Theory U: Co-Evolving, The Prototype is You

Helio Borges
13 min readDec 5, 2020
Prototyping. Image: Presencing Institute

“Experience is not what happens to us, it is what we do with what happens to us.” Otto Scharmer

This is the second part of Prototyping, the fifth movement of the U Process. Read the first part, Theory U, Prototyping; Integrating your Past, Present, and Emerging Future. You can also read the article in Spanish, here

Prototyping

Having established a connection to the source (presencing) and having clarified a sense of the future that wants to emerge (crystallizing), the next stage in the U process is to explore the future by doing (prototyping). Prototyping is the first step in exploring the future through experimentation. David Kelley, founder and longtime CEO of the influential design firm IDEO, summarizes the design industry’s approach to prototyping succinctly: “Fail often to succeed sooner.” Prototyping means to present a concept before it is perfected. Prototyping allows fast-cycle feed-back learning and adaptation. Theory U, chapter 13.

The Inner Work of Prototyping

Generally, when people think about prototyping something, a product, a project, or a business, they imagine themselves or their team working on something out there. However, to prototype successfully anything, the change happens first in here, connecting with the intelligence of your heart.

“The foundation for all prototyping is to connect your intention with the intelligence of the heart. You have to place that feature in your heart first.” Otto Sharmer

Consequently, the change agent has to do lots of inner work while prototyping. What is the inner work that you have to do in prototyping? According to Otto Scharmer, the inner work that you must do is:

  • Accessing your ignorance (recognizing that you don’t know) you open the gates to your Curiosity.
  • Accessing your disconnect to what’s going on in order to activate Compassion. It is using your feelings in order to tune-in to extend your sensoring capacity into the larger whole that isn’t you.
  • Accessing your frustration in order to reach out to what is already going on around you. Courage is having the confidence that you are going to access and be part of the larger co-creative field, even though you don’t know how it is going to work.
  • Accessing your “Experience”, Otto speaks about the interview that he had with the late Francisco Varela, who said to him “The blind spot of cognition is experience. People believe that they know what experience is and I think we don’t. We don’t know what experience is”. Accessing our experience is crossing through the gates of “Suspending” (our judgments), “Redirecting” our attention to access the “Source”. Then “Letting Go”, and “Letting Come”, going through the threshold of these levels of experience.

“Experience is not what happens to us, it is what we do with what happens to us.”

Experience Is Not What Happens to Me…

Surviving the Trauma of a Perfect Storm

If you put together the COVID-19 pandemic, and a sanguinary dictatorship, you have a perfect storm that has turned Venezuela, my home country, into a gigantic concentration camp that holds 30 million prisoners. The regime took advantage of the lockdown and gained total control of the country and of the few independent political institutions that remained. Moreover, if you consider that before the pandemic the country was suffering a “Complex Humanitarian Emergency”, and that 96% of the population was under the poverty line, hunger and diseases are now widespread, including the pandemic itself, causing the implosion of an already collapsed public health system.

Article Transforming a Society Against All Odds

This gargantuan disruption has caused the exodus of more than five million Venezuelan inhabitants, who have created a crisis without precedent in neighboring countries. To make matters worse, the regime, having killed the hen that laid golden eggs — the oil industry, and having dilapidated billions of dollars of oil income, is now devastating the Amazonia and decimating its indigenous population to mine gold, diamonds, and other precious and rare materials like Coltan. Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong in Venezuela, so much that the country seems to be ruled by laws written by Murphy himself. No pun intended.

The Trauma Gets Personal

My mother, who had emigrated to Ecuador two years ago with my little sister, died in April. Sometimes it seems like too much to handle, especially regarding the death of a dear one far away, like my mother, who had six children and had at the time of her death only my sister to accompany her. She leaves a profound void in my life.

My Empathy Walk With a Granny. Fortuna Garcia

In addition, 2020 was going to be a promising year for my family and me because my wife had won a DV Immigrant Visa to the United States, and we planned to reside in that country by mid-April. Unexpectedly, we could not travel due to the lockdown, with the result that our US Visa expired with no possibility for renewal. I feel like I drowned after having reached the shore.

Absensing or Presencing? That Is the Question

How do you assimilate the trauma of everyday living in a failed country that is a giant prison camp, the trauma of not giving a proper farewell to your mother, and the trauma of having your family hopes of a new start taken away from you unexpectedly? I am conscious that I have trauma pockets with which I have to deal sooner or later. Given this reality, I could vent my frustration and anger blaming the virus, my bad karma, the political system that oppresses me, or whatever other thousand causes, but I know better, and choose not to do it because would mean my self-destruction. I would be ignoring my own potential and capacity to act before the disruption, experiencing more anger and fear, and eventually feeling impotent and depressed. That reaction would only take me down the road of Absencing, the Theory U equivalent to the Dark Side, to which Star Wars’ Yoda refers when he says to Anakin Skywalker, “Fear is the path to the dark side…fear leads to anger…anger leads to hate…hate leads to suffering.”

Presencing — Absencing Cycle. Image: Presencing Institute

The only way out of that path is to focus on the possibilities that always exist within every crisis and to choose the road to Presencing. However, you won’t find that road while trying to weather the giant waves that the storm forms at the surface of the sea because the possibilities are not out there, they are in here, therefore, you have to dive deep inside yourself.

To survive a perfect storm like this one, you have to dive to the bottom to solve the causes of the disruptions where they originate — at the Source (See the Iceberg Model below). To do that,

I’d rather focus on leaning into my discomfort and on reaching into my own spiritual divide to let a different future emerge, and then, on acting with confidence to overcome those disruptions because, it is not about the disruptions themselves, it is about how I react to them.

The Iceberg Model of Current Reality. Image: Presencing Institute

Otto Scharmer uses the Iceberg Model of Systems Thinking to classify disruptions into Three Divides — Ecological, Societal, and Spiritual. The Ecological Divide is the disconnect between self and nature, the Social Divide is the disconnect between self and others, and the Spiritual Divide is the disconnect between self and Self. The same model shows that problems that are originated at the source level, show up on the surface in the form of disruptions in the three divides.

I reacted to the perfect storm by joining a critical mass of change-makers that are kindling the flame of society’s transformation worldwide, to fix the causes of disruptions where they originate — at the source level.

…It Is What I Do With What Happens to Me. Accessing My Experience Through Focused Attention and Open Awareness

Focused Attention. Open Awareness. Image: www.kelvybird.com

Three years ago, fresh from my two experiences at u.lab, I had an idea of what my prototype was going to be and I was working hard to evolve it. From that moment on, I was dedicated to bringing it to reality following the principles that Otto Scharmer had signaled. The first thing that I learned was that evolving a prototype could be a long and tortuous process, especially if you live in a country, Venezuela, that is falling apart, economically, politically, and societally, literally. Allies who you expected to integrate into your project aren’t there anymore, they emigrated. There is no financial system to go to for funding. Potential business clients vanish in bankruptcy or are too occupied with preventing their businesses to go under, and so on.

Proyecto Hikola

First cohort of Proyecto Hikola

On the other hand, the universe is there regardless of your skepticism, and if you persevere, you will meet the right people at the right time to give you a lift just when you were ready to give up. There is a reason for that; you too are the right person at the right time for someone else. In the year 2018, a series of serendipitous circumstances came about so that the co-hosts of the Caracas u.lab Hub Marietta Perroni, María Antonieta Angarita, and myself could launch “Proyecto Hikola” (life-breath in Yanomami language). We adapted u.lab to the Spanish language and capacitated 260 change-makers in the truly revolutionary Theory U competencies. Today, they are implementing innovation projects in their lives, places of work, and communities. The year, 2019 was to be one of the most traumatics in the country’s recent history. Nevertheless, we set out to transform a society against all odds participating with our extended team in the u.lab2X. Societal Transformation Lab with promising results. The experience of being a catalyzer for such a deep change in the lives of so many people turned my life around and made me aware of my responsibility before the challenges that lie ahead for humanity. From here on my life took a life of its own, conducting me to unexpected places.

The Other Way Around to My Emerging Future

Being a writer wasn’t on my professional radar because it was my hobby, not my job. In contrast, the universe had other plans for me. In the year 2016, my new u.lab friend, jenny andersson invited her social media friends to a writing challenge, one article a day for 30 days. I had begun writing in the Spanish language about Positive Psychology, personal well-being, my country’s crisis, and whatever caught my attention. I thought that it would be a great opportunity if I did it in the English language too. Thus, I wrote one article a day for one week… and could not keep the pace.

POR AMOR AL ARTE, METÁFORA DE UN PAÍS

In spite of that failure, I began sharing on social media the articles written in English that I considered of interest, and experienced for the first time the painful effects of negative feedback — A woman wrote to me “Your writing is like the scribbling of a five-year-old kid”. I felt that commentary like a punch on my stomach. I was there, looking at the screen, very frustrated and thinking, “Accessing my ignorance to open the gates to my Curiosity” Yeah right! I was seriously thinking about quitting, when it hit me that u.lab is not about theory, it is about experimenting, failing, feeling the pain of defeat to learn from it, picking ourselves up, and to continue forward iterating and iterating again. I assimilated the punch and immediately, out of nowhere, an idea came to my awareness — “Do it the other way around”.

How to Stand Up To A Populist Regime

Following my hunch, I began writing in English and translating the articles into Spanish. It was very difficult at the beginning because English is not my first language, and I had to generate original thoughts in that language to be able to write naturally. Nevertheless, I progressed rapidly and a completely new world opened before me. Indeed, the whole world opened before me. I began to believe that I could really become a writer in the English language when one day a woman wrote this note to me “Helio, you write very well. Why don’t you do it where writers do? You should write on Medium”. I began doing so in 2017 in two blogs, one for each language. I also began translating Otto’s articles to the Spanish language, specifically, to use them as study material for the change-makers that we capacitated in Proyecto Hikola. Up to 2019, if you asked me what I did for a living, my answer would be a vague dissertation. In December 2019, when I was presenting my case in the final coaching circle of the year in Proyecto Hikola, I said from a place deep inside me, I am a writer. It was such an emphatic affirmation that it surprised me. I did not know it yet, but that affirmation would signal the start of a very particular year.

Co-Evolving With a Community of Change Makers. Walker, Your Footsteps Are the Road and Nothing More…

LAS OCHO LECCIONES EMERGENTES DE OTTO SCHARMER

On March 16th, 2020, Otto wrote the article Eight Emerging Lessons: From Coronavirus to Climate Action. Upon reading it, I felt the urgency to translate it into Spanish. It was an impulse that I could not contain. I did it and without thinking, I sent it to Rachel Hentsch, Communications Lead at the Presencing Institute. She was as surprised as I was and said to me that she was going to speak with Otto about it. Frankly, I was expecting a negative answer of the sort “we have an agreement with our publishers…”.

To my surprise, I received a mail from Otto on March 19th, which is my birthday: “Hi Helio, thx for translating the blog into spanish. wonderful. notice that I updated the final paragraph re-launch of GAIA next week. maybe you can integrate that? many thanks!! — otto”. He also inserted a link in his article leading to the translation in my blog. That action started a systemic movement of expanding waves: Firstly, Otto’s article ended up being translated into nine different languages. Secondly, Rachel not only invited me to write for the Field of the Future blog of the Presencing Institute but also to be a member of the GAIA en Español team. I had come a long way since I was scribbling like a 5 years old boy.

Today, as a volunteer in GAIA en Español and as a writer for The Field of the Future Blog, I collaborate actively with Otto Scharmer, the amazing team of the Presencing Institute, and the u.lab global community, to sense, identify and address the deeper causes of the disruptions that we see surfacing everywhere. Why? Because I don´t want to spend the rest of my life (I am 70 now) trying to weather the storm at the symptoms level. I want to be a catalyzer in activating a critical mass of change-makers that are going to shift things for the better worldwide. Curiously enough, in spite of being a sort of prisoner in my own country, I am more active than ever in this new virtual world that has erased nationalities and distances. Consequently, from that point of view, I am in the right place at the right time.

Prototyping is not only about experimenting with an intention, but also about failing often to learn fast, and feeling the pain of negative feedback, in addition to persevering regardless of everything else. In other words, it is about developing Action Confidence — “having the courage to step into the new, laying down a path in walking”.

Walker, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more; walker, there is no road, the road is made by walking. By walking one makes the road, and upon glancing behind, one sees the path that never will be trod again. Walker, there is no road — Only wakes upon the sea.

Antonio Machado. Campos de Castilla

Faith, Hope, and Grace

Sometimes it may seem as if nothing is happening, but as Otto says when he speaks about the Crystallizing phase, “the key is to stay with”. Elizabeth Clement, a Pastor friend of mine compared Crystallizing with Advent, the time period where Christians wait and prepare. Those words struck a chord deep inside me making me think that while you wait, you prepare yourself because you have Faith that when the time is right, you are going to act confidently in an instant. I also associated action confidence with Hope. Now I have a new perspective of Crystallizing — a spiritual one: Crystallizing is the stage where you have Faith and Hope. I have Faith that when the time is right, an opportunity will come my way, about which I can act swiftly, Hoping for the best with confidence in my actions because I had been preparing myself for this moment. New challenges are before me, some of them totally unexpected, but I accept them with Grace because that is what life is about.

Challenges will be your teachers in evolving not only your prototype but yourSelf as a human being. Because after expending some time riding the “U” roller coaster, you’ll learn that your main prototype is YOU. So, you might as well enjoy the ride.

You are invited to register in the life-changing program, “u.lab. Leading from the Emerging Future”, which is free and self-paced. If you are interested in deepening and enriching the u.lab learning and growth experience for yourself or your team, please contact me at helio.borges.consulting@gmail.com to have a generative conversation.

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Helio Borges

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