Appreciating Theory U: The Roles of Emergence & Radical Presence.

I want to make the claim that there is something really quite exciting about Theory U and its practical application.

Here’s a key link for you

Theory U

This week I co-facilitated a ‘Hackathon’ for a professional group. I’d met with a couple of their key leaders around 12-weeks ago, and we explored their needs, interests and desired outcomes. We co-created a plan and way forward. This included for example a series of short training sessions over lunchtime(s). As these lunch sessions were non-mandatory, I was delighted to note how well attended these were.

We carefully crafted a design for the ‘Hackathon’ day. It started at 1030 and finished at 1600. Stated simply, we ‘designed-in’ key Scrum elements that would add value such as:

  • Sprints (one-hour, short, time-boxed bursts of concentrated team activities)
  • Sprint Retrospectives (a reflection of how well that Sprint achieved its stated goal)
  • Personas (market segmentation clustering tool); and
  • Show and Tells (a customer Demo of work-to-date to elicit feedback)

We also wanted the members to work-on important, or valuable, Product Backlog items that held their interest/ energy; so they self-organised around one of key Product Epic themes. This resulted in 3 teams. We originally imagined that each team would work independently until the final Show and Tell at 1530; wherein we’d be joined by three very senior leaders from the profession.

Recently I’ve been mindful of developing what David Drake (2014) refers to as ‘radical presence’. I’ve also been exploring the ways by which Theory U can help me in this as my theoretical ‘grounding’.

Stated simply, radical presence, as I currently understand it, is about being aware of what is emerging ‘in the moment’. My aim was to adopt the metaphor of a complex adaptive system as the total or ‘whole system’. In other words, being open to the possibility that whilst we had co-created a design ‘up front’ there are, and were, lots of ‘unknowns’ about what would happen both intra-team and inter-teams; as they sought to pursue their joint purpose, as expressed by their team’s distinct Sprint goals. The three team’s goals were unified or aligned within the overarching purpose of the Hackathon event.

For me there was this emergent moment after about half-way of the way through Sprint 1. At this point in time, I was processing my own awareness of what was going-on in each of the three separate teams. As I sat quietly it struck me that there was something emerging in and between them; in what I noted as the ‘possibility of inter-team collaboration’.

I softly played with this idea and then psychologically and emotionally ‘settled into it’. I genuinely sought to open my mind, heart and will (see Theory U) to this possibility that we could co-create space for collaboration; and that this might help something novel to unfold in ‘real’ or emergent time. Firstly, I checked this idea with the other co-facilitator who was equally excited at the possibility. We then paused for a few minutes to consider it more fully. Next, given that it seemed to have genuine added value and possibility we inquired with the teams if they were willing to prototype or experiment with this idea. They were. And they were enthused about this too.

(On reflection after the event it is fair to say that it worked very successfully. Of course, after experimentation it might not have worked. That’s also a genuine possibility too).

The diagram below demonstrates the contrast between the original design features for the event with the emergent/ actual design for the day. As you can see prior to both Sprints 2 and then 3 the three teams used approximately 50% of the time to collaborate between the three teams.


The three team participants collaborated by:-

  • Updating where they were,
  • What the points of joint interest were,
  • Using the collective wisdom and energy to
  • Co-create a collective set of new, fresh and exciting ideas; and
  • Turning these ideas into team actions/outputs of the day.

Lastly, as part of my own ongoing reflective practice I wanted to check the validity or authenticity of my own experiences with the participants. To this end I sought anonymous feedback from the participants. I wanted to check the extent to which I had facilitated this in the ways that I’ve decribed here for you.

Therefore, I simply created a single-item survey question using a Likert 5-point scale (via Survey Monkey) and elected/asked the following question:-

“Jason facilitated the balance between structure and the team’s emergent need for inter-team collaboration?”

The team’s responses were:-

  • 60% Very well
  • 40% Well.

My Reflections/ Lessons Learned

It seems fair to say that Theory U has practical value; helping personal insight and development. From an action research paradigm it meets the criteria for validity: both ecological and authenticity for the research participants.

In conclusion, it seems to me that ‘being open’ as experienced as radical presence to the whole emergent field is an exciting paradigmatic shift. It is something I am taking forward as part of my own development and praxis.

Take care, Jason


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