Awareness-Based Change

By Margaret O’Bryon

In the preface to his book, Power and Love – A Theory and Practice of Social Change, Adam Kahane poses three questions: How can we address our toughest challenges? How can we break through our most entangled, stuck problems? How can we create social change?

For anyone involved in social change work, these questions are not unfamiliar. Chances are, at one time or another, each of us has wrestled with them using various creative forms and leadership practices. Some have resonated; others have not. One of those social change technologies that has captured my attention over the past several years is Presencing using the U process.  Its basic premise is that the quality of the results that a system creates is a function of the awareness from which the people in that system operate.

Presencing has taken root in both the business and social sectors in the US and globally. Its origins come from leaders, innovators, and practitioners in multiple fields, most notably Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, and Otto Scharmer, founding chair of the Presencing Institute. Much of the current work is being done in association with the business school at MIT. Theory U is being successfully applied to tackle tough social and economic challenges like food sustainability, equitable development and wealth creation, health care system reform, teaching young people to become social entrepreneurs, to name a few.

It’s impossible to sum up Presencing/Theory U in just a few words ; however, I want to share its most basic components. The “U” is one process with five movements. Using a visual prompt, these movements flow from the left to right in the shape of the letter “U”.

They move from building a common intent that involves deep listening to others and to what life calls you to do; to observe, observe, observe where judgment and downloading are suspended and members of the group open up to a full immersion into the context of the challenge; to presencing or sensing the emerging future in the present. This occurs at the bottom of the “U”. Here one accesses their own source of inspiration and a letting go of one’s current reality which is filled up with pre-existing biases, assumptions, habits and norms. This is the place of new awareness and creativity. It is where both individual members and the group as a whole operate with a heightened sense of connection, energy, and possibility.

Based on what has been learned, the final two movements are rapidly creating new models and prototypes for solving real problems in real time and then deciding which one(s) will have the highest impact on the system or challenge the group is addressing. Innovative tools and practices have been created to help guide this process.

The social issues of our day are extremely complex; they are deep-rooted; and addressing them demands new ways of thinking and creating. It also requires addressing systemic root causes. This is a HUGE leadership challenge. Theory U is one way to lead profound change.


Many in our community know Margaret O’Bryon, former CEO of the Consumer Health Foundation, for her commitment to social equity and her expansive thinking. Look to hear more from Margaret as she takes on her latest role as the Nielsen Chair of Philanthropy at the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership and the Public Policy Institute at Georgetown University.