What trained Open Space Tech Facilitators could do for Organisations

Many companies suffer from a lack of cohesion and connectedness. Managers and staff alike generally lack a holistic view of their organisation in terms of its internal flow of energy and value creation. Most people in organisations do not have a full view of what goes on across the organisation, and the executives at the top may have an overview of the various departments, but generally have little understanding of what the issues are at the shop floor level.

This lack of a multi-disciplinary and holistic view of their own organisation is manifest in the way departments and teams often work in very entrenched silo mentalities. This results in poor cross-departmental collaboration and pan-organisational coherence. This is particularly acute in Western companies where people typically specialise in one area of work and stay there – and if they do move on they tend to go to similar work in a different organisation.

This contrasts to Asian firms, in particular Japanese, where people are routinely rotated to different departments, irrespective of their specialities, typically in 2-5 year cycles, so that as they become more senior, irrespective of position, they have a good understanding of how the company works and in particular are sympathetic to the various perspectives as seen from different parts of the organisation – in short they become generalists with a holistic view of the organisation and its place in society, they are the bridges and glue of the whole.

In the West we tend to put resources in tools like process improvements, particularly at a team level. Agile implementations and the move towards business agility are examples of current day efforts to improve team effectiveness, and thus the ability to add value for customers in a speedy, flexible and iterative way. Which is all great, but this happens at a team or section level, with ‘high performing’ teams rewarded irrespective of whether their high performance is actually beneficial to the smooth operation of the whole organisation. This is like putting a high performing Rolls Royce engine in a Volkswagen Beetle – this would prove untenable, the Beetle chassis was never designed to cope with the power of the RR engine, the whole would not function. Likewise interventions are usually isolated and do not tackle the challenge of the organisation operating more effectively and coherently as one whole.

Moreover, the organisation is only as effective as its weakest link, so concentrating resources on some priority teams while largely ignoring others or considering how this might effect the whole can actually dampen the overall organisational effectiveness. Even with balanced high performing teams there is often no engagement model in place that guarantees that all teams are operating in tandem towards the same purpose. One often finds teams competing with each other internally, or unknowingly duplicating efforts.

So how could we get more pan-organisational collaboration, cohesion and innovation across the organisation, without switching to an Asian style rotation system, (which by the way would be fairly inconceivable – and even if undertaken it would take a full generation before its benefits became apparent)? What could we do to enable more pan-organisational coherence and collaboration, and for everyone to start thinking about their organisation more holistically? Why aren’t organisations putting more resources into developing such pan-organisational cohesion?

Facilitator introduces an Open Space event. Martin Grimshaw

There may be several reasons:

  • a general lack of awareness of the need for it (it is not on people’s minds first and foremost)
  • organisations having no experience in trying to achieve coherence
  • no knowledge or expertise within the organisation on how to do it
  • nobody in the organisation knowing, for instance, how to run large-scale participatory meetings, instead only relying speaker-centered conferences or motivational talks (which by nature are non-participatory)
  • likewise nobody knowing how to plan the thousands of conversations that would need to happen to enable pan-organisational exchange
  • No understanding for ‘unplanning’ conversations to engender serendipitous or emergent conversations
  • in a mechanistic view of the organisation open-ended chaordic interventions seen as a waste of time, with the bureaucratic command and control approach reasserting itself
  • similarly innovation viewed as something best left to the ‘innovation specialists’ – unfortunately many a bright idea from staff, coming from a place of understanding the customer, gets sidelined with this attitude.

Clearly we need pan-organisational models of engagement. These do exist. They can be found in practices such as Presencing Theatre, World Cafe, Appreciative Enquiry, Circle Ways, The Art of Hosting and many other participatory approaches featured in Liberating Structures. The most open-ended and engaging approach of them all, however, which allows pan-organisational conversations that matter to emerge, is Open Space Technology (commonly Open Space), the structure used in ‘Unconference’, ‘Hackathon‘ and ‘BarCamp’ events. While there are many ways one could run concurrent conversations, Open Space Technology does this particularly well at scale, and is ideal in larger organisations needing shop-floor cross-departmental exchange.

Open Space Technology, commonly Open Space, is a method for hosting highly participatory, large group, whole-system collaboration based on self-organisation in which participants themselves co-create the agenda, experience and outcomes that matter to them. Click to see our article What is Open Space Technology?

The components of Open Space graphic

Open Space Technology is described in more detail elsewhere. My purpose here is to encourage larger organisations to use Open Space Technology much more frequently and to hire or train a few internal facilitators who can actually run Open Space Tech events within their organisation. There is no reason why an Open Space Tech event should be a one-off occasion. If organisations want genuine agility in their organisations, then running Open Space events should be a regular occurrence.

Open Space Technology has many benefits (see Beyond unConferences) but in the context of pan-organisational collaboration, innovation and coherence Open Space Technology enables the cross-fertilisation of ideas and cross-collaboration across departments in a highly interactive environment at once on a massive scale. It can lead collectively to a holistic re-energising of the whole organisation and can create the conditions for the organisation to thrive organically. Moreover it is a massive and long-lasting boost to staff engagement and morale, largely because it enables deep conversations that matter to take place. These vital conversations are rarely had in organisations, and yet are hugely necessary for people within the organisation to flourish.

The benefits of using pan-organisational Open Space Tech for organisations are:

  • it help bridge departments and thus break down the silos to encourage collaboration rather than internal competition
  • it encourages over time a systems view of the organisation amongst all staff, thus facilitating constructive dialogue between different parts of the organisation
  • it puts everyone into an ‘innovation mode‘ and elevates the creativity of the whole organisation, thus also enabling highly complex problem-solving
  • it is a brilliant basis for invitation-based culture change
  • it represents a highly effective model of engagement, rejuvenating staff co-creativity
  • it enables expanded stakeholder dialogues to take place involving the wider organisation
  • it enables conversations to emerge which could never have been planned
  • it encourages emergence of new ideas and concepts otherwise inconceivable
  • Its self-organising, autonomous, peer-learning format forms the basis for creating a learning organisation.

Ultimately Open Space Tech enables thousands of meaningful conversations to happen serendipitously at scale and across the organisation that otherwise would never have happened and would have been impossible to plan, all within a limited time scale (1-2 days)

So given Open Space Technology has so many advantages, why is it not used more frequently in organisations? What are the stumbling blocks? Some have already been mentioned earlier, but here are few as more:

  • it can be logistically demanding, the larger the number of invitees, the better, but also the more demanding it is to organise; Open Space Tech has no limit to size (other than the capacity of venue)
  • a general lack of awareness, or a perceived weirdness of the process
  • poor quality of facilitators (wanting to ‘manage’ the process, combine it or trying to ‘improve’ it)
  • unpredictable outcome can be scary
  • perceived costs (in fact Open Space Tech is a lot cheaper, but like a plane crash it sounds big when it happens)
  • for most managers not having a clear agenda feels rather frightening.

This lack of a clear agenda (the agenda is created by the participants on the spot at the start of an Open Space Event) is probably the biggest stumbling block within commercial organisations, as managers and sponsors have be able to state clearly what the expected outcome of such a meeting should be (in order to justify the funding for it, for instance). Yet that is precisely the catch 22. Open Space Technology relies on emergence, serendipity and new creative solutions to whatever challenges brought the people together to the Open Space event in the first place. Agendas pre-define solutions, they pre-determine outcomes and as such they stifle emergence. The whole point of Open Space Technology without pre-set agendas is to enable issues to emerge which would never have otherwise arisen.

Agendas kill emergence and thereby also stifle innovation and motivation. People feel caged in by (other people’s) agendas. Yet for managers coming from a mechanical view of business, “agendalessness” is most difficult to fathom. Managers will almost always want to interfere and include some agenda. It is ironic that in our times when leaders are crying for more staff engagement, collaboration, participation, accountability and innovation, they are also imposing more agendas, the very thing that kills all those virtues. Agendas create precisely those conditions which disengage people. The only agenda that works is the one created by ALL those participating there and then, in the here and now, in a free market-place where people can opt in and out of the authentic conversations.

The Law Of Two Feet as butterfly wings and rainbow colours

Annette Zera: The Law Of Two Feet

To be blunt: As a manager you can either have engagement and innovation, or you can have agendas and outcomes, but you cannot have both – they cancel each other out. So if agendas and outcomes are what you want, fine, don’t use Open Space Tech, but don’t expect engagement and innovation. If engagement and innovation are what you want, however, then you have to be willing to let go of any agenda, or rather let the staff and workers determine and deliberate their own issues.

For this reason, it is important that some people in the organisation know how to run Open Space Tech events. In particular they need to fully understand the issues around invitations, agendas, co-creation and emergence. It needs people who can resist what many managers want, such as adding items to an agenda in advance. Because Open Space Tech meetings operate on the basis of opt-in invitation, people will only feel inspired to join a meeting, if it is about an issue that concerns them, is burning for them, and is not laden with pre-conceived solutions which do not address their perspective. Open Space Tech facilitators need to have a thorough understanding of the role of invitation (versus imposition) and the effect of agendas on the matter.

While it is possible (and sometimes advantageous) to use an external Open Space Tech Facilitator, companies could generate more internal flexibility and agility, if they could simply call up an open space event (call it a Hackathon if you like)at short notice and have the internal know-how how to do this. Trained Open Space Tech facilitators would know how to do this, while also understanding the importance of creating a safe environment for emergence to happen, opening and holding the space.

There is a general need for organisations to have more facilitators and facilitative leaders, if organisations are to thrive (through innovation and collaboration). But they should also have an Open Space Tech facilitator or two at hand. While more general facilitators or organisational development practitioners are in a good position to introduce all kinds of people-centric participatory next stage ways of organising and working to the organisation, there should ideally be someone who is specifically able to bring about a pan-organisational, cross-functional and holistic understanding of, and engagement in, the organisation through Open Space Technology.

In the long run Open Space Technology also sets some foundations for the organisation to shift from a mechanical command-and-control perspective to a more living, organic and responsive one, one able to continuously adapt and learn. Each larger organisation should have one or two Open Space Tech facilitators. Ideally organisations should be operating in a permanent Open Space Tech mode or mindset all the time, and having an Open Space Tech facilitator on board who can keep that spirit alive would be nothing but beneficial.