Creating spaces of belonging with Theory U

Applied to systems change around the world, and adapted for landscape restoration, Theory U has become an intrinsic part of the 4 Returns framework. This module shows how you can use Theory U in your landscape initiative.

Those who live and work in a landscape have many views, visions, and ways of life. Everyone sees problems and possibilities differently, and each has its own strategies to solve them. Theory U is a way of bringing these different perspectives together, to find the common ground between them and lay the foundation for combined action.

Applied to systems change around the world, and adapted for landscape restoration, Theory U has become an intrinsic part of the 4 Returns framework. This module shows how you can use Theory U in your landscape initiative.

Wiser change

Theory U was developed by Otto Scharmer, a senior lecturer at MIT and the Presencing Institute. It has been used by thousands of organisations and communities worldwide in their attempts to address pressing global challenges.

It is based on the notion that the awareness of the intervener determines the quality of the intervention (Peter Singe). The framework, therefore, focuses on increasing personal and collective awareness leading to wiser interventions. At the heart of Theory U is that each initiative can be a learning journey in itself, an opportunity to develop ourselves and grow together as we support the landscape.

Theory U’s application to landscape restoration

As we’ve seen before (see for example Module 3 Understanding the Landscape), landscape degradation is deeply complex – caused by interwoven ecological, social, political, and cultural factors.

Landscape restoration must therefore be approached from a holistic, multi-stakeholder perspective. Taking different points of view into account requires a shift from a problem-solving approach – where each problem gets solved in isolation – to an integrated, collaborative, and transformative way of communicating and working.

Stakeholders, inside and outside the landscape, need to be willing to engage in deep listening, dialogue, and collective learning. Not only must communities learn together, but what they learn must also be made recognisable to outside groups, such as funders, policymakers and potentially, customers.

As well as outer action, there is an inner path of leadership needed to restore ecosystems holistically. Living Lands started Integrating ‘Theory U’ in their landscape work in 2009. The approach provides opportunities for all stakeholders to reflect on diverse factors in the landscape that may involve community, business, culture, ecology and geology in order to create viable responses that involve the whole community. Read more about their journey here.

We use elements of Theory U in all our multi-stakeholder engagement processes. We apply its specific tools when designing workshops, and sometimes we use it as a lab process. It can be a powerful enabler of personal leadership. This chapter gives you an introduction to various ways in which you could be using Theory U in the context of landscape restoration.

 The five phases

Theory U follows a five-phase trajectory from common intent to common action. It allows solutions to evolve out of available data, providing the opportunity to let go of pre-conceptions and opinions. The following text is from the paper ‘Creating Spaces of Belonging’ by Commonland and Presencing Institute.

  1. Co-initiationjoining the group, setting a joint intention for the process 

In the first phase, we focus on nurturing trusting relationships among the stakeholders – increasing awareness of each other’s purpose, values, and work. We introduce deep listening and systems thinking, among other practices. Together with the group, we co-create an inspiring shared intention for the landscape based on the 4 Returns Framework. From here we start to prioritise solutions with the highest potential, and which barriers need to be most urgently addressed.

The desired outcome is that the stakeholders gain a sense of trust and feel committed to the process. They now share a language (4 Returns framework), see how different influences on the landscape connect and have started to uncover some individual and collective blind spots.

Tools to use here:

  1. Co-sensing letting go of preconceptions and investigating with an open mind, open heart and open will

The partnership collectively ‘senses’ the landscape, understanding its potential, opportunities for change and barriers to it. Through learning journeys, dialogue, stakeholder interviews and shadowing (accompanying someone during their work as a fly on the wall to gain new insights, see tool below), they deepen understanding of the underlying dynamics and mindsets that need to be addressed for change to occur. They begin to develop an understanding of their role as leaders in this change. The primary focus here is to learn from what is already working, and what could be possible if we would all work together.

Tools to use here:

  1. Presencing – realising what these new insights mean for you and your work

Integrating and reflecting on the learning from the co-sensing phase, the stakeholders “uncover their deeper knowing about what is going on the system, their role within it, and what they, individually and collectively, are being called upon to do”.

They move from learning to action by connecting to inspiration and common will. To overcome barriers to change – including cultural and psychological ones –  stakeholders also need to embrace their role in bringing about the necessary change and mindset shift.

Tools to use here:

  1. Co-creating – prototyping new initiatives that could contribute to addressing systemic barriers

In the co-creating phase, stakeholders start to prototype integrated solutions based on the local context in small teams. They step over the threshold into thoughtful and heartfelt action and start co-creating a portfolio of locally adapted solutions with the potential to scale.

This includes creating an impact strategy, preliminary scaling and replication strategies and regenerative business development. Our focus in this phase is on prototyping; doing small-scale actions on the ground, reflecting on those actions, and adapting to learn quickly and integrate strategically. These actions are based on insights from thorough landscape analysis and are informed by the concept of the 3 zones.

Tools to use here:

  1. Co-evolving – reflecting, learning, scaling what works and changing what didn’t work

The last step in the process is aimed at finding funding, and scaling, replicating and integrating the prototypes and innovations into the existing landscape. Having chosen which prototypes are most suitable for the ecosystems within the landscape, we work with stakeholders to develop strategic action plans and then continue to support the scaling, adapting and replication of these solutions.

This is where the projects and processes start that require more practical skills and acumen such as strategy and project management. Learn more about the specific aspects to consider in these projects in the other modules of this Guidebook.

From daily practice to systemic change

Theory U proposes that the quality of the results that we create in any kind of system is a function of the quality of attention, or consciousness, of participants in the system. Since it emerged in 2006, Theory U has come to be understood in three primary ways: first as a framework; second, a method for leading profound change; and third, as a way of being – connecting to the more authentic or higher aspects of our self.

In a landscape restoration context, Theory U enables stakeholders to see their blind spots and pay attention in a way that allows them to open their minds, their hearts, and their efforts. We have adapted Theory U to work specifically in landscape restoration. Trialling many different forms of Theory U in our work, brought us to discerning four different ways that  Theory U can be applied in the context of holistic landscape restoration.

  • Daily practice – One of the things Theory U is, is a state of being, a sense of oneself and our role in the bigger system. You can practice elements of Theory U daily, for example by practising the four levels of listening, or by integrating practices like guided journaling, empathy walks, dialogue interviews, or case clinics (find all practices here under ‘resources’).
  • Targeted workshop – Another application of Theory U can be as a guiding process in a targeted (usually 1- or 2-day) workshop. Theory U can offer a great selection of process tools for diverse groups of stakeholders. A Theory U workshop could give them a different perspective on the landscape in which they operate and their role in it. It can lead to more openness for collaboration afterwards.
  • Landscape Lab – Lab is short for ‘systemic/social innovation lab’. In our context – the structure of it can vary– it usually consists of a trajectory that spans 1-2 years, in which a large number (50-80) of stakeholders in the landscape originating from various sectors spend time together in workshops which ‘anchor’ the process and mark the progression through the different steps of the U process, and in practical work in between those workshops. The purpose is to install a shared, holistic understanding of the landscape across all these stakeholders so that they can collaborate more effectively to create change in the landscape (i.e., removing ‘systemic barriers’). In the Labs, changemakers identify critical leverage points (also called “acupuncture points”) in their landscape and co-create strategies and solutions. A landscape partnership is responsible to maintain this U process during the 20+ years of implementation.
  • Regional Learning Network – this is also a lab, but now instead of serving one landscape or bioregion, it serves as a place where the various partners involved in Landscape Labs in various landscapes in one region (e.g. EU, Africa, Asia-Pacific, Latin America etc.) come together to exchange knowledge and experiences and find support from like-minded people and organisations. It is a support structure for several labs which share characteristics, e.g., because they all focus on a particular theme, or are near each other.

We use these different levels of applying Theory U for landscape restoration at different stages of the work in landscapes. As stated above, in its simplest form, we use Theory U every day in how we operate. The other levels are a bit more context-specific; we use them in a targeted manner, meaning that we use them as and when needed and we have to make sure certain prerequisites are in place. It depends on the local context, the preconditions needed for a Lab (such as fertile ground and a capable and resourced team to organise and coordinate the process and follow-up), and what the landscape team wants to achieve with the lab.

As you can read in the Module on the 4 Returns Framework, one of the 4 returns principles is trust as the basis of landscape restoration initiatives. Theory U workshops and Labs can be very powerful ways of building excitement and anticipation among stakeholders in the landscape. However, if you’re not able to give proper follow-up to the sessions to materialise some of this anticipation, it can be very damaging to the trust that was built. To prevent this from happening, before you start such a process, make sure you have all the prerequisites in place such as:

  • Be sure your team is capable and sufficiently resourced to support the whole process, including supporting the work in between workshops.
  • You have a clear idea of the purpose of this particular Lab, and the team has a good understanding of the design of the process.
  • Make sure the process can land in practice. There is a lot of research and information that needs to feed into the process – information on the landscape, the drivers of degradation, and existing initiatives and stakeholders in the landscape. It is up to us as organisers to collect and curate this information. If this information is not included, participants can feel that we are disregarding the work that has already been done.
  • Ensure that the prototypes and conversations can land in practice. In other words, at some point, the participants will move towards concrete action. This action needs to focus on creating value for initiatives in the landscape. If the prototypes do not have concrete cases to connect with, the conversations and prototypes tend to become very abstract and can have little practical value.
  • Throughout the process, pay attention to carefully managing expectations.

As you can tell from the above, there is generally a lot of work that needs to be done before a Theory U workshop or a Lab can start. It makes sense to first create ‘fertile ground’ for the ‘seeds’ of a lab to be sown into.

Read more about the application of Theory U in the context of landscape restoration in the paper ‘Creating Spaces of Belonging’.

Discerning levels of listening

Listening is a key skill in the Theory U methodology. Listening is at the core of great leadership, and according to Otto Scharmer, one of the most undervalued skills. There are different ‘levels’ of listening that you can practice. This concept is developed by the Presencing Institute.

The first level is ‘Downloading’. If you are downloading, you pay attention to what you already know. The conversation is framed by habits of judgement. The result is that you reconfirm old opinions and judgements, and you don’t learn new things.

The second level is ‘Factual listening’. You are trying to disconfirm your existing theory with (new) data, noticing what you hear that is different from what you already know. This is the source of innovation.

The third level is ‘Empathic listening’. When dealing with other people, factual listening is not enough to understand why certain things have happened. Empathic listening allows us to connect with the other person and see the system through their eyes.

The fourth and hardest level of listening is called ‘Generative listening’. Rather than connecting to just one other person, we are trying to connect to the future that could emerge. An example is a good coach. A good coach not only listens to the current situation and your struggles, but also sees in you your future potential, and can then help you connect with that future potential and make it become reality.

To get better insight into the levels of listening that you engage in daily, check out Presencing Institute’s Listening Assessment.

Resources to get trained as a facilitator

Theory U requires trained facilitators to operate properly. Here are some resources if you feel called to get trained as a facilitator yourself.




What have been your experiences with Theory U? What questions come up when reading this chapter? Let us know in the comments!

This chapter has been written by Bas van Dijk and Roos van der Deijl, in cooperation with Dieter Van den Broeck and Pieter Ploeg

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