Written by Matt Wesley


As the world is in constant flux, gaining the capacity and capabilities to deal with transitions is an integral part of our personal and professional lives. Transitions require us to evolve, to move from one way of relating to the world to another. They come with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, urgency and ambiguity. They demand that we engage in a more fully conscious and intentional transformation, which in turn requires skills that can be applied to the multiplicity of transitions we face now and will face in the future. Here we will explore how Theory U, developed by Otto Scharmer, and the experience of the liminal space come together to provide a powerful practice for understanding and navigating the various transitions life has in store for us.

Understanding Transitions

Transitions challenge our beliefs and the ways we structure our awareness, and require us to let go of old patterns in order to embrace new ones. Some transitions are internal, prompted by intentions for personal growth or the desire for new ways of engaging in the world. Others crash in on us via external circumstances: changes in relationships, our health, or finding ourselves in a new stage of life. Most often transitions arrive with both unique internalities and externalities. The transitions that unsettle us are the ones that get our attention, calling us to step into the unknown and leave behind familiar territory. This kind of transition invokes fears large and small, but can also bring gifts of growth, innovation, and self-discovery. This “in-betweenness” might be called liminal space, which is a position at a boundary or threshold. To successfully navigate these transitions from the boundaries and thresholds of our lives requires a set of practices that are unique to liminal spaces.

As I have been going through my own personal transition into The Lovins Group, I have found myself in the midst of liminal space. There are rich feelings of gratitude for my time at Merrill, working with colleagues I respect and care for in the Center for Family Wealth. There is also the excitement of beginning to work with clients in longer term engagements, and learning from new colleagues with deep experience and prodigious skills. As I have been moving through this transition, I have been using a set of tools I have used with families that are based on the insights of Otto Sharmer and his development of Theory U.

A Framework for  Navigating Transitions

Theory U offers a holistic way to approach transitions, emphasizing the importance of deepening awareness, accessing intuition, and fostering individual and collective creativity. The idea is that any change process moves through a U-shaped curve. At either end of the U the world is stable with the old reality at the top of the left side of the U and the new reality at the top of the right side. The lower curve of the U represents a descent into liminal space, and then emergence from it. In many change models the bottom of that U is full of chaos or depression, but Theory U is designed to smooth that curve to make it easier and less disruptive to navigate. It helps us work through liminal space with a greater sense of agency, and confidence that we are not simply being cast adrift by the tempests of change.

Theory U has us develop core practices over three primary phases: sensing, presencing, and realizing.

  1. Sensing: The first phase of Theory U involves suspending judgment and opening ourselves to the present moment. It requires us to listen deeply to both our external environment and our internal experiences. When engaged, sensing enables us to understand the current reality, identify existing and emerging patterns, and invite possibilities for change. The more open we are, the more sense-it-ivity we bring. Sensing requires that we drop our ordinary patterns of taking quick action, slowing down enough to pay close attention to all that is happening. This enables us to move from being reactive to being responsive. We take on a beginner’s mind, question assumptions, see with fresh eyes, and begin to open our hearts to new possibilities. We stop arguing with reality (always a losing battle) and instead ask how we might flow with it.
  2. Presencing: The presencing phase of Theory U involves connecting to our deepest sources of inspiration, values, and purpose. It requires us to access our intuition and tap into a state of deep presence. Presencing allows us to explore future possibilities and envision a desired future state. As we engage in presencing we move from having an open mind into having an open heart, and finally come to an open will. At that point, but not before, we become free. It is in this last state that we can let go of expectations and find the power of imagination and the creative insight that will open us to a broader future. It is here that we find the courage to embrace uncertainty and delve into the depths of our being to shape the emerging future. At the bottom of this U, instead of chaos or depression, there is profound stillness and equanimity that becomes the coiled potential energy for effective action.
  3. Realizing: The final phase of Theory U is about prototyping and bringing the emerging future into reality. This phase is highly active, full of energy, powerfully creative, and engaged. Realizing involves experimenting with new ideas, taking bold actions, and iterating solutions based on feedback. “Fail fast” is a mantra in this phase, with the failures grounded in what has come before and valuable for moving forward. This phase of experimentation is filled with rapid progress, rooted in the responsiveness cultivated in Sensing and Presencing rather than reactivity. Realizing embraces the adventure, learns from failures, is life-enhancing and, sometimes, even fun

Applying Theory U to the Liminal Space of Transitions

As William Gibson said, “The future is already here, it is just not evenly distributed.”  Shaping our attention allows us to realize an emergent future that opens possibilities we never could have imagined had we remained reactive. Bringing Theory U to the liminal spaces in our lives provides a powerful discipline for navigating transitions. By engaging in deep Sensing, Presencing, and Realizing, we can cultivate resilience, creativity, and adaptability during periods of change. Theory U reminds us to embrace the liminal space as a transformative threshold, where we can explore, reflect, and reimagine our paths at the boundaries of our lives. It encourages us to listen to our intuition, connect with our values, and co-create a future that aligns with our aspirations and the needs of the collective.


Transitions are transformative journeys that offer opportunities for growth, innovation, and self-discovery. By embracing the liminal space, sensing deeply, presencing fully, and realizing innovative solutions, we can navigate the complexities of transitions and shape a future that reflects our values and aspirations. Through this journey, we unlock new possibilities, foster collective wisdom, and embark on a path of personal and collective transformation.