by James Edwards
Between September 2017 and April 2018 I co-designed and co-facilitated a Theory U-based change leadership program entitled Communities for Change (C4C) in Boulder, Colorado. C4C is a collaboration between the Impact Hub Global network of co-working spaces and the Presencing Institute, an MIT affiliated social change research center. I participated as part of the Impact Hub Boulder team. C4C was designed to engage diverse stakeholders in community-based efforts to address pressing problems on a local level. This article summarizes my experience with the Theory U process.
In mid-2017, The Presencing Institute (PI) extended an invitation to a number of Impact Hubs to participate in a coordinated, global run of the C4C program. Communities for Change had already been prototyped a few times at the Impact Hub co-working space in Brixton, London, UK, and the creative team now felt it was ready for a bigger test. Six Impact Hubs responded to the request: Baltimore, Budapest, Harare, Seattle, Shanghai, and Boulder. I had been working for some time at the Impact Hub Boulder’s academy division on program development. Because of my experience as an educator and facilitator, they hired me as a Lead Facilitator.
After several months of training and development support from PI, each Hub launched their locally-adapted version of C4C between late January and early February of 2018. In order to amplify the collective impact of the program, PI offered a universal theme of “Inclusive Cities” as a programmatic focus. Within this umbrella theme, each Impact Hub selected a different local focus. In Boulder, we chose Climate Action and Resilience. In addition to each local group meeting weekly for eight to nine weeks and working on homework assignments in between, the program provided three opportunities for participants from different cities to interact through facilitated Zoom calls.
One of the principal objectives of the C4C program is to disseminate and improve the process of using Theory U for collective change-making. Most dissemination of Theory U had been via massive online open courses (MOOC) offered through MIT’s edX platform. While this has allowed a large number of people to learn the basics of Theory U, the experience tends to be an individual one. Group-based offerings have traditionally occurred only within organizations or other client-convened initiatives and facilitated by a small group of Presencing Institute facilitators. C4C represents a scaling up and shifting in the way Theory U is disseminated and used; away from individual learning and towards collective action.
My formal participation in the program began in the Fall of 2017 with a series of bi-weekly facilitator training sessions via Zoom online calls, led by Presencing Institute trainers. In addition to the training sessions, the Presencing Institute and Impact Hub Global provided us with a variety of materials including those developed and used by Brixton, core Theory U materials, and marketing assets to help promote our local programs. The focus of the training was primarily on how to facilitate a group’s use of Theory U for understanding a complex, systemic problem and designing interventions to address it. While not a formal pre-requisite, having a solid knowledge of Theory U proved important. The pacing of the calls (typically every two weeks) and the timing of the delivery of assets provided time for facilitators time to digest the materials between calls. Calls then served to further process the information and learn about the evolution of the program and the successes and challenges of past facilitators.
The Boulder team was anchored by a two-person administrative-logistical team who took charge of business administration and marketing as well as providing support for the facilitation team. The facilitation team consisted of three co-Facilitators and a Graphic Facilitator or Scribe. In addition, we had a Support Team of three board members who are well-versed in Theory U.
As the only facilitator to attend all of the facilitator training program and C4C Program sessions, as well as having a strong background in curriculum design and development; I performed the function of rooting my co-facilitators in the curriculum provided by PI as we adapted it to our local needs. I also assumed the responsibility of documenting the outcomes of each session for a future iteration. My two co-facilitators have decades of experience in group facilitation, and the graphic facilitator is a gifted artist and skilled observer and synthesizer of ideas and group dynamics. They also created graphic materials for the sessions. Each of us also had at least two years of experience studying and practicing Theory U. Together we were able to support each other with the delivery of content and managing of group dynamics.
After our launch date (February 12, 2018), our core facilitation team met twice weekly to design upcoming sessions. In addition, we met with the broader team the morning after each session to debrief what went well, what was challenging, and what we had to keep in mind for next time. In this way, the smaller group of four facilitators was able to work nimbly on designing sessions and also receive timely feedback from the rest of the team. We identified this workflow after some false starts, and although time and labor intensive it proved a workable flow that created room for everyone’s voices.
Our program sessions met weekly, on Monday nights from 6 to 9 pm for eight weeks total. The format typically opened with a somatic awareness meditation, a summary of where we’ve been and where we’re going, and the presentation of the core concept of the day. This was followed by dinner, which we often used as an opportunity for the participants to have generative conversations on a specific topic. The last third of class generally consisted of exercises to apply what we learned in the first part of the class.
The sessions were themed to follow the U process with the following session titles: Co-Initiating, Co-Sensing, Presencing, Crystallizing, Prototyping (two sessions), and Co-evolving. In practice, we had to make adjustments to the flow as the group regularly got stuck on certain concepts and processes. For instance, during the co-sensing phase, we ran into difficulties teaching systems mapping effectively and this had a cascading effect through the rest of the program. Also, in the context of group dynamics, we failed to provide enough get-to-know-you activities early in the program and had to allot time later when a lack of participant cohesion interfered with deeper collective action. It is worth noting that many of the other Impact Hubs held a Session Zero at the beginning for just this purpose, and we started with Session One instead. In the parlance of permaculture design, this proved to be a type one error: a foundational design mistake that costs a lot of time, money, or energy to replace, redo, or clear out of a system.
Fundraising and Enrollment
Since the program was intended as a collaborative problem-solving method to address community-wide issues, it was important for us to design the promotion and fundraising to cultivate a multi-stakeholder process. To this end, we identified potential program partners through a list of criteria including how much leverage they had to effect lasting change within the community, what sector of the economy they represented, and the likelihood that they would be sufficiently resourced to send a person from their organization and pay for a seat for a community member. (One financial goal for this prototype program was for none of the participants to have to pay their own way in order to make the program accessible to as wide a demographic as possible.). As an initial contact, we sent a small team to visit with each prospective stakeholder and engaged them in a process of inquiring what they saw as the challenges around Climate Action and Resilience for Boulder and what characteristics would encourage them to participate in a program. With this feedback, we were able to craft a program description that incorporated the predominant community concerns and desires. We were then able to revisit the prospects and pitch them on the program. In this way, we enlisted sufficient stakeholder participants to fund and launch the program, including city and county governments, the local hospital, nonprofit and private institutions, and a number of private individuals. One foundation also provided a matching grant to all donations.
In addition to the Stakeholder participants, we put a call out for nominations for participants to the general public. This we did primarily through our individual social media networks, and nominators were directed to an online form to submit their nominations. We contacted nominees directly and informed them of their nomination and encouraged them to enroll via an online form. Within a month we had received over 200 nominations and had a pool of 70 applicants. By the launch date, we had enrolled 28 participants from this pool.
Since the conclusion of Communities for Change, we’ve had several team debrief meetings, interviews with all of the participants and stakeholders, anonymous written surveys, and collected pages of notes. The picture that emerges is that we did a fair job of running an innovative program and the participants enjoyed the experience and feel that they have learned some new skills and ways of thinking that will help them in their personal and professional lives, although figuring out how can be a struggle. The following are selected quotes from our participants.
“I came into the course with the belief that technology is the answer, that with better and more efficient technology we can just work our way out of this crisis. I now think after taking this course that this is only partially true, and it ignores a huge human connection aspect to getting people to re-align their incentives and redevelop their empathy.”
“I generally found the instructors to be absolutely fantastic, supportive people who took the time to get to know the members immediately and make us feel at home.”
“The whole of Theory U has given me strong food for thought regarding an emerging sustainability governance structure here at the University and the sorts of people that we should seek to have served in that capacity. I have spoken about C4C and Theory U with a wide array of colleagues here.”
“Last month, I used the skills I’ve developed at C4C to host the first community listening session about the Ag Center. It went spectacularly: 200 citizens, including 20 farmers, helped us understand what they want to see in an agriculture center and how it could serve the needs of a diverse community.”
Following are some observations from my experience as part of the C4C team, and a few suggestions on how to improve with the next iteration:
Team Structure: The breakdown of the Program Team into Facilitation, Logistics, and Support teams was a useful and productive decision. Communication between these teams is critical and we experienced some “storming” before we were able to get clear on expectations. Particularly troubling was tension that emerged between the Facilitation and Support teams and led to a breakdown in trust. I relate part of this to the process of Naming Norms, which I believe the Facilitation Team did well internally but failed to share with the other teams. Also, the role and functions of the Support team took too long to define, and we missed valuable input and feedback from this group in the early weeks. The relationship between these two teams has the potential to be powerful for all, but clearer agreements on norms (working agreements), roles, and processes will be critical moving forward.
Workflow: The pattern we established (design session, present to the team, deliver, debrief, record for future improvement) appears to be a good one. Significant challenges included the Facilitation team’s consistent inability to complete the session plans until the last minute, without time to thoughtfully present it to the wider team and have a discussion on roles and best practices before each session. This definitely played a role in the tension between the Facilitation and Support teams.
Lead Time: Assembling the Facilitation team too close to the start date compromised our ability to stay true to the Presencing Institute’s content and to prepare our weekly sessions in a timely manner. As the sole Facilitator who had gone through the entire Presencing Institute’s training and had the time to review all of the materials, I never had the time to properly brief my co-facilitators fully on the nuances of the PI’s program design. Likewise, we were never truly able to take a strategic view of the whole program and found ourselves responding tactically week-to-week. Having at least one month before program launch to carefully plan the entire program would be most beneficial.
Session 0: By choosing to skip Session 0, which is mostly dedicated to orientation and introductions, we found ourselves continually forced to choose between improving group cohesion or teaching content for the remainder of the program. For example, the participants struggled with grasping systems mapping, without which knowing how to boundary and study a complex issue like Climate Change and identify accessible leverage points proved a constant challenge. This affected us later in the program when we had to extend Presencing/Crystallizing by an additional session, which then cut into Prototyping, and so on.
Celebration: I experienced a pervasive sense of scarcity (variously around money, participant engagement, time, people feeling listened to, pleasing stakeholders, etc…) as a cultural characteristic of this project. I feel this undermined our ability to have as much fun with this as we might have, and therefore to maximize fun for the participants. Celebration of victories (even small ones) and of completion needs to be a central ethos of any collective impact program.
Staffing: With four Facilitators, three Support team, and two Logistics team members we were decidedly top-heavy. It would be possible, and arguably preferable, to run this program with fewer facilitators and staff overall, but I would recommend dropping the maximum group size to twenty if doing so.
Living Theory U as a Design Process
One of the conditions that we set for ourselves was to live the U process as we created this program. This requires constant attentiveness, as habitual patterns of thought and behavior are apt to derail the process. Regular intention setting and reminders were key to keeping us on the path. Being individually alert to one’s Level of Listening and collectively to Levels of Conversation both within the Program Team and as Facilitators was continually necessary. Because developing and delivering intellectual materials in a team setting is always challenging as creative differences, conflicting priorities, and interpersonal tensions threaten to derail the process, it is critical to work with Theory U’s requisite of an open mind, open heart, and perhaps most importantly, open will. An example of the last would be my ongoing experience of having content that I wanted to include and elements I thought should be taught differently, but letting go of those desires in support of a generative process where everyone could more easily contribute to the outcome. We all learned a great deal from each other and about each other and the result was a rich and varied program with reasonable harmony and bonding within the team.
Adhering to the structure of Theory U, we openly discussed which stage of the U we might operate in at any given time and strove to perform the functions required for that stage. Co-Initiating took place during the summer of 2017 when, having already identified that we wanted to do a program of this sort (Listen to what life is calling you to do), we answered the Presencing Institute’s call for collaborators. From there we entered a Co-Sensing phase (Go to the places of most potential and observe with your mind and heart wide open) in which we learned about the program and explored what our community wanted and needed. This included talking to numerous stakeholders and potential participants, demoing the program to get feedback from the public, having ongoing discussions amongst ourselves, and interacting with the other Impact Hubs. In Presencing (Retreat and reflect, open up to inner knowing and connect to the future that wants to emerge through you), from my perspective as a facilitator, we sat with the gathered information and waited for a clear image of the program design and content to Crystallize (Crystallizing vision and intention, envisioning the new from the future that wants to emerge.). The program itself could be said to be a Prototype, although a high commitment one, and it is also true that each segment of each session could be considered a prototype in its own right. We put great thought into what we learned about our audience, ourselves, and our team from each session. As for the last phase, Co-Evolving, I believe we will see true instances of that as we re-iterate this program and create other, spinoff workshops.
In spite of many struggles and imperfections in our implementation of the C4C process, I consider this program a resounding success. Judging it as a prototype and not a completed project transforms the shortcomings, as long as we recognize and correct for them, into opportunities for improvement. In running this program, we have demonstrated that Theory U can be used as a collective change-making process and refined the process for doing so. In convening a slate of stakeholders and more prospective participants than we could accommodate, we have proven a public desire for such programming.
What went well?
We successfully delivered a locally adapted version of the Communities for Change program. This was the first program of this type that this organization, let alone this team, had delivered. We improved processes and procedures for the creation and delivery of future programs and formed important alliances. Because we had a large facilitation team, we were resilient to the absence of any member of the team. Both as individuals and collectively, we acquired valuable skills in facilitation, teaching, and Theory U.
What was challenging?
As a team, we continually felt pressed for time. Since our full facilitator team was not recruited until near the launch date, we started well behind in our program design process and on several occasions did not complete our session plans until the afternoon of delivery. This did not allow time to brief the rest of the support team on what we were doing and how they could help and left no time for prepping them on specific skills they might need for small group facilitation. Similarly, the lead facilitators were often unable to rehearse sections of content delivery. Continuing on the theme of time, electing to not hold a session zero compromised us from the beginning both in terms of content delivery and group cohesion. The time pressure manifested within the sessions themselves, although we learned to limit our expectations for each session.
Next steps/ what would we do differently next time?
Improvements to the process could include: Making sure the facilitators are chosen well in advance of the start date to provide more time for planning; adding a session zero and holding space more deliberately for participants to know and learn to trust each other; keeping the post-session debriefs and also providing more opportunities for the wider team to see the session plans well in advance of each session; identifying those areas of content that gave the participants most difficulty and refining how we teach them.
Introduction to Theory U
Like most effective design methods, Theory U starts with a key question: Why do we consistently create outcomes that (almost) no one wants? The outcomes in question are a world with declining environmental and societal health, indicative of a pattern of designing systems that create negative unintended consequences. The answer to the question may be found in two premises:
- We design the world and in turn, the world designs us. That is to say that as adaptive creatures we tend to fashion our behavior to suit our environment; since we also actively shape our environment, our patterns of behavior often result from past solutions in environmental design. Hence, most of our modern negative behaviors (e.g. patterns of polluting) are the result of systems that we’ve created.
- Good intentions don’t necessarily lead to good outcomes. This key premise speaks to our tendency to create unintended consequences by rushing to solutions without fully understanding the impact that our designs will have on the world. In fact, good intentions can often lead to disruption and many of our current disruptions are the result of someone’s past good intentions.
We cannot discount the value of the progress of the last two centuries, but we’re also living the evidence that we did not design many of the systems responsible for that progress in a way that is sustainable as we deal with environmental, economic, and social disruptions. We now must rise to the challenge of redesigning the way we live upon this earth while maintaining and improving the standards of living to which we’ve become accustomed. Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying that “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” If so, then how should we be thinking? Theory U emerges from the Whole Systems Thinking movement that states that the key is to learn to think in systems. While this is something we’ve been demonstrably bad at, it is something that we can learn.
We begin by looking at how we are typically taught to think. Theory U suggests that there are two sources of learning: Learning from the past and learning from the possible future. Most of us are quite good at first. After all, it is the basis of our educational system. While admittedly an efficient way to learn, leaning as it does on the accumulated knowledge of generations of humanity and on our personal experiences, as a means of innovation it is limited to reiterating past ideas. Learning from the emerging future, on the other hand, opens us up to radical innovation. This skill, however, is so rare that the individuals who are good at it are often heralded as geniuses—Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein come to mind—but as Tim Urban explains in this installment of his “Wait but Why?” blog post, the difference is largely a question of learning to operate from what you know from observation about a situation versus what you are told about it. He quotes Steve Jobs:
“When you grow up, you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact. And that is: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”
Learning to think differently, therefore, starts with learning to see around what we’ve been programmed to believe about the world and observing it for ourselves. So, how do we go around our programming and learn to see what’s really going on? Theory U has some suggestions.