Leadership for difficult change-Theory U

In June I visited Berlin for one week immersion course into the change leadership process called Theory U, developed by Otto Scharmer of MIT and countless colleagues. I have been following Otto’s work ever since I left college many years ago as I explored the challenge of change in organisations during my time with McKinsey and in society during my PhD work on economic development.

One recurring theme in all my work is how stuck we can become in the past and present problems. I notice this in the intense descriptions from executives who describe to me why their boss, or colleague or the organization is broken and just won’t change. I experience it often in Turkey, my home country for whose people I so much wish to realise its full potential. Rather than talk about this potential and how to get there the talk quickly turns cynical on many reasons for why things won’t change are given (incl. many conspiracy theories, right or wrong, who knows).

The key challenge then is: How can we create the future if we are stuck (should I say pathologically in love…) with the past? The short answer so often given is that we need a visionary leader. I cannot find comfort in the idea to wait for another Atatürk (national or corporate) who enamours people and guides them to the promised land. In fact I strongly believe that any such hope in our hearts (however understandable) makes us susceptible to outsource responsibility for our own life to some other person or group. The people of many countries and corporations in the past and present have fallen into the hands of despots not because these individuals are so skilfully sinister but we were just looking for someone, anyone, who could do it for us.

Theory U invites us to take responsibility back, to approach our challenges collectively with curiosity, compassion and courageous rather than look for enemies and fight out of prejudice, anger and fear. The Theory U process provides a process structure for this challenging work to happen. Theory U works with the premise that while we focus on the past and present, there is already an emergent future available to us to access. Tapping it is often difficult because of our preoccupation with reacting and redesigning based on unquestioned assumptions. In the end what looks like change is more of the same old patterns.



The 5-step process allows us to go deeper by making the group aware of its own assumptions and beliefs, question them and thereby access deeper sources of inspiration and thereby have the group have the excitement and energy to prototype the future.


It has already been proven in public and private sectors, with people across the globe. If you want to learn the process you can participate in the free online learning community that Otto and his team have provided on the edX learning platform.


uLab 0x – Awareness-based Systems Change with uLab… Is a 90 min. intro course that provides a gateway into the Theory U process https://www.edx.org/course/awareness-based-systems-change-u-lab-how-mitx-15-671-0x

uLab 1x – Leading from the Emerging Future… Is the 7-week experiential online course (the 3rd run has started in Sept.2016 and you can still join) https://www.edx.org/course/u-lab-leading-emerging-future-mitx-15-671-1x

You can join by yourself, but even better if you want to do a real change project, do the course together with people from your organization or community of change. There are support hubs in many cities including Istanbul https://www.facebook.com/groups/552097118323506/?ref=bookmarks#


if you need more specific support, let’s talk.

Enjoy the journey of change and join the global community of change makers.




Communication for leaders

What a difficult learning Hermann Hesse articulates to put into practice; which is why I think it is so precious to strive for! As we lead to change ourselves and others communication is the hardest and most essential skills to acquire. Unfortunately we are taught a language of domination based on rewards and punishment. This way creates leadership that is based on power and positioning. We see people that are on our side and we see people who are opposed. Leading becomes a struggle and good leaders are this who can influence and come out of the struggle on top. I always felt something is wrong with this ‘rule of the jungle’. I for myself believe that leadership should help create opportunity for others and influence people to join a common cause to which they voluntarily subscribe. Desirable but I struggled to put this into practice with people who seemed opposed to the idea of a group purpose, who seemed stuck in their own world of thinking or were disregarding my way and power their own agenda through. From here it is very easy to ‘hate’ a person, exactly how Hesse described. And when I am angry at that person I blame them for this situation. What Hesse then says becomes outrages: How could anything of that person be part of me? Especially when I trying so hard not to be like that person?

Marshall Rosenberg answered this question beautifully for me. What we two have in common even when emotions run high and our agendas are far apart is that as humans we all have needs that we want to meet. Our ability to hear the needs in the other are however not well developed. Rather than acting to listen deeply to seeking to understand what the need of the other is we re-act defensively of our own position. That is not listening for understanding, that is listening for responding! Rosenberg has developed an easy to understand method to practice in ever more difficult life circumstances. He helps us develop needs literacy, which requires both us expressing our needs and inquiring into the needs of others. When we can see the other having needs just as we do (but maybe expressing them terribly) we go beyond right-wrong, good-bad, white-black and can start the work of creating a solution that meets our needs. At least we do it with humanity.

To learn more about this essential life and leadership skill everyone I believe should have some familiarity with Marshall Rosenberg – Non Violent Communication. Here some places to get started online:

Short (10min): https://youtu.be/DgaeHeIL39Y
Longer (40min): https://youtu.be/n5DL-9wti_Q
Longer still (3 hrs): https://youtu.be/YwXH4hNfgPg
Extensive (9 hrs): https://youtu.be/O4tUVqsjQ2I

See more resources at: https://www.cnvc.org/

Intensive 9 day trainings: https://www.cnvc.org/…/international-intensive-trainings-ii… (The next one is in Marmaris, Turkey Jun 3-12, 2016. )

THE book on this subject is Non-Violent Communication, available in a lot of languages e.g. in EnglishGerman, Turkish, Chinese, Japanese, SpanishFrench,Italian.

Enjoy your journey of leadership.


Change the meeting to change your business culture

My work with management teams involves invariably the question how to change individual and group behavior. “Alper, we need to change our working culture. My people need to take more responsibility.” or “Alper, I am planning this major change in my department. I will have to run a workshop, any ideas how I can make the team get engaged?”. These are frequent questions that get me started on sharing some of the thoughts on how to engage people meaningfully.

The basic premise
People assume ownership if they feel meaningfully involved.

When I work with groups I ask myself: “How can I get the group involved as early as possible and in a way they is relevant to them?”. This is a good question for yourself to ask as well if you are planning a workshop or a meeting. Often as the meeting organiser or manager we can have the tendency to talk early and a lot. This brings me to…

The 1st practice – Checking in
Here is a practice to provide clarity and also engagement early – Have people including yourself ‘Check into the meeting’:

0) Welcome people, recap why you have called the meeting, and check-in by stating two things:

1) How are you today? (in general, anything that is preoccupying your mind? how are you feeling about this meeting?)

2) What would success look like for you? (for this meeting? What would you like to walk away, answers, decisions, commitments etc.)

3) After this role modelling, have everybody check-in.
I like to use a check-in object as a symbol for the speaker to have in their hand as they talk.

When they are done they pass the object to the next person, indicating their right to speak and the commitment of the others to listen. I usually let people pass the object if they are at that very moment not ready to talk and let them take their turn when all others have spoken.







The 2nd practice – Setting working agreements
I usually adopt a second practice before going into the meeting content: setting working agreements. The purpose of such agreements are to agree with people on ‘how’ we want to conduct ourselves during the meeting. The working agreements serve the following purpose:  “We agree to take joint responsibility for theresults of this team and the well-being of all its members.”

This purpose can, in my opinion, already be an eyeopener and challenge to people. Depending on team or organisational culture the responsibility for the meeting outcome and it going well for the people rests with the person who calls the meeting, perhaps the boss. Not according to this agreement. And in my experience this makes a lot of sense to a lot of people. However, behaviors in the group need to support this practice which is what the four additional working agreements are for (I will for now skip a more detailed explanation).

In my experience, people like a lot agreement number four: We ask for what we give and we give what we can. How else could I know that you are unhappy where the agenda or the meeting progress is going if you don’t tell me and make a request what to do different. Makes sense, but without an agreement many people might not think they have the permission to do so (and even with this agreement it might take a few pivotal events in a meeting in which people role model this agreement in practice so that it takes hold). By listening to your request I don’t promise before hearing it that I will accommodate it, but if I or anyone else in the group can so easily we agree to honor request or offer something equivalent or at least an explanation why we can’t honor the request right now.

I usually start the group out with some proposed agreements, let them discuss for a few minutes amongst themselves what they like about the agreements, what is unclear. Then I ask for thumbs up/down to indicate if there are questions that need discussion before everybody can say for themselves: “I will support the implementation of this agreement”. (When I have more time I let the group customise the agreement. Setting working agreements that serve the group can be a workshop topic in its own right).







The 3rd practice – Time-outs
The other ‘cool’ practice is to take time-outs. We agree to stop our talking if something is not helping us as a group achieve our meeting objective. A person volunteers to be the time-out keeper/guardian/observer… (find a suitable name in your language and organization culture). We all agree to be silent if the signal for timeout is used. I like to use a bell, but anything the group agrees can work. Once the signal is there everybody agrees to stop their talking or activity and centre. The time-out keeper then states why they asked for a time out: e.g. because the conversation got off-topic, or talk started to be conflictual, or conducted in a way not honouring the agreements of the group.

In many organisations it is the boss who is this time-out keeper. What a great way to distribute authority in a meeting to other people and also role model as the boss that you are will be subject to the same agreements like everybody else. This is a very powerful act in many organisations in which people opt out of their responsibility, because ‘the boss will fix it’.







The last practice – Checking out

At the end any meeting I will take even the briefest 3 minutes to close by asking: “What are you walking away with from this meeting?” (or How are you feeling about this meeting, or In light of your check-in objective where are you now?). If I have a few extra minutes I might also ask a question that is on my mind: e.g. ‘What about the way we did the meeting today should we continue doing, what should we improve?’. This practice in itself gives people the message that their voice matters and they have here the opportunity to speak their mind. Well if this isn’t revolutionary (sadly) in far too many organisations.

Please let me know your reactions, questions, inspirations…

Source for further reading:
I like to thank my mentors and friends whose work and experience I am leveraging here. Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea, whose ‘The Circle Way’ gave me the working agreements and many other practices (http://peerspirit.com). Holger and Roswitha from the Kommunikationslotsen in Germany for their outstanding environment for development (www.kommunikationslotsen.de).