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Theory U for Societal Change: A powerful tool to change yourself and society as a whole – Part 2

In my first article you could read about how the Ulab at Iseg started, what the principles of the Theory U are and some personal experiences that had a deep impact on me. In this article I will explain how our project regarding bringing innovation in the higher education at ISEG´s (Lisbon School of Economics & Management) evolved over the last 6 months and what we still want to accomplish. I will also share some more personal learnings and insights I gained through this period and the impact it has on me as a person and professional.

Almost at the end of the online and presential course ‘U.lab: Leading From the Emerging Future’ our Ulab at Iseg got the news that, due to the huge interest in the course globally (The first u.lab was launched in 2015, and since then, over 130,000 people from 183 countries have enrolled), Otto Scharmer and his team created the ‘Societal Transformation Lab’. This lab would select 300 projects all around the world to give a more direct support in order for the participants with concrete projects to be able to implement the change in their organizations and communities based on the Theory U. The U process helps teams to sense and actualize their highest future potential, achieve greater impact and scale and identify new potential opportunities for innovation and joint action.

Fortunately, Ulab Iseg´s project was between the selected ones and I was invited to be part of the core team of this project. Although my main reason to do the Ulab course in 2018 was to get insights in how I could help individuals and teams in companies to collaborate in are more mindful and human way in order to get better results that goes further than just the financial numbers, I didn´t hesitate to accept this invitation, as education is also one of my main concerns. Having a daughter in a Portuguese secondary school (and having myself accomplished a post-graduation at a Portuguese University), enables me to understand the focus of the Portuguese education system which, softly said, worries me a lot. Taking into account what our future generation is being taught and what skills are essential to them now and in the near future motivated couldn´t be a greater motivation for me to contribute.


After the core and the extended team was established, we were ready to apply the several phases of the Theory U to prepare a prototype for the higher education. Some essential dates were centrally set by the Societal Transformation Lab, so that we had a guidance to do our planning and were able to schedule the online sessions in our agendas in which all 300 teams would participate. The 5 main sessions were open for anyone to attend, the other sessions were zoom meetings facilitated by the Slab where we shared experiences with other teams around the world.

The several stages of the U process and dates:

Source: Societal Transformation Lab – Presencing Institute

I will shortly explain what we have done at every stage:

CO-INITIATING (Intention setting)

Based on the Dragon Dreaming´s ( ) methodology, every member of the core team shared his or her dream about what the ideal education system would look like. Based on everyone´s dream, we were able to create a common vision which set the focus for the next steps. We agreed that the prototype should be an inclusive and transdisciplinary school and that it was important to include all stakeholders connected or interested in the educational system, and that it levers new paths for institutionalization, attracting new followers that will enable the creation of a larger scope Hub in Portugal.

We were aware that the inclusion of the several stakeholders, directly (students, professors, dean, other employees of Iseg, etc) and indirectly involved (companies – HR managers, local and central government, professors and students from other universities) in the educational system, was crucial for the prototyping of this dream. Therefore, in this stage we already started to build a list with all people and contacts that each one of us had to be able to hear their opinions regarding this matter.

CO-SENSING (3D Mapping)

In order to sense the educational environment with all our senses to really understand the current situation and how all people involved feel about it (so not only observing through the rational part as happens in so many projects that fail!), we conducted a lot of interviews with these direct and indirect stakeholders, whose enthousiastic collaboration we are very grateful for.

Besides that, we constructed 3D models that illustrated how we saw the current educational system and how the desired model should look like. Professionals like myself, professors and students participated in this very powerful session, which gave us so many useful insights in the difficulties and frustations that a lot people – directly and indirectly involved in the educational system as a whole – undergo.

We built several 3D models (1 per subgroup) and although the final models look different, they had some crucial aspects in common, and also in congruence with the feedback from the interviews.


The most heard aspects were regarding the too centralized power in the top, the students with little voice and and lack of a friendly, green and sustainable environment for more effective learning experiences. Teaching should be a 2-way process and deep learning only can take place when humans are positively involved with their intellectual part and emotions. This is very underestimated in education. Teaching doesn´t necessarily need to take place in a boring classroom, between 4 cold walls and all students facing the teacher. It doesn´t stimulate colalboraton and discussion but passive transmission of knowledge. Students are afraid to openly share diffrent opinions than the professors’ ones due to the fear of being ‘punished’ for that during evaluation.

From the interviews with the labor market (mainly HR directors) we heard many time that students lack selfknowledge and that universities should focus more on personal development so that students know themselves better in order to make the right career decisions. Universities should also invest more in soft skills like communication (interpersonal communication and public speaking), negotiation skills and emotional intelligence according to the market.


In this stage the main activity was to gain more insights in our best possible future, illustrated through body sculptures and some other exercises which included the body as a ‘gauge’ for understanding how we think and feel about the current and desired situation. With this exercise, done with the head, heart and body you get a powerful image of the system as a whole and the place/position/power of each stakeholder. Some people will actively participate throught the attribution of certain roles (i.g. Team, Boss, Earth, Active listening, Highest possible future) and do the poses (current situation and the best possible situation). Others will carefully observe and note the key aspects and frases of each player throughout the whole process. I´ve been in both roles and it´s an experience difficult to explain if you haven´t tried it! The body contains so much more information than we imagine and seeing the interaction between the various participants/roles give us powerful ideas about the direction to take.

Again, the insights were very similar to what we had seen with the 3D mapping, but now also being felt in the whole body.

CO-CREATING (prototyping)

Based on all the information gathered on how future learning and classrooms should look like, we invited the community to participate in the prototyping session, executed with the Lego© Serious Play© methodology.

Some models shared the same view: student-centred learning, Teaching outside the classroom (being in nature can inspire us a lot!), more sharings and a more practical approach to master the contents.

CO-SHARING (Celebration and Evaluation)

It´s July now and we have been through all these stages. It feels like we have done a huge work until today and actually we did! We have had many meaningful conversations with each other and with the people involved in the educational system. We even had the opportunity to present our work at INTREPID´s last conference, a network of 27 countries that promotes interdisciplinarity in scientific research and some of us managed to have a meeting with the Secretary-general for Education. So reasons for celebration!

However, our work hasn´t finished yet at all and in some aspects, I even think it just started. It wasn´t for example easy for the students to open up and talk about how they really feel and think about the current educational system, due to the fear of facing consequences for telling their truth. It was also difficult to talk to professors that don´t think that changing the system is a necessary and ugent need, or maybe we have to try harder to reach them.

Change is a hard thing to implement, regardless the institution or organization. It was clear to see that fear is a strong barrier as people tend to think in worst-case scenarios and not in the positive consequences, the new opportunities that may arise. However, we planted a seed and learned some very important lessons.


One of the most important aspects I´ve seen is the power of the initiative of a small group. In our last meeting some professors from different universities shared their best practices on innovative, student-centred learning they use in their classes and it was great to see how this session inspired all of us. They will implement some of these techniques in the next school year and have meetings with other interested professors as well. Some of the aspects spoken were more use of case studies, applying of the Theory U to a real case study, use of Socrative (app for turning a lecture into a two-way exchange), peer evaluation, making videos or moocs of the contents (theory) that can be shared beforehand with the students in order to use the time in the classroom to build stronger and trustful connections with the students.

If it´s difficult to start change by the top due to political or other reasons, change can also start from within and spread to other levels. It´s a slow process and we have to respect its rhythm, but that doesn´t mean that you can´t do anything. One step at a time, one more lesson I´ve learned!

I will explain some other important learning points that influenced me as a person and profissional in my third and last article on this theme.

And last but not least, I want to thank the members of the core team and extended team for the amazing experiences we shared and for the work we accomplished together. Although not everybody could contribute with the same amount of effort, each person had a crucial role to achieve what we have achieved so far. I especially want to thank Manual Laranja, Sofia Bento and José Pinto, professors at ISEG and the initiators of the Ulab Iseg, Teresa Almeida, Paulo Carvalho, Susana Carvalho, Ana Rodrigues, Gabriel Ludovice Simões and Inês Campeão for the great collaboration and special friendships we have established.

I also want to thank Otto Scharmer, Adam Yukelson and the other team members for this fantastic initiative and for the possibility to make this all happen! Thank you for inspiring all of us.


If you are interested to learn more about the Theory U and its principles, 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



#theoryU #presencinginstitute #ottoscharmer #ulabiseg #ulabs #slab #societalchange #holisticleadership #participativeleadership #innovation #sustainability #positiveimpact #wellbeing

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