Theory U used for the Assembly's discernment: benchmarks

Theory U used for the Assembly's discernment: benchmarks

Home » Theory U used for the Assembly’s discernment: benchmarks

Theory U used for the Assembly’s discernment: benchmarks

The World Assembly has adopted orientations for the next five years. Its discernment was based on Ignatian tools integrated into the so-called “Theory U” approach. “Theory U” is an approach to the search for new avenues for collective action, based on the work of American management researcher Otto Scharmer[1]. Intelligence is understood as a plural and multiform whole, and participants are engaged in a collective learning dynamic. Decisions emerge at the end of a dynamic reflective process, experienced and shared by all members, together.

Here’s a brief introduction to “Theory U”, used by the three facilitators sent by the international Ignatian institute Discerning Leadership[2], whom the World Executive Council asked to accompany the progress of the Amiens World Assembly. Theory U was closely linked to Ignatian pedagogical tools (journaling, questioning, experimentation) and daily spiritual times (prayer, , spiritual conversations, Eucharist, etc.). An article will be devoted to this aspect of the Assembly’s discernment in Newsletter 5.

The basic principle of Theory U is that the quality of management, and the decisions associated with it, depends more on the inner state of the decision-makers, and their relationship to this state, than on their individual professional skills. Relying on it would therefore enable us to “implement disruptive innovations in line with the need for a future radically different from the past” (which has engendered social and environmental crises) on the basis of work that integrates individual and collective introspection[3]. Indeed, we can create by drawing on past experience, which induces both stability and a certain intolerance to changes we don’t initiate. But we can also create from signs of the future, by listening to what is surfacing. It’s not a question of predicting the future, but of perceiving what’s likely to happen, and orienting our actions accordingly. In its general principles, Theory U therefore takes into account the group’s values. Here, at the heart of the Assembly’s reflection, the shared values are those of the Christian faith, lived out according to Ignatian spirituality.

Theory U in the Assembly

The theory is based on the essential notion of “presencing”, which is a state of attention to oneself and others that enables one to act on one’s quality of presence in the world and in the moment. The neologism “presencing” was created by its originator, Otto Scharmer, from the English words “presence” and “sensing”. It refers to a state of being close to mindfulness: being curious and silencing your judgments, being compassionate and silencing your cynicism, being courageous and silencing your fears. Presencing” is therefore a certain type of attention, achieved through the five senses. Once you’ve left your own habitual thought patterns behind, you enter into what we might call “active listening”. This quality of attention to others ideally leads to a creative vision of the future, and thus to concrete proposals. These proposals are independent from habits which, by definition, are generally difficult to question. The researchers note that business leaders do not generally consider their actions from this angle, unlike top-level athletes, for example. One of the preferred tools of Theory U is the exchange between several participants. These exchanges must take place in the context of “presencing”, i.e., the aim is to move away from polite consensus and debate to enter into a collective discourse created from all the discussions taking place. This explanation, admittedly a little confusing, is very clearly reminiscent of what we, ideally, experience in CLC through spiritual conversations or even in meetings where  we share in small communities.

Presencing exchange

U-shaped dynamics open up the mind, heart and will. The first movement opens the door to greater interiority. To begin with, the group is invited to focus on its deepest identity. They seek to clarify who they are and what they concretely do in the realities that are theirs. To do this, it is necessary to clarify the group’s identity, vocation and mission.

Identity, vocation, mission

The second movement of the U-shaped dynamic builds on the deep-seated convictions that emerged in the first phase to create concrete courses of action. These two movements are linked by five successive steps:

  1. Co-initiating: identify key players and develop a common intention
  2. Co-sensing: observe the group or system in which you find yourself, including its margins.
  3. Co-presencing (being present): connecting to the deepest source of self, but letting go of what has been received in the previous stages, with a process of “mindfulness”.
  4. Co-creating: prototyping and implementing new insights, crystallizing ideas using the hands, e.g. with a drawing.
  5. Co-evolving: embodying the new and deploying the practical realization of the project, bringing together the concrete elements needed to make this creative idea operational.

The general movement adopted for the Assembly was as follows: 

First movement: towards interiority

  • Opening myself: where do we stand? (day 1)
  • What is the Spirit doing? Opening up to our realities, opening up to each other (days 2, 3, 4, 5)

Second movement: opening up to the future 

  • To what are we called? Opening ourselves to God’s will (days 6 and 7)
  • How can we respond concretely to this call? Opening ourselves to the future (days 8, 9, 10).

It’s important to note that the free times were fully part of the Assembly’s journey, based on the U-shaped theory. These times provided an opportunity for informal exchanges, personal silences and many festive moments at the bar of La Providence or in the city. A volunteer accordionist added his creative touch. Fortunately, discernment is also achieved through shared joy and laughter!

[1] Scharmer, Claus Otto, 1961-, Theory U : leading from the future as it emerges : the social technology of presencing.

[2] « The purpose of the Program for Discerning Leadership is to build the capacity of senior Church leaders, including officials in Vatican Dicasteries, General Superiors of religious orders, bishops, and lay leaders, for this mission of discernment, reform, and renewal ».


To find out more (in French, English and Spanish)

La Théorie U, Renouveler le leadership, Inventer collectivement de nouveaux futurs – Otto Scharmer – Editions Yves Michel – 2016 (2e édition).

Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System Economies – Otto Scharmer, Katrin Kaufer – Edition BK Currents – 2013.

Teoría U, Lidear desde el futuro a medida que emerge (secunda edicion) – Otto Sharmer, ‎ Editorial Elefthería – 2017 – 2nd edición.