Otto Scharmer’s Theory U

Last July, I spent a few days in Staunton, Virginia co-leading a strategic gathering with Kellee Sikes for the Imergence project. I had been burning the midnight oil in the days leading up to gathering, meeting with potential partners and funders during the day, and working on my other projects late into the evening. When we arrived in Staunton in the early evening, I was already exhausted, but we had dinner scheduled with the participants, and I couldn’t resist having a few beers and spending some quality time with the rest of the gang.    (M4L)

People didn’t start dispersing until 11pm, and Kellee and I still needed to finalize details on the next day’s design. I was in a weird zone — physically and mentally exhausted, but also on an alcohol-and-adrenaline-induced high resulting from both the social stimulation of the night’s activities and anticipation for the next day’s events. When I go through these phases, my guard goes down, and I am simultaneously at my most generative and receptive. I also get very punchy.    (M4M)

While Kellee and I worked, Mark Szpakowski came downstairs and started listening in on our conversations. Typically, when I design a workshop, I hide the agenda from participants. However, this was not a typical situation. Mark was one of the creators of the legendary Community Memory Project in the 1970s, someone whom I had interacted with off-and-on over email for several years, and someone I was anxious to learn from. Besides, anyone who’s willing to listen to me babble after midnight deserves to participate in the conversation.    (M4N)

I started explaining to Mark what Kellee and I were grappling with, which led to an ad-hoc discourse on the underlying philosophy behind designing emergent face-to-face events. Mark listened thoughtfully, then observed that some of the things I was saying reminded him of Otto Scharmer. I had not heard of Scharmer before, so Mark drew a big “U” on a pad of paper and started describing Scharmer’s Theory U. I was fascinated and made a mental note to follow up on his work. I later blogged this wonderful Scharmer quote, which Mark sent me later:    (M4O)

The essence of leading profound change is about shifting the inner place from which a system operates: the source and structure of the social field — that is, the source from which our actions come into being.  T    (M4P)

Of course, I never got around to reading anything by Scharmer until he unexpectedly popped back into my life today. Next week, I’m flying to Baltimore to participate in the Leadership Learning Community‘s Creating Space VIII conference. I’ll be on a panel with Allison Fine and moderated by Elissa Perry. In preparation, Elissa sent us links to several background papers on Collective Leadership.    (M4Q)

To my surprise, one of the links was to an excerpt from Scharmer’s latest book, Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges, The Social Technology of Presencing. It was absolutely wonderful. My reading list is already too long, but this book has jumped up to the top of my list.    (M4R)

Here’s an excerpt describing the underlying motivation behind Theory U:    (M4S)

Across the board, we collectively create outcomes (and side effects) that nobody wants. And yet, the key decision-makers do not feel capable of redirecting this course of events in any significant way. They feel just as trapped as the rest of us in what often seems to be a race to the bottom. The same problem affects our massive institutional failure: we haven’t learned to mold, bend, and transform our centuries-old collective patterns of thinking, conversing, and institutionalizing to fit the realities of today.    (M4T)

…    (M4U)

The rise of fundamentalist movements in both Western and non-Western countries is a symptom of this disintegration and deeper transformation process. Fundamentalists say: “Look, this modern Western materialism doesn’t work. It takes away our dignity, our livelihood, and our soul. So let’s go back to the old order.”    (M4V)

This reaction is understandable as it relates to two key defining characteristics of today’s social decay that peace researcher Johan Galtung calls anomie, the loss of norms and values, and atomie, the breakdown of social structures. The resulting loss of culture and structure leads to eruptions of violence, hate, terrorism and civil war, along with partly self-inflicted natural catastrophes in both southern and northern hemispheres. It is, as Vaclav Havel put it, as if something is decaying and exhausting itself.    (M4W)

What then is arising from the rubble? How can we cope with these shifts? What I see rising is a new form of presence and power that starts to grow spontaneously from small groups and networks of people. It’s a different quality of connection, a different way of being present with one another that moves us beyond the patterns of the past. When groups learn to operate from a real future possibility that is seeking to emerge, they begin to tap into a different social field that manifests through an altered quality of thinking, conversing, and collective action. When that shift happens, people can connect with a deeper source of creativity and knowing. One they don’t normally experience. They step into their real power, the power of their authentic self. I call this change a shift in the social field because that term designates the totality and type of connections through which the participants of a given system relate, converse, think, and act.    (M4X)

When a group succeeds in operating in this zone once, it is easier to do so a second time. It is as if an unseen, but permanent, communal connection or bond has been created. It even tends to stay on when new members are added to the group.    (M4Y)

The crux of his theory stems from his thoughts on organizational learning:    (M4Z)

Having spent the last ten years of my professional career in the field of organizational learning, my most important insight has been that there are two different sources of learning: learning from the experiences of the past and learning from the future as it emerges. The first type of learning, learning from the past, is well known and well developed. It underlies all our major learning methodologies, best practices and approaches to organizational learning. By contrast, the second type of learning, learning from the future as it emerges, is still by and large unknown.    (M50)

A number of people to whom I proposed the idea of a second source of learning considered it wrongheaded. The only way to learn, they argued, is from the past. “Otto, learning from the future is not possible. Don’t waste your time!” But in working with leadership teams across many sectors and industries, I realized that leaders could not meet their existing challenges by operating only on the basis of past experiences. Sometimes, the experiences of the past aren’t exactly that helpful in dealing with the current issues. Sometimes, you work with teams in which the experiences of the past are actually the biggest problem and obstacle for coming up with a creative response to the challenge at hand.    (M51)

When I started realizing that the most impressive leaders and master practitioners seem to operate from a different core process, one that pulls us into future possibilities, I asked myself: How can we learn to better sense and connect with a future possibility that is seeking to emerge?    (M52)

I began to call this operating from the future as it emerges, presencing. Presencing is a blending of the two words “presence” and “sensing.” It means to sense, tune in and act from one’s highest future potential — the future that depends on us to bring it into being.    (M53)

Beautiful stuff. Can’t wait to read the book.    (M54)

Designing for Emergence

Towards the end of the St. Louis Collaboratory workshop this past Wednesday, I said something about designing for emergence. Dave Gray thought enough about the point to note it in his own special way:    (LBW)

https://i0.wp.com/static.flickr.com/118/273880986_8153abce06_m.jpg?w=700    (LBX)

(Full size picture at Flickr.)    (LBY)

It’s not an exact quote, and his sketch is a bit stingy on the hair, but it captures the essence of the point. A more verbose version of what I said goes something like this:    (LBZ)

Designing for emergence is scary. I’ve facilitated several of these types of gatherings, and I’ve attended several more, and they always work. But they always stress me out, because you never know what’s going to happen. And that’s exactly the point.    (LC0)

What prevents me from going completely nuts is complete and utter faith in the following principle: If you get great people together and get out of their way, great things will happen. Good processes ultimately get out of people’s ways.    (LC1)

If you have great people, and if you trust your process, you have nothing to worry about. But I still get stressed.    (LC2)

I said something similar, but more general, at the first “Tools for Catalyzing Collaboration” workshop. The gist of it was:    (LC3)

You can’t organize self-organization. You can’t control emergence.    (LC4)

The biggest mistake that people make is that they point to Wikipedia or to MoveOn, and they say, “I want that.” Then they install a tool or spend a lot of money, and they expect some grand end state to emerge. That’s not how things work.    (LC5)

You can create conditions and space, and you can facilitate and catalyze what happens in that space, but you can’t control it. As soon as you try, you break your conditions, and you will fail.    (LC6)

On a similar vein, Kellee Sikes passed along one of Marcia Conner‘s sayings: “Stay on course, not on target.”    (LC7)

Something Special in St. Louis

There’s something special brewing in St. Louis, and it ain’t Budweiser. My side of the story begins in the Bay Area. We’ve got this special culture here in California. It’s a culture of openness, of collaboration, of entrepreneurship, and of tolerance. Combine that with a wonderfully diverse and intellectual community, and you get a tremendous amount of good vibes and innovation. The Bay Area is so wonderful, most of us don’t see any need to go anywhere else, and those who do often experience severe culture shock. Yes, Virginia, not everyone is like us Californians.    (LBJ)

In some ways, that’s a good thing, but in many ways, it’s sad. True, California is beautiful. True, the people here are brilliant and wonderful. But, there are brilliant and wonderful people who live outside of California, and there’s no reason why those folks can’t enjoy the same community vibe that we do out here. The Internet allows us to transcend geographical boundaries and form a virtual community with a similar vibe, but it still pales in comparison to the experience of being physical immersed in this type of environment. The barrier to this sort of vibe emerging in a geographical community is usually culture.    (LBK)

Is it possible to shift the culture of a community (or an organization) to be more collaborative, more tolerant, more innovative? Absolutely. It’s not easy, but it’s possible, and like all great things, it starts with great people, and it has to start small.    (LBL)

St. Louis has these ingredients as well as a growing consciousness about what is possible. The right people are there, and they are starting to discover each other. If this growing community fosters these opportunities, a wonderful prairie will emerge.    (LBM)

This past Wednesday, I did my part by co-facilitating the first gathering of the St. Louis Collaboratory, which was formed by Kellee Sikes and three of her colleagues (Mark Richman, Donna Mickens, and Valerie Hartman). (Pictures from the event.) The gathering was modeled after the “Tools for Catalyzing Collaboration” (TCC) workshops I co-organized with Jeff Shults earlier this year in San Francisco. Kellee attended our second workshop, and enjoyed it so much, she decided to try and bring a similar experience to her community in St. Louis.    (LBN)

https://i2.wp.com/static.flickr.com/92/273875599_bd3b84ff7d_m.jpg?w=700    (LBO)

Kellee, Mark, Donna, and Valerie recruited a fantastic and diverse group of participants. We had folks from both non- and for-profits, from large and small companies, from technology, health care, and organized labor. These people were thoughtful and open-minded. They came into the workshop with a healthy dose of skepticism, but also a willingness to play. What surprised me the most was that several of them had thought as deeply about collaboration as anyone else I’ve ever met.    (LBP)

I learned a tremendous amount listening to this group and watching them work. I could write 50 blog entries about the things I learned, stories I heard, and insights I gained. (I’ll be happy if I manage three.)    (LBQ)

At dinner later in the evening, I told several people that it would be a travesty if they did not continue engage with each other. You can do amazing things in a day. My goals were to expand their consciousness, to make them aware of each other, to start seeding Shared Language, and to give them an opportunity to experience a different kind of collaboration. We met these goals, but they barely scratch the surface of what’s possible.    (LBR)

The opportunity is there. Kellee and company are planning another workshop in January, and hopefully some of the participants from this week will play a more active role in designing the next event. Moreover, there are complementary events cropping up in St. Louis.    (LBS)

Through a serendipitous conversation with Jay Cross last month, I discovered Dave Gray, the founder of St. Louis-based XPLANE, which does visual modeling and facilitation. Dave introduced me to Matt Homann, a lawyer by trade who recently formed a company, LexThink, to organize more collaborative gatherings. Matt has been experimenting with a different kind of networking event in St. Louis known as Idea Markets, and the second one just happened to be this past Tuesday. It was an excellent event, and I’d encourage people from the area to go. This style of event is a dime a dozen in the Bay Area, but we rarely see the mix of people that Matt managed to draw.    (LBT)

https://i2.wp.com/static.flickr.com/91/273871891_6afb850afc_m.jpg?w=700    (LBU)

What’s different about St. Louis Collaboratory and events like Idea Markets is that they’re not about Drive-By Networking. They’re not about, “What can you do for me?” They’re about, “What can we do with each other?” That, my friends, is what collaboration is about. I’ll be watching these developments closely to see what emerges.    (LBV)