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
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.
Otto Scharmer is a Senior Lecturer at MIT, a Thousand Talents Program Professor at Tsinghua University, and co-founder of the Presencing Institute. He also chairs the MIT IDEAS program for cross-innovation in China and Indonesia. Otto introduced the concept of “presencing” — learning from the emerging future — in his bestselling books Theory U and Presence (the latter co-authored with P. Senge et al.). His book Leading From the Emerging Future: From Ego-system to Eco-system Economies (co-authored with K. Kaufer) applies the concept of mindfulness to the transformation of capitalism.
In 2015 he co-founded the MITx u.lab, a massive open online course (MOOC) that pioneers a blended o2o (online-to-offline) learning platform to enable transformational leadership learning for tens of thousands of participants in self-organized communities across 185 countries.
Otto earned his diploma (with distinction) and PhD (summa cum laude) from Witten/Herdecke University in Germany. In 2015 he received the Jamieson Prize for Excellence in Teaching at MIT.
For more information: www.presencing.com