Have you ever wondered why we are stuck in so many quagmires as we attempt to make major change in business, organizations and even society itself? We might find an explanation from Einstein through his well-known observation that we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them, but how do we do that?
Otto Scharmer, senior lecturer at MIT, argues in his book,Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges (2nd edition 2016) that we not only require a new way of thinking, we need a new consciousness as well. He asserts "the cause of our collective failure is that we are blind to the deeper dimension of leadership and transformational change. This 'blind spot' exists not only in our collective leadership but also in our everyday social interactions." We are blind to what Scharmer calls the "source dimension" from which effective leadership and social action come into being. He points out, "we know a great deal about what leaders do, and how they do it, but we know very little about the inner place, the source from which they operate."
"Successful leadership depends on the quality of attention and intention that the leader brings to any situation. Two leaders in the same circumstances doing the same thing can bring about completely different outcomes, depending on the inner place from which each operates." --Otto Scharmer
Theory U speaks to me because it is both a framework for creativity, and a roadmap for transformational leadership. I am also fascinated by how Theory U came into being via interviews with business leaders on accessing deep states of awareness and attention. Brian Arthur, the founding head of the economics group at the Santa Fe Institute, and Visiting Researcher in the Intelligent Systems Lab at PARC (formerly Xerox Parc) illuminating insights have formed the basis for Theory U.
According to Arthur there are two fundamentally different sources of cognition. One is the application of existing frameworks (downloading) and the other is accessing one's inner knowing: "All true innovation in science, business, and society is based on the latter, not on 'downloading.'"
Accessing your inner knowing is based on three movements of perception which sound very much like the practices of a Zen artist, and if you examine how the most successful creative people work in any domain, you will see that they follow this pattern:
The U process in three movements
The first movement is to "observe, observe, observe." Arthur says we need to stop downloading and start listening. It means to abandon our habitual ways of operating and immerse ourselves in the places of most potential for the situation we are dealing with. "The real power comes from recognizing patterns that are forming and fitting with them."
The second movement is to "retreat and reflect: allow the inner knowing to emerge." This requires going to the inner place of stillness where inner knowing comes to the surface. We listen to everything we learned while "observing," and we attend to what wants to emerge. "In a sense, there is no decision making, he says, "what to do becomes obvious. you can't rush it. Much of it depends on where you're coming from and who you are as a person. This has a lot of implications for management...what counts is where you're coming from inside yourself."
The third movement is about "acting in an instant." Prototype the new in order to explore the future by doing, to "create a little landing strip of the future that allows for hands-on testing and experimentation."
Scharmer calls this whole process the U process, because it can be depicted and understood as a U-shaped journey. "Presencing;" (a blend of the words "presence" and "sensing") is central to the journey. Presencing is about accessing inner knowing and bringing into presence, into the present, your highest potential and the future that is seeking to emerge.
Presencing 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 real future possibility that is seeking to emerge." Being able to facilitate that shift is, according to Scharmer, the essence of leadership today.
Read part 2 of Theory U: The Seven Essential Leadership Capacities That Help You Shape the Future