Book Review: Theory U: Leading From the Future as it Emerges—The Social Technology of Presencing

Matthew Kalman

Matthew KalmanTheory U CoverC. Otto Scharmer, Theory U: Leading From the Future as it Emerges—The Social Technology of Presencing. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Society for Organizational Learning, 2007, xxiv, 533 pages.

Scharmer’s book on the ‘U process’ comes across as part theory, part manifesto for social change and part personal odyssey. And the new ‘social leadership technology’ he offers also comes highly recommended: Ken Wilber calls it “a brilliant, provocative, and important book on the leading edge of the ‘next big thing’: integral thought”.

The U, Scharmer tells us, depicts a flow from our current, habitual self to our future ‘Self’. And what takes place at the heart—the lowest point—of the U is the profound, yet overlooked, process of ‘Presencing’, which he describes as “a blend of the words “presence” and “sensing”, [which] signifies a heightened state of attention that allows individuals and groups to shift the inner place from which they function”.

“When that shift happens, people begin to operate from a future space of possibility that they feel wants to emerge.” And this is all directly relevant to leadership too: “Being able to facilitate that shift is…the essence of leadership today”.

“Our old leadership is crumbling similar to the way the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989,” says Scharmer. This ‘Presencing’ that is at the bottom of the U matters so much – it is “our deepest source of knowing and being” – yet remains a ‘blind spot’ in our consciousness. Scharmer is himself seeking to create “a globally distributed Presencing-In-Action Leadership School…or movement”, which is currently known as the Presencing Institute.

The U’s 5 stages (imagine them in a U shape, with stage 3 at the foot of the U and stage 1 and 5 as the two top ends) are:

1. Co-initiating – Build Common Intent (stop and listen to others and to what life calls you to do)

2. Co-sensing – Observe, Observe, Observe (go to the places of most potential and listen with your mind and heart wide open)

3. Presencing – Connect to the Source of Inspiration, and Will (go to the place of silence and allow the inner knowing to emerge)

4. Co-creating – Prototype the New (in living examples to explore the future by doing)

5. Co-evolving – Embody the New in Eco Ecosystems (that facilitate seeing and acting from the whole)

For Wilber, this U process “is a fantastic technology to speed up the developmental process of people growing into the higher and wider reaches of their own potential” and can be used at almost any stage of development. It can help to “teach somebody who, in terms of Spiral Dynamics, is Blue or Orange or Green how to be the most effective change agents that they can be at their stage.” (For Wilber, the U Process works because it is touching into the ‘ever-present states’ of waking/gross, dreaming/subtle, deep sleep/causal, the Witness and the non-dual).

Seven Theory U Leadership Capacities

The point of journeying through the “U” is also to develop seven essential leadership capacities, Scharmer tells us. These are:

1. Holding the Space (listening to oneself and others)

2. Observing (suspending the voice of judgement)

3. Sensing (connecting to open mind, open heart, open will – in preparation for the experience at the bottom of the U)

4. Presencing (connecting to the deepest source of your self and will and allowing the future to emerge from the whole)

5. Crystallizing (a small group of key persons commit to the project, their energy field attracts resources and others)

6. Prototyping (integrating Head, Heart, and Hand in practical applications)

7. Performing

“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”, explains Scharmer. There’s even a three-step version of the U: observe, observe, observe; retreat and reflect: allow the inner knowing to emerge; act in an instant (informed by the Santa Fe Institute’s W. Brian Arthur).

Of course, this is only the basics. Scharmer offers all manner of related models and further theoretical elucidations in this 550-page book. There’s the 21 propositions of social field theory, the twelve management functions, the three types of complexity, the U-space of social emergence versus the shadow-space of social pathology, the four barriers to organisational learning and change, the 8 lessons of learning communities etc. Plus there’s a lot about going up the other side of the U –exploring the processes of crystallising and prototyping etc.

By now – if you’re not already familiar with Scharmer’s work – you might well be asking yourself, but how do you actually do this, who’s actually using it in the real world? I was certainly asking myself these questions. I’ll try to answer them (though bear in mind the point Peter Senge’s makes in his foreword to the book, that “practical know-how in implementing the U is still in its infancy”).

I get the overall sense from Scharmer that the ideal Presencing/U Theory experience is a retreat workshop that follows the U. It should be in a location that is “remote”, with “access to nature for extended (if possible overnight) solo retreats.” Participants should be able to “live and work there more or less non-stop for a full week.” But if that isn’t going to be possible, another of the items in Scharmer’s armoury is a ‘U Journaling Practice’ – that takes only an hour or two. In fact he says that most people recognise the first two levels of the U—downloading and seeing—but aren’t so sure about 3 and 4, sensing and presencing. But, upon reflection, “most people find the hidden gold of their various threshold experiences relatively quickly.” The movement down to the bottom of the U can, in fact, happen “in any situation”…“when doing a four-week meditation retreat or when messing up the dishwasher in your home kitchen.” Being with others who operate from the deeper levels can help, and “that can be a three-year old”.

A plain-English explanation of the U that Scharmer gives is: “create the intention to solve a problem, dive into it, work like crazy, break the flow (stop), pay attention to the ideas that start to slip in through the back door of your mind; then develop and embody the idea.” A reassuringly down-to-earth practice he suggests is: “Focus on what really matters. Work a lot. Take a shower. Get an illuminating idea. Dry yourself off and prototype the idea.”

Scharmer once asked a top executive at Nokia to share her most important leadership practices – as her team had time and again anticipated major changes in technology and context. She answered, “I facilitate the opening process”. “This is the essence of what moving down the left side of the U is all about—facilitating an opening process”, Scharmer stated.

Scharmer offers detailed examples of the U in practice, including a doctors’ network (for a 300,000-person rural area near Frankfurt) which used the U in a number of ways, including a one-day meeting designed around the U. Hewlett Packard has applied the U “in change efforts within its digital photography business portfolio” and this has spread to its Imaging and Printing group. Shell, too, has “applied some key elements of Theory U in change efforts at Shell EP Europe.”

Scharmer and colleagues have conducted award-winning U-based leadership programmes with PwC, Daimler and Fujitsu, indeed “all newly promoted directors use the U method” at Daimler. The author also runs through a series of interesting creative and collaborative innovations that have taken place in organisations like Cisco and Schlumberger. I’ve been told, also, that the faculty at Pacific Integral—which offers an 18-month development program for integral change leaders— have been using the U for several years, upgrading it with each new presentation. Their first U presentation is 1.5 days, and further deepening processes follow—with the entire process taking almost a year.

Scharmer is also very impressed by an all-women Circle of Seven which “has cultivated the practices of deep listening and presence over many years”, resulting in “deeper professional and personal presence and proficiency”. He is eager to set up a ‘Social Presencing Theatre’ that “will synthesize all creative arts, theater, social change techniques, energy awareness methods, contemplative practices and dialogue”, with the audience as co-creators (i.e., the whole U, in 2 hours).

Overall, he concludes, “the trick is to move through the U not once but many times, maybe even daily.” Scharmer is so effusive about his very personal U Process pet project (“a quest”, he calls it) that it’s easy to pick some little holes in it.

Let me list a few of the threads and topics that also weave through his text: global transformation; abandoning “conventional ways of reacting and operating”; how US media coverage makes it “OK to kill ‘lesser humans’, wherever they exist”; Scharmer’s new Galileo-like breakthrough; the “oppressive system”; apocalyptic prophecies of ecological and other breakdowns (Scharmer believes our global system will “hit the wall” in 2012 or earlier); small groups of idealistic revolutionaries (linked by morphic fields?) who ‘arise from the rubble’ to grow a movement and bring salvation (that Margaret Mead quote pops up yet again); planetary ‘acupuncture points’; and a ‘Global Action University’.

Doesn’t all this appear to be well into the territory of the baby-boomer/Green value meme mind set that Wilber has often lampooned and lambasted in recent years (e.g., in Boomeritis)? Yet Wilber himself has come down very strongly in favour of the U. Scharmer certainly recounts a Boomer-like heritage, talking about the inspiration he drew from peace guru Johan Galtung, the anti-nuke protests of the 70s and 80s, growing up on a pioneering biodynamic (Steiner) farm etc. He certainly doesn’t appear to have been through the kind of soul-searching reappraisal of leftism recounted by, say, the Integral Institute’s one-time Chief Operating Officer Keith Thompson (in his book ‘Leaving the Left – moments in the news that made me ashamed to be a liberal’) or by the UK’s left wing Guardian journalist Andrew Anthony (author of The Fallout: How a Guilty Liberal Lost His Innocence).

Indeed, perhaps the book rather shoots itself in the foot by being so brimful of wordings most appropriate to the (Maslowian) inner-directed ‘Pioneer’ or (Paul Ray’s) ‘Cultural Creative’ mentality. Scharmer appears to have little time or place for those image-conscious outer-directed, or traditional-minded conservative, folks who inconsiderately make up the majority of society. Wilber was spot on with his pretty standard suggestion that the language of Presencing will need to be fine-tuned—or rather, segmented—if it is to appeal to folks centred across different levels.

In fact the issue of soul-searching reappraisals brings up another query for me. Scharmer tells us about a number of great lessons he’s learnt on the way to his U theory. Yet they all feel somehow too consonant with one another; we don’t hear of any wrenching re-appraisals. In a book which is clearly so personal, he talks a lot about a traumatic fire at his family farm where he saw his teenage life’s possessions destroyed; I wondered why there might not have been more of a spiraling, dialectical process, more about the painful loss of past selves, about u-turns and dead-ends in personal growth, about ‘Shadow’ material.

Though Wilber is mentioned in the book, the AQAL model is not a lens much used. In fact, Scharmer swiftly, and suggestively, subsumes AQAL into the U: “The journey of the U is a journey of integrating all the levels and quadrants that Wilber talks about in his integral theory”. Quadrants become intertwined “the closer we get to the bottom of the U…until…they all collapse into a single point –the point of stillness and creation.”

As mentioned earlier, Wilber argues that the U is a wonderful technology for experiencing the great states of consciousness and Scharmer even at one point maps Wilber’s stages of the self (and Kegan’s and Torbert’s) onto the U (i.e., to pick some examples: impulsive-opportunist maps to Scharmer’s ‘downloading’, Presencing itself maps to psychic, postformal/interindividual, and ironist. The final ‘Performing’ phase connects to Wilber’s integrated/nondual). I’m not yet wholly convinced by this or able to straighten out the muddle of stages and states, and I’m not sure whether Scharmer is aware of Wilber’s recent fundamental shift depicted in the ‘Wilber-Combs Lattice’ (where Psychic, Subtle, Causal and Non-dual are no longer vertical stages of development, but are horizontal states available to everyone). Scharmer even wonders whether Wilber’s all-quadrant approach is exhaustive: “one could argue that it lacks the most important dimension: the I-Thou world Martin Buber wrote about.”

Scharmer also discusses how single-, double- and ‘beyond double’-loop learning fit in to the stages of the U. I’d love to know how this can be squared with Professor Bill Torbert’s findings on how single-, double- and triple-loop learning become possible only as later, more complex, leadership ‘action logic’ stages emerge. Also on the Torbert theme, Scharmer often talks about different types of attention (e.g., third-person views, I-in-it, I-in-me etc.) and how so little learning from the future takes place (“virtually all well-known theories of learning focus on learning from the past”). Yet 9 of the 27 potential categories of action research attention Torbert offers are future-focused (and he offers 24 example practices for this nine). I’d love to see how many of these available 27 categories ‘U Theory’ pays attention to—in the light of Torbert’s suggestion that the most complex ‘action logics’, the most effective leaders, will employ a greater number of the 27 potential types of action research.

The U process is, in fact, described as being based on an ability to engage in single, double and ‘beyond double’-loop learning, and an ability to put oneself into “a position of vulnerability”, but isn’t finding all these capacities present at once a rather rare achievement of only a few who reach most complex action logics, rather than an immediate option for everyone? (A contrast with Wilber’s view that the U process can be used at “any level”).

As is perhaps implicit in Scharmer’s ‘U in the shower’ example, the U is arguably in some ways merely some nice new clothes for a set of fairly well established findings about creativity and ‘flow’. For instance, the leading UK transpersonal/integral psychotherapist John Rowan – in his 1993 book The Transpersonal: Psychotherapy and Counseling—mentions how he accesses creativity in workshops: “Close your eyes. Repeat the problem three times to yourself [by this time in the workshop we have clarified the problem a great deal], and go into a place of not-knowing. Wait for the answer to emerge. It may come as sentence, as an image, as a sound, smell or taste, or in some other way; just wait and let it come.”

Apparently, though, when teaching people about Theory U, Scharmer makes clear that it’s not building a new theory that is his aim, as much as co-creating a new language to talk about the practices and processes that are in use already—and helping people use this in organisations. It would be interesting, to me, to hear more still of the antecedents of ‘Presencing’/U and also how it might relate to processes like AH Almaas’ Inquiry or Andrew Cohen’s Enlightened Communication group process.

Occasionally I wonder at some of Scharmer’s confident assertions. Hitler’s secretary “didn’t leave the [Berlin] bunker because she was caught in a deadly pattern of absencing”; “she lost the connection to her authentic self and ended up participating in the practices of antiemergence”, he says. But maybe she simply thought she would be killed by one of the Russian bombs raining down all around and preferred the 11-metre thick walls that protected her? (Pretty well, in actual fact, as she survived the war unscathed).

I’ve had to overcome other minor, verging on the petty, ‘red flags’ with the book. Scharmer’s regular metaphors relating to soil, seeds, fields, etc. remind me of the musings of the dim-witted gardener mistaken for a philosophical genius in the great Peter Sellers film Being There. Silly, I know. Scharmer does at times also come out with New Age-sounding comments like: “follow your bliss”, “step into our real power” and “love is unconditional”. He even manages to include ‘wisdom’. I’ve actually read on a bumper sticker: “the mind works like a parachute: it only functions when it is open”. And to quote insights from the drug-inspired prophetic 2012 ramblings of Daniel Pinchbeck doesn’t lend much additional credence to anything. In fact, rather the reverse, one suspects. But Scharmer also engages at greater length with the likes of Castells, Varela, Schein, Heidegger, Habermas, et al, so my intellectual alarm bells/snobbery can calm down.

Though I’m left slightly in two minds about U Theory and practice, the book certainly leaves me wanting to learn more, to dive into the process, to try Scharmer’s exercises (such as his four-step meditation by way of reflective journaling or visual imagination). So far I’ve surely only scratched the surface with my attempt to mentally understand the book. It certainly is, as per Senge’s foreword, a book for ‘reflective practitioners’, something I think all ILR readers surely aspire to be.

Additional source material:

* Presencing Institute: (for 2 page overview or 17 page exec summary, or even a free printed exec summary)

Matthew Kalman MA, is a founder member of the Integral Institute, and launched the London Integral Circle in 2000. The group has hosted Integral Institute founder members including Susanne Cook-Greuter, Don Beck, John Rowan, and Rabbi Michael Lerner at events attracting up to 300 people. He has worked with Henley Management College to develop the first model of Integral Knowledge Management. Matthew works as a media professional and lives with his family in London, England.