Leading from the Emerging Future

SEEING – Design Thinking meets Theory U

Design Thinking is a systematic, human-centered way of finding solutions to complex problems. It goes beyond traditional design related concerns such as shape and layout. Unlike engineering approaches, which often start from the technical feasibility and economic viability, the needs of the users are key.

In Design Thinking a team which is as diverse as possible is lead through the following phases in iterative loops:

  • Scope – Get an initial understanding of the challenge to expand the problem space
  • 360° Research – Observe and interview end users on site
  • Synthesize – Interpret the empirical findings, create a Persona representing the users and reframe the challenge to narrow down the problem space
  • Ideate – Generate a variety of ideas supporting the Persona to expand the solution space
  • Prototype – Create a low-fidelity prototype for the Persona
  • Validate – Get feedback from end users on the prototype in order to narrow down the solution space
  • Implement – Build the product based on the validated prototype
  • Test – Test the developed product with the end users
  • Deploy – Deploy the product so that it can be used by the target group
SAP Design Thinking Process

“Leadership is a distributed or collective capacity in a system, not just something that individuals do. Leadership is about the capacity of the whole system to sense and actualize the future that wants to emerge.”
― Otto Scharmer

Some challenges might call to enhance the human-centric approach of Design Thinking with a more holistic perspective to understand relationships within a system. Theory U, an action learning framework for awareness-based system change, can support theses cases. Journeying through the U in iterative loops develops the following capacities:

  • Downloading – Suspend downloading past patterns to perceive more than you already know
  • Seeing – Go to the places of most potential with an open mind
  • Sensing – Immersing into the field with an open heart
  • Presencing – Connecting with your highest future possibilities
  • Crystallizing – Letting come vision and intention
  • Prototyping – Explore the future by linking head, heart, and hand
  • Performing – Shift your awareness from ego to eco to see the whole
Otto Scharmer – Essentials of Theory U

Moving down the left side of the U connects us to the world outside of our bubble. It is about opening up and dealing with the resistance of thought, emotion, and will. In a way it corresponds to the discovery phase – the problem space in Design Thinking. At the bottom of the U we let go of our current self, connect to a deeper source of knowing, and let come our highest future possibility as our new Self.

Moving up the right side of the U is about bringing the new into the world. It integrates the intelligence of the head, the heart, and the hand to create practical applications. In a way it corresponds to the design phase – the solution space in Design Thinking.

Design Thinking has more of an Outside-In approach as it focuses on the end-users or beneficiaries of an innovation. Theory U in contrast has more of an Inside-Out approach as it challenges individuals and groups as a whole to attend to their internal condition. Thereby both approaches complement each other, and the following Theory U practices can be great enhancements in the Design Thinking process.

SENSING – Immersing into the Field with an Open Heart

In the Design Thinking research phase, we observe and interview end-users on site to understand their needs. The foundational capacity of Theory U which is listening to yourself, and others can be extremely beneficial in this phase. We can change the inner place from which we operate by practicing different levels of listening:

Presencing Institute – Four Levels of Listening & Conversing
  • When we are in Downloading mode, we are gathering facts selectively reconfirming our habitual judgments. We are listening to double-check what we already know and do not expect any surprises.
  • Factual Listening is object-focused, in it we concentrate on differences to our latest knowledge. We switch off your inner voice of judgment and are open to new ideas.
  • Empathic Listening is listening for the place the other person is coming from. An open heart gives us the empathic capacity to connect with the other person from within. We go past the facts and begin to understand the context of the facts.
  • Generative Listening carries on listening much further. It even goes beyond mere listening when it takes part in an interchange between several actors. It consists of dynamic acts of co-creation that let everybody so deeply immerse into a conversation that they forget space and time. Listening becomes much more than what’s being said:

“Connecting to the emerging future – to a future possibility that links to your emerging self; to who you really are.”
― Otto Scharmer
PRESENCING – Connect with your Highest Future Possibilities

The bottom of the U corresponds to the moment in Design Thinking where we leave the problem space and enter the solution space. Presencing is a combination of presence and sensing—it is a place of stillness allowing the inner knowledge to emerge. Our current self and our future Self meet and resonate with each other.

CRYSTALLIZING – Letting Come Vision and Intention

In the Design Thinking ideation phase, we create a variety of ideas supporting the needs of the Persona. Also, the Crystallizing phase of the U condenses future possibilities through a group of people who have the same intention. However, the main difference is not to generate ideas on a cognitive level but to let them arise from the use of our body intelligence and intuition.

Embodiment practices like Social Presencing Theater help to understand the current reality and explore emerging future possibilities. They foster an intuitive knowing that does not focus on mental processes but a physically integrated and shared understanding.

PROTOTYPING – Explore the Future by Linking Head, Heart, and Hand

Whereas in Design Thinking a low-fidelity prototype fitting to the Persona’s needs is created, with a Theory U prototype we represent a system with its different elements, qualities and stakeholders. The group walks around the model to reflect on it from four directions:

Presencing Institute – 3D Mapping
  • Feeling & Relationships – What about it ignites your best energies? What other emotions arise?
  • Truth & Action – What are the key conflicts and hard truths that you have to face in order to move forward? Where do the different sources of power lie in this system?
  • Perspective – What are the most important barriers or bottlenecks that, if removed, could help the current system to evolve?
  • Purpose – What is ending in this situation? What is seeking to emerge?

After a moment of stillness, the group builds the answers into the prototype as manifested highest future possibilities.

“You cannot understand a system unless you change it.”
― Kurt Lewin

“You cannot change a system unless you transform consciousness.”
― Peter Senge

“You cannot transform consciousness unless you make a system sense and see itself.”
― Otto Scharmer

To do all this, we have to be the system. We can only collectively actualize the future that we want to emerge.