U.Lab: Case Clinics and the Empty Chair
28 April 2016 - Andy Paice

The Emergence of a Project

If you’ve ever experienced a moment of group synergy when an entire group of diverse minds meet in a co-creative flow to give birth to a new idea or project, you’ll know how just how uplifting, life-affirming and joyful that kind of moment can be. In our post-industrial culture with a mainstream that is still painfully clinging to outdated command and control structures, it may be that such positive collaborative experiences mark us because they are all too few and far between. So when these occurrences do arise it can be useful to document them and outline some of the processes, tools and conditions that gave rise to them. This weekend in London I was fortunate to be part of a group which experienced a collective breakthrough that arose through playing with some of the established practices from the toolboxes of Theory U and the Teal Organisations movement. Here’s the story…


In North London last year a group formed through the Islington and Kings Cross Impact Hubs to meet up weekly and go through the U.Lab online course “Transforming Business, Society and Self” By the end of the course in December a group of 10 of us from a variety of backgrounds (corporate, coaching, self-development, teaching) felt inspired to continue meeting with a view to creating a prototype project. Exactly what kind of project that was going to be we knew not.

Our weekly Thursday meetings had been going on since January and over the course of those months (it’s now April as I write) we deepened our connections, got to know each other as individuals with our unique qualities and challenges and grew to cherish the opportunity to meet up. But as the weeks progressed finding common ground to create our project remained an elusive goal.

That was until this Sunday 17th April. We’d decided it was important to give ourselves a day of working through some of the processes together in order to go deeper in getting to know each other and to look for connecting elements that might gel into prototypes.

We set the scene for the day by watching a replay of some of the U.Lab broadcast in which Otto Scharmer gave a guided mindfulness practice for envisioning our highest collective future potential. This initiated the movement towards reflections that reveal common connections.

We then moved on to a mini project that we’d already started as a group. Each of us had created a Life Work Map, an exercise inspired by George Por’s work in which each of us mapped out the various roles we are currently inhabiting in our lives. Each of the roles were presented and noted down on circles (paper plates) with a view to making connections between our various roles that might help in finding commonalities for a project. After each presentation of Life-Work the group reflected back 5-6 words that came to their minds relating to that person and their roles. They have been harvested below in the form of a word-cloud:


After taking lunch in the April sun of St James’ Park we returned to our practices. Next on our agenda for working towards a collaborative project was a Case Clinic. Case Clinics consist of a structured process in which a case giver presents a case, and a group of peers move into a helper/coaching role based on listening and presence based principles.

Our intention was to present our predicament to ourselves so that we might collectively find a way forward. Before we started a genius suggestion came from one group member that we combine the Empty Chair method as outlined by Frederic Laloux in Reinventing Organisations with the Case Clinic. So with one chair set out in front of our group we took turns to sitting in the chair and speaking from the perspective of the “We”, the group itself, speaking to the following questions:

• What key challenge are we up against?
• What future are we trying to create?
• What do we need to let go of and what do we need to learn?
• Where do we need input or help?

What we found incredible was the amazing coherence of the responses that emerged from the perspective of the empty chair: “How do we connect all our passions and all the dots?”, “We can let go of needing the project to be related to our personal passion”, “We can do whatever we want”, “How we connect this with the outside world, with people who haven’t had this space?“, “We can start a project in a small way, in a safe place”, “We can let go of our fears”, “Perhaps we can offer Case Clinics as a gift?”


We shared images and metaphors or what was emerging, images such as fragile new shoots that are just strong enough to the break through the cracks of rigid old structures.


The last stage of this kind of peer coaching process is called generative dialogue and when it’s in full flow it can be an amazing experience. A synergistic group mind truly starts to emerge and another participant speaking one’s own thoughts is not uncommon.

And this is where we started to brainstorm possible solutions. Quite organically an idea emerged that seemed to encapsulate the conversations that had gone before during the day and the weeks of meetings beforehand.

Our project would be to share ourselves and the togetherness that had been forged over the months of our encounters. We would show up in openness and vulnerability to demonstrate the use and effectiveness of the Case Clinic process itself, either in private clinics for individuals, start-ups or businesses or as part of a larger event.

Now this may seem a modest project to an outside reader but instinctively our group knew this to be exactly the right level of prototype for us to move forward. The fact that it so completely arose from everyone’s process meant there was full buy-in from the group and a feeling of a maximum energy to carry it forward. Having confidence in our ability to be vectors for this process of co-creativity we knew we had an important offering for teams and businesses that sense the need for new approaches in a changing world. What team or organisation wouldn’t be interested in fostering the engagement that arises from a true meeting of minds?


As we left the venue stepping out into the sunny Westminster afternoon we knew we’d made a significant step forward in our U.Lab project.