A colleague of mine recently said that the only thing we can actually control is how we think. As individuals, we have many things we can influence, but few things we can control. The paradox is that the less we can control, the more control we attempt

In his book Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges (2009) author C. Otto Scharmer shares ways to move to a deeper (towards the bottom of the U) understanding of the problem or system with the goal to create innovatively and find solutions that get to the core of the problem. After reading Scharmer’s book, I pondered on the fact that we live in a society where we are often presented with solutions fueled by emotions that don’t resolve the core problem. Conversely,  we focus on tactics that give us a sense of action but also don’t really solve the basic problem.  

Creating change at a deeper level

Scharmer’s book is just one example that can help us think about change differently. I read a news article this morning that Arizona is being faced with water shortages because the level of water in the Colorado River has dropped by one-third. The article then went on to illustrate what the Governor wanted to do to solve the issue. One of the solutions was to create a way to capture the floodwaters of the Mississippi River (close to 1400 miles away). The other solution was paying people not to draw water from Lake Mead for two years because the lake has dropped 158 feet due to the drought happening West of the United States. 

Each of these solutions costs taxpayers billions of dollars and yet does not change anything at a deeper level. For example, there hasn’t been any move to stop watering lawns, charging people who use water at a non-subsidized cost or restricting the development and population growth in Arizona which exacerbates the water supply issue. 

This example of problem-solving and the level of change we are willing to engage in (as well as the options we ignore) is replicated across the globe. We have significant complex problems that we are throwing symbolic and tactical solutions at without touching the root of the problem.

Getting to the root of the problem

As a gardener, if I weed the gardens without getting to the roots, the weeds grow back, and in many cases, multiply. So, what do we need to do to make progress on the deep interconnected challenging problems we are facing today?

There are changes and solutions to problems that go beyond short-term emotional reactions, tactics, and strategies that can shift and solve the root of problems. As illustrated in the fourth level of change in Theory U, at this level, leaders help us individually and collectively to change the way we think about the issue that over time changes the way we behave. This is the fourth level of change, and it is the source of deep change that transforms us. 

Shifting minds and changing perspectives

A colleague was sharing a slide deck she used in a recent presentation. In the presentation, there was a picture in Kenya of an expansive savanna at sunset. She took people through a guided meditation of the sun setting below the horizon. Then, she did it again, but instead of watching the sunset, she asked people to change their perspectives. Instead of seeing themselves as sitting still on the savanna and watching a moving sun, she asked viewers to see themselves sitting on a moving planet that was rotating backward away from the sun. This is an example of changing minds, worldviews, and mindsets. When we shift our perspective and deep background assumptions of our reality, it changes the way we behave. For people watching a sunrise or sunset, we will always see it from the perspective of a “moving” earth, rather than a still earth and moving sun.

These kinds of shifts in the mind are facilitated by engaging in conversation and reflecting with others. Not only do we change our worldviews and mindsets by having reflection and conversations with others, but we also increase our trust and relationships as an outcome of the change process.