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Theory U is the coolest and most truthful change theory of the moment. The theory was developed by a number of change theorists, including Otto Scharmer and Peter Senge. Their book justifies the complexity of change processes in individuals and groups. It does not represent reality in a simplified and thereby superficial way. In these blogs I explain why I find Theory U so fascinating and important, and how it connects with our favourite psychological theories. Also, how Theory U can help you: as a leader, as a professional and as a person.

Theory U assumes that you – as a person, team or organisation – will only change when you learn how to look differently, openly reflect on each other’s behaviour and thinking, and see the bigger picture. This may be counterintuitive to many modern leaders that have been educated with the theories from the eighties and nineties. Although founded on years of empirical research, these theories were based on a reality that existed in the 20th century. That was a time when we liked to order our world into manageable parts, processes and structures, into categories of customers, suppliers and employees, and into leadership styles and competences. We used questionnaires and tests to predict behaviour. And all these schemes and representations of reality helped us to think and act. Nowadays, however, in more ways than one, this model is considered traditional and no longer useful.

There are numerous examples of statistical, linear models (“first this, then that”). Maslow’s pyramid of needs (criticised by social scientists but embraced by leaders) proposes that people are first and foremost motivated to survive: money, security. Self-fulfillment and personality development happens only once those other boxes are ticked. Or, take Hersey and Blanchard’s leadership model: to practice effective leadership, task-immature employees should be managed at task-level, while task-mature people should be managed at the human level. Or Kotter’s phases of change: First, one must create awareness of urgency; then, develop one’s vision of the desired change; then communicate it; then take away the barriers for change; then celebrate one’s successes; then create more change; and finally anchor all of this into the organisation culture.

But also our tendency to rationalise non-rational matters is something we have inherited from the last century. Just take a look at all these personality tests: Management Drives, MBTI (“Oh! You are an ENTJ. So that is why I don’t get along with you.”), Belbin Team Roles (“We have só many Implementers on our team.”). Our addiction to the rational, explicable, linear, and our obsession with project phases, organisation types, management styles – it has blinded us to what is real. For how organisations really function. For how changes really happen. For what real leadership is. For who you really are, as a leader. Sorry for being repetitive, but I just really want to make a point here..

Organisations never change in a static, linear way. When I think about all the change processes I have guided or supervised, and I ask myself what it was like, the answer is always: tough, capricious and unpredictable. It’s never reason, always emotion that determines how change happens.

Time after time, I found myself standing there with a beautiful set of slides presenting goals, phases, milestones and deliverables. And time after time, things happened that put a spanner in the works. Decisions weren’t made during meetings, but during golfing. Or at night, when mulling over it in bed. Employees didn’t react to the decisions taken when my client was up on his soapbox trying his best to convince them – they reacted later, in the smoking area outside the building. People – managers and employees – would say yes and act no. Everyone seemed to have a different story – and all of them were true. Judgements were made based on irrational information. And those judgements became, in many cases, fundamental for important decisions.

So what do leaders have to do, if they are no longer allowed to cut complex problems into bitesize pieces? A lot of things. There is a whole world under the surface. Theory U offers an alternative to analysis, action and problem-solving based on linear thinking, which is often focused on avoiding risk. The model starts by challenging you to look further than what you believe, see and think. These steps form an important basis for learning how to look ‘differently.’

I would like to start this first blog by offering a brief explanation of Theory U. In each of the upcoming blogs, I will focus on another specific aspect of the U-turn.


Theory U: First listen, then take action!

If you want to understand Theory U, start by thinking about a change or innovation that you are trying to implement with a group of people. This group could be a management team, a project group, or an entire organisation. It is surely no easy exercise for any of you. Change is tough. You are likely to experience pressure from your surroundings. Differing interests may be causing conflicts. You have to think of something that no-one has ever come up with.

Think about yourself, and about these people.

0) Downloadin: You are trying, and failing, to come up with new things by thinking based on what you already know, believe and feel. You want to jump directly from problem, via analysis, to a solution. However, the solution will always be an iteration of what you already knew. Not necessarily bad, but certainly nothing new or surprising.

The journey Inside | The individual, in relationship to others

1) Listening: Real listening. Not waiting for your turn to talk, and without thinking about what your next move will be in the conversation. Listening without wanting to achieve something with the other. This kind of empathic listening asks to be open to the chance that others could really add something to your thinking.

2) Observing: The ability to postpone your judgements. And this is only possible once you are fully aware of your own, deeply ingrained views and patterns of behaviour: How do I see the world? What judgements am I making while I’m talking to this person right now? Am I (secretly) feeling inferior or superior to him? Enhancing this type of self-awareness helps you open up your will. When you do, you are no longer a slave to your own (unconscious) judgements and projections. For further reading, please have a look at my blog about this topic (‘Leadership in a U-turn (2): Recognising patterns in your own behaviour’).

3) Sensing: If you want to go a step further into the U-turn, challenging your rational mind is not enough. You have to let your emotional mind speak as well. That means you shouldn’t just be aware of what thoughts, but also what feelingsother people produce in you, as well as any strong or subtle reactions in your body. Are you thinking all of this is a bit soft? Absolutely. Painful perhaps? Sometimes it will be. But it is indispensable for growth.

4) Presencing: We have now come as far as the bottom of the U-turn. Here, you are connected to the bigger picture: to the group, the organisation, or even bigger: the soul, humanity, the universe. After all, we are not just on this world to sell peanut butter, mortgages, projects, or software packages. At this stage, you take a step or two beyond ratio and emotion. You broaden your mind in a way that suits you. Through meditation, by looking for silence, or in the greatness of nature. What do you, deep down, stand for in this world? What do you stand for as a group?

When making this journey inside together with a group, you get into a flow. At this point true change can emerge.

The journey outside | The group within the whole

5) Crystallising (‘designing’): You and your team commit yourselves to a higher goal that is very meaningful to you. This goal has come forward through the process: there are no hidden agendas any more. No lip service, but real commitment. Your team radiates energy and feels connected – and people outside notice it. Working together from this sense of purpose, you start to design.

6) Prototyping (‘shaping’): When going up again in the U-turn, you will come out with new solutions, ideas, products and structures. You will meet a capricious outside world. Resistance, emotions, judgements. No matter how easy it is to fall back into old patterns, you deal with it together through thinking, feeling and committing. You dare to make mistakes, to challenge others, to try out, to be vulnerable and to learn by doing. You stand for what you believe in but you admit your mistakes too.

7) Performing: Together, you have developed a holistic way of thinking, creating, designing and shaping. Not just your group, but others who work with you notice it too, and are infected by it. The personal side of business, the human level, is actually talked about. Your team’s motivation is high, and sometimes there are conflicts. But your team knows its patterns well and each of you acknowledges his or her part in these patterns.
How you, as a team, can take the journey through the U-turn, and what it takes to do that, is the topic of the upcoming blogs in this series: Leadership in a U-turn.