Change: Community Action and the Theory U

Development depends on people identifying potential, understanding need and creating change.  It depends on people moving from talking to action.  The tools created to do this are often not as powerful as they were during the first generation of innovators.  The forms -participatory tools- have been kept but the meaning has been lost.  The radical nature of participation has been watered down by the second -or third- generation of use.  Without the democratic ethos, participation becomes a time-consuming, often useless part of a project rather than the deeper process of  knowing, creating and becoming.  This leaves both the development worker and community frustrated.  The Theory U is not a silver bullet in preventing clichés -i.e. participation, empowerment, community action-  however, its useful as a theoretical backdrop for change.

On a recent project -while training a team in Community Action Planning- one colleague shared with me he once worked with a large, well respected, INGO.  They had also done a Community Action Plan.  He told me:

They had run short on time, money and expertise.  Rather than the community action plan being created by the community, it was created by the INGO in their office.  The INGO then told the communities how to follow it.  This left everyone frustrated and the action undone.

Action emerges from a democratic space where people are able to name their reality and change it for themselves and their community.

Creating the Environment for Action: One of the struggles in creating community action is it is as much an art as it is a science.  The art of change is often hard to fit within the rubric of development.  Parker Palmer is helpful on this point.  Palmer (1993) points out environments that create change need a balance of three key elements. These elements are boundaries, openness and hospitality.  Boundaries keep the focus on what is discussed.  Openness helps people to explore and name their reality.  Hospitality helps people to know they are safe and welcome.  Balancing these three in any participatory process is essential.  This balance is why creating change is an art.  It is not easy.  The leader has to give direction but not be too directive.  She has to create space for exploration but not allow the discussion to be hijacked.

Fields, space, and quantum physics: Another helpful framework is the idea of ‘space’ from quantum physics.  In complexity theory, specifically quantum physics, space and fields are important. They are not empty but are the key ingredients to the universe. Wheatly (1992) stated:

Something strange has happened to space in the quantum world. No longer is there a lonely void. Space everywhere is now to be filled with fields, invisible, non-material structures that are the basic substance of the universe. We cannot see these fields, but we do observe their effects (p. 48).

Fields are key to understanding space that is not empty but rather full and the medium for change. Wheatley provides an explantation for fields. She states:

If we were to observe fish, unaware of the medium of water in which they swim, we would probably look for explanations of their movements in terms of one fish influencing another. If one fish swam by, and we observed the second fish swerving a little, we might think that the fish was exerting a force on the second. But if we observe all the fish deflecting in a regular pattern, we might begin to suspect that some other medium was influencing their movements. We could test this medium, even if it were still invisible to us, by creating disturbances in it and noting the reactions of the fish. The space that is everywhere, from atoms to the sky, is more like this ocean, filled with fields that exert influence and bring mater into form (1992, p. 50).

Fields and space influence each other. Although they are unseen, they are still present. Wheatly states, “Fields are considered real, but not material” (p. 50).  If we can imagine space in the community and society in terms of fields with people (government leaders, local leaders, community members, parliament etc.) as energy within the field, we can understand potential for growth and change. The energy (people) promoting or not promoting change can spread within and across fields.  Facilitating change in this understanding is about shaping space and influencing fields.

The Theory U as the backdrop creates a mix of openness and boundaries that leads to action and gives us a guide to interact with fields and space.

The Theory U: In a recent project, I used The Theory U as the skeleton to guide our discussions.  The Theory U aids people and organizations to lead from what is emerging around them.  The Theory U starts through reflecting on current and past context and finishes in leading from the emergent future (Scharmer, 2009).  The shape of the U reflects how change happens. Groups or individuals start in the left upper corner (i.e. downloading from the past). The group moves through other points of reflection through the shape of the U. They move downward towards the center of the U and upward to the right upper corner of the U. After reflecting on the past, they “see with fresh eyes” and “sense from the field”. The base of the U is “presencing”. This is a point where people have already reflected on the past and begin to let the future emerge. From presencing, people move to “crystalizing vision and intension” and “prototyping”. The final point of the U (performing) is in the upper right corner.

Theory U and Community Action Planning: The Theory U is an ideal guide for community action (See Figure 1).   In any project it is ideal to change methods to fit the context.  As changes are made -to fit the context- the Theory U ensured consistency with action orientation. The tools used for this example were specific to the project.  Tools can be adapted for various action planning purposes.

For the recent project, the early stages (community mapping and seasonal calendar) were designed to help community members ‘download from the past’. The problem tree and positive impact tree were designed to help community members ‘see with fresh eyes’ and begin to ‘sense from the field’. The notice board and meta-cards were designed to assist community members to ‘sense from the field’ and ‘presence’. The resource analysis and choosing an intervention were designed to assist people in ‘crystalizing vision and intent’. ‘Prototyping’ was done through the exercise titled who, what, and when. Finally, the chosen intervention is guided by ‘performing’ (figure 1). Following the Theory U ensured consistency and connection from one stage to the next.  Finally, since these tools are recorded on large sheets of paper -if recorded- they become ideal data for creating a grounded understanding of the given project.


There is no way around the complexities of moving people towards action.  Further, participation not only relies on knowing how to do it but also donors, INGOs, LNGOs, and community members holding the process of knowing and acting as valuable.  I have found the Theory U helpful in designing spaces that help people reflect, know and act.  I would love to hear from others about their experience of participation, action planning, creating space for change, the theory U or other related topics.

About the Author: Dr Matthew S. Will has over a decade of experience in International Development working and living in South East Asia and the Pacific.  If you would like to talk to him about innovative ways for a partnering towards a flourishing society click here.     Other articles he has written that relate to community action are: Who has the Authority for Mapping Well-Being? Mapping Citizen Action and Mapping the Means to Citizen Action. Other method articles found on the flourishing and disadvantage web-site by Dr. Will are  THE MODEL FLOURISHING and Theories of Change: Grounded for Complex Environments.

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