Theory U


Theory U proposes that the quality of the results that we create in any kind of social system is a function of the quality of awareness, attention, or consciousness that the participants in the system operate from. 

Since it emerged around 2006, Theory U has come to be understood in three primary ways: first as a framework; second, as a method for leading profound change; and third, as a way of being - connecting to the more authentic of higher aspects of our self.

Shifting the Inner Place from Which We Operate

During an interview, Bill O’Brien, the late CEO of Hanover Insurance, summarized his most important insights from leading transformational change in his own company. O’Brien said: “The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener.” We might say it this way: the success of our actions as change-makers does not depend on What we do or How we do it, but on the Inner Place from which we operate (see Figure 1).

When Otto first heard Bill O’Brien say that he thought, “What do I really know about this inner place? I know nothing! Do we have one or several or an infinite number of these places?” He did not know because that place is in the blind spot of our everyday experience. We can observe what we do and how we do it. But the quality of the source (or inner place) from which we operate in “the Now” tends to be outside the range of our normal observation, attention, and awareness.

That puzzling insight into the deeper source level of social reality creation set us on an intriguing path of inquiring and integrating recent findings in leadership, management, economics, neuroscience, contemplative practice and complexity research. The essence of that view is that we cannot transform the behavior of systems unless we transform the quality of awareness and attention that people apply to their actions within these systems, both individually and collectively.

Blind Spot slide

Fig. 1: The Blind Spot of Leadership

Leading From the Emerging Future

In exploring this territory more deeply, we realized that most of the existing learning methodologies relied on learning from the past, while most of the real leadership challenges in organizations seemed to require something quite different: letting go of the past in order to connect with and learn from emerging future possibilities.

We realized that this second type of learning—learning from the emerging future—not only had no methodology, but also had no real name. And yet innovators, entrepreneurs, and highly creative people all express an intimate relationship with this deeper source of knowing. Otto started referring to it as Theory U and “presencing.” Presencing is a blended word combining “sensing” (feeling the future possibility) and “presence” (the state of being in the present moment): presencing means “sensing and actualizing one’s highest future possibility—acting from the presence of what is wanting to emerge.”

The proposition of Theory U, that the quality of results in any kind of socio-economic system is a function of the awareness that people in the system are operating from, leads to a differentiation between four levels of awareness. These four levels of awareness affect where actions originate relative to the boundaries of the system.  Consider the example of listening.

We call the first level of listening downloading. Downloading describes habitual behavior and thought and results in “same old, same old” behaviors and outcomes: This type of listening originates from the center of our habits, from what we already know from past experience.

In contrast, level 4 listening, called presencing, represents a state of the social field in which the circle of attention widens and a new reality enters the horizon and comes into being. In this state, listening originates outside the world of our preconceived notions. We feel as if we are connected to and operating from a widening surrounding sphere. As the presence of this heightened state of attention deepens, time seems to slow down, space seems to open up, and the experience of the self morphs from a single point (ego) to a heightened presence and stronger connection to the surrounding sphere (eco).

What does it take for individuals, teams, institutions, and larger systems to perform the same sort of shift from downloading to presencing? 

We answer this question in much more detail in two books, Theory U and Leading From the Emerging Future. But for now, let us share a few key principles that reflect what we have learned over the past few years and that may resonate with some of your own experiences. To view the principles of presencing, click here.