I read Theory U by Otto Scharmer for the first time a couple of years ago while holidaying in Italy. I was really struck by the following sentence: “Listen to what life is calling you to do”. I also found the concept of learning from the future as it emerges extremely intriguing – not only intellectually, but emotionally as well.

At the time, I had just started a new job after working for some years at the Danish Ministry of Economic and Business Affairs. There, policy development tends to be based on best practice and initiatives that have a documented effect – in the past. One aspect I found frustrating was how little scope there was for getting new polices accepted, because they had no documented effect – obviously, otherwise they wouldn’t be new. Another aspect I found frustrating was the disregard for emotional capital. A good public servant is not driven by her emotions and her heart to make society a better place – but by her head, power and ability to put the right spin on memos for the current political climate. And so Scharmer was like sent from heaven…

That said, the book left me a bit empty handed as to the actual implementation of the principles. In order to apply the theory in practice a degree of creative interpretation is needed, especially in the areas where Theory U differs significantly from the more traditional innovation models.

Traditional innovation

A traditional innovation process is often broken down into 4-5 phases. An open phase (scope), where the scope is identified. Followed by an insight phase, where a better understanding of user needs is obtained. This forms the basis for ideas generation and concept development. Then comes prototyping and testing, and finally implementation of the new solution.

Scharmer’s model includes two new aspects in relation to the classic model of innovation. The first deals with an emotional empathy towards the user’s needs – rather than merely an intellectual understanding. He calls this sensing. The second is his inclusion of a phase between the insight phase and the ideas phase, which he calls presencing (at the bottom of the U).

In order to obtain a better understanding of the theory, I spent a fantastic week studying with Otto Scharmer at MIT in Boston. And because I learn best by doing, I have since taken the plunge and started applying the theory in practice. And here are some of my experiences.

1. Emotional capital

Scharmer calls the ability to feel emotional empathy towards the user’s needs “sensing from the field”.  This insight is essential in the development process to achieve an in-depth understanding of the user and consequently the best conditions for developing solutions that meet their needs. Even though the methods used in anthropology have gained acceptance in the Danish innovation environment, they are far too often used as a means of gaining an understanding rather than as a way to feel and sense with the user.

There are many ways to facilitate this, including living with the user, observations, role playing, embodiment and hypnosis. In a project on the development of a new welfare technology for elderly care, I spent time with personal care workers in order to emerge myself in the daily lives of both the elderly and the workers.

I have also organised user journeys where the management of a company has the opportunity to experience a typical day for a customer. Another method is hypnosis, which the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR) has used in the development of Web content for the children’s channel, Ramasjang, as a way for the content developers to come into contact with their own inner child.

 2. Solutions of the future

The second new aspect Scharmer introduces is the presencing phase (at the bottom on the U). This is where you are to let go of the past in order to make room for the solutions of the future. In practice, this means withdrawing into yourself, looking inwards and making room silence and reflection. This is a big challenge in many organisations, and yet a necessity nonetheless. It is what it takes to develop beyond the ideas at arm’s reach and move past our experiences.

It doesn’t have to be a trekking expedition in the Himalayas, it could simply be incorporating silence in creative processes. The aim is to create a situation where it is easy to achieve a deeper state of mind. I have facilitated processes where I have had the team stare into a fire for an entire afternoon, listen to music or just do something as mundane as go on a walk to reflect on things – without any real purpose.

There are a number of books on the subjects in various languages that present the theory from various angles. However, I still don’t feel that emotional empathy towards the user and peacefulness has been fully explored. I therefore encourage everyone to experiment with processes that make room for sensing and presencing so that we don’t just reproduce the solutions of the past but also create the solutions of the future. And I would love to hear your ideas about how we can use Theory U in practice.