Theory U Summary

1-Sentence-Summary: Theory U helps leaders act based on the future, not the past, and allows them to create organizational change at a global level through creative and agile methodologies.

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Theory U Summary

Otto Scharmer rarely concerns himself with small problems. When he talks about leadership, it’s not in the context of “how to sell the next product” or “how to increase employees’ productivity.” He tries to tackle the topic from the perspective of whole systems rather than their parts.

When he writes books, they are usually about making a change on the global level. His approach is as broad and all-encompassing as one person’s outlook can get.

In Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges, he shows leaders how to drive change in their organizations in the context of socioeconomic “revolutionary shifts” happening globally right now. He points to three such shifts:

  1. Most nations are now leaning towards similar economic policies based on privatization and capitalism.
  2. International relations become more complex, as institutions like the United Nations or the World Bank emerge and grow.
  3. Many people now define their life goals internally instead of externally, due to a cultural and spiritual revolution.

Scharmer argues that leaders who want to find creative solutions to today’s challenges must take into account all of these global tendencies. Here are 3 lessons I’ve learned about how to do that through creative and agile leadership:

  1. An effective leader learns from the future, not the past.
  2. To access your full creative potential, follow the U-process in 3 steps.
  3. Agile methodologies from software development will help you make your ideas come to life.

Theory U takes leadership to a whole new level with all of these lessons and more. If you want to learn what this “new level” is about, then let’s follow Scharmer “down the U!”

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Lesson 1: Learn from the future as it emerges instead of looking to the past.

The underlying idea of U-theory is that any person can progress either from the future or past. It focuses on the notion that each of us has two selves: past and future.

To describe each of these personas, Scharmer tells his story of how one day, as a child, he came back from school to discover that his parents’ house had burnt down. He suddenly realized that all the objects and spaces he was attached to were no more. His old self was “dead,” so to speak.

At that moment Scharmer realized that he also had a future self or the personality that he could bring to life by his actions-the Otto Scharmer he ultimately wanted to become. Because his prior self died in the fire, he naturally embraced the possibility of learning from the future version of himself.

This is exactly what creative leaders ought to do. They should drop learning from history, which, in Scharmer’s nomenclature, means “reproducing old behaviors to deal with new challenges.” Instead, the actions of a truly innovative leader should focus on the possibility found in the future.

Lesson 2: Tap into the “blind spot” to access your full creative potential.

Now we get to the technical side of how to get through the “U process” as a leader. Theory U divides this into three major steps:

  1. Going down the U.
  2. Tapping into your blind spot at the bottom of the U.
  3. Going back up the U to implement your ideas.

Going down the U is about gathering information in a non-judgmental and accepting way. It requires an “attitude of a beginner,” a state of mind which allows you to be open to whatever others bring to the table. You need to hear them out without trying to impose your point of view.

This is not a passive process. It requires you to actively approach relevant people and ask for their opinion. An excellent example of how this works is agile software development. In agile teams, the practice of reaching out to users for feedback on new products is well-established and extremely valued.

The second step of the U-process is tapping into your blind spot. This is the moment when a person intentionally enters the unknown. A leader needs to let go of all past and future knowledge and attune herself to what her gut tells her in the present.

Scharmer argues that listening to the blind spot is even more important than gathering information while “going down the U.” When you really tap into it, the right answers present themselves.

Finally, there is the third step of going back up the U. This involves bringing the solutions found in the blind spot from the realm of ideas to the physical world. Here, agile methods can help you even more.

Lesson 3: Adopt the approach used in software development: prototype, test, iterate.

“Changing the world” is a tall order, and most people wouldn’t even know where to begin. But Scharmer does: start with agile development. It breaks down into 3 steps:

  1. Prototype.
  2. Test.
  3. Iterate.

When you prototype, you have to accept that the initial outcome will not be perfect. Prototypes are not meant to be a finished product, but a way for a leader to learn by gathering feedback.

When you put your idea out there before it’s complete, you instantly get information about what works and what doesn’t. This first test allows you to make necessary adjustments to your strategies before you invest a lot of time or money in them.

Next, continue to iterate and integrate feedback. This way, you’ll improve incrementally until your project reaches the desired shape. That’s exactly how agile software teams operate.

They put the prototype to test as fast as they can. They gather user feedback and implement the necessary changes. Then they “lather, rinse, repeat” this process until the final product emerges.

Thanks to this way of working, they don’t fear failure or give in to unnecessary perfectionism. And neither should you – a creative leader.

Theory U Review

Theory U is as inspiring as it is practical. I appreciate Scharmer’s work because he is not merely an academic; he also builds his arguments on personal experience in managing people and organizations. I think this is the main reason why this book comes across as so authentic and valuable.

Who would I recommend the Theory U summary to?

The 55-year-old executive who feels stuck in managing his department, the 38-year-old state administration employee who recognizes the flawed status quo but doesn’t know how she can change it, and anyone placed in a context where they need to act as a leader.

Last Updated on August 17, 2022

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Marta Brzosko

In 2019, Marta wrote 30 summaries for us as a freelance contributor. She is a facilitator, writer, and community wizard. Originally from Poland, where she attained a Master's Degree in Asian Studies, she now lives in Edinburgh, where she runs her own event agency called Contour. In her spare time, Marta loves running, camping, meditation, and dancing. You can read her summaries or reach her on LinkedIn.