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Facilitation of agile transformation with Theory U

Updated: Aug 23

The limits of our experience to make decisions


Scientists measure that about 95% of our thoughts happen at an unconscious level. If we break this number down to a day, we actually control what we think for about 1.5 hours per 24 hours.


Furthermore, scientists have shown that 7 seconds before we are aware of a decision, signals can be measured in the brain that already predict the outcome of our decision. In other words, our decisions probably happen unconsciously in the brain first and then we become aware of our "decisions" in a second step.

So how much of what we do every day do we actually control? And how much of it is based on connections in the brain that come from experiences we have made in the past?


How can we adapt decisions over and over again to the new reality in which we are living?


Measured 40% of our decisions are in fact based on habits.


Our experience is based on what we have experienced in the past and classified as successful or not. We base our values, principles, habits and decisions on this.


So most of the day we run on autopilot, "driven" by what we have experienced in the past. So by reacting in the present with the patterns we learned in the past, we usually shape our future strongly according to our past (and thus become an ongoing self-fulfilling prophecy).


How can we navigate today's highly volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous aka VUCA world, when what we mostly think about and decide is built on a past experience?


What does it take in the VUCA world to make better decisions and unlock innovation power?


When we live in a time like today's, where what worked in the past will no longer be what works in the future, we need to find new ways of thinking, acting and learning.


Otto Scharmer, MIT professor, posed the question of whether it is possible to learn from the emerging future, and in doing so embarked on a long journey, creating the Theory U framework.


Theory U is a framework for change management and innovation that describes tools and competencies we need to navigate through this VUCA world and successfully execute projects and transformations.


When we do something (for example project work), there is a "WHAT" we do: the concrete tasks, methods and techniques we do or use. There is also a "HOW" we do it: the quality with which we do it and a "WHY" we do it: the reason for doing it or our real intention.


Why do we have to deal with the "HOW" and "WHY" we do something?


The agile manifesto talks about people and interactions over processes and tools. But how is agile mostly lived in companies?


We learn the "WHAT we do" - what processes and meetings need to be held, how long are sprints and what are the deliverables. The "HOW we do it" is disregarded or given little attention.


In order to be able to perceive the "HOW we do", we have to deal with our own consciousness and our own presence. "? How am I? What is going on inside me? How am I listening? How am I speaking?"


And then the same with the person in front of me. "How am I speaking? How is my counterpart speaking? How is he doing? What emerges between us? What is emerging at the level of conversation, of ideas, of feelings? What does it take right now?" And beyond that into ever larger human systems "What emerges at the level of a meeting? Of a strategy? Of a company?"


Furthermore, the "HOW do we do" builds on the "WHY do we do". "Why am I doing this? What do I want to accomplish? What is my intention?"

Otto Scharmer focuses our attention precisely on this blind spot of most individuals, leaders, and companies: "From what place are we operating?" "What is our intention?" It is the inner condition, the "WHY" I do something, or the source from which I operate, in other words, the quality of my attention, intention and presence that matters.


The "WHAT" I do influences the output (classic deliverables, milestones and results) and the "HOW" and "WHY" I do and the quality of my presence influence the outcome (measure of value achieved). We are moving more and more away from Output and towards Outcome, as it is intended in agile ways of working.


Back to the VUCA world... We live in a moment and an age of discontinuity, which means that the future will be different from the past and the present moment. It is a moment where what has worked in the past will not work in the future, and what will be in the future is not yet here.


How do we find the way to close the gap between today and tomorrow?

Crossing the Threshold. Image, Presencing Institute - Otto Scharmer


Can we learn from the emerging future?


Otto Scharmer suggests learning from the emerging future rather than the past. What does that mean exactly?


It means to be highy connected with oneself, the stakeholders involved, the company and everything beyond. It means letting go of everything old and by pure presence in this moment listening to what wants to happen (or is about to happen) and then becoming the hand that facilitates this happening.


And what does it take to make this happen?


According to Theory U it is:

  • Open mind - the ability to suspend old habits of judgment and see with fresh eyes (curiosity)

  • Open heart - the ability to empathize with another person, to see a problem from the point of view of the person concerned (compassion)

  • Open will - the ability to let go of the old and allow for the new to emerge (courage)


How can this be put into practice?


In order to learn from the emerging future, we need to start by discarding all concepts, come into a pure value-free observation of the actual state and quickly try out and evaluate different approaches:

  1. Focusing awareness on the wholeness of the self, getting to know and understand owns inner landscape again (instead of repressing it).

  2. Going into inner silence, and as individuals (and then later as groups) accessing deeper sources of intuition that are bias and value-free

  3. Act quickly and cyclically - through rapid cycle prototyping and other methods such as design thinking or scrum

How can we cultivate the qualities and competencies mentioned in 1. and 2. above?


By becoming aware of our wholeness again and focusing our attention on it: for example, by practices of mindfulness and meditation, practices of questioning what we do in order to see as much as possible with fresh eyes, practices of embodiment and integration of emotions (reconnecting the emotional and the factual levels), and practices of listening.*


*I offer all of this in my coaching sessions and courses. My techniques are based on the one hand on ancient knowledge of primitive peoples, a primal source for work with consciousness and embodiment, on research on scientific studies (from my time as a doctoral student at ETH) and on years of experience in companies.


In the rest of this blog, I go into more detail about the practice of "listening"


Listening - One of the Core Competencies for Agile Transformation


In order to be able to really assess the actual situation free of prejudice and past history, we have to take in information with the eyes and ears of a newborn.


Often we think we understand something, but as described above, most of our thoughts and decisions are based on unconscious processes.


So learning to listen correctly without prejudice and with an open mind is one of the core competencies needed to correctly assess the actual situation.


But how do we mostly listen?


Studies show that 60% of the time someone else is talking (unfortunately can't find the reference ), we are thinking about the next thing we want to say and are waiting for the right moment.


So I would like to invite you to ask yourself the question in every conversation you have today, "Am I listening or am I waiting to speak?"


What are some practical tips and tricks for practicing better listening?


Some concepts are introduced and practiced in Theory U. But there are also exciting tips in many places. From my point of view, you need one thing above all: true interest in getting to know and understand a person.


For this, imagine that you are really interested in this person, imagine that you are so interested in what this person has to say that nothing you want to say is of interest, imagine that you can learn something from this person and that all your assumptions about this person are wrong and try to pay attention to where you are wrong in your assumptions.


What are other core competencies for agile transformation?


If you want to learn more competencies for agile transformation and practice with us, sign up for the free session I will give with Uta Kapp. Uta Kapp has been acting since the beginning of Scrum, as an Agile Leadership and Scrum Coach and has 40 years of experience in the software industry.



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