Designing for Uncertainty with Theory U
As anyone who has ever tried to work with a group on a complex design challenge knows, uncertainty is one of the most predictable parts of the job. Whether the topic is groundwater management, farm-worker housing, or building a local food alliance, project leaders are faced with the same challenge: they must bring together diverse stakeholders with divergent views to solve complex problems in rapidly changing political and environmental conditions. In this context, solutions are emergent - that is, they arise through the process and cannot be planned and predicted in advance. Groups often hire facilitators to help them find a sense of certainty and a clear path forward through terrain that, in reality, can offer neither. So how do we serve our clients while also being true to the conditions of the challenges they are facing?
One tool that we at Ag Innovations find incredibly useful is the process described by Otto Scharmer of MIT in Theory U. Theory U is based on the recognition that the quality of awareness of participants in any socio-economic system contributes to the quality of the results that they are able to achieve. When participants cannot see beyond their own views in the system, the solutions they create will not effectively serve the whole system. This method also recognizes the need to tap into the full intelligence of a group rather than that of just an individual in order to effectively address complex social challenges like those we face with natural resources management. In simplest terms, the U process poses the following arc for navigating complex social change:
On the left side of the U is where the process begins. This is where people with different experiences within a system (e.g., California’s water system or a local food system) come together to find common intent and a shared understanding of the system itself. Then the group moves into the bottom of the U, where it is important to normalize not knowing the answers and emphasize the value of quiet reflection to allow the space for genuinely innovative ideas to emerge. Inevitably, insights emerge, and on the right side of the U, the group explores pathways to co-create, prototype, and iterate solutions that none of them could enact on their own.
As a framework, Theory U is useful for helping groups understand how to thrive with uncertain conditions. Central to the U process are a number of often uncomfortable recognitions: it takes patience to slow down to develop shared understanding, especially in high stakes situations; it takes vulnerability and humility to admit uncertainty and listen for a wisdom deeper than our problem-solving minds; and it takes tremendous courage and trust to act collectively toward shared interests, prototyping and iterating solutions along the way. This is exactly where facilitation can be useful - to normalize these essential but uncomfortable aspects of the work, and to inspire the group to enter willingly into the discomfort for successful problem-solving. We use it as a guiding framework in this way with our Roundtables, Food System Alliances, and multi-stakeholder collaborations.
As a methodology, it also doubles as a kind of roadmap for a group’s journey toward a broadly defined goal. For example, I have been working with local agencies struggling through the unprecedented work implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. In the tri-county groundwater subbasin I work in, an advisory group of representatives from water management agencies and stakeholder groups has come together to propose a new governance body, a Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA). The GSA has to be created by a strict state-regulated deadline, but what it will look like is entirely up to local authorities and community.
In this Groundwater Sustainability Advisory Group (GSAG), instead of writing out linear meeting agendas, I have begun mapping our meeting process onto the U (see below). This is useful in a few ways. First, it helps to continually remind the group of the Theory U framework and the above-mentioned benefits. Second, it allows the group to gauge progress toward a broadly-defined goal based on where we are in the U, rather than what was accomplished in a particular meeting.
This relieves a lot of stress, since in these processes, it is very difficult to predict the duration of key conversations and phases of work. So instead of or alongside estimated milestones and detailed meeting agendas, a U roadmap lets the group and project sponsors comfortably join the facilitator in tracking the broader arc of the process even as the timing of milestones and specific endpoints remains unclear. This also supports a group culture of exploration, creativity, curiosity, and learning. The members of the group begin to feel that they are in it together for the ride, and can build trusting relationships that support ongoing collaboration.
Theory U, as Scharmer says, is a framework, a methodology, and a way of being. It has depth and application far beyond what I’ve touched on in this post, and we recommend digging deeper through Scharmer’s website and books on the topic. But the simple applications I’ve discussed here - using Theory U as a framework and roadmap design tool to normalize groups’ discomfort in the face of uncertainty - have proven valuable enough to write home about.
- For free online information on Theory U, visit https://www.presencing.com/theoryu.
- For additional detail, see Scharmer, Otto. 2009. Leading from the Future as it Emerges. San Francisco, CA: Barrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
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