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Theory U for Societal Change: A powerful Tool to change Yourself and Society as a Whole – Part 1

‘You have to let go, to let something new start’. With this simple but powerful message the celebration session of the Slab – held last June – ended, in which about 300 teams all over the globe participated. Before explaining what the Slab is about, in this article I will describe how the Ulab at Iseg started, the principles of the Theory U and what impact the whole process had on a personal level. In the next article I will describe how, with the help of the MIT team, we applied the Theory U principle at a concrete case, namely innovation in higher education at Iseg.

In September 2018 a group of restless professors, consultants, trainers and other professionals who felt that the current way of working and teaching is completely outdated and very distant from what humans need in the heart, joined at the Ulab at ISEG (Lisbon School of Economics & Management), and started together the online training ‘U.lab: Leading From the Emerging Future’. The Ulab was created by three professors of ISEG and the aim of our regular meetings and participation in this course was to learn more about the Theory U and to increase self awareness about how each one could induce positive impact in organizations and communities in which we are active.

Theory U, developed by Otto Scharmer – Professor at MIT and founder of the Theory U – is an alternative leadership model based on a more conscious, participative and sustainable way of collaborating in companies, communities and societies as a whole. Through an increased awareness starting at ourselves, and which not only includes the head (rational part) but also the heart and a true will, we gain better insights in how we can realise positive changes within ourselves and in the organizations/communities which we are part of.

So what is the Theory U about?

Succesful leadership doesn´t happen only at the top, it has to include all levels to make a company sustainable and succesful. So true leadership today is the capacity to facilitate a shift of mindset in multi-stakeholder groups from a narrow understanding of self-interest (ego-systemic) to one that makes decisions based on the wellbeing of the whole system (eco-systemic).

We can observe three main stages in the model and process:

1- Sensing: seeing the system you’re in more clearly, so you can free yourself from your old assumptions and habits. You cannot see yourself clearly or re-invent yourself otherwise. One of the powerful competences here is learning how to suspend judgment and listen with your mind and heart wide open.

2 – Presencing: connecting to a deeper level of your own knowledge and aspirations. This is where you develop the story of self and the story of the future that you want to be a part of. One of the most effective mechanisms used to activate this deeper level of knowing is intentional stillness — as an individual or in a group.

3- Prototyping: new activity, or learning by doing. This includes design thinking practices, in which you innovate a new product or social approach and learn from it.  Also called “letting come,” as in letting a new way of operating come into existence.

Schematically it is represented like this:


Besides the online training sessions, we had to accomplish a lot of presential execercises individually and in small groups, which refinforced the understanding of the model´s power, especially because we experienced its impact in our head (mentally) and body (emotionally and physically).

Powerful tools

Just to mention a few tools with which I´ve learned a lot about myself and my environment:

  • Suspension of Judgement: Every day, every hour and every minute we are judging people, their conversations, the things we see and hear without having a lot of awareness why they make us think or feel in a certain way and if our reactions are the best ones we can have. By getting more awareness about your quality of listening and observing, you learn to suspend this judgement and as it is harmful for constructive collaboration, and be more empathic and even appreciate different ideas and opinions than yours. I would even say it´s  the basis for co-creation!
  • Case clinics (Coaching circles): It´s very interesting to see how opinions and experiences from people that are not part of your challenge or problem (and are not necessarily professional coaches) can contribute to finding the right solution for you. The sessions, composed by 4 to 5 people, always include a moment of mindfulness to let the group feel better the challenge of the person in question. This mindfulness moment, which increases empathy and the sense of being here and now, is very powerful when trying to find new thinking patterns or solutions.
  • Social Presencing Theatre – 4D Mapping: It´s amazing to see how much information our bodies contain, not only regarding the problem, but also regarding the solution that is the best one for the whole group, team or community. Involving each player and some important elements (ex. Team, Boss, Earth, Active listening, Highest possible future) represented in a body sculpture that shows the current situation and the most desirable situation, is hardly getting clearer than by this exercise which includes (again!) the mind, heart and body.


The training, that took place from September to December, had a deep impact on me as a person and professional. I did not only learn more about the principles of the model, I also saw real life examples of how people in all parts of the world are succeeding to create a positive change in their organizations and communities based on the principles of the model.

It is so clear to see that when you join people with the same intention and if you are willing to (try to) leave your ego aside, you can move mountains! Being aware of the way I think gave me a lot of information and helped me to stay empathic with people that I would consider negative, though being more able to understand their point of view and why they think or act in a certain way.

I am very grateful to have collaborated with so many wonderful people during the last year. We have learned a lot with each other and through all the work we have done. We shared beautiful celebrations, but also difficult moments and yes, frustatrations as like every system, there are a lot of complex aspects we had and have to overcome.

I will tell more about other learning points and changes I implemented in the next article, in which I will share some more information about our journey of the past 6 months at the u.lab S: Societal Transformation (Slab), a lab that was created by Otto Scharmer and his team to give support to several projects that were selected all over the world, including ours at Iseg. During this period we applied the principle of Theory U to a real life case, namely how can we innovate in the education of Iseg to have an inclusive and transdisciplinary school, applicable to other fields of education.

In the meantime I recommend to check out the course I did last year ‘U.lab: Leading From the Emerging Future’  which will be launched again in September. You can find more info about the course in this link:

You can read more about the principles of the Theory U and real life cases in the book written by Otto Scharmer:

You can also find out more about the Theory U and its movement at and see the updates of the Ulab Iseg at

If you want to know how your company or community can benefit from the implementation of the Theory U principles, feel free to contact us!

Manon Rosenboom Alves

Founder & Managing Director Reinvent Yourself

mobile: +351 964481443