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Book Review – The Essentials of Theory U – Otto Scharmer

Essentials Of Theory U


Review by Daniel Kingsley

This is not a brand new book – it was published last year, but I only read it recently and it’s made a profound impression on me.  I think it’s one of the most important books to be published in the field of Leadership and Organisational Development in the past decade.  It’s certainly made more impact on me than any other book I’ve read in the past 10 years.  Below I’ll write a few paragraphs to explain why and why you may want to read it.

The author of the book is Otto Scharmer, a senior lecturer at MIT, the co-founder of the Presencing Institute and the MITx u.lab.  The question that he seeks to address is: In an ever-changing and increasingly complex and challenging world, how can we individually and collectively take better decisions?

The problem as Scharmer identifies it is that we are making decisions about what to do in the future primarily by looking back at the past, and based on that, guessing what others may do and where we need to be in relationship with that.

Yet many of the best and most potent ideas we have seen in the past 10 or 20 years have been disruptive.  You didn’t know you wanted an MP3 player until you saw one, you didn’t think there was any point in smartphone until you had one, and cab drivers weren’t worried about Uber until it suddenly appeared on the scene.

More importantly massive problems like world poverty, hunger and climate change are not going to be solved without bringing people together in creative ways that take into account not just the individual needs of stakeholders but the system as a whole.  This is a movement which Scharmer describes of moving from “Ego to Eco” – from my needs or the needs of my group, to considering the whole and the parts simultaneously.

The best ideas don’t come out of simply iterating the past, they come from an awareness of what is ready to emerge in the near-future.  Scharmer calls this “Leading from the Emerging Future”.  So as well as learning the lessons of what has gone before, we learn how to “listen” to what wants to emerge.

The Method

This method is of particular interest to me because Presence is at the heart of it.  With his colleagues Scharmer has developed the “U model” of change. He describes it in 3 phases:  (i) Observe, observe, observe, (ii) retreat and reflect – allow the inner knowing to emerge, (iii) Act in an Instant and Prototype.  The first phase is the left hand side of the U, the second is the bottom the U and the third is the right hand side of the U.

Presencing Journey

On the left hand side of the U we are letting go of our preconceptions and gathering information from far and wide (Co-initiating and Co-Sensing).  On the right hand side of the U we are developing new ideas and rapidly prototyping them and testing them (Co-Creating and Co-Evolving).  But what sits in the middle at the bottom of the U is Presencing.  The space of sitting in the unknown, listening to our deeper wisdom, listening to the emerging field, and listening for what wants to come next in the context of the system as a whole.  And in my experience, this place is the place where true magic can happen and creativity can strike.

Facilitating all of this is a consciousness of the extent to which we are getting in our own way and tools for helping us to get out of our own way.  He speaks of Open Mind (letting go of our preconceptions), Open Heart (compassion for others and seeing things from their point of vew) and Open Will (the courage to let go of what we knew and step into something unknown and fresh).

It’s a method for getting our habits and conscious mind out of the way to allow real connected creativity to arise.  And in my experience, it’s extremely powerful.  I’ve been applying methods like this for many years in workshops and in individual coaching, but until now I haven’t seen a properly connected (and tested) system for applying this to organisations.


For what could be a dry topic, I found the book surprisingly easy and enjoyable to read, with plenty of personal and organisational anecdotes that illustrate and inspire.  There are plenty of examples of how the methods that are being proposed are not theoretical but really work in practice and are able to make a powerful difference to the companies and organsaitons who implement them and the people involved.  And immediately on reading the book I was personally inspired to learn how to put this into action, both for my own company and facilitating others (especially at an organisational level) in this method.

The only criticism I could find of the book is that it tells you about the method and what it’s able to do but it doesn’t give you explicit instructions for how to do it.

Luckily for anyone who wants to take things further and wants to know exactly how to do it, there is a free MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) at MIT which takes place every year.  The course is made up of reading, interactive live sessions, exercises to be done in private time, online coaching groups and video watching, and is full of useful and well tested structures, methods and exercises.  There are videos setting out all of the methods in detail along with guides that you can download in writing and study.  I’m currently in the midst of taking this course and I’m finding it extremely helpful, interesting and stimulating.

If you’re not ready to take the course there are also a lot of free tools available on

Authentic Organisational Development is a complex area and the overall concept can be difficult to get your head round at first, but is actually quite easy to grasp once you understand the basic model.  I don’t know if the words above do this book (and my excitement about it) justice, but I honestly believe that anyone in the field of leadership, coaching or organisational change should read this book.

If you do, please do let me know what you think.

Daniel Kingsley
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