Co-shaping: Grow Innovation Eco-systems

OttopaperbackThe following is an excerpt from The Essentials of Theory U

Co-shaping: Grow Innovation Eco-systems

By Otto Scharmer

The movement of co-shaping focuses on scaling the new while growing and evolving innovation eco-systems for collective impact.

The problem with today’s societal eco-systems is the broken feedback loop between the parts and the whole. The essence of consciousness-based systems thinking, aka Theory U, is to relink the parts and the whole by making the system sense and see itself— by closing the feedback loop between collective impact and shared awareness. At the end of the day, all of the application stories in this book rely on this one methodological backbone.

It is why the innovation labs are working; it is why their initiatives have been able to succeed. But what about the larger eco-systems in which they—and all of us—operate?

That is where these new innovation infrastructures for making the system sense and see itself are largely missing. The lack of these infrastructures is one of the biggest barriers to societal innovation today.

The reason this matters is that we are in the midst of seeing the birth of a fourth coordination mechanism. We are all familiar with the three traditional mechanisms that coordinate our social and economic systems: hierarchies, markets, and negotiations among organized interest groups.

But we know that these three means on their own will not be able to provide the upgrade of our governance mechanisms that is called for today. Therefore, the emerging fourth coordination mechanism is critical: acting from shared awareness—acting from seeing the whole. The development of that collective capacity re- quires cultivation, practice, and enabling infrastructures. And that is what this fifth movement of the U, co-shaping, is about.

Let us begin by talking about the prototypes. Each prototype goes through many iterations. As it evolves, it retains the best features of its earlier forms but changes in other ways in order to improve. The next question is: How can we use what we learn in these small-scale experiments and apply it to the evolution of the whole?

If you have ever been in a live theater production, you know that the actors get input from one another as well as guidance from the director, and the performance benefits from that refining process. Things are added; things are removed. Theater is a living structure—contained, honed, and refined. Only after many rehearsals is the curtain ready to go up. And still it evolves, but now with the added component of the audience’s energy and presence.


More about Otto Scharmer
Otto Scharmer is a Senior Lecturer at MIT and co-founder of the Presencing Institute. He chairs the MIT IDEAS program for cross-sector innovation that helps leaders from business, government, and civil society to innovate at the level of the whole system. He is the author of Theory U (translated into 20 languages) and co-author of Leading from the Emerging Future, which outlines eight acupuncture points of transforming capitalism. His latest book, The Essentials of Theory U: Core Principles and Applicationsilluminates the blind spot in leadership today and offers hands-on methods to help change makers overcome it through the process, principles, and practices of Theory U.

In 2015, he co-founded the MITx u.lab, a massive open online course for leading profound change that has since activated a global eco-system of societal and personal renewal involving more than 100,000 users from 185 countries. With his colleagues, he has delivered award-winning leadership development programs for corporate clients and co-facilitated innovation labs on reinventing education, health, business, government, and well-being.



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