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Theory U: 5 phases in the workshop structure

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Theory U describes the essential components of change processes and is widely used as a framework for designing effective transformative events and processes

Authored by Otto Scharmer of MIT, Theory U describes the essential components of change processes and is widely used as a framework for designing effective transformative events, trainings, workshops, or change management strategies. While there are many approaches to implementing Theory U, we focus on using arts-based or creative practices. To learn more (in addition to countless YouTube lectures):

Five phases in the workshop structure

In its simplest form, Theory U can be broken down into three stages: Observe, Reflect, and Act. To structure our workshops, we included the additional bookend steps of Convene & Harvest. These 5 key phases are summarized below.


The first step is to engage participants and quickly connect them to each other and to the content of the event through a warm up activity. The convening phase should set the boundaries of “the container” (the convergence of time, place, and people), acknowledge the intelligence of participants, set expectations, establish trust in the process, and encourage people to be comfortable and actively present.


The observation phase of the U focuses on understanding the individual and collective reality, with regards to the issue at hand, at both an emotional and empirical level. This is done first by exploring and sharing observations from our habituated state of mind, then moving into new or less familiar perspectives. This phase involves suspending old habits of judgement, breaking habitual patterns, and seeing, being open to, and empathizing with a multiplicity of perspectives. The quality of the results is determined by the quality of listening (both to self and others) and by the capacity to suspend fear, judgement, and cynicism. The observation phase is an opportunity to reveal our default mindsets and narratives and to consciously choose and reinforce those that maximize transformative potential.


Deliberately creating space to reflect is the cornerstone of the Theory U transformative process. In our daily lives, planning typically moves directly from observation to action. Theory U, however, emphasizes that in order for transformative action to take root, it is essential to schedule time to reflect, to connect with a deeper, generative awareness, and to let less familiar perspectives contribute to new ways of understanding and new insights. In the Reflecting phase of our workshops, participants were guided to an awareness of their deeper ecological self. Arts-based practices increase access to this awareness in the future by linking it to compelling images and emotions. In the Theory U literature, this phase is also called “Presencing”, which highlights the importance of consciously acting from a place of alignment with our deepest values. According to Scharmer, deliberately choosing which mindsets or values we wish to act from, and then taking steps to “presence” ourselves in that mindset, is a key sustainability leadership capacity.


The action phase is comprised of several sub phases, including crystallization, creative play/structured brainstorming, and finally, deciding on practical plans for applying ideas into transformative action. Before moving into details and logistics it is important to solidify the insights gained from deep observation and reflection. Thus, emergence from the reflective phase is initiated by crystallizing broad intentions and principles. Next, the imperative is to iterate, iterate, iterate - to be willing to experiment and play, adapting and responding to new information and ideas as they emerge. During the iteration process, it is important to define a structure that supports oscillation between individual and collective creativity, and that allows all voices to be heard. Finally, insights, ideas, and prototypes are narrowed down and connected with plans for concrete next steps and ongoing, future action.


Harvesting shifts gears into consolidating and summarizing lessons learned, reflections, insights, or plans in order to take them back into day to day life. In this final phase, participants should distil the messages/learnings, understand the relevance to their own work, and be able to articulate and share insights with others.

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