Tuesday 21 July 15, Victoria, London: Shift, a participant-led Open Space event
Why aren’t organisations shifting? www.events.caterfly.co.uk

Applications of Open Space Technology in 21st Century
self-organising network organisations

Open Space Technology (OST) has been around for almost 30 years, has been applied in 150 countries, with 300,000+ groups or events, involving millions of people having unique experiences through OST.  OST (Open Space Technology) has been used:

  • as a participant-led alternative to conferences (hence “unconference”)
  • for conflict resolution (in large scale peace deliberations)
  • for stakeholder dialogues in a variety of contexts and disciplines

… and many situations involving deep discussions, where there is a burning issue, high levels of passion and no preconceived outcome.  OST works beautifully because it fulfils some of the conditions for participant engagement, such as connection, communication and meaning.  OST has also been used extensively for various intra-organisational purposes within organisations with huge success.

Despite the successes, ZenLarge however, OST has rarely become mainstream practice within organisations.  This may be because it does not sit well with the planned, budgeted, command & control management style of most organisations.  Moreover OST does not create legacies, i.e. it does not lend itself to anyone taking credit for successful outcomes, because success is collective.  So  as Steve Denning of Forbes laments in his Drucker Forum 2015 blog “… despite almost a century of fine management writing …. about the humanist strand of management thinking that celebrates team and collaboration through respect for customers and workers as human beings  ……. , the ugly truth is that its lasting impact on general management has been limited.”  … so it is with OST, too.

Nevertheless, over the last few years, as the nature of organisations has gradually been changing, or is being forced to shift through the internet and social technologies, so the demand for OST is on the increase.  As we see from some of the thriving pioneering new organisations (as described for instance in Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organisations), the definition and purpose of organisations are changing from linear, mechanical, predictability-based, controlled and top-down structures to fluid, organic, emergent, distributed and self-organising networks.

These new organisations thrive on continuous reconfiguration, plasticity, responsive innovation, synchronicity, eco-centricity, co-creativity and mindful empathy.  They are self-organising (and continuously self-re-organising) iterative learning network cultures that are ‘wirearchical’, locally attuned and able to adapt to the prevailing fast changing, diverse and highly complex conditions.  All of which is not possible unless “led” bottom-up with all employees or members fully engaged and empowered, and with ‘teams of teams’ exploring and cross-communicating.


It is in these new kinds of organisations that OST could become more common, especially where cross-functional alignment and coordination is sought. OST thrives on unpredictability, fluidity and complexity, where the more conventional interventions of “managing” all of the factors do not work. Assigning people to solve highly complex problems can be self-defeating, for instance, because the very selection predetermines certain outcomes which often turn out to be counterproductive.  OST on the other hand provides a platform for self-selection (opt-in),  cross border serendipity and self-organisation.  In particular OST is superb at enabling what MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab research has found to be one of the necessary ingredients for high perfoming teams: regularly exploring information outside one’s team and usual circle of colleagues. OST excels at holistic cross-functional interactions.

As OST within organisations expands, so will the need grow for more skilled OST facilitators who are able to “hold space” without disrupting the interaction flow, and create “containers” within which authentic cross-fertilising exchanges and deep dialogue can occur.  They will also need to be able to create peer-based self-organising learning environments, which will form the source of an organisation’s client- or user-connectivity, iterations and innovations.

OST is the face to face synchronous counterpart to digital networks and social technologies (as used in intra-organisational online networks).  While online asynchronous connectivity plays an expanding role in these organisations, people still need direct human contact and serendipitous interaction, and OST excels at this.  Indeed recent research at MIT’s Media Lab has shown that face to face communication far exceeds video-conferencing or email in enhancing team performance, so direct interaction will increasingly neeed to supplement digitalisation.  It is for these more organisation types or modes of operation that new applications for OST will emerge, all involving larger numbers of people from across different parts of the organisation coming together and communicating across borders.  Let me list just a few fresh applications of OST:

  • As a tool for bottom-up culture change, exploring new ways of working and interacting, establishing collective values and practices through experimentation and co-creativity
  • For strategy development, adjustment and alignment across the whole organisation (somewhat akin to Hoshin Kanri), with a stronger emphasis on implementation.
  • For R & D product/service design and development, periodic consolidation and synchronisation (possibly combined with ‘big room’ Obeya)
  • As a complex problem-solving tool, involving multiple stakeholders with diverse perspectives and no predictable solutions (a more self-organised version of S. Beer’s cybernetic Syntegrity)
  • As a way for organic organisational reconfiguration (bottom-up re-organisation) to respond to changing circumstances (rewiring team networks)
  • To enable cross-party collaboration, e.g. prototyping with designers/ developers, customers/users and producers/suppliers (horizontal feedback)
  • To create learning organisations through pan-organisational peer-based learning environments which are self-managed and self-regenerating

Crowd wisdom accuracy james surowieckiFor many, if not most organisations today, a lot of the above may seem obscure, abstract and remote, far from the current reality.  In fact most organisations today are still run in a predict, command and control fashion.  At the same time, however, there is an understanding amongst leaders this needs to change.  Even though little has changed so far, some leaders are talking of an organisational paradigm shift.   Yet many of them have little clue how to go about this.  This may partly be because their leadership style stands in the way of culture change: as Einstein said, “you cannot solve problems with the same solutions that created them”.  Awaiting a generation change is probably not an option.

My take:  Do not even try!  You cannot plan, command and micro-manage this shift.  Instead let the workers, employees and members of the organisation configure the change through emergence.  Give the organisation a platform for letting this happen.  Stand back, let go and let it happen.  This is exactly where OST can work its wonders.  Whatever emerges is the right thing to emerge.  Leaders should not try to be heroes and do it themselves, rather let the whole workforce authentically engage, experiment and co-create the shift together.  Let Open Space Technology do what it does best.  This is probably the most important application of OST currently needed – as a tool for organisational transformation and paradigm shift.  Let transformation happen. Let open space begin.


See also What is Open Space?

The Problem With Change Management

Innovation and Kaizen

Open Agile Testimonials