Facing Disruption With Theory U

Otto Scharmer Teaches How to Shift the Inner Place From Where We Operate

Helio Borges
6 min readOct 26, 2022


Otto Scharmer at MIT

“A civilization is dying, and another one is being born. That’s not happening out there; a new civilization is being born by shifting our qualities of relationships. It’s happening right here, right now, within us. We are at the center stage of that process.”

I have looked forward to this time, from September to December of each year since 2015, when I first listened to Otto Scharmer, Senior Lecturer at MIT, teach the course u.lab: Leading From the Emerging Future.

By experiencing the ulab journey, change-makers from all over the world learn capacities to sense and actualize the best future possibilities for them and the systems with which they are associated. Given the complexity of the runaway disruptions happening worldwide, it is unsurprising that six thousand people from more than 100 countries registered to take it this year.

Otto facilitates four live sessions during the course; today was about the Sensing and Presencing stages of the program. As a member of the Teoría U en Español team, I collaborate in broadcasting all ulab live sessions with simultaneous translations to the Spanish language. Today, we had 166 Spanish-speaking attendees.

Scribing de la sesion. Andrea Fernández

Maga Meneses from Chile and Andrea Fernandez from Argentina were in charge of the translation. Andrea, besides translating, is our official scriber. We are a team of volunteers; therefore, you get a sense of these women’s hearts when you consider that they, together with Patricia Scott, do this for the eight live sessions of the ulab cycle.

Making Sense of Chaos

Taking into account that the process of co-sensing, going down the U, is about opening oneself and showing vulnerability, Otto asked this question, “How are we supposed to do that (showing vulnerability) when everything around us is at risk, facing danger and experiencing fear? Generally, when we operate in such an environment, we want to create a safe place to protect ourselves.”

He says that we need to pay attention to a condition that he calls collective depression, which he thinks is what we face today; a feeling of fear — the resignation that it is already too late to do anything. To counter that feeling, he sustains that we must deconstruct it to identify its components: Depression = Disruption + Noise.

  • Disruption is caused by the fact that something is ending and something else is being born. What is ending is not only the way we operate — the destruction of the planet and ourselves. What is being born is the result of our relationships.” He referred to a quote from Dan Longboat, a Six Nations member mentioned by Eva Pomeroy, “Uphold the sacredness of relational space, to enable the continuation of the river of life until the end of time.”
  • “Noise has to do mainly with social media feeding anxiety upon us.”

“To address disruption, we need a method to move us out of the habits of the past to open up new possibilities in what is being born. Therefore, we need to connect with those aspects within and between ourselves.”

“To address the noise, we need to pay attention to our attention by aligning attention with intention; that’s awareness.”

Theory U is an awareness-based system change process that gives us the methods and tools to meet the present moment because when we deal with disruptive situations, we need to shift the inner place from where we operate.”

Shifting the Inner Place From Where We Operate

Four Levels of Operating

How do we shift the inner place? We do it knowing which of the four levels of operating we are in at a given moment:

  • Level 1.0. I-In-Me. Habits. “I am inside the prison of my habits.”
  • Level 2.0. I-In-It. Ego. Subject- Object awareness. I pay attention to what is outside of me.
  • Level 3.0. I-In-You. Empathy. We feel empathy toward our stakeholders. Our perception begins to happen from where another person is speaking. We are no longer separate from each other.
  • Level 4.0. I-In-Now. Eco. We are not only connected to what is here and now but to a whole field of possibilities that resides around us.

Developing New Capacities

  • OPEN MIND. “To shift from 1.0 to 2.0, we need to suspend old habits of judgment in a more intentional way. To open our minds, we need to access our ignorance. How? Acting from our not knowing, listening better, and having better conversations.”
  • OPEN HEART. “To shift from 2.0 to 3.0, we need to empathize, allowing our perception to arise from the place we are giving attention to. We need to access our vulnerability to open our hearts, meaning stepping on the edge of our comfort zone.”
  • OPEN WILL. “To shift from 3.0 to 4.0, we need to let go of everything that is not essential, allowing the emergence of new possibilities. To open our will, we need to access our source, letting come what wants to emerge and becoming part of it.”

“A civilization is dying, and another one is being born. That’s not happening out there; a new civilization is being born by shifting our qualities of relationships. It’s happening right here, right now, within us. We are at the center stage of that process.”

We Are Stardust

Upon watching “The Overview Effect” movie clip, Otto shared his resonance. “What resonated with me was the fragility and the presence of the planet. We go out into space, and at some point, an astronaut points the camera back on planet earth, and we are in awe at the planet’s beauty and in shock by the unintentional impact that we are having.”

The Overview Effect movie clip

“We find that pattern in many of our life journeys. We have an education, we make progress, and we have a career. Somehow we progress one way or another. But at some point, life and work present challenges that invite us to do something different; invite us to look back, not only on planet Earth but also on planet Self, by asking the two root questions of all creativity and all leadership. Who is mySelf, my highest future possibility? And, what is my work? What am I here for?”

Those words still move me after seven years. In 2015, when I heard Otto pronouncing them, I was a sixty-five-year-old man looking for meaning, purpose, and a way of leaving a footprint. Today, I am a different man thanks to him, the fantastic PI team, and the incredible global community of theory U practitioners. Looking back on these seven years, I feel that I am on my way to C. P. Cavafy’s Ithaca, “Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.”

Next article, Presencing, A Journey to the Field of the Future.

Coming soon:

Personal Transformation Bootcamp.

Catching that AHA! moment and putting it to use.

You don’t become wiser by acquiring more knowledge; you do it by making sense of your experience. How do you do that? It is not by watching videos and reading books; you do it by acquiring new and insightful experiences within a given context. Accessing the root of your creativity.

We have insights all the time. They might come from revealing dreams, meaningful conversations, or profound moments of reflection. Nevertheless, most of them live a short life; we forget dreams as soon as we wake up, or the meaningful conversations we have ended up with an expression like this: “Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a program that allowed me to catch that AHA moment and somehow put it to use?

Yes! There is one. I have developed a purely experiential program where you will have insights, make sense of them, find the context, and develop the action confidence to put it to use. In other words, a Marines-style boot camp.

Do you want to know more about it? Send me a mail at helio.borges.consulting@gmail.com, or DM at this article, or at Linkedin, Facebook, and Instagram: @heboga.



Helio Borges

Executive & Team Coach & Mentor. Cultural Transformation Change Agent & Consultant. Twitter: @hborgesg. Instagram: @heboga. FB: helio.borges.35. Uriji: @hborges