May 2005 - Open Space Technology: A Paradigm for Creativity
"We are Prophets of a Future Not Our Own"
by Kenny Moore
A few years back, my company went through a difficult merger and I had a first-hand experience of why most of them fail.
I work for a Fortune 500 energy company and when confronted with deregulation, we merged and acquired our way to success. During our first merger we had promised that it would produce $1 billion in savings over the first 10 years of the deal. While a somewhat aggressive goal, we felt comfortable being able to deliver on it largely based on the successful implementation of computer technology.
Our Chief Information Officer (CIO) had a lion’s share of the responsibility for producing these savings. But he had a slight problem: his original I/T (Information Technology) staff didn’t particularly "like" the computer folks in the new company we just merged with. And the I/T professionals from the new company simply "abhorred" their counterparts.
Having previously spent 15 years in a monastery as a priest, I thought only Catholics held infallible beliefs: I/T professionals make us look like pussycats. There was continual public rancor about whose technology was superior and where data centers must be located, with both sides digging in their heels and refusing to budge.
Meetings were held, discussions were had and individuals were identified: somewhat akin to the Spanish Inquisition. Heretics were hastily being rounded up, and as far as I could tell, plans were underway for public burnings. Medieval practices had once again found their way into the hierarchical structures of the modern-day religion of business.
The fact that there were almost 400 people in this newly combined I/T department and that they were intimately responsible for the $1 billion savings – all seemed to make the CIO a little edgy, and on occasion, apoplectic. I believe someone also let it slip that his future career was somewhat connected to fixing these "minor personnel issues" as well as delivering on the one billion bucks.
As an enlightened executive, he planned on bringing the entire department together at an off-site meeting to yell at them. He also decided to beneficently offer them a new incentive plan to force corporate niceness and civility. I got called into his office at the tail end of one of his planning sessions and was invited to participate in this up-coming gala event. "I can give you 15 minutes at the end of the agenda to do your HR stuff," he said.
It had been years since I worked any miracles, so I felt obliged to let this opportunity pass. He objected: "You work in HR; aren’t you suppose to fix these people?" Momentarily letting go of my desire to throttle him, I chose to respond rationally. "I’m not sure there’s anything I can say in 15 minutes that will solve the problem." With monastic patience, I plodded on: "These employees are deeply divided. I doubt that even the incentive plan will effect much change."
I explained that in view of the size of the group, as well as the magnitude of the billion dollar deliverable, any intervention would need to be significant. Even, possibly, radical.
The CIO’s Emotional Intelligence was beginning to wane: "Do you have anything else in mind?" was his steely reply.
Actually, I didn’t.
But then I remembered reading an article on an "Open Space" meeting format by Harrison Owen. While I didn’t understand it completely, he seemed to be talking about self-organizing systems, with large numbers of people sitting in a circle with no set agenda except a pressing problem. Open Space seemed to be loosely based on a core belief: singularly we’re stupid, but collectively we’re smart. There was also an unstated operating principle insinuating that one person with passion was worth more than 99 with good ideas. Even though Owen is a spokesman for the methodology, he readily admits that it’s really as old as mankind, formulated by our ancestors sitting around the primal fire - trying to figure out how to stay alive, warm and well fed.
I shared with the CIO the little I recalled from the article and ended by saying: "If you’re truly looking to fix this problem, you’ll need to do something like an ‘Open Space’ to turn this situation around."
The $1 billion company commitment, as well as his personal desire for a future place in the corporate hierarchy, seemed to make him oddly receptive to my conversation. With executive alacrity, he barked:
"Well, then – we’ll do it." "Do what?" I replied. "Why, we’ll do an ‘Open Space.’"
I was now the one having concerns about a future place in the corporate hierarchy! I barely knew anything about Open Space. And I had absolutely no idea how to facilitate it.
On an executive roll, he continued talking: "We’ll need to put a team together. And I’ll have to make arrangements to cover the operations while most of the department’s at the meeting." Somewhere out of the corner of his eye, he may have spied my panic. "Kenny, have you ever done this before?"
"Yes," I found myself saying. "I do this kind of stuff all the time."
"Bless me Father for I have sinned…"
Well, I didn’t really lie. From the way I looked at it, we would be hosting a meeting of 400 people, all sitting in a circle with no particular agenda except the hope of creating a better future. Most of the attendees would be either confused or despairing; several would be hoping for a miracle to save the day. It sounded very much like a Catholic Mass to me! And I had celebrated many of those, often with far more than 400 "parishioners" in attendance.
I also recalled Owen saying that the facilitator didn’t need to know much about how to solve the problem. He was largely responsible for getting himself "out of the way" so the group could get engaged in the work at hand. Oddly enough, my ignorance made me eminently qualified. Nevertheless, after exiting the CIO’s office, I ran down to the local church and lit a candle to St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless cases.
Plans proceeded quickly. It was decided to host the event at a large hotel situated mid way between both I/T locations. We booked the entire facility, using the Grand Ballroom as the central gathering point for the crowd of 400. We likewise reserved all the other suites as a honeycomb of breakout spaces for various group discussions. We’d start the day in the Ballroom with chairs in a circle and a single microphone at the center. On the side wall would be a community "bulletin board" for employees to post the titles of various topics they wanted to talk about. The theme of the day was expansive, yet focused: "How do we in I/T use our expertise to meet business needs."
It was agreed that after a brief introduction by the CIO, I would explain the concept of Open Space. We’d quickly proceed to inviting anyone who had passion about compelling business needs to come forward, state their name, announce the title of their session and tape it on the board. The rest of the day would be spent hosting sessions around posted topics by self-organizing groups of committed individuals. Whoever volunteered to host a session was likewise responsible for capturing suggestions and posting them on the I/T web page by week’s end.
With each passing day, the excitement grew. And so did my anxiety, as well as the CIO’s. A week before the event, he requested another audience with me that reflected his growing concern about the meeting. Panic was starting to set in.
"What happens if nobody comes to the microphone," he asked. "Maybe we should plant some topics with the directors, in advance, to insure that at least a few people come forward?"
I reminded him that in our corporate culture, there are no secrets. Word would quickly leak out that the day was already "programmed" by senior management. I said that we’d both have to sit tight and be vulnerable. "We can’t ask our employees to take risks if we’re unwilling to do it as well," was my way of looking at it.
"This day is costing me a lot of money" piped the increasingly anxious Exec. "Are you sure it’s going to work?" If truth be told, I was as concerned about the day as he was, and I couldn’t insure that it would all be a success. "But here’s what I can guarantee," I said. "By the end of the day you’ll know whether these 400 employees can get beyond their petty differences to make the merger succeed. And if they can’t, then you’re better off knowing that sooner rather than later. This way you’ll have time to make an executive decision to fire them and hire people who will deliver for the business."
Trying to bolster his courage, I continued: "My hope is that our employees will be able to rise to the occasion. But we really won’t know for certain till the day arrives." His pessimism perdured: "I’ll bet we don’t get more than 5 employees to come forward." A big part of me prayed that he would be proved wrong.
The day arrived and the crowd of hundreds quickly formed in the Ballroom. As the CIO stood in the middle of the circle and officially welcomed the employees, he looked awkward: no podium; no PowerPoint; no business notes. A brief word of thanks, followed by a few comments regarding the $1 billion corporate commitment and he was quickly at the end of his opening comments and inviting their passion.
Then it was my turn.
While the CIO merely looked awkward, I now personified it. Some scripted index cards helped me get started. I talked about Open Space and announced that the group itself would determine the agenda for the day. Employees would manage themselves, and if anything of value transpired, it would be totally contingent on their personal passion for the business. Anyone choosing to host a session didn’t need to be proficient in the topic, just passionate about it. A few short minutes later, I brought the conversation to a close: "Open Space is a lot like learning how to swim. It’s best not to spend too much time talking, but rather move quickly to jumping in." So we jumped.
"I now invite anyone who has passion about the business to come forward to the microphone. State your name, what you have passion about … then go and post it on the community bulletin board. If a topic isn’t posted, don’t expect it to get discussed. You’re in charge. Who would like to go first?"
My invitation was greeted with silence. 400 employees looked around for senior management to take the lead. But they didn’t. Thirty seconds slowly ticked by. The alpha-males in the audience were starting to twitch. With no relief in sight, one brave soul stood up and walked to the microphone. "My name’s Bill Kearns and I’d like to host a session discussing the relocation of the company’s call center." Right on his heels was another employee who took her place at the mic and spoke her passion. Two minutes later, we had exceeded the 5 employees the CIO feared would never materialize. By the end of 20 minutes we had 53 sessions posted.
Something powerful was underway. Something that could never have been managerially orchestrated. It all seemed to get energy from the freedom inherent in a business "invitation." Employees sensed that they were in charge. And indeed, they truly were.
Once the community bulletin board was filled, I counseled the crowd to spend the rest of the day self-managing themselves, hosting and attending a multiplicity of sessions, and offering advice for the topics that garnished their passion. "You’re on your own," I pontificated, "and I need everyone back in the Ballroom by 4 p.m. sharp."
Food was available in the foyer throughout the day. My main contribution for the next 6 hours was to wander around, assiduously contain my sense of surprise, and demonstrate public support by picking up discarded coffee cups.
Many employees tried to attend more sessions than time allowed. A handful stayed firmly planted in only one or two locations. A vocal minority seemed to float around to all 53 sessions - offering advice, playing "Devil’s Advocate" and bringing a sense of mischief to the day.
4 p.m. arrived, along with a rowdy crowd that seemed unwilling to take their seats. The reservation and silence displayed at the day’s start had mysteriously been transformed into excitement for the challenges ahead. There was a palpable force-field in the room that seemed to transcend the organizational drag generated by the merger.
I was eventually able to bring the group under control only by menacing them with the threat of excommunication. We had time to hear from just a handful of employees as to what had transpired in their sessions. The CIO closed the day by thanking them for their efforts and reminding them that he needed all summary reports posted by the end of the week. He then committed that he would decide by month’s end as to which suggestions were going to be acted on, which required further development and which were going to be put on the back burner. "People who offered suggestions should expect to actively participate in next step implementation plans" he said.
The tectonic plates of a corporate culture had been noticeably shifted that day. At least in one I/T department. Decisions still needed to be made; differences continued to percolate throughout the operations: but there was cohesion. Ownership for a successful merger had migrated from the hallowed halls of senior management into the cubicles of the ordinary worker. This could never have been mandated; only invited. Fortunately, there is a vast expanse within the human soul longing to respond to such invitations.
My company’s now several years into the journey. Savings continue to be realized and careers are still intact, with only a smidgen of Divine intervention.
One off-site event does not a triumphant merger make.
Our future success, as a corporate community as well as a global one, does not reside in offering bribes, incentive plans or clearly articulated measurable goals. It lies elsewhere. It dwells within.
Confronting people with their freedom is what’s required.
Inviting, convening and listening need to replace commanding, legislating and critiquing.
A testosterone style of leadership needs to give way to a softer, more feminine mode of conducting business.
We who toil in the world of work are invited to begin at the place we presently find ourselves. We plant the seeds that will be watered by others. We till a soil that will nurture a future generation of laborers.
We are not yet there. It will not be realized in our lifetime. We are prophets of a future not yet made manifest, for which we are only peripheral players.
But there exists a wealth of possibilities. They ferment innately within the hearts of our fellow workers.
We have an obligation to convene the wounded and the flawed, inviting their freedom and God-given talents to make the world more sustainable.
Does behaving in such a fashion cause us to appear asinine, vulnerable to public ridicule? Perhaps. Yet we also have the possibility of being a divine harbinger for a more sacred way of conducting life.
I remember what Fr. Theodore, my sage monastic mentor, said in my first Bible class: "In the Old Testament, Samson slew the Philistines using the jawbone of an ass. Imagine what God could do with a complete one."
There’s still hope for us all.
P.S. If you’re thinking about writing me, give in to the temptation. I love getting mail ... and being influenced by what you have to say. Please E-mail me at kennythemonk [at] yahoo.com or call (973) 956-8210.
About the Author:
© Copyright 2005, Kenneth Moore. Used with permission of the author.
Kenny Moore is co-author of "The CEO and the Monk: One Company’s Journey to Profit and Purpose” (John Wiley and Sons, 2004), rated as one of the Top Ten best selling business books on Amazon.com. He is Corporate Ombudsman and Human Resources Director at a New York City Fortune 500 company. Reporting to the C.E.O., he is primarily responsible for awakening joy, meaning and commitment in the workplace. While these efforts have largely been met with skepticism, he remains eternally optimistic of their future viability.
Upcoming Speaking Engagements:
CHERRY HILL, NJ on 5/5/2005 at the 19th Annual Conference of the Tri-State HRMA. See http://www.tristatehr.org/annualConference.cfm
SEATTLE, WA on 5/17/2005 at the World Conference on Quality and Improvement. See http://wcqi.asq.org/conference/keynote.html
PHOENIX, AZ on 5/22 - 5/25/2005 at the Training Directors’ Forum 2005 event. Contact Leah Nelson at 612-340-4742. See http://www.vnulearning.com/learninggroup/3450/index.jsp
PORTLAND, MAINE on 6/22 - 6/24/2005 at the "Corporate Ethics and Spirituality Conference" at Bangor Theological Seminary. http://www.bts.edu/registrar/courses/2005/Summer05.htm Contact: Walter Corey: 207-831-4565.
SAN DIEGO, CA on 6/27 - 6/29/2005 at the Institute for International Research’s (IIR) "Operational Transformation Summit." See http://www.iirusa.com/transformation/index.cfm/Link=1 or contact Elizabeth Kamper: 212-661-3500 x. 3018
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