Theory U and Presencing

Theory U by Otto Scharmer - toolshero

Theory U: this article explains Theory U, developed by Otto Scharmer in a practical way. After reading you will understand the basics of this powerful personal leadership tool.

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As part of society, organizations are hardly or not at all able to respond to changes that are taking place in the world.

Organizations are stuck in their institutional thinking with respect to their solutions concerning global issues and problems like famine, poverty and pollution.

Theory U : Dissociation

Otto Scharmer was intrigued by this phenomenon when he was working as a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and therefore he decided his ground breaking book Theory U (2009).

With his Theory U (or u theory), he tries to provide points of reference so that people dissociate themselves from their habitual way of thinking. He explains in which way an individual can make their own contribution to possible solutions that are in tune with what society actually needs. Theory U is about personal leadership and a different way of thinking.

What is Presencing?

According to Otto Scharmer there are two ways of learning: from the past and from the future.

The latter takes place for instance by focusing on future possibilities without being afraid. Otto Scharmer refers to this as ‘presencing’; an amalgamation of the words ‘presence’ (past and future) and ‘sensing’ (feeling). In short, ‘presencing’ means that the realization of future potential is completely dependent on all individuals together.

What is the Theory U model?

The Theory U, co-developed by Otto Scharmer, is represented as a U shape that moves from the left-hand side of the U to the right-hand side of the U. An individual will have to open their mind to new ideas first and they must not be obstructed by thoughts and emotions.

It is not until these obstructions are lifted that the will arises to change effectively. From this point onwards, the theory on the right-hand side slowly works in an upward direction towards reintegration and acceptance of new and innovative ideas. From this point onwards new ideas can be used in practice.
Theory U model by Otto Scharmer - toolshero

Theory U : Cooperation

By joining forces and working well together at all levels in organizations people are capable of relinquishing established ideas, practices and even identities. According to Otto Scharmer, this results in new ideas and solutions that can make a contribution to the environment and to the future.


A prerequisite for establishing good ‘presencing’ is the way in which we are able the listen. Scharmer has divided listening into four levels:

1. Downloading

When transferring information that is already largely familiar, people only listen to reconfirm what they already know.

2. Factual listening

People only listen attentively when the information is different from what they know. This new information is added to the information that is already known.

3. Empathic listening

By empathizing and seeing through someone else’s eyes, people are able to understand and respect the other person.

4. Generative listening

People listen to create without their personalities getting in the way of results. By connecting their own intuition with the environment, they tap into pure thoughts and ideas.

Theory U is practice oriented

In practice managers use this as an important tool to encourage employees to deal with certain situations differently and to have an open mind with respect to new and different thoughts. A number of specific characteristics of Theory U that are linked to practice:

  1. Both executives and employees are better able to focus on the successes they have achieved.
  2. Innovation becomes a common cause and forms an integral part of the (departmental) policy.
  3. Both individual developments and organizational developments are considered valuable and this creates a natural connection and interaction between people and the organization.
  4. Social technologies are deployed and play an important part in conflict resolution and this will result in more respect between the different parties.

Holistic approach of Theory U

Theory U has a holistic approach that can be traced back to Buddhism, Taoism and Sufism. It is important to go beyond the personality and to start looking for the ‘true self’. Theory U enables people throughout organizations to let go off the prevailing approach that is based on the past and to focus more on the future. This enables them to take a critical look at themselves and as a result they will then embrace their own intuitions and those of other people.

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It’s Your Turn

What do you think? Is Theory U applicable in today’s modern economy? Do you recognize the practical explanation or do you have more suggestions? What are your success factors for using the Theory U?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Senge, P. M., Scharmer, C. O., Jaworski, J., Flowers, B.S. (2008). Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future. Crown Business.
  2. Scharmer, C.O. (2009). Theory U: Learning from the future as it emerges. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
  3. Scharmer, C.O. & Kaufer, K. (2013). Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System Economies. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

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Published on: 17/09/2012 | Last update: 16/02/2022

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