Apr 9, 2019

awarenow bookshelf | review of Otto Scharmer’s “Theory U”

Otto Scharmer’s Theory U is an excellent book. It is a thorough exploration of the U process, which is a phenomenological practice that can be used by both individuals and collectives. This methodology pays attention to intentionality and states of awareness. These states of awareness and presence states we share communally, and basically, this work legitimizes an understanding of phenomenologically felt collective fields, bringing this paradigm into the organizational discourse.

Theory U (2nd ed., 2016)

The U process is designed to break free from circularly repeating of past patterns and breakthrough into novelty, accessing in the now the future that is about to emerge. As such, it is a genuinely evolutionary practice, and I see that in its way Theory U captures something universal (something commonly existent across various disciplines of human activity). This very pattern that works in the U process during organizational meetings and collective works seems to reappear over and over in different other contexts: psychotherapy, meditation practice, science and technological innovation, creativity and arts and philosophy.

What Scharmer describes is connected in so many ways to what many other thinkers, scholar-practitioners, and investigators describe in their work. Scharmer himself points out how his understanding is linked (and shaped by) the thinking and practices of Francisco Varela, Rudolf Steiner, Ken Wilber, contemplative and phenomenological and philosophical schools. It’s a kind of voyage, a journey of letting go and letting come, of suspension and enacting, a process of creativity.

U process

The U process involves the process of returning to the source of attention, awareness, consciousness per se, practiced by an individual or a group. When one’s awareness turns from downloading past patterns towards suspending judgment, feeling into what’s present in the field, then letting go of clinging to previous images and ways of thinking and doing, at that moment at some point stillness emerges. We talk about a private place or space of profound wholeness and clarity, often thunderous silence.

At the bottom of the U process, and Scharmer calls it presencing. (The term presencing combines in itself the words presence and sensing.) The ability to steadily burn in that stillness, voidness, to rest in presencing allows new visions, energies, and fields to emerge in individual and collective awareness. Something new, novel starts to appear here, and you let it come, crystallize as a vision and intention, and turn to enact that visionary intention in a quick prototype designed to gather feedback from all the key stakeholders. Then the next step is to start embodying this vision, individually and collectively, in initiatives that are intrinsically connected to a sort of integral vision of wholeness.

Scharmer and his colleagues found out that following this process provides a means to cease repeating old habitual patterns of communication and working together and free up space for the novelty to emerge. By presencing, you can align with your deeper intention and possibly with what Ken Wilber and others may call an evolutionary impulse. Furthermore, deliberate presencing allows awareness-based activities; by following this process what you do becomes saturated with consciousness.

As Ken Wilber pointed out in a dialogue with Otto Scharmer, the U process formulation inherently recaptures the natural movement of consciousness from gross states and their object identifications through subtle mental states and their objects into a causal state, state of profound letting go and pure presence. In Theory U Scharmer doesn’t write much about another side of the street, that of structures of consciousness, otherwise known as stages of maturity. But, of course, his articulation of the U process is world-centric, it aspires for a whole-planet vision, and it is post-conventional.

Still, it would benefit from a refined understanding and exploration of how the U process can be enacted and envisioned by individuals and groups representing various stages of consciousness development (pre-conventional, conventional, post-conventional, and post-post-conventional, or integral).

Otto Sharmer

One more thing that I found to be useful is Scharmer’s differentiation of the four fields of conversations — four distinct ways of intersubjective communication. It seems like stages of conversational maturity:

1. “downloading” (when people speak what others want to hear and exchange empty phrases, thus enacting a bubble);

2. “debate” (when people speak up what they think and often take a confrontational stance — this is an evolution in conversation in comparison to the dead downloading phase);

3. “dialogue” (when individuals see themselves as parts of the whole and speak from that holistic vision; here they switch from defending their point of view into a stance of inquiry into the variety of viewpoints that emerge in the flow of conversation; they’re proactively and benevolently willing to change their view);

4. “presencing” (this is not just speaking from the whole, but letting what emerges and is moving through to speak you; this kind of conversation happens in the bottom of the U process and is characterized by generative flow and presence of future potentials trying to manifest).

Theory U

I find this model of the four ways/modes of conversation to be very useful in daily life (in addition to the four parts of speech model that can be found in Bill Torbert’s Action Inquiry). This framework helps to see when communication gets stuck at one level of conversation and why it might feel not right. It also shows an evolutionary curve, a trajectory of where one can grow in ways of holding talks with others. Installed as a group practice, this would probably lead to more awareness about our intersubjective practices and how we can make them more meaningful and productive.

Reviewed by Eugene Pustoshkin request 1:1 coaching session with him on www.awarenow.io

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