We all know how to write a neat capital letter U: one leg coming down, going through the narrow U-turn and the second leg coming up again. Envision a U.
The formation of a U is used as the image that represents what happens during ‘big change’. The kind of change that really changes things – from losing the old ways of doing something, followed by sinking into the pits of doubt and uncertainty about what is going to happen – and eventually crawling upright again and trying to climb towards new things.
There is a whole theory about transformational change – called Theory U – which describes and explains the dynamic of such a radical process of change.
Who is not familiar with those times of the downslide? A failed project, business or relationship and the chips go down. People who have lived through violent conflict and who have lost everything – think about the refugee crisis – literally sink very deep into no man’s land, not sure if they will find another shore to call their own. These are extreme cases – but yes, they happen.
An event on a smaller scale that does not touch a whole population group but maybe the one or a few persons, however, can also have a profound impact on an individual. Retrenchment for instance, especially in our current unemployment market: losing one’s source of income and also ones work identity provokes a personal crisis.
Crisis is the crucial word that describes the essence of what happens in a U-turn type change.
When crisis strikes, the old – the known, the familiar, the comfort zone – breaks down in pieces. The pieces never can be put together again in the same old picture. One can try – but it will be a bit like trying to compose a jigsaw puzzle with a few pieces gone missing. You can never reconstruct the known picture.
When ‘the known’ lets you down, you are forced into ‘the unknown’. In a case when what fell apart has actually freed us from an unwanted or unpleasant situation – this tumble can be experienced with the exhilaration of a free fall. But even the liberated adventurers will have to land and face the question: ‘And so what do I do next?’
Someone who has lost a happy or rewarding set-up or stage of life may not be optimistic when landing in the dell of the U. All the emotions from denial to anger and grief may assault the person who is still looking backward at what is gone and not yet upward at what may come.
Theory U highlights the importance of learning to connect with a future possibility – a new alternative that is trying to emerge from the future. The new scenario you envisage, as if appearing out of a morning mist and gradually taking shape.
The theory presents guidelines of how to take oneself, a whole group, a business or a community through a process of change that embraces the potential of the new, the unknown. These are indeed the guidelines for ‘leading from the future as it emerges’.
It all begins when we find ourselves in the depths and dark of the U-turn, at the very bottom of the U. At that point we must let go, stop looking back and yearning backwards. We must shift our attention towards the future. Tuning into the possibilities that are attractive to us and that may start up a whole new scenario.
When we go through such a process of change as a group, the most valuable strategy is to keep up the dialogue and to co-operate in searching – inward, outward and forward. The new purpose has to be found. With new ways of thinking and new core activities, the upward leg of the U can be followed – until everyone is above ground and on track again.
The U-theorists, like me, believe that it is our responsibility to create the ‘promised land’ – whether that be in our living room, in our business ventures, in the schools for our children, or in the quality of our networks of friends and family.
Having negotiated the down slide into the U and managing to surface always is a confidence-builder. It can be done. And ‘the new’ can actually surprisingly turn out better than ‘the old’.