There has been an interesting discussion about outcomes at the OSLIST, the listserv for the international community of Open Space practitioners. It began with a challenge from a cynic who asked “show me one instance where Open Space has resulted in a better world or a better product. ” That sort of line.
My initial response to the question was, as it always is, to deconstruct the notion of “results” and “outcomes.” Process work of any kind is by definition, process work. The outcomes are not always immediately tangible because process work is not the same as manufacturing. That is not to say that process work, and especially Open Space Technology do not have tangible outcomes and benefits. In fact, in my experience, Open Space does a better job than the standard VISION – MISSION – GOALS type of planning exercises, but that’s another thread.
What started to pick at my thinking was this implicit assumption that if something does not immediately change things in a controlled and predictable way, then it has no value. And so I crafted a long response to this problem this morning, which I reproduce here.
There is no sure fire answer to the problems of organizations and community. The point is that anytime we are dealing with a situation where there are more than two people involved (sometimes even one!) there is tremendous complexity brought to the space. To think that we can be in charge of this complexity and by intervening we can make the exact difference we want seems to me to be somewhat folly.
But there is a reason we think we can get there. It lies in our myths and stories about what organizations are and what creation is, and what the process of collaboration really means. In this sense I think there is a real cultural foundation for what we are talking about and the tension I sense between the remarkable intangible results of OST (bigger than one thinks) and the desired “hard” outcomes of the clients (which are less significant than one might think) are captured up in the dissonance between these stories.
So allow me to share an extended quote from Thomas King, one of my favourite Aboriginal writers, and a man who knows a lot about the shift from one kind of story to another.
In a recent series of lectures, broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation called “The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative” Thomas King compares and contrasts the archetypal North American Aboriginal creation story with the archetypal Islamo-Judeo-Christian one. His quote is really revealing, but before I write it out, you have to sit through a couple of stories. The Aboriginal story, a set of images which forms a fairly common narrative about the story of the creation of what in Ojibway is called Mishee-Mackinakong or Turtle Island, goes like this:
Kitche Manitou (Great Spirit or Great Mystery – it’s the same word in Ojibway) created the universe and the elements and the world. After that everything ran on its own. In fact although there are lots of spirit beings in Ojibway stories, Kitche Manitou never puts in another appearance after the beginning. Kitche Manitou creates all this and a spirit woman called Nokomis who lives in the sky. Nokomis becomes lonely so Kitche Manitou creates a consort for her and Nokomis becomes pregnant but the consort leaves her. More despondent than ever she lives in the sky alone. At this point Kitche Manitou exits the scene too, but KM doesn’t really leave, just sits back and watches. Holds space.
Down on earth meanwhile a strange state had enveloped the planet. Everything was flooded. It’s important to note that the flood didn’t happen because Kitche Manitou was punishing anyone…it’s just what happened. The world lay cold and wet, covered in water with no land. There were lots of animals living in the water and, seeing how sad Nokomis was alone in the sky, they invited her to come down to earth to give birth to her children. The turtle volunteers to offer up his back for her to land on. She does and once she touches down, everyone gets really quiet and then someone asks “now what?” Nokomis suggests that the situation they are in calls for some action, or at the very least some land, as she is not very good at swimming and she’s getting cold and hungry. The animals puzzle about this, as there is no land anywhere, and they don’t remember stories about the land. Finally Nokomis suggests that one of them dive down to the bottom of the sea and get some mud from there. Eager to serve her and be good hosts, each of the animals volunteers and one by one, the loon, the ducks, the beaver, the marten and many others all try to swim to the bottom of the ocean, and all come back empty handed.
Finally the muskrat, the smallest and the most humble of all, volunteers. Everyone scoffs at him, but they don’t have any other ideas so away he goes. He stays away for a long time and doesn’t come up and eventually the rest of the animals give him up for dead. They start to really worry now, because there seem to be no options left.
Suddenly the muskrat appears more dead than alive with his eyes closed and out of breath. They pull him on to the back of the turtle and lo and behold he has a tiny amount of mud clenched in his paw. Nokomis takes the mud and spreads it very thinly around the edge of the turtle shell and is begins to expand and grow and cover the shell. Soon the turtle is covered in earth and things begin to grow and the world is created again. It becomes a beautiful place and eventually Nokomis gives birth to her twins, balanced with spirit and body in equal parts. These children were the original Anishnabeg, the “spontaneous beings” from whom we are all descended, so the story goes.
So that’s one story.
The other one you are probably more familiar with, the one where God creates the universe and then the world and then plants and animals and Adam and Eve and after Adam and Eve taste a pomegranate from the tree of knowledge they are forever banished from the Garden in which God had nurtured them. They are forced into a barren world, punished, banished and stripped of their innocence. The world outside the garden is lonely and unforgiving and they are forced to make something of what little they have. The first generation of their children are wracked with violence when one brother kills another. God keeps coming back to intervene either by saving the crowd or punishing them.
You are perhaps more familiar with the second than the first, and of course there are many, many complexities to both stories, but we are dealing with archetypes here. So on to Tom King’s quote.
After he recounts these stories in this lecture called “You’ll Never Believe What Happened” he concludes by pointing out that these stories create two worlds, both of which we dwell in:
These are pretty stark conclusions but you get the point. These stories can inform everything, and especially the expectations of people in situations where things go wrong. We can choose in those situations to look for the answer from above, from some omnipotent deity that will set things right again, or we can accept the invitation of the animals: we don’t have much, but we have a solid foundation, and with a little help from everyone, we can create a safe place to live.
I think we are in a time when our stories about who we are and where we have come from are changing and paradigms are coming to rub against each other in deep ways. OST is a process predicated on the fact that all of us can have a hand in creating the new world. It is nearly the very extreme example of that, in the world of organizational development. Other methods rely on facilitators or experts (sometimes called “management gurus” which isn’t far from being gods) to come in and fix things, banish the bad and tinker with the good. It’s easy to see results when evil is banished. That is a tangible step towards the “better world” demanded by cynics. It’s much harder to see tangible results from a process where the first step towards making a safe place for your babies is to smear the back of a turtle with mud.
We operate out of deeply held stories about creation and renewal. Where we come into conflict with one another it feels dissonant but sometimes we can’t put our finger on why. I’m suggesting that some of the dissonance we “process” people feel from “results” people is at a fundamental level. I mean, which story do you really resonate with?
You know my answer.