Otto Scharmer’s U Theory for reacting to the critical stages

Otto Scharmer‘s U Theory, also called the Theory of the leadership blind point, is a useful starting point for reflecting on the ways in which companies, and organisations in general, react in moments of crisis. When a corporate organisation goes into crisis, common sense should activate a change in strategies, behaviour, organisational processes and leadership styles however, on the contrary we often see an attempt to resolve the problems using the same ideas that created them. Why does this happen? Otto Scharmer, a professor at MIT in Boston and founder of the Presencing Institute, says that until now, leadership and management have been widely studied at the level of product and process, but much less at the level of deep motivation. He uses an artist as an example we know a lot about the painting (the product) and the painting techniques (process) but we don’t know much about what happens just before facing the blank canvas, about what drives the artist to paint a landscape rather than a portrait or an abstract, a miniature rather than a large fresco. Scharmer’s U Theory analyses reality in depth, trying to reach a blind point by overturning the usual process with which one starts from the past to create a future which is similar to that past. The process of analysis and research digs deep, getting rid of the shackles of the past and of habits, of consolidated ideas and prejudices, until we find true self-consciousness in the blind point, from which we get the strength to go back up, attracted by a future that is different from everything we have left behind in the past. The U model is used not only in coaching, in organisational consultancy, and in team building but also at an individual level. As Scharmer says, this is nothing new but it is only the reorganisation of pre-existing ideas, from Zen to deep psychology, from strategic problem solving to different intelligences and the tools of creativity and overall quality. The graph that summarises this theory shows how the red arrow, which goes from the past towards the future, reaches a future that is similar to the past, thus preventing us from arriving in a new, different future. This is attainable only by freeing ourselves from consolidated habits, descending deep inside ourselves towards the blind point and then going back up towards a truly new future, which calls us and pulls us towards it. Scharmer calls routine attitudes downloading, meaning that we download acquired knowledge, past experiences, preconceived ideas, even clichés, and we only listen to those who think like us, without carrying out any original, critical analysis. It is the past that pretends to project itself in a tomorrow in which it assumes that everything will continue as before. In order to reach a true future of change, in which current problems and new problems need new solutions, we must leave the convenient superficial highway and descend below, with a process of diving and resurfacing which has a typical U shape. The journey through the U is carried out with the development of seven essential leadership skills.

  1. Listening Listening is a fundamental skill of the U: listening to others, yourself, what comes out of the collective. Efficient listening requires the creation of an open space in which others can contribute to everything.
  2. Observing The ability to interrupt the “voice of judgement” is the key to moving from one’s own projection to a real observation. You can not only see what you already knew but you can discover things you didn’t know or that didn’t seem pertinent.
  3. Sensing In order to reach the experience of presencing which is found in the lower part of the U, you need three tools: an open mind, an open heart and open will. This opening process isn’t passive, it is an active way of feeling united as a group. An open mind goes beyond downloading and perceives reality with new, unprejudiced eyes, an open heart allows us to see a situation in its entirety, and an open will pushes us to act to bring out a new whole.
  4. PresencingThe ability to connect to the deepest part of oneself and to one’s will helps us to let go of everything that is known and taken for granted, and allows one to let out the future, making it emerge from the whole of the system rather than from a partial element or from a single group of particular interest. It is as if the future pulls itself out of the depth of experience and attracts itself like a magnet.
  5. Crystallising When a small group of people who are important for the organisation commits itself to the purpose and results of a project, the strength of their intentions creates an energy field that attracts the people, opportunities and resources that make things happen, just like the mineral process of crystallisation. This central group becomes a vehicle towards the future for all the other groups.
  6. Prototyping Going down the left side of the U requires the group to open itself and face resistance to thoughts, emotions and wills, while going up the right side requires the integration of thoughts, feelings and wills in the context of practical applications and learning by doing.
  7. Performing An excellent violinist once said that in the cathedral of Chartres he couldn’t only play his violin, he had to “play” the entire space, which he called the “macroviolin”, in order to do justice to both the space and the music. In the same way, organisations must work at this macro level: they need to summon the right set of players (people on the front line who are connected in the same chain of value) and to start a social technology that achieves a multi-stakeholder union which will pass from discussing to creating something new together.

The Presence Institute is the community of theory and training to which the U Theory refers. The U Theory drives people and organisations to move towards an emerging future. Umberto Santucci

written by: Umberto Santucci , 24 January 2014

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