerging Future. Presencing as a Social Technology of Freedom: Introduction. (DRAFT). Can be found at http://www.ottoscharmer.com/
  • Scharmer, C. Otto (2007) Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges. The Society for Organizational Learning, Cambridge, USA.