Otto Scharmer’s book Theory U: Learning from the Future as It Emerges describes “the social technology of presencing”, the theory and practice of the U process that calls for “presence” and “sensing”. Scharmer maintains that through this “presencing” — being in touch with the inner place from which attention and intention originate — individuals, teams, organizations and global systems alike are able to raise to a higher level of operation, at which they are able to seize the highest future possibilities that “want to emerge”.
Theory U is about profound transformation: personal, social and global. The U process leads through seven field structures of attention in an U-shape: downloading, seeing, sensing, presencing, crystallizing, prototyping and performing. This is the deepest level of change that not only reflects on what has happened in the past, but draws from a more generative and more authentic presence in the moment linked with the individual’s/organization’s highest future potential.
Scharmer describes to great extent how to bring about such a change individually, in organizations and in society, but does not give a proper account of what the change means in structural terms. He discusses the evolution of institutional field structures (from centralized to decentralized to networked to ecosystem), but does not relate these structural archetypes to the field structures of attention within the U process.
Figure 1 depicts my idea of how Scharmer’s four levels of responding to change would be manifested structurally in a system, e.g. an organization. In the following, the terms structure and organization refer to systemic structure and systemic organization as defined by Maturana and Varela.
Figure 1. Structural manifestation of Theory U.
Reacting is based on existing habits and routines within a single structure. It takes place within the structure but does not change that structure. This level of response is requisite at the real-time level, when the changes in environment do not call for adjustments in the systemic structure. If a reactive response falls short of addressing the change, the anomaly is reported one level up (cf. zero-learning).
Redesigning considers divergent views and adapts the elements of decentralized structure with each other. The change is incremental and takes place within the systemic structure. Underlying theories, reasoning or assumptions are not questioned, but requisite change is incorporated into existing structure (cf. simple-loop learning). This level of response takes place at the operational level. It may be triggered from the real-time level (reactive), from the tactical level (proactive) or from within the operational level (active).
Reframing is called for when the same old structure does not work anymore, but the rules of business and underlying assumptions need to be questioned. It requires changes in insights and reframing the patterns of thinking (cf. double-loop learning). Thereby, it calls for changes in the systemic organization, i.e. the relationship meshwork between structural elements, too. This level of response requires tactical level intervention. It may also be reactive, proactive or active in nature — emerge from the operational level, be introduced from strategic level or be enacted at the tactical level, respectively.
Regenerating (presencing) brings about a shift in the very identity of the organization (cf. triple-loop learning). It requires transformational changes in the systemic organization as well as adaptation with external systems. This level of response is strategic in nature and is all about finding the best fit between the systemic organization and the wider ecosystem beyond organizational boundaries. A strategic response should be predominantly proactive and realize opportunities inherent in the environment but also be in fine tune with what emerges from within.
These four responses require an increasing subset of cognitive spaces, or field structures of attention. A strategic response calls for a major transformation that undergoes all the field structures of the U process. These field structures can also be aligned with Kurt Lewin’s stages of change:
- Unfreezing: downloading, seeing, sensing
- Changing: presencing
- Refreezing: crystallizing, prototyping, performing