A post I made to the OSLIST today…
I seek simplicity in trying to describe where and how Open Space does it’s magic.
One of the ways I have had excellent success over the years in describing this work is derived from David Snowden’s work on the Cynefin framework.
The short story is this:
We are faced all the time with problems that are basically knowable, and problems that aren’t. Knowable problems mean that with the right knowledge and expertise, they can be fixed. A technical team can come together and analyse the causes, work with what’s available and craft a solution. Then they can get an implementation plan in place and go ahead and do it. These kinds of problems have a start line and a finish line. When you are done, you are done. Building a bridge is one of those kinds of problems. You build it and there is no tolerance for failure. It needs to be failsafe.
Open Space doesn’t work well for those kinds of problems because the solution is basically already known, or at least knowable.
Then there are problems for which no know solution exists, and even if you did get a solution, you can’t really “solve” the problem because the problem is due to a myriad of causes and is itself emergent. For example, racism. Look around and you will find very few people that identify themselves as racists, but look at the stats for Canadian society for example and you see that non-white people are trailing in every indicator of societal success. Essentially you are seeing the results of a racist society but no racists anywhere. This is an emergent problem. Racism itself is a self-organizing phenomenon, notwithstanding the few people that actively engineer racist environments. Such a problem didn’t really start anywhere and it can’t really end either. What is needed is a way of addressing it, moving the system away from the negative indicators and towards something else.
In other words, this is a complex problem.
The way to solve complex problems is to create many “strange attractors” around which the system can organize itself differently. Open Space nis the best method I know of for creating such strange attractors, as they are born from the passion and responsibility of those that want to create change, and they are amplified by people coming together to work on these things.
It’s “post and host” rather than “command and control.”
And because you can’t be sure if things are going to work out, you have to adopt a particular mindset to your initiative: one that is “safe to fail.” In other words, if it doesn’t work, you stop doing it. If it does work, you do more of it. And all the way along you build in learning, so that the system can see how change is made and be drawn towards those initiatives that are currently making a difference. Certainly this kind of problem solving is not useful for building a bridge, as you cannot afford a failure there. But for problems with no known solutions, it is brilliant.
Harrison has spent decades outlining this simplicity in even less words than I have now and his writing and thinking is, and continues to be far ahead of it’s time and maybe a little under appreciated because it is delivered in simple terms like “don’t work so hard.” But ultimately this is the best and most important advice for working in complex systems.
Open Space. Do it. Learn. Do it again. Don’t work so hard.
More than that really starts to build in the delusion that people can possibly know what to do. From that place solutions will be deluded. That they may work is pure luck. Open Space offers us a disciplined approach to addressing complexity in an ongoing way. Don’t be fooled by its simplicity.
I’ve been using the Cynefin framework for many years now. For me, I think I’ve internalized it through practice and it becomes second nature to not only talk about and teach from it but to use the way it was intended to be used: to help make decisions.
Today Dave Snowden posts a very useful set of guidelines for working with complexity that are captured in the framework. This list is useful for us to tuck away as it provides very clear guideposts for moving around the complexity domain:
- In any situation, what can we change?
- Out of the things we can change, where can we monitor the impact of that change?
- Out of the things we can change, where we can monitor the impact, where could we amplify success and/or dampen or recover from failure.
What we should avoid:
- Retrospective coherence, we should learn from the past but not assume that what happened will repeat, or that it had linear causality
- Premature convergence, coming to quickly to a single solution (although coming quickly to parallel safe to fail experiments is a good thing) rather than keeping our options open
- Pattern entrainment, assume that the patterns of past success will entrain the inevitability of future failure unless you actively manage to prevent it.
Then the three basic heuristics of complexity management:
- Work with finely grained objects
- Distribute cognition/sense-making within networks
- Disintermediation, putting decision makers in contact with raw data without interpretative layers
Admittedly this is technical language, but I appreciate the clarity.
Since 2007 when Monica Nissen, Silas Lusias and I sat down at Phil and Laura Cass’s kitchen table to write up our thinking on the Art of Harvesting I have been a keen student of the art and practice of meaning making, sensing, visualizing and sharing the fruits of our work. We have called this practice the Art of Harvesting and I am as happy as anyone that it has become a big part of our practice.
Increasingly however I notice that the term “harvest” is being used with some imprecision that leads to confusion. For example in meetings people will often say things like “we will do this work and then we will do a harvest.” I have to admit that I am confused by this statement. What is the harvest? Is it simply a two minute silent reflection on the work? Is it a 30 page report? A vidoe? A picture? a collection of post it notes?
I owe this confusion to the fact that in English the word “harvest” is both a noun and a verb. As a verb, it is a beautiful word to describe our practice of “harvesting” just as “hosting” is a beautiful verb. But as a noun it is imprecise and meaningless and sometimes confusing to the process. Newer practitioners ask “what is a harvest?” thinking that it must be a certain thing done in a certain way rather than an agile response to purpose and context.
And so I have adopted a simple practice. While I continue to use the term “harvesting” as a verb, I have tried to stop using it as a noun, and in working with clients, students and apprentices I have stopped them when they use this word as a noun and invited them to tell me WHAT we will be doing, HOW we will be doing and WHY we are doing it. This leads to far better harvesting plans.
For example, instead of a design that says:
1000-1130 World Cafe: two rounds of discussion about our vision, one round of harvest
1130-1145 Final Harvest
1000-1130 World Cafe: two rounds of discussion about our vision, one round on “what are we seeing about where we are going” Harvesting: 1. participants will record insights on post its. 2. Harvest team will group and theme these post its. 3. Graphic recorder will create a mural of the main ideas 4. Videographer will interview participants on these themes to elaborate further
1130-1145 Collective harvesting: Participants take two minutes to silently reflect on the conversation and how it guides their work. Participants then given five miuntes to journal on that topic and host conducts a 10 minute popcorn conversation with the room to allow a few insights to be shared. Tim will make a slam poem and read it out to the group.
Harvesting is important. In fact it is, for me, the most important thing. “We are not planning a meeting, we are planning a harvest, and the meeting serves the harvest.” I invite you to reflect on your use of the term harvesting and bring as much or more precision in your design to this practice. Just as a farmer must till the sol and plant with the final crop in mind. our hosting practice means nothing if we cannot create fruit to accelerate learning, wisdom and powerful results.
To keep the defenses down I rarely give the teenagers in the Sea School crews a straight answer, so that after a while their dependence on me as the “leader” breaks down. They need to feel that in the big picture I am trustworthy, that they are safe with me, but they also need to learn to distrust me and trust themselves, with a self-confidence that doesn’t depend on knowing. Rather than knowing on my terms, it’s better that they don’t know on their own terms, so they are inspired to find their own answers.
An overreliance on experts who claim to have answers depletes the capacity of groups. I love Crane’s idea of being trustworthy rather than providing a false sense of security.
I can always rely on John O’Donohue:
Once you start to awaken, no one can ever claim you again for the old patterns. Now you realise how precious your time here is. You are no longer willing to squander your essence on undertakings that do not nourish your true self; your patience grows thin with tired talk and dead language. You see through the rosters of expectation which promise you safety and the confirmation of your outer identity. Now you are impatient for growth, willing to put yourself in the way of change. You want your work to become an expression of your gift. You want your relationship to voyage beyond the pallid frontiers to where the danger of transformation dwells
Iâ€™m sorry forâ€¦
This is wrong becauseâ€¦
In the future, I willâ€¦
Will you forgive me?
But it’s so important. Â When you are engaged in work with teams of people and you are doing things none of you have done before, there are going to be mistakes made and people are going to be offended. Â Learning how to apologize is important for a couple of reasons.
A sincere apology builds trust and strengthens a group. There is nothing better than a group of people in which people take on responsibility for their actions. Â True leadership arises when folks step up, show their self-awareness and understand how their actions have impacted the group. Â You build tons of social capital within a group by acting this way and it makes you resilient and more grace filled and more forgiving.
Secondly, a sincere personal apology is an incredible liberation for both you and the person you have offended. Â If you have even an iota of moral clarity, something in you will be triggered when you have offended another person. Â You KNOW you were wrong. Â Stepping up is a cleansing feeling. Â And to have an apology like that accepted and to be forgiven is beautiful.
This is fierce practice. Â It requires us to be vulnerable and honest and to be carefully self-aware. Â And done sincerely it builds capacity, grace and humility.
My friend Peter Rawsthorne begins a series of blog posts today reflecting on what is required to keep a community of practice together online and across organizational boundaries.
What do you need to consider when building a Community of Practice CoP that spans organizational boundaries where client confidentiality needs to be honored. There are a plethora of things to be considered when building an online virtual community of practice, these include; the team and the contexts’ relationship with openness, the memberships ability to be self-determined, how online communication will be broadened and followed, and how the internet is the platform.
Back in November Janaia Donaldson from Peak Moment TV interviewed Dave Pollard and I about the Art of Hosting, especially as it applies to transition towns, resilience and community leadership. Â That video was released today along with a lovely 10 minute edit in which Dave maps out some of the essential Art of Hosting elements using the GroupWorks Pattern Language card deck. Â Enjoy.
Tim Merry‘s work on collaborative advantage:
My friend and colleague Tim Merry is sharing some of his most recent thinking on project design and development here in Columbus at the Art of Hosting Beyond the Basics retreat we are doing. Â This is a really useful and interesting introduction to his approach:
Etienne Wenger provides a useful set of principles for cultivating communities of practice as living, breathing things:
- Design for evolution.
- Open a dialogue between inside and outside perspectives.
- Invite different levels of participation.
- Develop both public and private community spaces.
- Focus on value.
- Combine familiarity and excitement.
- Create a rhythm for the community.
Read more at the link below.