Questions For Presencing & Theory U

Otto Scharmer's QuestionsForLiving interview focuses Theory U and Presencing. Otto's questions help individuals and groups adapt to, and benefit from, the emerging future. Throughout the interview, Otto provides his questions and insights for creating an environment conducive to co-creation, innovation, and whole-system design.



- Theory U is a theoretical framework for the analysis of principles, practices and processes that differentiate among four types of emergence and antiemergence: the four types differ in terms of their source (or their structure of attention) with respect to where their activity is enacted or performed from. Theory U illuminates the source level of enacted systems (or social systems).

- Presencing: To sense, tune in, and act from one's highest future potential - the future that depends on us to bring it into being. Presencing blends the words "presence" and "sensing" and works through "seeing from our deepest source."

(Definitions are from Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges, by Otto Scharmer)

 ***Otto Scharmer's QuestionsForLiving Interview ***

QuestionsForLiving:  Are there specific questions that attracted you to the concepts of leadership development, organizational development, innovation and whole system change?  Also were there specific questions that attracted you to your current profession and area of study specifically regarding the emerging future?

Otto Scharmer:  Yes, you could say it’s questions or also context, right?  In my case, part of the context was that I grew up, and became politically aware within the context of the birth of the environmental movement in Germany - the anti nuclear plant movement in the late 1970s, which, back then, swept Europe.  Most of my generation participated in this movement. There was a construction site for a nuclear power plant not too far from my family's farm outside of Hamburg. For me, that was the moment to wake up, think more, and become more aware of the kinds of structures that are driving the creation of new technologies. I started asking, "How does political decision making, and special interest groups, work?"  I also started thinking more about society and the evolution of society and wondering "How does it all hang together?". Considering this question made me aware that unless you change the heart of society, which today is business, you’re just scratching the surface.  So these questions led me into the field of business and economy, and from there, of course, to leading change.  Another question guided my inquiry was "How does society really work?" This question brings you squarely into the issue of leadership.  So, yes, that was the context for how I got into the field.


QFL: Were there specific questions that attracted you to the concept of Theory U?

Scharmer:  A question really that underlies Theory U is related to the role of consciousness in everything we do, including the forming of human relationships.  Theory U, in a nutshell, proposes that the quality of results in any kind of social economic system is a function of the quality of relationships and the quality of consciousness that we, as people, operate from in a system.  So the question there is, "How can I make a difference?"

The mechanism for making a different really is consciousness. As long as I complain about all the "external factors" and "the other guys" that are part of the problem, I am not actually getting  my hand on a leverage point for change.  But the interesting thing about consciousness, or to use a different term, the "inner place" from where I operate, is that in principle I’m really in control of that.  Even if people put me into jail, I am still in control of my own source.  No one can really control that unless I let them.  So that question "How can I make a difference?" led me logically to looking at consciousness more thoroughly because it is an important aspect in leading change. 

The other perspective, of course, for me came from participating in the environmental movement, the green movement, and the peace movement in Europe.  The questions for me also included "How can we help make society evolve?" and "How and what does it mean for leadership, organizational learning, to participate and be a change agent in society rather than become an obstacle to change?"


QFL:  Were there specific questions that lead to the creation, and process associated with Theory U?  How did the specific process associated with Theory U emerge? 

Scharmer:  Theory U actually emerged through observation and in being in awe with the world.  Really, that's essentially my most or deepest fundamental impulse to inquiry is wonderment, puzzlement and really being genuinely interested in understanding the world, understanding how things work, understanding how stuff is coming together.  For me, growing up on a farm and going to a place like the city, I come with a lot of wonders and puzzles.  I think that’s the most basic attitude I’m bringing to situations. It was through observation that the Theory U process revealed itself. 

Also something else that really helped me was that when I started at MIT, I didn’t have a job.  They basically offered me an unpaid visiting scholar position and, at the time of course, I had like lots of student loans.  I was basically broke, but I turned down some good job offers in Europe to tkae this position.  I had no idea really how to make it work. Where does that type of situation lead you?  In my case, it led me to the realization that I really needed to be useful to MIT and those  was workink with, so I began some consulting. Consulting can get you into very interesting places and you get access to interesting people, you learn a lot that’s going on, and you also get some income - which I desperately needed. So that’s the kind of "impediment" that I had having no regular or full-time research position in the beginning. This was actually a blessing in disguise because I needed to learn how to be helpful.  I also knew I had no idea how to be helpful.  I knew, that I didn’t know, and I was quite aware of that, so the only chance I had was through really truly listening

If you know you have no idea how to be useful in a situation, and need to figure out how to be useful, you really pay attention.  You know that’s the only chance you have.  The more successful you become, the more you think: "I figured that out", and the more difficult it becomes to listen.  But for me, in the beginning, it was really easy because I had no illusions.  Everything I knew was pretty much irrelevant for the situation.  So I really, genuinely, practiced and developed listening deeply in real life situations.

I should say that back then I really thought my lack of experience was an impediment. Now I would say that was a really great teacher for me, and that really helped me to hone some of my skills.  So one question was "How can I learn about the world?". And the other question was, "How can I be helpful to others?"  So the two questions were related. That really has been an enorous teacher for me.

This line of inquiry relates to an enormously teacher I had here at MIT, Ed Schein.   His whole Process Consultation approach to working with people and organizations, is really is about how to be helpful to others, and it has been extremely helpful to me. It’s really something that I have practiced a lot, not only because I liked it, but also because I had to. It was a good thing for me and I also enjoyed it.  It’s not like first I had to do it, then I enjoyed it.  I enjoyed it all the time, but the feeling of necessity is important because I think reality is our friend. So another question that I think is a very important to ask is: "What is the attitude you or I bring to a situation?" My assumption is that reality is my friend. The universe is going to help you if you approach it in the right way.


QFL:  Were there specific questions that you asked in the writing and creation of your books including Theory U and Leading From the Emerging Future?  Also, were there questions that you asked to organize the books in a way that other people can just take it and use the information?

Scharmer:  Yes, I think one question I have always asked, and that I was always fascinated by is the question of integration. Basically, if you look at any kind of the intellectual field, we are in a post-modern period, where there are a multitude of approaches, views, and perspectives that don’t talk to each other. 

Coming from Germany, the country of Hegel, Marx and SAP, there is an intellectual tradition where students are used to thinking in terms of bigger systems rather than in terms of very small theories.  I was always fascinated by the integration of disciplines or perspectives. So one question I ask is "How do these architectures of thought relate to each other?"  I loved that, because that’s something I needed to find out, that was an attitude that I brought to the field of organization learning and systems thinking.

There are countless numbers of approaches that seemingly don’t talk to each other. Yet, as a practitioner (I’m also a practitioner I’m not just a theoretician) I’m integrating all these approaches, always. 

So today theoreticians leave the integration job to practitioners.  But practitioners to not help integrate the theories; they just create their own theory.  So I knew the integration issue from the practitioner's experience. I was really interested in making a contribution intellectually towards integrating the theories.  So the question related to that is really "What could a meta framework look like that people could use in which you could integrate a multitude of different approaches and methods and tools like Appreciative Inquiry, like Process Consultation, and Systems Thinking?"  All these different approaches exist, so I asked "What could a meta framework look like?" That’s a question I always asked. Also I was always was interested in a deeper way of understanding reality and a deeper way of understanding how the new is coming into being.  I always thought that, most of science is limited to investigating the world that we already know, kind of the empirical world of data that’s already emerged.  But as an entrepreneur, you have different questions.  As an entrepreneur your questions are, "How can I bring new products and services into being?"  and "How does the new come into being?"  That has been a guiding question for me forever.

When I ask myself "How does the new come into being?" I’m looking at the world that has emerged in the past as one piece, and then looking at the emerging world that hasn’t quite manifested, as of yet, as another one.  Then I look right at the interface between these two worlds and that’s where the interesting stuff happens. 

Then something dawned on me when I was listening to a live video broadcast about organizational learning here at MIT. The speaker went to a whiteboard or a flip chart and he wrote, something like "Structure" as the top level and then below that was "Process" then he wrote something like "Mental Model".  I looked at that and I thought, "There is something missing. When you go from surface reality to deeper process and then to a mental model of thought, there’s certainly something underneath."

But I couldn’t put my arms around it.  But seeing that, I was transfixed. So that was the moment where I thought, "Boy, there is something underneath, and I’m going to find out what that is."  That’s a really interesting question.  So I was transfixed by that fourth level and then the more I thought about that, I also thought, well, when you kind of take a group through this process from surface to deep, there are certain stages you go through, stages of opening. Which today I refer to as "Opening the mind", "Opening the heart", "Opening the will."  But back then, seeing that and looking at that, the seed of the question awoke in me because I always looked at these systems and the bigger kind of philosophical whole systems or more also philosophical issues from the viewpoint of the entrepreneur.  Because, if you just look at it from a 50,000 foot perspective like the old philosophers, there is no point.  All philosophical thoughts that are possible to think already have been thought by the Greeks already so there’s nothing new you can add.  But what is new today is the viewpoint of the entrepreneurial human being, the entrepreneur who has to create from nothing.

As an entrepreneurial you need to deal with disruptive change.  The whole ship is breaking apart and your practice is to lean into what you don't know.  The whole old structure is breaking up, and we need to figure out what’s next.  It is an entrepreneurial challenge or situation we live in on many levels, individually and collectively. 

That situation has always really interested me because I thought that’s really important for this or that reason, but because of my own life.  That’s exactly the situation I am in, and it’s exactly the situation I experience and that many other people are experiencing.   

What became apparent to me in this investigation was that the key for understanding and integrating all of these things is consciousness, because that’s the blind spot in economics and management today.  People implicitly refer to it, but they haven’t made it explicit.  When people talk about "consciousness" they are really talking about a dimension of "Source".  What really is important isn't so much What I do, or How I do it, but it’s the Source out of which my action is emerging. The quality of Source can change and as a leader, a person can control some of that. I use the word "Leadership" but in reality I’m talking, of course, about something much bigger, which is the "Human Being".  I talk about all human relationships in the end, but usually I just refer to "leadership", because that is an easy entrypoint.                                               

So the  initial question was "How do all these theories all relate to each other?" and the insight that came from this was that it has to do with consciousness and awareness and how we pay attention.  And questions that resulted from this insight are "What really is the role of paying attention, and the nature of paying attention, in leadership?", and "What really is the nature of awareness and consciousness in leadership?".  In retrospect, I would say those questions have been organizing my work and then have been enabling me to come up with a relatively simple framework that is a meta-structure that you can hang on many other methods and tools, and that kind of creates some durability, order, and simplicity in that field based on that distinction or differentiation of different levels of consciousness.


QFL: When applying Theory U to innovation, are there specific questions that you and other practitioners ask to improve the quality of the innovation?

Scharmer:  Yes, I think it is the dimension of "source" - that's what is being added.  It’s not just "innovation", but the "What are the sources of innovation?" and "Where does innovation come from?" 

For example, let’s take a look at the financial industry from a Theory U perspective.  The financial industry - The products that were developed for poor people before 2008 and sold to them, were entirely driven by a profit motivation and not by helping the target audience.  But at the same time it was pretty clear that these products would be potentially hurting or harming them.  So "source" also could be translated with "intention".  So another question is "What’s the intention you bring as you move into a certain activity or creating a new product in a certain area?" 

In Theory U approach, you would:  A) become more aware about what it really is like investigating your own "sources"; and B) you would go through a process of innovation.  You wouldn’t just let that be wherever it is, but the whole observe, observe, observe stage of Theory U is really about empathy.  It’s about connection.  It’s about connecting with the user. In innovation, it is called "user-centric design". So that is an example for a Theory U type of innovation where before you dream up some solution, a product, a service you immerse with all the relevant stakeholders or create a process where they connect to each other when you have a systemic change. 

In other words, you’re not only like investigating the source, of the intention, but you try to create a holding space in which that common condition, or common ground, can be uncovered.  So in that regard, one of the main questions, as a practitioner of Theory U, that I’m holding are, "How can you become good at creating and holding the space?",   "How can you hold the space for complex collective entities, that usually make sense of a situation apart from each other, engage with one another?"  You need to create a space for common sense making, connection and empathy - really connecting - and then sense the situation, which then uncovers collective intention or collective condition that is much more primed to be co-creative as a system. 

So I think an analogy would be to think about it as a collective brain.  We know how important it is for the brain to form new connections when someone is learning or doing certain activities. These connections only form when doing the activities, and in particular when the individual is feeling inspired. When they are in love or following their passion, that’s where the strongest connections form, where actually the structure of the brain is developing and changing as a result.  We know that today and it is called neuroplasticity.  The concept of neuroplasticity has direct implications for how we work in society because currently the "sense making" is located in all the functional and organizational and sectorial silos.  However the problems are within the silos.  People within the silos make sense of the facts and then they interact based on their conclusions, but nothing new is happening.  I think what would be better is instead of the silo-type sense making, we could have a "co-sensing" activity across these institutional boundaries, facilitated by empathy and by walking in each other’s shoes, that uncovers a whole other dimension of not only different individual condition of source, which says "Yes, I want to be ethical, I want to serve the whole.", but a real collective feel of connectivity, and inspire connections, which can very quickly can generate ideas and make them happen That’s a whole other ballgame. That is something that has to do with cultivating the sources from which we operate, not only as individuals but in particular as complex systems.  So that’s really what we have a lack of today is holding spaces for that type of chemistry.  For many years, a guiding question for me has been how to maintain that space. So the question I ask is, "How do I cultivate the sources from which we operate, not only as individuals but in particular as complex systems, by creating and cultivating the holding spaces where that type of chemistry can occur?"


QFL:  When you are presenting to a group about Theory U or Presencing, what questions do you ask yourself that enables you to teach, or convey the knowledge them experience the benefits of Theory U?

Scharmer:  I don’t assume that I have to convey knowledge because I assume that the knowledge is already there.  They already know.  I just help them to become aware of that.  That then translates into, what I pay attention to which is the "crack".  So the knowledge is already there.  We’re just distracted by stuff, like general noise and this and that.  So the question is "What is the mechanism or process for surfacing the knowledge that’s already there by paying attention to the crack?" What I mean with "crack" is an opening to the structure. The old structure opens up and you feel like the old framework no longer necessarily fits or is sufficient.  So a crack on a personal level means you feel the sense of, you don’t know what it is, but you feel maybe a sense of a possibility that’s connected to you or to your future journey.  So a crack can be a challenge, it can be like a puzzlement, it can be just like a moment where you stop and pay attention to something.  But what I generally mean is that the crack is kind of an opening of a future possibility that speaks to you or wants to speak to you.  It’s not like someone else’s future, but it’s somehow kind of connecting to you.  How would you know?  From the heart, right, because, we first connect the future, not with the head but with the heart first.  So it’s something you feel.  So I assume they already know, and I pay attention to where in their personal and organizational or community situation do they experience the crack.  And maybe they don’t and then may it’s a moot point.  But many people do today. How would I get at the crack?  Well, through a simple question that I actually have been using quite a bit recently, which is "Where in your life and work do you experience a world that’s dying, and where in your life and work do you experience a world that is wanting to be born?"  That immediately points you at the crack because the crack is where something is dying and something else is wanting to be born, and kind of and it’s that in between space.  That’s a question I ask and then I listen and then I follow my intuition. 

And then the other question that I’m holding as a teacher or facilitator, of course is "How can I be an embodiment of what I try to teach?"  Because, to a student what you say sometimes sounds like "Blah, blah, blah" and is sometimes pretty much in one ear and out the other.  We know that. However, what you embody really makes a difference.  So it’s the question of embodiment, in any kind of real teaching situation is the main instrument.  So the main instrument is your own-self that you bring.


QFL:  Independent of your work with Theory U and Presencing, are there specific questions that people could or should ask themselves to make the world a happier and healthier place?

Scharmer:  I think the first questions that comes to my mind are "Who am I?" and  "Who am I as a human being?"  Both of these questions are deep mysteries. Some additional questions are:  "What am I here for?" and  "What is my path?" What I mean by "path" is something quite tangible. It’s not like, an abstract term, or something that we don’t know what it is.  With "path" I mean something very practical which is a real sense of knowing "What is my direction?". It is something very specific, and I can feel it. How?  Energy.  If I am doing the right things, my energy is going up, and if I am losing these things, or going off my path, my energy is going down.  So my path is something that my system gives me instant information on, and so it is a question I am living with.  The questions are: "What is my path" or "What is my Thing?" or "What is it that really I love doing?". I would also add "What is it that when I’m doing it, I almost would pay for?" and "What is it that in order to do it, I would pay for it rather than being paid?"; then if you do get paid for it, it's even the better.

So I think the path of real entrepreneurship and innovation is that: you, as the entrepreneur don’t have the idea that you work for money, but you work for love.  You do what you love and you love what you do.  Then once you do that, you also have to consider practical considerations as I said such as: "What needs do I try to serve?", and "How can i be best helpful to others?" and so on.  Sometimes you learn in retrospect that these practical challenges that you face actually were a great teacher, but you don’t realize it always in the moment.

So it’s knowing myself and knowing who I am as a human being, which is more like collective self-knowledge.  And then knowing my path. My real work. You could say "purpose", but "purpose" sounds as if someone else did it for you. So the "path" is something you investigate and it’s something that you can get very concrete information on based on the level of energy you experience while doing certain things.  So those are I would say three overriding questions.

Also, I think a fourth question comes from the fact that we are not alone; and I think the most tangible expression of that is our children.  Right?  You look at your children and you ask yourself about that world we leave behind, and the mess basically that our generation created.  So that’s just a big puzzlement and it stems from the fact because the first three questions are not, they’re necessary but not sufficient. So they do not factor in that we are not alone, and so the fourth question is "What is my role given the mess that we created as a species or as a result of our collective actions?" or "What is my role now to contribute in the way that is aligned with my intention rather than disconnected from, or contrary to it?"  That’s a fourth question and a very important one.

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Please note that Otto Scharmer, Peter Senge and Arawana Hayashi are facilitating the Executive Champions Workshop at the Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe, VT August 19-22 2014. For more information regarding the workshop, please visit:  

For The Presencing Institute's complete workshop series, please visit:


  Otto Scharmer and the Presencing Institute can be contacted by visiting:


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