Theory U:  A Process For Deep Change


Theory U is a framework and methodology for leading profound change and innovation in individuals, teams, organizations, and society. It integrates scientific knowledge with ancient wisdom traditions to help us understand and navigate complex challenges. It guides individuals and organizations through a process of letting go of old paradigms and embracing new, emergent possibilities by moving through a "U-shaped" journey of co-sensing, co-presencing, and co-creating. The core premise is that by shifting our awareness and opening our minds, hearts, and will, we can access deeper levels of insight and creativity to address systemic issues.


Theory U is used to foster deep personal, organizational, and societal transformation. It is particularly applicable in contexts where innovative solutions are needed to address complex challenges. Theory U can be applied in personal development, team collaboration, organizational transformation, and societal change initiatives. 


Theory U is based on the idea that our current ways of thinking and operating are often inadequate for the complex challenges we face. It proposes that the quality of the results we create in any social system is a function of the quality of awareness, attention, or consciousness that the participants in the system operate from. Theory U suggests that to create profound, systemic shifts, we must descend into the depths of our source (the "U") and allow the future to emerge from the whole.   The framework involves five movements:
  1. Co-Initiating: Building common intent by listening to others and oneself.
  2. Co-Sensing: Observing, becoming immersed in the context, and understanding the system from multiple perspectives.
  3. Presencing: Connecting to the source of highest future potential and letting go of the old identities and intentions.
  4. Co-Creating: Prototyping the new by bringing the new future into reality.
  5. Co-Evolving: Embedding the new into the larger eco-system, making the new way of operating the norm.
The journey down the left side of the U represents deep observation and sensing, reaching the bottom of the U represents accessing deeper levels of knowing, and moving up the right side of the U involves rapid prototyping and implementation of the new. Throughout this process, Theory U emphasizes the importance of cultivating specific capacities, such as suspending judgment, redirecting attention, letting go, and letting come. It also highlights the role of dialogue, collective intelligence, and co-creation in addressing complex challenges.

Sample Activity

This is a longer process to address an innovation challenge: 
  1. Introduction (10 minutes):
    • Briefly introduce Theory U and its relevance to innovation and change. Emphasize the importance of moving through the U process to develop deep, transformative solutions.
    • Outline the structure of the workshop, highlighting the stages of the Theory U process that will be used.
  2. Co-Initiating: Building Common Intent (20 minutes):
    • Start with an icebreaker activity to build rapport among participants.
    • Facilitate a discussion to align on the innovation challenge. Use questions such as:
      • "What is the core issue we are addressing?"
      • "Why is this challenge important to us?"
    • Capture the shared intent and key goals on a whiteboard or flip chart.
  3. Co-Sensing: Observing and Immersing (30 minutes):
    • Divide participants into small groups. Each group conducts interviews or observations related to the challenge. If the challenge is internal, they can interview stakeholders within the organization; if external, they might explore community insights or customer feedback.
    • Provide guiding questions for the interviews:
      • "What are the main pain points related to this challenge?"
      • "What are the unmet needs or desires of the people affected?"
    • Groups reconvene and share their findings, highlighting key insights and patterns.
  4. Presencing: Connecting to Source (30 minutes):
    • Lead the group in a guided meditation or quiet reflection session to help them connect with their inner knowing and the highest potential for the challenge.
    • Ask participants to reflect on:
      • "What future possibilities are emerging?"
      • "What do I need to let go of to embrace new solutions?"
    • Encourage journaling or sketching to capture personal insights and inspirations.
  5. Co-Creating: Prototyping New Solutions (60 minutes):
    • Each group brainstorms potential solutions, building on the insights from the co-sensing and presencing phases.
    • Select one or two promising ideas to develop further. Use rapid prototyping techniques to create simple models or mock-ups.
    • Provide materials like paper, markers, sticky notes, cardboard, or digital tools.
  6. Co-Evolving: Embedding New Practices (30 minutes):
    • Groups present their prototypes to the larger group, explaining how their solution addresses the challenge and how it emerged from the process.
    • Facilitate a feedback session where participants offer constructive critique and suggestions for improvement.
    • Discuss how these prototypes can be integrated into the organization or community. Identify next steps, potential pilot projects, and roles/responsibilities.
  7. Reflection and Debrief (20 minutes):
    • Reflect on the Theory U process and its impact on the group's approach to the innovation challenge.
    • Ask participants to share their key takeaways and any personal or professional shifts experienced during the workshop.
    • Encourage discussion on how they can apply the Theory U principles in their ongoing work.


Theory U was developed by Otto Scharmer and colleagues at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Target Audience:

  • Facilitators
  • Innovation and Strategy Consultants
  • Organizational Development Professionals
  • Community Organizers

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