Why do national and international policies fail to solve global problems? How can we transform larger systems and empower sustainable social change? Picture credit: Paul Souders/ National Geographic
The best way to familiarise oneself with Theory U (Scharmer & Senge, 2009) is to read the executive summary compiled by its inventor, Prof. Otto Scharmer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) which can he found online here.
As a most general definition, Theory U is a field theory for evoking and maintaining sustainable social change. What distinguishes Theory U from most cognitive theories and research is its emphasis is on the inner cultivation of mindfulness as well as reflected attention and intention that change leaders bring to the situation. With government agencies, NGOs, multinational corporations and local communities embracing Theory U all over the world (such as e.g., Oxfam, UNICEF, the World Wildlife Fund, Unilever, Nissan, Hewlett-Packard, Daimler, Pricewaterhouse Coopers or Alibaba, to name a few), Theory U has already established itself as a powerful leader in social change initiation and management.
In the following, I like to compare Theory U with Problem-based Learning (PBL) as another well-established methodology to solve problems and to design new solutions. The comparison serves mainly to position Theory U under the aspect of social solutions development rather than to conclude a judgment. Secondly, I like to investigate the psychological foundations of Theory U. I will argue in favour of Theory U that the call for an open mind, open heart and open will has a profound grounding in contemporary social psychology.
Where research and policies currently fail
To start with, as an educator and scientist, I find it frustrating how the incredible amount of empirical research conducted on education in Germany, as an example, stands in no relation to the meagre progress achieved in public education systems. In contemporary educational research, students are measured as objects within learning processes. They perform tests, get videotaped, analysed and asked to fill out all sorts of questionnaires, but they are rarely invited as active participants in redesigning education, nor do researchers intend to.
In most empirical research, the human mind is regarded as a machine that isolates, stores and retrieves knowledge, not as a medium to interconnect wholes and one that involves spontaneity, compassion or working on wholes larger than the self, to quote Berkeley psychologist Prof. Eleanor Rosch. Scharmer calls this dilemma the ‘analysis paralysis’. Contemporary research deals predominantly with data-driven description, but to a lesser extent with prediction and most rarely with application and intervention. However, when dealing with people it is mind-states, awareness of cognitive habits, emotions and motivation that matter – not as a source of data collection to build hypothesised models but to serve as a shared information network to evoke collaborative social development.
A comparison to PBL
PBL, by comparison, is a methodology to develop solutions on a factual level. With its origins in medical education and applications in law, business, engineering and design PBL is primarily focused on objects. However, when it comes to design education (such as e.g., collaborative human-centred design) where mutual adjustment and collective-emergent solutions development play a central role, the borders between Theory U and Design Thinking become permeable and overlaps between PBL, Design Thinking and Theory U exist. In terms of process stages, PBL and Theory U follow both the general cognitive paradigm of procedural information collection, information processing and solutions development. This is also where most similarities end.
As Theory U has been developed from the ground up as a cooperative, people-centred approach, theoretical analysis and research give way to an empathising and action-based methodology that aims for rapid co-created prototyping in the style of collaborative workshops. Secondly, the inner mind-states of participants and coaches cannot be separated or distanced from the process as objectified knowledge or content. Participants retain ownership of knowledge creation at any stage of downloading, presencing and performing.
‘Sensing’ entails anticipating the highest point of future possibilities while ‘presencing’ serves to connect to one’s inner source of inspiration in a tranquil and contemplative state. As psychologists, we could also describe ‘presencing’ as a truly autonomous state that is not compromised by fears, anxieties or pressured by external expectations (Ryan et al., 2012). Autonomy ís structured twofold in this understanding. Firstly, as authentic self-governance and secondly, as a means to keep autonomy open towards future possibilities while avoiding identity foreclosure by externalities.
Above: The process stages of Theory U. In essence, the theory relates social patterns of the past with the highest level of possibilities of the future. In the stage of ‘presencing’, social change leaders become self-aware of their intrinsic motivations and true motives.
To me, this is one of the profound differences not only to PBL but to most empirical approaches where knowledge is created for client-oriented contexts. In Theory U, the client is us. To this extent, there are no right or wrong theories, it is just that we have to decide if we (a) intend to create new knowledge to serve external clients or if we (b) want to create knowledge in order to collaboratively transform institutions, communities and ecosystems. The choice of employed theory and methodology depends on the nature of desired outcomes.
The connection to psychological theories
But how is Theory U connected to psychology? Arguably, Scharmer’s call for an open mind, open heart and open will sounds both enticing as much as it appears, on face value, not grounded in any specific scientific approach. Theory U is a pragmatic action-based approach that follows an agentic psychology (Bandura, 2006) where participants create desired futures rather than limit themselves to become passive onlookers on their own behaviour. The philosophy questions the strength of behavioural and reductionist research approaches: How relevant and valid is empirical research if it cannot inform in situ real-world changes? The root of science, to argue with Aristotle, is to demonstrate causality. Obviously, Theory U works well as a pragmatic approach to facilitate real-world progress. But is there any science behind it?
For sceptics, I suggest connecting the following tried-and-tested ideas.
- The outer layer of Theory U follows, as mentioned, the universal information processing paradigm of information collection, processing and decision-making that we find in behavioral-cognitive psychology (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979).
- The move from a field structure of the me-world (where facts only serve to confirm pre-existing patterns) to a field structure of the it-world (where facts prompt a revision of the current belief model) is well described in the concept of Cognitive Dissonance (Festinger, 1957, 1964).
- The move from an external, factual worldview to an intersubjective perspective that includes empathising for and learning with others is well researched in person-centered therapy (Ellis, 1962; Mearns & Thorne, 1988; Rogers, 1959, 1975; see also Feltham & Horton, 2012) as well as Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1977).
- The move to an operating field that evaluates reflectively the highest future possibility is part of human agency (Bandura, 2006), in particular, individual metacognition (Efklides, 2012, 2014; Flavell, 1979; Schraw & Dennison, 1994; Schraw & Moshman, 1995) and social metacognition (Briñol& DeMarree, 2012; Kim et al., 2013).
- Lastly, in differentiating micro-, meso-, macro- and mundo (global) spheres of social influence, Theory U follows in the footsteps of Urie Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).
To this extent, Theory U is deeply connected to well-researched psychological theories and represents a highly integrated approach to transforming lifeworld systems with other stakeholders. The subheader of Scharmer’s executive summary reads programmatically ‘Addressing the blind spot of our time’. The blind spot, so we learn, is mindful, self-aware and future-oriented leadership that connects to our most inner place from which we operate.
For Sharmer, the great quagmires of our time, which are the ecological-, social- and spiritual divide are just the symptoms of a deeper disconnect, which is the disconnect between self and nature (ecological divide), between self and others (social divide) and between present and future self (spiritual divide).
As a PBL practitioner, I see so-called soft skills, the skills of a tutor (facilitator and coach) benefiting Theory U. Scharmer calls this ‘holding the space’ for others. There are a plethora of arguments to keep discussions and projects related to Theory U alive for a very long time to come. For now, Theory U is the most ambitious attempt to bring mind, heart and will together.
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