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Interview: Otto Scharmer, Author of ‘The Essentials of Theory U: Core Principles and Applications’

I had the chance to chat with Otto Scharmer, MIT professor and author of The Essentials of Theory U, which I reviewed for this site. Theory U is an incredible approach to organizations, leadership and innovation that combines hands-on systems change with a larger sense of the common good. Scharmer’s spot-on when it comes to so many issues, from the darker truth behind Facebook — news which had not yet broken at the time of this interview — to the importance of consciousness and collaboration to drive real change.

Can you explain your work at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and with the Presencing Institute? 

I am an action researcher at MIT. Action research works on the principle that you cannot understand a system unless you change it. As a researcher you get involved. You participate in real-world change rather than just observing it. For the past 20 plus years I have participated in and partnered with a variety of change initiatives around the world, including in China, Indonesia, Europe, Africa, Brazil, and North America.

I founded the Presencing Institute because I wanted to create a place that focuses on awareness-based systems change. Systems change means that you focus on the whole system, including the less visible parts — such as behavioral structures and mindsets. Awareness-based systems change basically says that you cannot change a system unless you change the awareness of the people who work inside the system. So it’s not “form follows function,” but “form follows consciousness.”

Why did you want to write an “Essentials” version of Theory U?

When I first wrote Theory U ten years ago, it took me more than five hundred pages to get it all out. Today, my colleagues and I are much more experienced in running these processes, and I can say it much more succinctly. So the Essentials version is shorter, and also more personal.

Can you explain the essence of Presencing?

Presencing is the capacity to sense and actualize your highest future possibility. It’s not forecasting the future. Forecasts are almost always wrong when you’re dealing with moments of disruption. Presencing is about sensing and realizing the future as it emerges. It’s about feeling it with your heart, and seeking it with your hand.

It’s an intimate process that is familiar to creative people and real innovators. When they do their best work, some of the best writers will say, “It’s not me writing, it comes through me.” That’s what presencing is about: connecting with the field of your highest future possibility, and turning your self into a vehicle for acting from that field in the now. It’s a capacity that we need in all sectors and systems of society today.

Talk about the core principles of Theory U. How do they enable us to solve problems?

The core principles and practices of Theory U take place in five stages:

  1. Deepen your listening. Listen with your mind and heart wide open. Listen to others. Listen to what emerges from your self. Listen to what the universe wants you to do.
  2. Build a container for a core team. Then go on sensing journeys that take you to the places of most potential, and allow you see your own system from new angles.
  3. Go to places of stillness where knowing can come to the surface. Retreat and reflect. Allow the inner knowing to emerge.
  4. Crystallize what is wanting to happen — and explore it through rapid-cycle prototyping experiments.
  5. Evolve and scale the new — by co-shaping and cultivating the larger eco-system of innovation that you are part of.

How can we make that shift from an ego-system to an eco-system?

Ego-system awareness is when you are stuck in your own silo-view. It’s a mono-perspective. Eco-system awareness means attending to the whole system from all perspectives and vantage points. The ego-to-eco shift is at the heart of the U process of presencing: We need to let go of rigid silo-views and embrace the perspectives of others by paying attention to the whole. We have learned this is quite doable. But it takes a good container — a good holding space for a group of diverse stakeholders, to go through such a journey together.

How can CEOs use this approach to better shape their business to survive in the future?

As a CEO, your attention is on the next disruption that will redefine your business—and how you can become part of co-shaping it. The core practices or presencing are critical for that, for teaching your organization to co-sense and co-shape the future as it emerges. You need that skill to thrive in environments that are shaped by disruption, which happens to be what our current age is all about.

Talk about the lack of empathy growing in the world. Why is it spreading so quickly, and what can we do about it?

The challenge is to get out of our own bubble. Maybe we feel connected via Facebook. But most of it is illusionary. In fact, we’re stuck inside our own digital bubble. Accessing true empathy looks different. Our platform at MITx u.lab is an example of how you can use technology with an intention that increases rather than decreases real-world empathy. It’s possible. It’s doable. It’s replicable. But it takes more than a platform like Facebook where we, the users, are not partners but a product that is being sold to advertisers.

Are you seeing any instances of leaders working to co-create—as you call it—a better approach to solving hard problems?

Yes, I see it in many cases. As society we have made good progress on problems that you can solve with startups or with solutions inside existing organizations. But it has been much harder to make progress on problems that can only be solved by involving a wide range of diverse stakeholders across an industry and across sectors. Unfortunately, almost all major leadership challenges of our time fall into that category. That’s where the Theory U method can be put to work. We have seen results already, such as sustainable food, to health, education, and relinking the purpose of business with social impact. It’s still early stage. But the proof-of-concept has been created in all these fields.

Not to ask a tough question, but as an educator and a leadership expert, are you optimistic for the future of humanity?  

Anyone who contemplates the data with an open mind has only three options for responding to this question: being in denial, being depressed, or being cynical. Most of us are probably still in denial. The moment you let it in, then you hit the state of depression. And the ticket out of depression of course leads you to cynicism. Even though these three responses are quite familiar to me, they don’t really describe my current state of mind, my own state of being. I am not depressed at all, even though I should be, considering all the facts. And the reason is that I can sense, that I can feel this rise of a movement of people, platforms, and communities in many places that are profoundly regenerating our ways of living, learning, and working together from a new awareness that embodies the essence of our humanity, not its absence.

For more about Otto Scharmer, visit his website

About Patricia Gale

Patricia Gale has written and ghostwritten hundreds of blogs and articles that have appeared on sites such as Psychology Today, Forbes, and Huffington Post, and in countless national newspapers and magazines. Her "beat" is health, business, career, self-help, parenting, and relationships.

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