Co-Creation in Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges & the Road to Commitment

Source:  Otto Sharmer and The Presencing Institute

The terms “letting go” and “letting come,” captured my imagination as Theory U arrived on scene several years ago.  The compelling nature of the U model visual added to its allure. 

The concepts that Theory U features are intended to help leaders and managers in the public and private sector break through unproductive patterns of behavior.  This includes breaking through barriers of ignoring their own staff and clients wisdom and other maladies that produce ineffective patterns of decision making.

(Note, this post was updated in 2012 and 2016 with a video clip and adding a new Theory U handout of principles and a glossary.)


Courage comes from the willingness to “die,” to go forth into an unknown territory…  That is the essence of leadership.

~ C. Otto Scharmer


The book can be a dense, difficult read, with a spiritual tone and jargon that tends, at times, toward the self-reverential.  That Otto Schwarmer and Peter Senge are colleagues, is not surprising.  The language is similar in Senge’s writings.  Yet the book is capture the minds and attention of leaders, consultants and coaches. Now a second edition of the book is available in 2016, attesting to the staying power of the Theory U change and transformation concepts.

Here’s the direct YouTube link to an excerpt of the session we offered entitled:  Change Insights: Synchronicity, Jung & Theory U at the OD Summit.

On the plus side,Theory U has compelling concepts, principles and practical exercises oriented to creating sustainable change, individual, small to large, including global scale change.  Peter Senge’s introduction to the book also captures the imagination.

Otto Sharmer’s diagrams and practices do include accessible illustration on listening, for example, reinforced through the book, as a key focus on the left side of the U:

Scharmer’s field structure of “downloading,” is about taking a more disciplined approach to  paying attention to the world, unhooking our habitual patterns.  He tells a story of a researcher who accurately predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall while he and others around him, exposed to the same data, did  not. Institutions and systems also habitually download past patterns, he explains.

In the diagram below, Scharmer illustrates moving from downloading, to debate, to dialogue and then, to what can be a moment of presence and silence:  presencing, which he describes as, “the opening crack and moment of deep social emergence.”  Note the “field” language, which has parallels with the movie Bagger Vance and the sense of “head, heart and hand” described below.

Based on a question in the comments on this post, I’ve now added a new Theory U handout of principles and a glossary including an explanation of the acronyms below.  From the handout summaries from the Presencing Institute is this explanation:

Transform the three enemies. Why is the U journey the road less traveled? Why is it that most people are aware of this deeper process of knowing and yet it rarely happens in the context of our larger systems? Because the moment we commit ourselves to going on this journey we start to encounter our three principal enemies:

  • the voice of judgment (VoJ: shutting down the open mind),

  • the voice of cynicism (VoC: shutting down the open heart), and

  • the voice of fear (VoF: shutting down the open will).

Otto Schwarmer’s 10 years of research includes interviews with 150 practitioners.  The book describes going through “the eye of the needle,” a term used in the theory for describing co-presencing at the base of the U.

Source:  Otto Sharmer and The Presencing Institute

The acronyms on the left of the diagram include aspects of change asking you to:

  • Suspend your Voice of Judgment (VOJ), Cynicism (VOC), and Fear (VOF)

Some of the critiques of Theory U include:

  • My engineering background originally found the tenets a bit too qualitative and I was confused by the spirituality aspect.  — Leo Mallette, EdD
  • There is nothing new in the idea of a creative thought and action process based around mental stillness, active listening, reflection, emergent intuitive ideas, and driving an initiative through an iterative process of successive prototypes. — Stephen Warrilow
  • Some of the disciplines and processes he talks about will be alien to some – maybe many – business people and his “soft”, qualitative, quasi-spiritual language is off-putting.  — Stephen Warrilow

That said, a Theory U reviewer on states:

  • A scientist who dares to incorporate spirtuality in his findings. It builds bridges between the business world and the spiritual world.

A full reading of the book concludes with a final chapter that describes 24 principles featuring the key Theory U question:  What does it take to learn from the future as it emerges?

Here’s a gallery of photos related to our presentation.  The 2012 edition photos are the addition of Molly Prater (holding the Fast Company magazine) and my 2012 REVELN blog post  and ScoopIt coverage of  Generation Flux.  The synchronicity continues!  

Molly and I presented on Jung, Synchronicity and Theory U at the OD Summit in 2011 in the Detroit area, photos below.

There are many supporting models and concepts included in the book, such as the – The Blind Spot – our unability to see our own weaknesses, what we do not understand and what we hide from, as well as how to illuminate it to discover an untapped resource and power potential to find innovative solutions to current problems.  It’s about embracing our strengths fully to live up to the best future potential, which I wrote about in 2010 regarding the Talent Myth.


Martin Buber made the distinction between two types of will: the small will, instincts, and the Grand Will, which is the future… There is something deeply magical about tapping into that deeper creative force.

~  Principle 14, Theory U


A sampling of the 24 principles are listed below for you to draw your own conclusions for using Theory U in change management work.

Beginning from nothing and creating common ground:

(1) Attend:Listening to what life calls you to do.

(2) Connect: Listen to and dialogue with the core players in the field.

(3) Co-initiate: Bring together a diverse core group that uncovers and inspires a common intention to create a world that is different from the current one.

There are exercises, stories and illustrations and practice steps to go with each principle.  I was most curious about the principles at the base and to the right side of the “U” that have to do with creating and sustaining change, the most difficult challenge for any change leader at any level of an organization, including informal leaders. 

The relevant principles include:

 (9) Letting go: Let go of your old self… The biggest obstacle to moving through the U comes from within: it is your resistance (individually and collectively).

Courage comes from the willingness to “die,” to go forth into an unknown territory that only begins to manifest after you step into that void. That is the essence of leadership.

(10) Letting come: Connect and surrender to the future that wants to emerge through you.

(11) Intentional silence: Pick a practice that helps you to connect with your source.   …the bottom of the U is not ideas, words, or insights. What counts at the bottom of the U is a …practice. Practice is what we do every day. Thus this principle is about picking a personal practice that helps you connect to your future resonance.

Co-creating: Prototyping the Future by Connecting to the Wisdom of the Hand

14) Power of Intention: connect to the future that stays in need of you—crystallize your vision and intent.

The philosopher Martin Buber made the distinction between two types of will: the small will, instincts, and the Grand Will, which is the future that stands in need of us to come into reality. There is something deeply magical about tapping into that deeper creative force.

(15) Form core groups: Five people can change the world.

(16) Prototype strategic microcosms as a landing strip for the emerging future. …Prototyping means to present your idea (or work in progress) before it is fully developed. …The focus is on exploring the future by doing rather than by analyzing.

The trick is to move through the U not once but many times, maybe even daily.

(17) Integrate head, heart, and hand: Seek it with your hands; don’t think about it, feel it.

As the master coach puts it in the novel and 2000 movie Bagger Vance when helping a golfer who has lost his swing:

Seek it with your hands—don’t think about it, feel it. The wisdom in your hands is greater than the wisdom of your head will ever be.

The Bagger Vance advice articulates a key principle about how to operate on the right-hand side of the U. While moving down the left-hand side of the U is about opening up and dealing with the resistance of thought, emotion, and will, moving up the right-hand side is about intentionally reintegrating the intelligence of the head, the heart, and the hand in the context of practical applications.

Thinkers may look down on doers as unintelligent or lacking the wisdom of forethought.   Putting ideas into action may be feared, as it can threaten the clean and rational idea, obstructing it with messy reality. Theory U negates this “life of the mind” impracticality with every step of the the right side of the U.

(19) Co-evolve innovation ecosystems that connect and renew by allowing people to see from the emerging whole.

This seems to be one of the most challenging principles as illustrated by this Practice step:  

  • Draw four circles, write the identity of the key stakeholders in your ecosystem outside the circles. In the circles themselves list the communication qualities that define your system: name the qualities (channels) of communication the stakeholders in your system collectively use—and which ones they don’t.
  • If possible, use this stakeholder communication assessment as a starting point for thinking together about how to move the system from the outer to the inner circles of communication and governance.

Root Principles: The Three Groundings of the Social Field

22. Intentional grounding. Our intention (and attention) influences how a situation unfolds.  Example: When [Otto] asked Joseph Jaworski how to conduct deep listening or dialogue interviews in the most effective way, he [said]: “The most important hour of the interview is the hour before [you begin the interview].”

23. Relational grounding. Whenever two or more people meet and truly connect, something special happens: they participate in the presencing of a social field. That social field connects us not only to one another—it also connects us to ourselves. It’s the medium through which we can wake up to who we really are.

24: Authentic Grounding. The U can be thought of as a social breathing process.  The left-hand side of the U is the inhaling part of the cycle: total immersion in the current field, taking everything in. The right-hand side of the U is the exhaling part of the cycle: bringing the field of the future into reality as it desires.


The U can be thought of as a social breathing process…the left… immersion …taking everything in. The right…exhaling…bringing the field of the future into reality…

~  Principle 24, Theory U


Source: Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges, Cambridge, MA: Society for Organizational Learning, 2007, C. Otto Scharmer

It was also interesting that Ron Koller and I also did a session at the same conference.  He co-authored the Road to Commitment.

In completing this article, I had decided I would also reference the Road to Commitment article by Roland Loup and Ron Koller.  I didn’t realize how closely it fits in to this post.

Here’s a preview of the Road to Commitment:


Highlights of the Road to Commitment include its accessible writing, its clear metaphors of taking a journey, and the illustration of engaging the head (understanding), the heart (belief) and the hands (action to make change happen).

It is striking that the head, heart and hands language is also principle 17 in Theory U.  Head and heart are often mentioned by those in social science fields encompassing organization development.  ‘Head, heart and hands’ is easier to remember than ‘cognitive, affective and behavioral’ labels.

The Road to Commitment visual features three phases:

1. Expanding Awareness and Understanding

2. Evoking Belief

3. Building Commitment

The upper path to commitment is a path to success in making change. The paths below of Resistance or Compliance are paths to failure on the human side of change.


What will happen to me if I fail at trying new things in order to make the changes?


In Phase I, Head, Awareness, change leaders are encouraged to prepare to address both the “why” and “what” questions including:

  • Why haven’t we done this before?
  • Why should I get behind this change?
  • What will happen to me if I fail at trying new things in order to make the changes?

It is also important, the authors discuss,  for leaders to be patient with repeated questions from different people, as well as being prepared to explain why answers are not yet available and what is being done to get questions answered.

Phase II, Heart, Belief involves having a tipping point of people in the organization who believe:

  • The change is good for the organization
  • The change is good for me (What’s in it for me? WIIFM)
  • The organization can make the changes necessary to succeed.

This phase involves individual choice to believe or not believe in the change. Without belief, there cannot be commitment.  Compliance is not belief.  Loup and Koller state, in fact, that compliance can be more dangerous to change than resistance to change, because compliance has less energy to convert action than resistance. The goal is to help everyone become engaged in belief.

There are parallels to Theory U’s left side having to do with connecting and listening, clarifying essential questions, and letting go.

Phase III, Hand, Action is about doing or implementing change.  This is demonstrated commitment as change is co-created through shared ownership to do things.  Individuals, groups and teams take ownership to make things happen.

Theory U’s parallels start with the Hand, principle 17, and Letting Come.  The parallels continue with understanding that resistance may be a good sign of the desire to let go of an old belief on the left side of Theory U.

Source: The Road to Commitment, Organizational Development Journal, Volume 23, Number 3, Fall 2005, R. Loup, R. Koller

Both the Theory U book, via its robust, complexity science framework and spiritual bent in its 24 principles and The Road to Commitment as streamlined and accessible, are change models oriented to helping leaders address the human side of change. 

If you liked this post, please share a word or two about what you found valuable.  

I am continuing in my role as president of Reveln Consulting as well as a senior partner with Ideas for Action, LLC in 2017 and beyond.  I  welcomes an introductory conversation with you. Contact me, Deborah Nystrom at 734-846-5631, or email me, to find out if your needs for transformation and change leadership are a good match for what I and my colleagues offer.


Related posts & tools by Deb:


Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons license.

Published by dnrevel

Change & transition, organization development & team facilitation and retreats. Also REVELN Gardens for flowers and heirloom tomatoes. My LinkedIn profile:

14 thoughts on “Co-Creation in Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges & the Road to Commitment

  1. I like the wisdom of the model. Bringing spirituality into the mix will be surprisingly successful. We have over time assumed otherwise but it is my experience that people really want to feel connected to self, and with the organization which typically does not have a ‘heart’ or function as if there is one…


    1. I so agree, after all our conversations this past year, Pat. I’m increasing seeing that it IS the individual’s ability for choice connected with spirit, in self, that makes the difference.


  2. “Letting go: Let go of your old self… Letting come: Connect and surrender to the future that wants to emerge through you.”

    Letting come…What a lovely phrase! I’m reminded of the natural ebb and flow that occurs in all of life: We can’t eat more if we’re already full, we can’t put more clothes in the closet if it’s packed, and we can’t take on more projects if we have a full schedule. But when we let something go, we naturally – not forcibly – make space for the new to enter our lives, but this time in accordance with our consciousness.


  3. @Kristine, it’s been so great to know you after connecting on twitter. “Letting go” and, from Pat, acceptance of self at that point is what enables the “letting go” to be successful.

    Setting up the space, before the bottom of the U is a key aspect of success, as you mention, preparing a meal that people will truly enjoy, satisfies. Purging the closet so the clothes that are right for you have a place to go (what a USA centric version that is, eh?)

    Making space to “let go” is my take-away for your comments.

    That renews my efforts to continue with my interests in “Open Space” currently in 2012.

    All the best, @ParagonMoon, Kristine!


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