Future-oriented Social Change: Making Sense of MIT’s Theory U


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, the Scottish Government, 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 a data-driven description of phenomena, 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.

The disconnect between qualitative and quantitative research

Empirical research in social sciences and applied psychology has the advantage to examine large datasets, especially when it comes to data on the international, national and regional level as well as across large institutions and networks.  As an action-based, face-to-face (and to this point re-humanising) methodology, the questions remains how prototyping via Theory U should or could be informed by findings from empirical studies. There appears to exist a great disconnect between qualitative and quantitative research and not much progress has been made to mediate both methodologies.

From the perspective of Theory U, the question arises how findings of wider social contexts (e.g., federal budget allocation trends, demographic changes or emerging technologies) affect small groups and individuals in their implementation of finalized prototypes, while from the perspective of empirical research the question occurs how collected data can be framed for stakeholders more meaningfully and collaboratively. For example, one could use findings of the international PISA studies to benchmark local schools, but on the other hand, it can be argued that the PISA datasets are still based on the paradigm of teacher-centered education and therefore are not applicable to inform educational reform. In the cited example, the admission of learner-centeredness as a central paradigm of contemporary pedagogy would entail a major overhaul of the PISA study.

Obviously, Theory U does not intend to compromise its human-centeredness. The question emerges how nested sub-processes could be established to mutually inform qualitative and quantitative research and development. A communal grassroots infrastructure for such an endeavour could widen the social scope of decision-making while rendering data collection more meaningful. Instead of traditional focus groups, solutions developed via Theory U could very well inform the direction of quantitative research. In return, quantitative research would be able to explore opportunities for a wider social implementation of successful prototypes, to connect deep data with big data.

A comparison between Theory U and PBL

PBL is a methodology to develop solutions on a primarily factual level. With its origins in medical education and applications in law, business, engineering and design PBL is focused on objects, systems and their usability. 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. In terms of process stages, PBL and Theory U follow both the general cognitive paradigm of procedural information collection, information processing and solutions development.

In PBL, the learning process starts with the presentation of a client-based problem. In Theory U, learning is initiated in person by a case giver during case clinics. Both methodologies employ coaches (or facilitators) and both are working in the format of a structured group following a set of logical procedural steps. PBL, as well as Theory U, defer judgment since PBL works on the principle of open (cognitive and metacognitive) inquiry while Theory U is based on empathic listening. Both approaches work on the principle of creating new insights and new knowledge, which stands against the habitual application of prior knowledge and the tendency to suggest quick fixes based on prior experience. Solution development is subsequently driven by the question ‘What do I need to learn?’ rather than ‘What do I already know to solve the issue at hand?’. This is where most similarities between PBL and Theory U 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 personal ownership of knowledge creation during the stages of downloading, presencing and performing. Due to the unearthing of ‘deep’ intersubjective data, far more psychological processes are involved in Theory U as compared to PBL which operates for the most part on cognitive and metacognitive processes.

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. Credit: Presencing Institute

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.

Theory U and its link 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.

  1. 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).
  2. The move from a field structure of the me-world (where facts serve to confirm and complement 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).
  3. 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).
  4. 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).
  5. 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 soft skills (the skills of a tutor, facilitator or coach) benefiting Theory U. Scharmer calls this ‘holding the space’ for others. For now, Theory U is certainly the most ambitious attempt to bring mind, heart and will together. From a psychological perspective, the oneness of personal identity with social development can be best described in thriving (Benson & Scales, 2009, McAdams, 2001, Ryan & Deci, 2000) which stands out as a bright prospect in an otherwise troubled world.


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