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Unleashing Exponential Growth: Co-Initiating & Co-Creating Exponential Organizations

Embracing Theory U's transformative journey aligns seamlessly with the 11 key elements of Exponential Organizations, paving the way for both exponential growth and a purpose-driven, stakeholder-connected workplace culture.


In today's rapidly evolving business landscape, the concept of Exponential Organizations (ExOs) has captured the imagination of leaders and entrepreneurs worldwide. These organizations achieve unprecedented growth and impact, leveraging technology and innovative approaches.

However, achieving ExO status requires more than just adopting the latest technologies; it demands a profound shift in organizational mindset and culture.

Theory U, developed by Dr. Otto Scharmer of MIT, is a powerful framework that can facilitate this transformation. This article explores how Theory U's five phases align with the 11 key elements of Exponential Organizations and how it can serve as a blueprint for creating ExOs.

Understanding Theory U

Theory U is not just a theory; it's a transformative journey that redefines how organizations operate and innovate. It consists of five essential phases:

  1. Co-initiating: The journey begins with leaders and teams opening themselves up to new perspectives and possibilities. This phase emphasizes deep listening, empathetic understanding, and dialogue within a core team with similar commitments. The goal is to articulate a collective and aligned commitment.
  2. Co-sensing: Participants delve into emerging patterns and collective insights, enabling organizations to identify the root causes of issues and envision a more desirable future. This phase relies on experiential learning, empathetic inquiry, and methodologies such as prototyping and scenario planning to gain a deeper understanding of the evolving landscape.
  3. Presencing: This phase allows individuals to connect with their deeper sources of creativity and intuition. It involves shedding old habits and thought patterns, opening the door to fresh ideas and innovative solutions. Here organizations tap into their collective intelligence and wisdom.
  4. Co-creating: Theory U's transformative potential comes to life in this phase. Participants collaborate to bring the emerging future into reality. They prototype, experiment, and iterate with new approaches and solutions, harnessing the collective wisdom and energy of the group. Co-creation is dynamic, iterative process that continuously shapes and reshapes an organization's future.
  5. Co-evolving: The final phase takes the transformative journey to its zenith. Participants continue to refine and adapt their initiatives based on feedback and the evolving landscape. It's a dynamic process of continuous learning and adjustment.

Connecting Theory U and Exponential Organizations

Now, let's delve into how Theory U's principles align seamlessly with the 11 key elements of Exponential Organizations:

  1. Massive Transformative Purpose (MTP): Theory U's co-initiating phase is a potent tool for discovering and refining an organization's MTP. By deeply engaging with stakeholders and understanding their needs and aspirations, you can craft an MTP that resonates with your team and the broader community.

Example: The MTP of SpaceX, "to make humanity multi-planetary," exemplifies this. Elon Musk engaged with space enthusiasts, scientists, and engineers to understand their shared dream of expanding human civilization to Mars, shaping SpaceX's audacious mission.

2. Scale: As your organization progresses through the co-sensing, presenting, co-creating, and co-evolving phases, it becomes more agile and adept at prototyping and experimenting with new technologies. This is the essence of  building a scalable infrastructure that supports exponential growth.

Example: Amazon's journey from an online bookstore to a global e-commerce and cloud computing giant demonstrates this. Amazon Web Services (AWS) emerged from its scalable infrastructure experimentation, enabling its own exponential growth and serving as a pivotal component of the digital age.

3. Staff on Demand: Theory U fosters a culture of autonomy and self-awareness. Your employees naturally evolve to become more self-aware and responsible. This increased autonomy aligns with the principles of Exponential Organizations, where decision-making authority is distributed more widely.

Example: W.L. Gore & Associates, the maker of Gore-Tex, is a prime example of fostering autonomy. They practice "lattice management," where teams are self-managing, leading to a highly innovative and adaptive organization.

4. Community & Crowd: Theory U strongly emphasizes empathetic listening and dialogue with stakeholders. This process helps your organization create   highly engaged communities, both internally and externally, which is vital for   fostering exponential growth.

Example: The Wikimedia Foundation, which operates Wikipedia, relies on engaging a global community of volunteers. Their open and collaborative approach ensures the continuous growth and accuracy of Wikipedia.

5. Algorithms: Co-sensing and presencing phases involve data collection and analysis to gain profound insights. This practice equips your organization with the necessary data and analytics to make informed, data-driven decisions—a fundamental aspect of Exponential Organizations.

Example: Netflix's data-driven approach to content creation and recommendation is a stellar case. To tailor content recommendations, Netflix collects vast amounts of user data, leading to better user experiences and increased viewer engagement.

6. Leveraged Assets: Through the transformative journey of Theory U, your  organization naturally evolves to leverage shared resources, such as collaborative consumption or shared infrastructure, optimizing processes and performance.

Example: Airbnb, the platform for renting accommodations, exemplifies this element. It leverages the shared assets of hosts' homes to create a global network of lodging options.

7. Engagement: Theory U's principles of empathetic listening and dialogue extend to engagement with external ecosystems. Collaborating with external stakeholders is a hallmark of both Theory U and Exponential Organizations. The co-initiating and co-evolving phases of Theory U provide a structured approach to nurturing these external relationships, ensuring they are mutually beneficial and innovative.

Example: The collaboration between Procter & Gamble (P&G) and InnoCentive is a powerful illustration. P&G tapped into InnoCentive's network of problem solvers to solve complex R&D challenges, leading to innovative solutions and cost savings.

8. Interfaces: Theory U encourages active engagement with external   stakeholders. This aligns perfectly with the ExO strategy of building robust interfaces with ecosystems for innovation and growth. Collaboration with external partners, platforms, and communities becomes second nature.

Example: The partnership between IBM and Watson exemplifies this interface with the ecosystem. IBM opened up Watson's AI capabilities to developers, researchers, and businesses, fostering a collaborative environment that accelerated AI innovation.

9. Dashboard: Theory U's emphasis on data-driven decision-making aligns with the need for dashboards in Exponential Organizations. The co-sensing and presencing phases involve data collection and analysis to gain profound   insights.

Example: Uber's use of real-time dashboards to optimize its ride-hailing service is a prime illustration. It enables efficient matching of drivers with riders, optimizing routes and pricing.

10. Experimentation: Theory U fosters a culture of experimentation and   learning from failure. As your organization embraces this mindset, it becomes more agile and capable of rapid innovation, a key attribute of ExOs.

Example: Spotify's commitment to experimentation is evident in its ongoing development of personalized playlists. They continually test and iterate algorithms to provide users with a tailored music experience, keeping users engaged and loyal.

11. External Partnerships: Collaborating with external stakeholders is a  hallmark of both Theory U and Exponential Organizations. The co-initiating and co-evolving phases of Theory U provide a structured approach to nurturing these external relationships, ensuring they are mutually beneficial and innovative.

Example: Google's partnership with universities and research institutions for the development of Google Glass is a powerful illustration. It involved active engagement with external partners to shape the technology's potential.

Summary :

Integrating Theory U into your organizational DNA can be a transformative journey that aligns seamlessly with the 11 key elements of Exponential Organizations. By embarking on this journey, you position your organization not only for exponential growth but also for creating a workplace culture deeply connected to its purpose, stakeholders, and the emerging future. It's time to embrace a future of leadership and innovation where exponential growth is not a distant dream but a tangible reality.

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Creating future-ready organisations.

Creating organizations where people bring their head, heart, and soul.

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20 + years experience in individual and organizational transformation. Global Faculty, Executive Coach, OD Consultant MTP: Creating future ready organizations where people bring their soul.