Dr. Otto Scharmer is an action researcher who co-creates innovations in learning and leadership that he delivers through classes and programs at MIT, MITx U.Lab, the Presencing Institute, and through innovation projects with organizations in business, government, and civil society around the world. He is the author of Theory U, Second Edition and co-author of the newly released Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego-system to Eco-system Economies.
Dr. Scharmer was one of the conveners at a recent gathering at the Institute on Generative Social Fields.
We caught up with Dr. Scharmer to talk about his new book, The Essentials of Theory U: Core Principles and Applications; the exciting research he is doing; and how he is connecting it for practical applications in business and the classroom.
Theresa Riley: How did you get into this work?
Otto Scharmer: I grew up on an organic farm in northern Germany. In fact, my parents were among the pioneers of biodynamic farming in Germany and Europe. Not too far from our farm was one of the main battlefields of the anti-nuke movement back in the ’70s and early ’80s in Europe, which really birthed then the green movement and the peace movement and so on and so forth. And I was very active there.
Anyone who participates in any kind of movement knows that what’s connecting you, what’s driving you as a movement, is this inner knowing that a future that’s very different to what we have now is possible and we feel that together. It’s not you see one thing and I see something else.
We are lucky and grateful when life gives these opportunities to us, this shared feeling and sensing of a future possibility. But in my work, I wondered is there a method that allows you and others to have a reliable way to connect to that space when it’s not there organically, when you face a moment of disruption and when you face an institutional challenge that is a very complex.
Theresa Riley: When we think about academia, we think about long hours spent doing research in a library or field work limited to observation and note-taking, but your work is more interactive than that and involves “action research.” What does it mean to be an action researcher?
Otto Scharmer: Action research was founded by Kurt Lewin and his colleagues in the late 1930s and early 1940s when they came to the US from Europe after the Nazis took power in Germany. One of the founding principles articulated by Lewin is if you want to have a deeper understanding of systems and in particular social systems, you need to engage with them: “You cannot understand a system unless you change it.” You need to participate as a changemaker yourself and that allows you to get access to the deeper levels of the experience of change as opposed to just observing it from the outside.
It was the main reason why I came to the US and MIT. A number of key thinkers in the field happened to be here in the Cambridge area, at MIT with Peter Senge’s Center for Organizational Learning and Ed Schein’s work around process consultation, and Chris Argyris [at Harvard University].
Rather than spending all my time in the classroom and an academic research setting, I spend a lot of time with real change initiatives. Part of my time is on campus at MIT and then other times I go out and I work with communities, I work with organizations and often these are multi-year partnerships. I’m basically a partner in their own transformation journey and transformation process and I help them in terms of context, methods and tools, and sometimes also in delivering and facilitating events.
Theresa Riley: What organizations have you worked with recently in this way?
Otto Scharmer: More recently, I’ve started to work with the United Nations and with UN Week, which is just now starting. As you know, in 2015 the UN adopted 17 SDGs, Sustainable Development Goals, as the global guiding framework for the period between 2015 and 2030. The big question is now that we have all these wonderful sustainable development goals, how are we going to implement them? One of the key challenges is how to bring the stakeholders together in a way that makes them collaborate in more effective ways for collective impact. That involves many UN agencies but also country governments and NGOs and the business community.
Much of my time over the past 10 years really has been moving from single organization, like single company clients, more to multi-stakeholder settings where you have groups of leaders from NGO organizations, from government and also from the business community and media, often media education, working together on some key issue — it’s often related to sustainability challenges.
Theresa Riley: Your recent book, Theory U, sets out the core practices you use in your work facilitating change through collaboration. Can you talk about the concepts of Theory U and how mindfulness practices can be used in the transformation of a group?
Otto Scharmer: Theory U and awareness-based systems change can be summarized in three sentences. You cannot understand a system unless you change it, the Kurt Lewin quote. Secondly, you cannot change a system unless you transform consciousness. And you cannot transform consciousness unless you make the system sense and see itself.
So, for example, when you bring a stakeholder group together around a specific issue, you put them on a journey and then through the journey they learn to see the reality through each other’s eyes. [The goal is] to not only know, but to also feel how someone else is looking at that [issue] and to feel the pain of those that are the most excluded from the process and so on.
The process of what you do throughout the journey—making the system, which is the stakeholders, sense and see itself by creating a body of shared experience that then allows you with that group to unlock a process of thinking together, developing new ideas and then exploring these ideas through prototyping activities. That’s Theory U in a nutshell. You need to move from the thinking to the feeling—which is thinking with your heart—and from there to the doing.
Theresa Riley: One of the core practices of Theory U is the concept of presencing. Can you talk about presencing a little bit for people who aren’t familiar with it?
Otto Scharmer: In practice, presencing is sensing and actualizing your highest future potential and embodying it now. It’s basically what a great coach is doing, what a great leader is doing, what a great educator is doing when you are not bounded by the experience of the past. You can connect with and activate and actualize the highest future possibility in a situation. You see individuals, like great artists and great leaders and great innovators doing that, but it’s largely missing on a collective or institutional level. And that’s where the [Theory] U process tries to facilitate these deeper ways of knowing embodied by, let’s say, these special or particularly developed individuals, at the system level.
Theresa Riley: Who would be an example of this type of person that you’re talking about, a great leader who has that ability naturally?
Otto Scharmer: When I talk about the capacity of the system, it’s not just the CEO, it’s not just the person at the top, it’s the whole team at the top, it’s probably also the team at the front line, it’s everyone who is needed in the system as a whole, shaping or stepping into the emerging future.
But that being said, yes, there are individual leaders. For example, I would say Eileen Fisher, the founder and chair of Eileen Fisher company, is a great example. She is the opposite of the current style of leadership—you could also say the Trump style of leader—where the leadership is organized around the ego.
Feminine leaders remove themselves from the center. Leaders removed from their own ego create space for others. They are good at listening. They are good at holding the space. Many times, these leaders are good at attending to the whole. They excell at helping people to connect to the edges of the system. They actively engage and connect with emerging future potential and holding the space for that [conversation].
You asked me, so what is Theory U? And it’s all of these things—relating and listening and holding the space and bringing something new into reality that’s coming through you. But I could have also mentioned another title for all these aspects and qualities, which is feminine leadership. You could say Theory U is really an articulation of the more feminine side of leadership, which is largely missing in our institutions and culture today. In China we would say the yin and yang, and it’s the yin side that’s missing.
Of course it’s not that we only need one or the other. It’s really about rebalancing, because right now we have too much of one and too little of the other. Rebalancing means paying a lot more attention to the cultivation of these aspects of feminine leadership, particularly as it relates to collective leadership capacity, because in people coming out of business schools and out of leadership training, out of most of our educational system, the subtle side of leadership is not cultivated. Emotional support is not encouraged. And when you talk about consciousness-based leadership or consciousness-based systems change, you cannot do it without it.
Theresa Riley: What are some of the hallmarks of feminine leadership related to this shift from ego to eco-awareness?
Otto Scharmer: To use a different word, it’s going from a silo view to a systems view. And the process of doing that is stepping into the shoes of others and [having the right] tools for reflection and listening because often there’s a great deal of difficulty when you are exposed to people with very different views than you hold yourself.
There is actually a missing capacity to connect to that. You have to suspend your habits of judgment (open mind) and also have the capacity to access your empathy and compassion (open heart). Leaders need to showcase examples. They need to give frameworks and offer practices that engage people every day and you need a support system with whom you review these things.
If you put the support structure into place, it’s amazing how much can happen in just a short time and it’s most amazing to the participants themselves. So I would say in this ego to eco shift, the two main ingredients are the deepening of the listening and exposing yourself to very different viewpoints within your own system. It’s very doable. But only if you build an infrastructure in support of it. And when you put the supporting infrastructure into place, it actually is much more scalable than you would think at the outset.
In our U.Lab, we have seen over 120,000 people go through this in the past few years. We have seen quite a significant impact on those who went through this, the full cycle. I think we have seen the success of applying mindfulness on the cultivation of the individual, but what is generally still missing is how the power of mindfulness can be used in the transformation of the collective and the transformation of the larger system. I think that’s the new frontier and if you look at the crisis in the world today, one that needs to be addressed. Here is a blog where I explore that topic a bit more.
Theresa Riley is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer, Web producer and digital strategist whose work has been featured on BillMoyers.com, TED blog, PBS Online and TIME.com.