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Otto Scharmer’s U-Theory: Questioning Co-Presencing



U-Theory is an approach for engaging groups in addressing complex challenges that require creative solutions, which was popularized by Otto Scharmer in his book Theory U: Learning from the Future as It Emerges. It is typically used in “social lab” or “change lab” settings, which bring together parties who hold very different perspectives, for example leaders from business, government, and civil society, so that, through coming to develop an expanded understanding of each other’s perspectives and the challenge at hand, they might collectively envision previously unimagined paths forward. Proponents of U-Theory have praised it for offering a constructive way to address the complex challenges of our era. That being said, U-Theory might be perceived as problematic by those who are uncomfortable engaging in spiritual practices, since for Scharmer, co-imagining a new future requires deepening into spiritual knowing. What he has called co-presencing, which can be understood as U-Theory’s core and signature activity, asks participants to move beyond dialogue and mutual understanding and, through spiritual engagement, collectively tap into what the future is calling them to do. As several thinkers have pointed out, asking participants to engage in co-presencing risks alienating certain parties, which is problematic for a process whose very purpose is to foster inclusivity (Dirani, 2011; Guttenstein, Lindsay, & Baron, 2014; Kalman, 2007). This paper presents a personal exploration of U-Theory. It begins with a summary of U-Theory, as conceptualized by Scharmer. It then turns to the literature about U-Theory to examine how it has been applied by practitioners who have written about in-the-field experiences and academics who have drawn on it for theoretical purposes. It ends with analyzing this literature, concluding that U-Theory holds enormous potential as a framework, but that a non-spiritual adaptation might be adequate and less risky for new practitioners.
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