Interview with Otto Scharmer, Author of ‘The Essentials of Theory U: Core Principles and Applications’
I’m really intrigued by this idea of working and leading from the future. Can you explain that a bit more?
Sure. When you talk to real innovators in business, technology, science or society, they work differently than most of us. They first feel or sense the future, and then they try to follow that thread and make it happen. It’s the opposite of how most people think, which is that the future is a distant place, far away from the present moment. The problem is: how can we move from ‘here’ to ‘there’? Innovators first connect to the future with their heart, and then they operate from that felt connection in the now. So you operate from the future, not towards it.
How can we achieve presencing, and how can we avoid its opposite, absencing?
Presencing means to sense and actualize the highest future possibility in the now. Absencing is the opposite: it’s means being disconnected from the environment outside your bubble, and frozen in your past identities and intentions. Absencing is based on a closed mind (not seeing the new), closed heart (not feeling outside of your bubble, no empathy), and a closed will (no capacity to let go of the old and allow the new to take its place). So what do we call a system that exhibits these three features? We call it fundamentalism. But there is more than religious fundamentalism today. There’s also techno-fundamentalism — the idea that any problem can be solved by technological advances.
It seems like your book is a way to overcome the toll of our own political situation these days. How can we use these principles of repair the damage?
Our own political situation is characterized by absencing. Look at Washington DC: Trump won in 2016 because he articulated this feeling. Now he is amplifying the absencing, which is no surprise. I believe we face three major challenges today: To reinvent our politics to make it more direct-democratic, distributed and dialogic. To reinvent our economy by shifting our ego-system economy to an eco-system economy that focuses on the well-being of all. And to reinvent our media and learning systems to allow everyone to activate the deeper sources of co-creativity and learning.
Can you explain the U-process?
We refer to the process of presencing as a U process, with three main stages. First, you go down the left side of the U, and observe, observe, observe — getting out of your own bubble to connect to places of most potential. Second, you spend time at the bottom of the U, retreating and reflecting in a place of stillness, where knowing comes to surface. Then, third, you go up the U again, exploring the future by doing.
You also talk about the opening process — where we actually open our minds and hearts. What is the purpose of this process, and how can we learn to do it on our own?
It’s all about deepening how you listen. And it starts at the beginning of the U, the foundation of everything. You learn to improve how you listen, from basic habitual listening, where we just hear what we already know, up to factual listening, when we have to open our minds and pay attention to what I call “disconfirming data,” and then to empathic listening, where you see the situation through others’ eyes, such as employees or stakeholders. And finally, you reach a stage called generative listening, when you can consider the highest future potential in a specific context or situation. That’s what great leaders, coaches, and innovators do.
What kinds of theories and approaches influenced your creating Theory U?
Theory U belongs to the family of systems thinking and systems change, but extends it by paying attention to shifts in consciousness. So it’s not form follows function, but form follows consciousness. And it integrates three additional approaches and influences: phenomenology, mindfulness, and design thinking.
Phenomenological practice is about refining our tools in accessing experiential data. It’s about deep data. As the late cognitive scientist Fransisco Varela put it, “We have to become black belts in accessing our experience.” Mindfulness is about paying attention to your attention. The past decade or two we have seen mindfulness moving from marginal to almost mainstream, but more about the cultivation of the individual than the collective. Theory U applies the power of mindfulness to the transformation of the collective. It’s not enough to, say, help bankers of Goldman Sachs to do the same old things — basically Wall Street screwing Main Street with extractive practices — just a little more effectively. We need to transform how money is being used in our economy. And design thinking is about exploring the future by doing, engaging in rapid cycle prototyping.
Who do you admire in terms of leaders and innovators?
Eileen Fisher: She has the courage to question the purpose of business, and to link the purpose of her business with the well-being of all. She connects the transformation of her own company with the transformation of the entire industry. Lucy Peng represents the less visible feminine side of leadership, which has made the Alibaba group the most powerful force in internet commerce today. Peng is the chair of Ant Financial, the world’s most valuable fintech. She believes altruism is the original intention behind business and finance. “Altruism and optimism are the two main forces that propel our civilization forward,” she says. Emma Gonzales and her fellow students have catalyzed a deeper level of humanity in our country and in our world in just a few weeks. I am deeply inspired by Gonzales’ words, and the collective presence of her speech in stillness.
Do you think we’re too late to fix the problems facing us in the future, such as climate change and the refugee crisis?
We’re late — but not too late. The human capacity to face adversity and access deeper levels of our humanity is beyond our imagination. We live in a difficult time — of ending and beginnings. So each of us faces a very personal question: do we want to belong to a story that revolves around holding on to the past, or go about sensing and actualizing our highest future possibility? Never before has there been a generation on this planet whose decisions have such a significant impact on the future. That is our gift, and also our responsibility.