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Author's profile photo Former Member

How leading from the future plays into the design thinking game…

In answer to Slim’s blogpost around empathy in design thinking, there is an interesting connection
to make to Otto Scharmer’s Theory U. It is my strong opinion that this theory can add a lot of power to the
principles of design thinking.

Theory U explores a whole new territory of scientific
research and personal leadership. By moving through the “U” [curve]
we learn to connect to our originating Self. We travel down the left side of
the “U” to find ourselves in the realm of presencing, where we learn
to sense the future that is seeking to emerge. At that level of operating, we
experience the opening of our minds, our hearts and our wills. Yes, this is an
intellectual journey, but it’s one that is grounded in real life experience and
shared practices. On this journey of sensing, presencing and realizing, we
learn new ways of being—ways crucial for each of us at this chaotic time.

The idea of Theory U can be described starting with a quote by Albert Einstein that fundamental
problems cannot be solved at the same level of thought that created them. The U curve then offers
various levels of thoughts while accessing deeper levels is seen as prerequisite for being able
to lead from the future. This deeper level of knowledge is where I want to make that connection to Design thinking.

More meaningful insights by looking at what really matters

By building empathy for end users, we want to connect with their needs, their values and
believes at a deeper level so that true added value can emerge, true innovation. This may
sound a little distant to fact-based thinking. It is. It is moving away from “I know what’s best for you”
towards “let me understand what matters to you as a
being, where you aspire to get to”.

What it does to the way we build backlogs or create services is to become more humble,
as Slims said rightly. And it offers a chance for us to embrace some of the methods that coaches
would apply in their work, like active listening, paying
attention to how things are said /not-said
instead just noting down facts from
interview answers.

How can you make people move beyond what they already know?

However, this blog is not about theory,- so how can that be done? There is a good collection
of tools on that you may want to skip through. I have been applying
the Journaling technique in workshop situations to bring people to that deeper level
and people were thrilled about how different they looked at things after this exercise.
I have come to describe this state of thinking as the antipode to ‘’ – where
people are caught in empty notions, repeating the same-old same-old.


Journaling is a tool that builds on the U curve and enables people to move thru
the curve to access a deeper level of self-knowledge. It is a set of questions that
a facilitator will read out to the group while everyone is writing down their individual
answers. Afterwards, people can reflect on what they felt (not what they
answered) and the energy from the exercise can be transferred onto whatever
topic you may have on your agenda

The questions asked in this technique are similar to open question you might want
to ask when building and practicing empathy: what matters to you, what do you want
to look back on when you’re old, what keeps you up at night? There are plenty
of great questions out there.

As we see that design thinking is able to bring together so many different aspects and
things, I am happy to get more comments on what other links people have made
between DT and behavioral theories in the broadest sense!

Thanks for the initiative to bring more people onto this space,- happy to see many
insightful articles and discussions here soon!


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      Author's profile photo Seung Chan Lim
      Seung Chan Lim

      Hi Petra! 🙂

      It's  interesting you mention TheoryU, because I've recently heard  it in passing from a fellow designer. Upon reviewing my book, he said that he saw many connections between my theory of empathic conversation and TheoryU. I found that very interesting. I'd love to talk to you more directly to learn more about it.

      As a related aside, my thoughts on empathy comes from outside the domain of "design thinking." It comes from my attempt to integrate my experience in computer science, business, design, craft, and art (primarily visual arts and performing arts). Design, in my opinion, is more simply and usefully framed as a network of multi-dimensional empathic conversations, and empathic conversation is, in it basic terms, a way of being in the moment, as it applies to any interaction between self and other.

      You might find the following video interesting. It's of a discussion held post-workshop  with students at the Rhode Island School of Design and Brown University. They talk about how the workshop has changed the way they see the world, and how it has affected them as artists, designers, and human beings.

      [embed width="425" height="350"][/embed]

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member
      Blog Post Author

      Hi there, thanks for sharing this conversation! You're writing about "being in the moment" and someone in the video mentions "learning more about myself".

      This exactly points to the elements that Scharmer also brings up in theory U,- presencing actually is about being in the moment, in the sensing of what is there.

      I have never done any performing arts exercises, but I can very well imagine this as a useful step to get there. It just may be that it is too much to take for "leaders" that he's addressing in this writing 😉

      Not going too deep into this here, but the U curve is about leaving behind categories and common beliefs, things you think you know because you've seen similar stuff. Only if you get past this, you'll be able to sense what matters to you in the end. And let the good things come to you from there on.

      As it's a theory used for leadership topics, it is unfortunately more self-focused and less empathy-for-others. But it comes down to the same themes as you can never be empathetic if you're not able to step out of our daily routine, right?

      happy to discuss further,


      Author's profile photo Seung Chan Lim
      Seung Chan Lim

      Indeed. It's the first half of the equation. 🙂 Let's touch base off line.

      Author's profile photo Marilyn Pratt
      Marilyn Pratt

      Thank you Petra for introducing me to Scharmer and presencing.  I also looked at the link you shared about Journaling.  Very instructive! While this may be a "self-reflection" activity as described it is also obvious that we can apply some of these same awarenesses to our 3 voices in our interactions with others: development teams, co-workers, customers.  These are good "ground rules" for empathy:

      • Voice of Judgment: shutting down your open mind (downloading instead of inquiring)
      • Voice of Cynicism: shutting down your open heart (disconnecting instead of relating)
      • Voice of Fear: shutting down your open will (holding on to the past or the present instead of letting go)
      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      Hi Petra,

      I'm glad you've mentioned Theory U in this post because I have a theory about the evolution of our life online, and that is that it requires two sets of opposable muscles, just like we do physiologically.

      The obvious muscle, that there has been a lot of focus on, is what we might call the 'short' muscle - the ability to power information through rapid fire, high volume information, the clicks and the links and the 140 characters we all know so well.

      The other, less appreciated muscle, is the 'long' one that Theory U represents. This is the ability to hold deeper considerations and develop empathic connections more powerfully because of the collapse of context and oftentimes inherent intimacy of communication on the web.

      This considered thought is borne from feelings experienced in the moment of connection. It's easy to skip past this for now and dwell on the hoopla of instantaneous information, and to numb ourselves in some way to the next level of experience by overdosing it, but I believe as we mature digitally we'll appreciate that we need both, and that's what will enable us to go deeper, as networked communities, into the issues that confront us, and to develop thoughtful and well designed and empathic solutions to address them.