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EPALE interview: Otto Scharmer - To change a system you have to have the courage to step into the unknown

What is our primary role as educators? I believe is activating generative social fields.

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Karine Nicolay

EPALE interview: Otto Scharmer - To change a system you have to have the courage to step into the unknown

Challenge n°1 today is how we deal with disruption, not by looking to the past, but by tuning into new possibilities waiting to be born.

To change a system you have to have the courage to step into the unknown”, says Otto Scharmer in the interview we had with our EPALE 2021 conference keynote speaker. And suddenly I realize what the U in his Theory U stands for. “This stepping forward, really is the essence of what leadership is about”, he continues. It also took me a while to grasp that Scharmer uses the word ‘leadership’ in a somewhat different way to how we usually interpret it.

In his book ‘Theory U. Leading from the Future as it Emerges’ he states, “when I use the word ‘leader’ I refer to all people who engage in creating change or shaping their future, regardless of their formal positions in institutional structures.” With this book he wants to delineate a social technology of transformational change that will allow leaders in all segments of society, including in our individual lives, to meet their existing challenges. “In order to rise to the occasion, leaders often have to learn how to operate from their highest possible future, rather than being stuck in the patterns of past experiences”, adds Scharmer.

Hmmmm… very intriguing.

Otto Scharmer is an author and action researcher who co-creates pathways of transformation for individuals, institutions, and larger systems. He delivers these innovations in learning and leadership infrastructures through classes at MIT, MITx u.lab, the Presencing Institute, and through innovation projects with organizations in business, government and civil society around the world. Check out his Bio.

In his book ‘Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges’ Otto Scharmer invites us to see the world in new ways. What we pay attention to, and how we pay attention - both individually and collectively - is key to what we create. What often prevents us from attending is what Scharmer calls our blind spot, the inner place from which each of us operates. Learning to become aware of our blind spot is critical to bringing forth the profound systemic changes so needed in business and society today. By moving through the U-process we learn to connect to our essential Self, see our own blind spot and pay attention in a way that allows us to experience the opening of our minds, our hearts, and our wills. This holistic opening constitutes a shift in awareness that allows us to learn from the future as it emerges, and to realize that future in the world.

For this interview the EPALE National Support Service Belgium Flanders collaborated with ‘journativist’ Mischa Verheijden, co-founder of Re-story in Belgium/Flanders. You can also read the interview in Dutch on Re-story’s website.

Time to ask him some questions.

What’s the big idea behind Theory U?

The big idea behind Theory U is that in order to create real change in the world we need to shift the inner place from where we operate, not just as individuals, but also in our collective actions, as groups, as organisations, and as larger systems.

How did you come to this Theory U?

Basically by 2 methods. I interviewed and listened a lot to changemakers in the field, pioneers, people who have created something new in science, in business, and society. I have based Theory U on the results of consulting and action research projects with leaders of grassroots movements and global companies and NGOs, among them Alibaba, Daimler, Decurion, Eileen Fisher, Federal Express, Fujitsu, GlaxoSmithKline, Google, Hewlett-Packard, McKinsey, Oxfam and various multi-stakeholder groups. The other method is that as an action researcher I participated in many change initiatives myself.

In really listening to innovators I noticed that many of them shared a deeper story about what real change is about. And that is not the ‘official story’ of change. The deeper story has to do with this ‘interior condition’. One of them told me: “The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervenor.”

So, to put that simply, the success of what I do as a changemaker depends on the inner place from where I operate. It was at that moment that I realised that when we researched change in leadership, in management for example, we knew everything about what leaders do, we knew a lot about how they do it, the processes they use, but we knew very little about the inner place from where they operate. From their deeper sources, from where their actions originate, but also from where their thoughts and their attention and their conversations enacted from. That really drew my attention to these deeper interior conditions.
Today I would describe these conditions in terms of 3 capacities: open mind, open heart and open will.

What do you mean by this?

Open mind is the capacity to suspend all habits of judgment. It is really about seeing with fresh eyes. Holding back the habitual way of judging things in order to open yourself up to allow new data to come in.

Open heart is something different. It is the capacity to empathize. It is the capacity to look at a problem not from your own angle, but through the eyes and through the experience of someone else. That can be your student, your partner, a stakeholder, your opponent… I do a lot of work in multi-stakeholder institutions, in governments, in companies… But all leadership challenges today basically have the same feature. To be successful in your job you need to navigate complex multi-stakeholder situations. The only way to do this successfully is when you have the capacity to look at a problem, not only from your own angle, but also through the eyes of your various stakeholders. It is really the only way to be effective in any kind of situation today. And that is what I mean by open heart.

Open will is essentially the capacity to let go and let come. Letting go of all intentions, identities and who we think we are, in order to open up new possibilities. This is also how we learn. It is of course very difficult to do, yet I believe that in the world today, the world we are moving into, we have to activate our action confidence. This is another way of describing open will. Activating our capacity to put our foot into the territory of the unknown. When you work with leaders today you would be surprised how many leaders, at the highest level, actually encounter self-doubt. You think they are very accomplishing but working with these inner obstacles that allow you to move into new territories is always important in leadership and societies.

In this decade where we all live in a period of unprecedented disruption where very old things are changing or dying and new ways of operating are being born, this capacity to let go and step into new territories and to activate our action confidence is absolutely critical.

You ask me how I know what I know? As an action researcher I have a very simple answer to that question. You only know when you can create it. So, it is not this kind of traditional research of ‘I know when I can observe it’, where you have a hypothesis and you observe evidence. That’s part of it, but as an action researcher, I say there is an additional criterion. You only know when you can do it. So, you know, for example, whether or not people can shift the inner place from where they operate through opening their mind, opening their heart and opening their will when they do it.

Theory U

Can you create learning environments to help people to go through this process?

In my view the number one challenge we face, not only as leaders or even as individuals, but as a society, as a civilisation, is how we deal with disruption. How we deal with disruption in ways that are not reactive, not driven by the past, but that allow us to really embrace the present. Ways that let go of old patterns that no longer give us anything and tune into new possibilities that are yet to be born. It is this kind of capacity that is at the heart of leadership and change, but also at the heart of education and learning today. And how to create these environments is what I try to contribute to.

What is disruption to you? Very often it is understood as technology moving in. Like what AirBnB does to hotels. But I think you mean something different?

Yes, that’s right. What does disruption essentially mean? It means that something is ending and dying and something else is beginning. It essentially means the future is going to be different from the past. So, the question is what is it that we need to let go of and how can we tune into these new possibilities? Or are we just holding on to past patterns until change falls upon us and we become victims of these developments? And from that point of view disruption of course has to do with technology, but that is only one driver.
Disruption has to do with a lot more than just technology. I have visited a lot of countries and societies over the past decades, and the additional forces that I have seen played out in all these countries and societies are three major divides: the ecological divide, the social divide and the spiritual divide. The ecological divide

essentially arises from a disconnect between ourselves and nature and manifests itself in the climate crisis, loss of biodiversity and all its symptoms that we are aware of.
The social divide essentially arises from a disconnect between our ‘self’ and the other. We see this manifesting itself in polarisation, in all the appalling symptoms around systemic racism and mechanisms of exclusion and many other forms of conflict and disconnect. That’s a second set of phenomena. We can see it a little more here in the US, but it is also happening in Europe. What we see in the US here - and we are maybe a few years ahead - is a society that is basically falling apart. What used to be a whole and what used to be a body of residence is falling to pieces. The remaining bubbles have lost the possibility to truly connect and dialogue with each other. The question there is: how can we rebuild these foundations and connect with each other across these bubbles? 
The third divide is the spiritual divide. This has to do with a disconnect between our ‘self’ and ‘Self’. Between the ‘self’, which is the person I am today, and our ‘Self’ (with a capital S), our highest reaching possibility, the person that I could be tomorrow. These two selves nowadays no longer have the capacity to connect and to resonate with each other, to ‘feel’ each other. This shows in our life as symptoms of loss of energy, depression maybe, or burnout. A whole set of mental health issues that we see so amplified, not only because of the pandemic around us. They were already there before, to a much larger degree than was often acknowledged, and, particularly through social media and so forth, we are seeing a very strong phenomenon, also among young people in schools. It is almost universal, with almost all countries facing the issues to different degrees.

These three divides are the forces that disrupt our environment. So, disruption basically means that the environment in which we operate is profoundly changing and therefore that our needs are evolving. That is why those of us who build learning environments need to connect with that. We need to attain to that and to adjust them accordingly.

Do you agree that the ecological and social divides come from the spiritual divide? Do we need to work on the spiritual divide first to solve the others?

None of the things that I have just mentioned are of course new. What is new, is that they are much more amplified. We have known these things for at least 100 years, in some cases even significantly longer. As western societies, what have we been doing? For every problem we have created a ministry. That is how we respond, one problem at a time: environmental things, education and learning, social stuff… I think that what we have been learning over the past 100 years is the one thing that doesn’t work. It is addressing these symptoms one at a time and disconnected from each other.
Because in reality - as we have all learned in the past few years - you cannot solve the environmental issues if you don’t bring in equity, so climate justice. And you cannot solve those two issues if you do not connect, if you do not help…. Why is it that some of us have too much and overconsume, while others have too little? This has to do with how we organize our economy of course, but it also has to do with this spiritual dimension, as you indicated. 

By this spiritual dimension I mean our capacity to connect to our deeper sources. It is something that is very much at the core. All change work, all deep change work is essentially about shifting consciousness from ego to eco. As an action researcher I wanted to join the action research community, which was founded by Kurt Lewin. In this field the researcher intervenes in the research. This is based on the fact that you cannot understand the system unless you change it. You really need to participate. This is the foundation of action research and action learning today. That is why it is also so important in schools. This brought me in fact to the US, to MIT.

Further developing this approach - and basically what I have learned over the past 20 years or so - I discovered a second principle. You cannot change a system unless you transform consciousness. You need to shift the inner place from where you operate, you need to shift the mindset. If we cannot shift the mindset on which we collectively enact, in fact the system that we see around us, then we will just do more of the same. So, that’s the second principle: you can’t change the system, unless you shift consciousness.

The question for all of us, educators, learning environment builders and cultivators is ‘how do you do that?’

That really has to do with the third core principle of Theory U and an awareness based system change: you can’t transform consciousness unless you make a system sense and see itself. Old system thinking would have said ‘unless you can make a system see itself’. And that’s why we still suffer in the world today from the knowing-doing gap. Like: ‘I’m the expert and I see if a system is broken, and then I make the system see itself’.
But what we learned is that this is not enough! Take an example: we know how to solve the climate crisis tomorrow and we have the technologies to do it, but are we implementing these solutions? No! So, there is the knowing in the head, but the doing in the end doesn’t happen. There is a separation between them. Whenever a system has this disconnect between ‘head’ (knowing) and ‘hands’ (doing) the leverage point is in the ‘heart’.

You need to make the system see itself’ would mean it is still stuck in the head (knowing). It is not reaching the hand (doing). That’s why we say you need to make the system sense ànd see itself. Because the sensing is the feeling. Only when I feel the pain of the others in the system - those that are excluded, those that are marginalized and so forth - can we unlock the deeper sources of collective creativity that we need to address the current situation. In other words: we need to break that self-other barrier. So, that’s the third principle: to transform consciousness you need to make the system sense and see itself. 

The last principle that summarizes this approach has everything to do with what we do in schools. That is: in order to transform a system you have to sense and actualize emerging future opportunities. That is really in one sentence what I learned working over 20 years with innovators. We live in an age of disruption and how do we connect to the future? What I found is that connecting to the future is very personal. There is no one future for society. That is abstract and boring. What I mean by ‘the future’ is a future possibility that depends on me in order for it to come into reality. When in my life do I feel that? When do I have the sense of a future possibility that depends on me, on my presence, in order for it to come into reality? That’s the point we need to activate. That’s what I mean by sensing.

So, changing a system requires sensing or co-sensing possibilities and then realising them. This means having the courage to put your foot into the unknown. This stepping forward is the essence of what leadership is about. But it is also a deeper capacity that all us human beings have, but which often, in traditional learning environments, is not really nurtured.

That is really what I mean by action confidence and open will. In an environment where everyone is bombarded with so many images, pictures, self-doubt and self-judgment you really need to create environments that allow people to trust in sensing the possibility that this is real. It is very subtle how this starts. That’s why the innovators who have been operating and acting on it are slightly hesitant to talk about this more subtle story of their own inner journey that brought them to the place where they are now. I think that’s the same in every human being, particularly in every young human being, because we all have these dormant capacities. But can we feel them, do we get the possibility to activate them? That is the third dimension I believe the school of the future has to pay a great deal of attention to.

Do you have a personal story? What did Theory U do to yourself?

I don’t need to bring Theory U into the world, because it is already there. I found Theory U by listening to people birthing something new into the world, what they are sharing. So, it’s a way of operating. And when I began to articulate this deeper awareness of operating I was surprised to see that so many people know it. But many people say that it was only in creative moments that they have been operating this way, and in everyday life it is much harder.

I have experienced that myself many times and I found that in studying other people. So, I could give you many examples and what it does on average. But it's not something that you can say “OK, I now know the theory and….”. It's more that the theory makes you aware of what is already there but what isn’t fully activated yet. It maybe gives you the handle to activate it at the right moment.

But I’ll give you an example which has to do with the subtle capacity to trust your own ambiguous feelings and then take a step back and notice what your heart is actually telling you. I'm not saying that knowing in your heart is the only thing, but it is something that we need to cultivate and we need to pay more attention to. So, when the pandemic hit and everything was disrupted, I was on the last flight from Europe to the US. It was an interesting experience. It was a kind of travelling between walls in that moment and seeing what was similar and what was different. Together with colleagues we tried to make sense of this full lockdown. What it meant for all of us and what we were caught to do in this situation. Even though nobody had any idea how long it would last, we felt that this was something of significance that needed our utmost attention. We felt that we needed to jump into action and invite people to just ‘hold the space’ of making sense together. Which is what we did.

I published a blog on arrival in the US, and 10 days later we had more than 100 volunteers, from 8 different language groups, and we had more than 12,000 people joining deep sense making sessions over the following three months. It was not a process. It was just a holding space that invited the participants to ask themselves the question ‘how can we sense into the current moment and re-imagine our path forward in a way that's really in sync with our highest aspirations?’ Not only as individuals, but also in our relationships in groups and in society.

We named this initiative GAIA (Global Activation of Intention and Action). It drew a worldwide community. I remember one of the community members was an educator in Chili. He said: “You know, I have been teaching system thinking for years at my university, but I have never experienced such a vibrant social field. I saw the shift of the social field from a kind of more transactional operating to another way of operating which is in a much more generative or regenerative way where the boundaries collapse and we move into a co-sensing and co-shaping of possibilities together.” So, this is what emerged out of this holding space.
It was life changing for many but it was not following a plan. It was more just listening to the impulse that you feel is beginning to operate through you and then taking small steps and adjusting, based on what you are noticing and feeling. But also what you are learning along the way. So that is an example of something rather small that resulted in something much bigger. The first beginning many times is very small and often takes quite a long time to grow. So, what I have been learning, by not only articulating but also practicing this approach, is to pay more attention to the deeper levels of resonance that I can feel in situations.
When I talk to a person, what is the resonance that I pick up? When I'm on a hike I try to feel the resonance of mother nature speaking to me. When I’m working with a group, I try to sense how the group is speaking to me and trying to tell me, not only in what is being articulated, but also in terms of what deeper relational qualities I pick up.

Essentially, I would say what we do as educators, facilitators and as leaders, is cultivate social fields. A great school, a great organisation or team is a generative social field. Once you accomplish that, it has a great stability that allows you to go through a lot of challenges and changes and yet you don’t lose this deeper connection. Just like when you have a very good friend, you can go through many hard times, but once the stability of that deeper relationship is there it’s something that can give you strength. And that's what I believe is our primary job as educators: activating generative social fields.

‘Holding space’ is the practice of compassionately witnessing, accepting, and supporting someone without judgment, while retaining your boundaries and sense of self. This is very important in activating a social field, I understand?

Holding space is the key. It is in fact the alpha and the omega. You cannot engineer creativity, you cannot engineer a generative social field, but you can cultivate the outer and the inner conditions that allow us for such a field to be activated and to be cultivated. And that is something that great teachers and great leaders have always been doing intuitively. But we need to learn now that we live in an environment that’s a lot more toxic than it used to be. So, we need to strengthen this capacity.
Great leaders do that, as individuals, more out of an intuition and great teachers do the same thing. But we are now moving into greater toxicity, with more mental health issues all around us and distractions growing louder. This environment requires us to upgrade our capacity to create these holding spaces. And this is not only what great individuals have to do, but it is something that you do as a whole team. It is a social practice that in a leadership team you try to cultivate throughout an entire organisation.

Leadership essentially for me is not what a person or an individual does, that's the biggest misunderstanding. The essence of leadership is the capacity of the system, in which everyone is participating, to sense and shape the future, and to be in touch with what is wanting to emerge, and then stepping into that. That really is what leadership is all about. And that's why leadership, as we say it here at MIT, is a distributive phenomenon. It needs to include all of us, it's not something we can delegate to the one person at the top.

Talking about schools and learning today. There is often not really an open mind. People get educated for a fixed mind. The heart in many cases is not important and your will often is also not allowed. “We will tell you what to learn!” So, according to you, what is the most important thing that should change in (adult) education and what can we do as educators or teachers to start this change?

I think the reality is that learning environments today look very different in different places. So, it’s not about a ‘one-size-fix-all’ solution. In reality what we all need to understand is the bigger picture and then we need to find out what the specific situation we are in is and what the appropriate thing to do there is. It will be very different.
Generally speaking, I would say when I look at learning and leadership – not so much from what is happening in schools, but from a societal perspective – it is very clear where the blind spot is, basically all the money is going in the wrong direction. That’s the summary. And why is that?
The evolution of learning and leadership goes along two axes. The first axis is from head centric learning over practice-based learning by doing with ‘head’ and ‘hand’ to transformational learning which is head, heart and hands. This brings up this deeper dimension that we were talking about. The one word describing the journey towards transformation is ‘deepening’. A good learning environment is moving from head centric to activating head, heart and hands. In other words, it's moving towards transformational learning environments.

But then there is another axis. And this is about who is learning. Is it just the individual or is it groups, like teams, or is it even at the level of the whole organisation? Or is it even the whole ecosystem by which I mean everyone regardless of whether they are inside or outside of my organisation who I need to link with in order to change the system? That can be very local or not so local.

So, when you picture a matrix along these two axes… Where is the one corner where all the resources go? It is the corner where are the head centric individuals are. That’s also where all the tests are! Where is the big need? What is the blind spot when you look at the future? What is the disruption that is coming our way? What is it we need to do? The blind spot is in the other corner! It’s transformational learning across all levels, individual and group and organisation, but also the whole ecosystem. And I think that's the challenge.
I would say there are pockets where that is happening. So, it is not like we don’t know how to do it. We do know how to do it. And that happens in pockets, but largely the bigger system, as you are indicating, is working against it. Not working for really democratising access. I think the challenge of the future has to do with equity. Yes, we have good schools for few people. Equity is the issue here.

How can we democratise the access to transformational learning environments? And make it available not only to everyone as individuals, but also to the community, to the systems learning and the various ecosystems, the various pockets of society. That's where we have a huge underinvestment right now. All the resources, all the metrics, all the attention, all the career paths are in one end of the matrix. And what with the real need? We need the entire matrix, it's not one or the other. But the current system has a blind spot in transformational whole system learning environments.

So where does that start? Often locally. So, you can open up schools to what is happening around them and really I think the action learning, at the end of the day, means putting the learner in the driving seat of change. That's what we see happening here at MIT. There are a lot of labs here and as a student you are placed and connected with start-ups, with entrepreneurs and companies and you move into this global ecosystem by learning, by doing. That is something that is rapidly gaining acceptance and speed and also impact.

It's already beginning in many places, but I am aware that these places are small compared to the overall student population, and population of learners, let alone all learners, in fact everyone in society. That is where we really need to rethink and reconceive, not only what we do in schools but really how we are developing learning environments in society.
I think there is a whole set of civic infrastructures that's missing today and it is not like global and it is not only personal. I think a lot is local and place based, particularly as we are beginning to come out of the pandemic (October 2021). We appreciate so much more now that we are allowed to connect in person again, and yet through digital mechanisms and so on we also have an ease of connectivity across geographies and across sectors and systems. So that’s where we are experimenting right now.

But what is very clear is that this blind spot that we currently have is a huge area of innovation and those who innovate right there often do not have a lot recognition, or a lot of resources. But I think that is going to change, because we will be hitting against walls as a society that basically forces us to do that. Proactive leadership, proactive political awareness across sectors of course will move there through innovation, not because we are forced by the environment. So, it will happen in many different ways, but especially in smaller countries we might see the innovators moving first.


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