Sensing the future with the Theory U model

“How do we learn from the future as it emerges?” asks Otto Scharmer, Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and founder of the Presencing Institute. He gives an answer in his method “Theory U”.

According to Otto Scharmer, we are “collectively creating results that (almost) nobody wants.” The problem is that, in facing crucial changes, we tend to use our previous experience to project the future. However, the future needs new solutions and a new approach. A change in direction is needed. We learn from the past, but “learning by sensing and actualizing emerging future possibilities” would be much more effective.

Easy to say, but difficult to do, as “inner voices of resistance” inevitably come up on the way to this future-led thinking. First, if we want to think creatively, we must suspend judgment, as judgment prevents us from having an open mind. Second, we need to put ourselves in a position of “true openness” without distance. Third, we need suspend fear, which does not let us move forward as we are afraid to lose what we have.

What is Theory U: What is it about?

 Theory U suggests shifting from a personal, individual-centered approach to a collective, group-centered one in order to move towards a more sustainable, healthy life. It suggests that society should get to “eco-system awareness”-driven forms of cooperation. Scharmer refers to this process as the “journey of the U”.


On the left side, the U-model demonstrates the move downwards, away from past convictions and prejudices. At the bottom of the U, there is a crucial moment of “presencing” between letting go the past and getting ready for the future to emerge, a moment of intentional silence and reflection. On the right side, we can see the upward part. Here, we let the answers come to us, so that we can find ourselves and create a better world in cooperation with others.

 Theory introduces the neologism “presencing”: presencing blends “sensing” (feeling the future possibility) and “presence” (the state of being in the present moment). It signifies the ability to find and develop emerging solutions to overcome disruptions by “acting from the presence of what is wanting to emerge”.

Theory U explains the meaning of co-creation as a general process of prototyping new forms of economic and social action. It introduces co-creation as a tool to overcome existing economic, social, cultural and personal crises, thus aiding the process of global transformation.

This method might be adapted for public engagement in future search-oriented workshops, to empower people to enact sustainable change. For instance, the “Communities 4 Change” project was inspired by the Theory U idea of codesigning inclusive cities across the globe. Through participatory processes and experimental prototyping, the solutions were found collectively in six Impact Hubs (Baltimore, Boulder, Budapest, Harare, Seattle, and Shanghai). Participants were engaged with a facilitated learning and innovation process around the shared theme of ”inclusive cities”, using the Theory U process.

Otto Scharmer has managed to broadly grasp unconventional schools of thought and has gone beyond the predominant personality- or relationship-based approaches and behavioral mindsets. However, Theory U has some limitations. It is vague and not sufficiently grounded in practice. Thus, it is difficult to implement in unstructured contexts. At the same time, it is very relevant for well-structured organizations, when you need to open up the discussion and encourage creativity. All in all, Theory U is a useful approach to new ways of leadership and change management.

More on the Theory U model:

More on Theory U’s tools:

More on the Communities 4 Change project: