Otto Scharmer

otto scharmer

I am a senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School, teaching a free online course on social entrepreneurship and collective leadership. 35,000+ participants – including government and business leaders world-wide – are taking the course to find new ways to address today’s most important challenges. AMA!


I am a senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and co-founder of the Presencing Institute. You can read my full bio here.

I’m currently teaching my MIT course, Transforming Business, Society and Self with U.Lab, free on edX, which puts learners in the driver’s seat of profound innovation and change. The course community of 35,000+ participants includes national government leaders from Scotland and business leaders in the U.S, Brazil, and China, and many other inspired change makers from over 190 countries worldwide who are interested in creating more aware, inclusive, sustainable societies. 88% of course previous course participants called the course eye-opening or life-changing. This video explains more.

I’d love to hear your questions about what this all means, about the course or your experiences with it so far if you’re a participant, and about some of the transformations we’ve seen thus far. Adam will also be online throughout the day to help with questions about the course.


Ask Me Anything! I’ll begin answering at 10am ET throughout the day.

From the introduction to this course: “In the U.Lab you will learn Theory U, an approach to leading profound change that has been developed by action researchers at MIT, and practiced by leaders around the world, for over 20 years.” Who are these leaders, which business and society have they transformed?

[Otto Scharmer] examples include eileen fisher (USA), natura (brazil), public health system namibia, leadership teams from daimler, alibaba, icbc and various civil society and cross-sector groups from indonesia, china, brazil and other places. see for more detail the book Leading From the Emerging Future: From Ego-system to Eco-system Economies or

This course seems to be given to leaders. I felt that I am a loser in my work system. What suggestions do you give losers or the weak in systems?

[Otto Scharmer] great point. we all are loosers when it comes to the big challenges of our time. the old concept of leadership sees leaders as individuals at the top of the pyramid. the new concept of leadership sees leadership not as a personal trait, but as the CAPACITY OF A SYSTEM TO SENSE AND SHAPE THE FUTURE THAT IS WANTING TO EMERGE. if you take THAT definition of leadership–of distributed leadership–then we ALL are leaders–or should be. so probably today both of these realities are true. thats our challenge. but EVERYTHING we do in the u.lab is about this deeper (distributed) concept of leadership. makes sense?

How do we get leader to skip constant controlling in order to reach the bottom of the U? And what do we do with professionals who reject using Theory U because it is too spiritual or religious to them?

[Otto Scharmer] how do you convince people who dont want to do it. DONT! just do it yourself. focus on where your sphere of influence is. dont try to convince people (push) create a pull by changing the place from where u operate…

I was just wondering if you have found that certain systems lend themselves to the application of your theory or are some very difficult to adapt and why? I understand that the goal is to connect systems but this might prove easier for some than others.

[Otto Scharmer] yup it depends on inner and outer conditions and on how they play together…

Most of the time, when we learn something new and feeling connected to the heart, the excitement of sharing the idea reduce when we deliver to someone else out of the circle and thus the idea is always within the circle of groups. I wonder how can we expand the idea (the co-sensing part) to someone else that may not know the Theory U?

[Otto Scharmer] i dont think that you have to “know Theory U” to move into co-sensing. but you have to “apply” theory u (as a practitioner) in order to build and hold spaces for co-sensing in a really high quality way. thats an important distinction. in my view there is no need to bring theory u into the world. its already there. i developed it by listening to practitioners and their golden moments and stories. but to bring out that gold (in our collective practice) more intentionally and more powerfully (co-sensing, etc) we do need new spaces. to experiement with them is exactly the purpose of u.lab. thats why u.lab is a LAB — and not a theory or a lecture….

If you had the chance to go back in time what would you do differently in your professional life?

[Otto Scharmer] build a stronger team maybe—more focus on places…. more focus on ….quality time with kids, family, friends, self development … more time for nothingness…. maybe. overall i was maybe a bit m ore busy than really necessary perhaps?

What’s your favorite story about the impact you’ve had through an inspired student, who went on to do great things?

[Otto Scharmer] u.lab scotland, created by u.lab 1 participants , is just awesome…

Does an inclusive sustainable society include the ability for varied political ideologies to debate (or argue)? Also, is inclusive the goto buzzword for discussions in academia, much like “cloud” was for technology a couple years ago?

[Otto Scharmer] well yes, all these buzzwords. true. not sure we use inclusive sustainable society a lot — but of course we do talk about how to cross the ecological, social, and spiritual divides. debate, yes, there is a need for debate but it will not be our main focus. our main focus is to become conversationally more literate by using ALL FOUR forms of conversation in a more fluid way (1. downloadling, 2. debate 3. dialogue, 4. collective creativity). so debate is not our main focus, but its part of the process.

Is this approach the same as Design Thinking that is offered at Stanford D.School?

[Otto Scharmer] its related but not the same: u process is based on three main movements and bodies of methodology. main difference is basically that presencing is bringing in the dimension of systems thinking and mindfulness/awareness/consciousness — you could also say the source dimension of innovation and change. tbc 🙂

Aren’t entrenched powers just going to ignore change processes like this, which challenge their orthodoxies?

[Otto Scharmer] Yes, thats a factor, true. but then, there are also surprises. think about what just happened in germany: a society moving from ignoring refugees to actively welcoming them — WITHIN WEEKS!! social media had a big part in that story (picture of the dead boy). here is a piece on which i elaborate on it: overall i think there are 3 old and one new sources of power: 1.sticks (force), 2. carrots (incentives), 3. norms/public opinion. the three sectors in society, govt, biz, and civil society, use these sources in different ways. but what the refugee story is an example of is the emergence of a fourth source of power: the presence of the (emerging) social whole. its VERY interesting…. thats what with the u.lab we really try to get at: how to activate that fourth source of power….

What are you using to evaluate your approach and its cost-effectiveness? It absorbs significant time – do you have a sense of where the impact balances with time sunk costs?

[Otto Scharmer] NOT REALLY. Our assessment tools are just in the very beginning. we do have some experiences an assessments though. so generally people are blown away by how significant the impact is if you start to change some of the variables in the more invisible domain (e.g., the quality of your listening and conversation). We just finished a research conference that focused on how to make the invisible dimension of large systems change (consciousness and relationships) more visible through research and action science. its just a beginning. but its much less developed at this point as it should be…

Can you provide an example of the kinds of changes which the course has inspired in the past

[Adam Yukelson] Here’s an unfolding story that we’re pretty inspired by at the moment: – still in the early stages…

I would be interested in your opinion on this critical issue: U.Lab/Theory.U aims to transform our current thinking and acting (from ego2eco). It integrates concepts of mindfulness and awareness which are rooted in spirituality (e.g. Buddhist philosophy). How can these (novel) approaches be ‘secured’ of not being misused by the current system to maintain itself ? How do you/the U.Lab relate to that?

[Otto Scharmer] very important question. its a real issue. so using mindfulness for ego (rather than eco) purposes is a contradiction in itself. how do i go about it? two ways: 1. i never try to sell mindfulness/presencing/awareness as the solution to make you more efficient in doing the same old thing. as you can trace above, i am not even making the claim that mindfulness is boosting your performance. i think its nonsense (even though in some cases it may be true). i try to say that eventually its a choice that each of us has to make: WHAT STORY OF THE FUTURE DO YOU WANT TO BE A PART OF? WHAT FUTURE DO YOU WANT TO EMBODY AND CREATE? 2. then, in practical applications, say in companies or innovation processes, or capacity building environments, i always try to a) give people choice (to do or not to engage with it) and b) to safeguard that sacred space from economizing or instrumentalizing it (I do THIS IN ORDER to GET THAT). thats my take. and in my experience it just works fine. the human spirit is awake and can discern fake from the real thing usually…. whats your take?

As I see, the proposed change needs a new philosophy of thinking and acting. How could be this change successful since actually there are lots of people on leadership positions that might not share (or even have notice of) this kind of principles?

[Otto Scharmer] hi — yes, THAT is the starting point. thats the challenge. the u.lab journey is basically how you deal with this kind of challenge by CHANGING THE INNER PLACE FROM THAT YOU OPERATE — and hence approach this challenges in a different way: CHANGE INNER PLACE–>CHANGE RELATIONSHIP–>CHANGE RESULTS kind of thing…

What kind of jobs/roles will best suit by learning this course material?

[Adam Yukelson] Hi! The course is designed for anyone who has a challenge or issue they want to work on – and that can be at an individual level, team level, or larger policy / systems level. When we ran U.Lab in January ’15, many people actually just used it to practice their deep listening skills – and are now participating again to apply it in their community / work contexts. So there’s no one answer to your question!

Understood well the advantages of personal meetings. Have problems with meeting times and distances to meeting places. Is there a way of participating from my computer wherever I am?

[Adam Yukelson] It may be surprising, but many people who took U.Lab in January and could only meet each other virtually said they had very deep, personal connections with others through virtual coaching circles. I say surprising because so much of the conversation around MOOCs is that online learning is inferior to in-person learning because nothing can replace face-to-face interaction. But the reality seems more complicated and subtle than that. In U.Lab, we’ll frequently encourage you to get away from the computer and go out into the “real” world and engage. AND – our experience is that deep listening and dialogue can happen virtually as well. Anyway, long answer – yes, you can participate from your computer wherever you are 🙂

How can I apply the Theory U in my HIV Lab researches?

[Otto Scharmer] i dont know. you will know better. i remember doing a HIV/AIDS project in zambia in the early years. we had a national group of activists and folks like soccer stars that could influence public opinion. the first activity was this: share your story incl how you first became aware of HIV and AIDS and when that awareness turned into a real commitment for doing sth about it. it was fascinating. each shared the same story:it turned into commitment the moment it hit someone in your family friends/circle…. not sure how it applies to your situaiton thogh

What is the importance of spirituality in your life and in the lives of the leaders you learnt about? How is spirituality being seen in the business and innovation fields? How could our “illusion of separation” be converted in the view we are a superorganism and make it acceptable to people (mainly business leaders)? How do you think that science could profit from U Theory?

[Otto Scharmer] big questions. HOW SHOULD I KNOW? honestly, spirituality of course is the underlying pattern and opening here. u.lab bascially combines sciences, spirituality, and social change (S3). its key. many people feel it. but cant make it quite explicit. thats our function. not sure i agree with the super-organism—although i think i know what you mean. i call it the social field… lv o

Mr. Sukhdev’s “Corporation 2020” pretty much describes the path to a new capitalism. Do you see an alignment of his points to what is needed for the World to evolve to 4.0?

[Otto Scharmer] yes compatible he describes it from corporate view. but without the consciousness dimension more expliciit, yes? maybe you can enlighten me on that…

While virtual contact with global resources is better than nothing, local groups of like-minded people are probably more effective at the pilot level. Is there some way of indicating the physical locations of the u.lab Hubs that are already set up? Could their Hub could be viewed on a participant’s profile so the participant’s Country/State search would show the local Hub if they are in one? Also are the coaching circles intended to be local or virtual? Can we get a couple of sentences on how the Circles and Hubs are to be used?

[Adam Yukelson] Good idea. In our original website wireframes, Hubs were visible on profiles. I don’t actually remember why that got dropped – so will look into it again. For now, you can search for Hubs in the Hubs directory on Coaching circles can be local or virtual – whichever you choose. The main thing is to practice the case clinic method, which we’ll introduce tomorrow. Coaching circles meet each week, and are opportunities for you to experience the whole U process in just over an hour – applied to a challenge you’re dealing with right now. Hubs are self-organized learning and doing communities where you can watch the live sessions together, do sensemaking activities together, and collaborate on prototyping initiatives…at least that’s what we say…anyone else here have experience with hubs and want to add to this?

How does theory U’s focus on ‘community’ jive with the rights of individuals? How will Theory U help individuals to change or break out of oppressive communities?

[Otto Scharmer] the whole u journey is about shedding the old style of (oppressive) community or system (left hand side) and then collectively sourcing another way of relating and working together. at the bottom of the U is the solo. you are removed from the old community. its a strange kind of distancing (self to system). many folks are surprise by it. but its part of the emerging pattern…

In taking a company from ‘ego to eco’ in a purely ‘ego’ (capitalistic) industry, is it more difficult to remain competitive? If so, how can Theory U be utilized to face this challenge?

[Otto Scharmer] moving a company from ego to eco makes it more innovative on some levels (eco-system), and also creates more challenges (for example, more transparency throughout the whole supply chain also comes with more expectations to fairness and solidarity, etc). so its not black or white, yes or no, either-or. it may also vary and differ across industries. but the fact of the matter is that for most big leaderhsip and innovation challenges today you NEED to engage broader stakeholder systems in new ways. HOW is the question. and thats where the u.lab starts…

Is there a logic / reason why the title of the course lists first transforming the business, then society and only then self? are they put in some sort of the priority order as per intentional design?… we’ve always heard that change starts with yourself, only then you can bring it to the others (e.g. business, society…) – so my instinct would be to start with self rather than leave it at the end.

[Adam Yukelson] Right, we went back and forth on this many times. At the end of the day, it’s an iterative process rather than a linear one: action, reflection, action, reflection. We wanted to emphasize the real-world change aspect of the process; that today, focusing on self-transformation without going out into the world, and allowing that experience to change and shape who you are, is not enough…

Can we create a coaching circle with 7 or 8 people? Which issues would you see arising from too many participants?

[Adam Yukelson] I wouldn’t recommend more than 7. One reason is so everyone has a chance to present a case (one person per week). The other is that we’ve found – with many years’ experience – that the time guidelines described in the case clinic method work well, and when there are too many participants, everything takes a bit longer. Odd numbers also tend to work better than even numbers.

What kind of team do you have to work with to see a course like this through from start to finish? If you could explain the logistics/practical problems and process please. Also I feel in my small city nobody would take the course and certificate seriously. Is this something you and your teaching peers think about?

[Adam Yukelson] Wow. Believe it or not, we’re just a small team…a few of us mostly working out of our living rooms, cafes, and anywhere we can find decent coffee. Along the way, we’ve had amazing help from filmmakers and editors, learning designers, artists, social media folks…but mainly, it’s a few of us who’ve had a little experience with creating transformative learning environments in-person, exploring how to use new technologies to make them widely available and accessible. As for the certificate, depends what you hope to use it for…I’ve seen interesting developments in the past year, for example, course completions being listed in LinkedIn…so while it might not be taken seriously in all places now, that probably won’t always be the case.

How does one deal with issues of (mis)trust, with people pretending to move towards eco but remaining ego-focussed, especially people in positions of power in a company?

[Otto Scharmer] yea, a real issue. to deal with it? probably by creating safe containers where the community of change makers ACROSS institutions turns into a signficant social reality and reference point. as long as i only live in my own institutional bubble i dont care what other people think and feel. but the more i am really / truly connecting to people outside of my own institutional bubble (but related to my larger eco-system), the more these realities will shape my thinking and decision making. THATS why we so much emphasize the stage of CO-SENSING. co-sensing means: awakening the collective social body of connections and relationships. once that body is a little more aware and awaka, the jump from ego to eco comes across much more natural and — sounds funny but its true — logical….

Do you have expectations / ideas about what we could (should?) do in turn? What? How?

[Otto Scharmer] i never thought about that. BE yourself–not only individually, but also on a collective level. THAT WILL change the world…. plus we also need a bit help in getting the infrastructures more supported — and more sustainable… some help will be needed there as well. thanks for asking!

If I decide that I do not have enough confidence to join a group circle, and I do not have any nearby hubs, how can I complete the course and get the most out of it by going solo?

[Otto Scharmer] Confidence is definitely not a pre-requisite for joining a group. I’d bet a lot of the 35,000+ people who have joined the course feel pretty similar to you. And the case clinics are based around an open-hearted deep listening process…last U.Lab, many people said they never thought they could feel such a sense of belonging with a group of strangers…yet, it happened. So maybe give it a try? But if you decide not to, you can still complete the course by trying some of the other practices each week.

What is the difference between the approach you take and systems thinking?

[Otto Scharmer] its an evolution of systems thinnking to systems sensing. we need both. so Theory U is systems thinking and sensing looked at from the viewpoint of an evolving concsciousness

I would like to know if there are anthroposophic influences in your work/course and how they were impemented in theory?

[Otto Scharmer] absolutely. steiner is key for me. you see the traces of his thinking in the open mind – o pen heart — open will but also in the whole way of thinking about evolution in the form of a u.shape. almost everything i learned in that regard i learned from reading steiner (and also goethe and beuys). the other main source in practical experimentation. being thrown into practical applications, sink or swim–thats the other main source… and of course many many others as well….

Disruption and creative destruction are concepts that are keen to understand today’s approach of the most innovative companies. Which are the concepts that will drive the most innovative companies of the future?

[Otto Scharmer] not sure whether is concepts that will drive / differentiate the most innovative companies. i think its more capacities — for example the capacity to sense and actualize emerging opportunities — and a shift in awareness from ego to eco. that would be my hunch. but then, you could object that in the short term we have examples of both ego and eco companies being successful (or failing). and i agree on that. thats true for the short term. so at the end of the day its our choice: WHAT STORY OF THE FUTURE DO U WANT TO BE PART OF?