Theory U

The following is an excerpt from The Essentials of Theory U

I grew up on an 800-year-old farm near Hamburg.


Sixty years ago, my parents decided to abandon conventional industrial farming techniques (using pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers) and replace them with organic methods (focusing instead on cultivating the living eco-system of the farm). Every Sunday my parents took me, my sister, and my two brothers on a Feldgang—a field walk—across the fields on our farm.


Once in a while my father would stop, bend over, and pick up a clump of soil from a furrow so that we could learn to recognize its different types and structures. The quality of the soil, he explained, depended on a whole host of living entities—millions of organisms living in every cubic centimeter of the soil—whose work is necessary for the earth to breathe and to evolve as a living organism.


Just as we did on those field walks of my youth, this book will take you on a similar journey where every now and then we stop and examine a case story or a piece of data that helps us understand the deeper structures of the “social field.”


And just as the organic farmer depends completely on the living quality of the soil, social pioneers depend on the living quality of the social field. I define social field as the quality of relationships that give rise to patterns of thinking, conversing, and organizing, which in turn produce practical results.


And just as the farmer cannot “drive” a plant to grow faster, a leader or change maker in an organization or a community cannot force practical results. Instead, attention must be focused on improving the quality of the soil.


What is the quality of the social soil?


It is the quality of relationships among individuals, teams, and institutions that give rise to collective behavior and practical results.


Looking back, I realize that my journey over the past four decades has been one of cultivating social fields. My parents cultivated the fields on the farm. My colleagues and I cultivate social fields.


And if you happen to be a manager, educator, entrepreneur, social entrepreneur, performing artist, health professional, parent, or movement builder, that is probably your work, too.


The deeper experiences and levels of the social field, described here, are familiar to everyone who is engaged in creating movements, startups or profound change. In my own case, I first got involved with the environmental, green, antinuclear, and peace movements of the late 1970s and 1980s, and later in launching the Presencing Institute as a new type of global social enterprise. At this point I just want to draw your attention to the fact that none of these experiences are unique or extraordinary.


On the contrary, they are actually quite ordinary. Many people have them. And yes, they do take you “out of the box,” like the fire experience took me out of my physical body for a moment or two.


And yet many of us have these experiences a lot more often than we realize at first sight.





About today’s contributor:  Otto Scharmer is a Senior Lecturer at MIT and co-founder of the Presencing Institute. He chairs the MIT IDEAS program for cross-sector innovation that helps leaders from business, government, and civil society to innovate at the level of the whole system. He is the author of Theory U (translated into 20 languages) and co-author of Leading from the Emerging Future, which outlines eight acupuncture points of transforming capitalism. His latest book, The Essentials of Theory U: Core Principles and Applications, illuminates the blind spot in leadership today and offers hands-on methods to help change makers overcome it through the process, principles, and practices of Theory U.