Open Space as a Tool for Engaging Complex Systems

I was searching around for stories about Open Space and its use in different contexts. I found this amazing articulation of the complexity of our time and where Open Space is particularly effective along with the “two engines” that drive it – passion and responsibility. It is from a PDF Open Space Technology:New Stories from the Field Edited by Holger Nauheimer.

We all experience our life and the world in which we operate as increasingly complex and uncertain. The need for instruments dealing with this uncertainty has never been more pressing than now. On January 23, 2000 the world known theoretical physicist Stephen Hawkins told the SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS: “I think the next century will be the century of complexity.” The famous butterfly effect, which suggests that small interventions into a system can have unpredictable, large effects has now become mainstream and was even the subject of a Hollywood movie released in 2004, in which the main actor intends to influence his and other people’s destiny by changing his personal history.

Complexity theory, although in practice having an influence on many parts of our daily life (such as in meteorology or the stock exchange) has only recently entered the sphere of management. It probably started once people recognized that the engineering approach to project management (“objectives+activities+inputs=project success”) did not work out in case of many complex projects. And this is not about small deviations from the original plan, but about projects that did not meet at all the original goals. It has recently been estimated that in Germany alone the loss that can be attributed to failed projects amounts to more than $ 100 billion annually. Leaving beside many other macro and micro economic factors that influence the project outcome (and influence each other in an unpredictable way), the most critical variable for the success or failure of change processes is the human factor. The more people you have and the more diversity – the higher the probability that things develop their own dynamics.

It is this background which has stimulated the development of new tools and approaches that can help social systems of any size to transform. These methodologies utilize the general properties of complex systems such as self-organization as well as the concept of mental models. This idea has been introduced as a basic principle of organization by neurobiologists and cognitive psychologists: organizations are open books; they are continually created and re-created by the way people think and talk about them. If all people in an organization think that it is a torture chamber, the organization will be a torture chamber. If all members of this organization think it is a great place to work, it will be…

In simple words, OST is an approach to facilitate meetings, seminars, workshops, conferences or any other form of gatherings which are described by the following characteristics:

  • high levels of complexity
  • high levels of diversity
  • high potential or actual conflict
  • a decision time of yesterday

As OST event is taking participation of stakeholders in their own affairs seriously, the approach cannot be applied if there is somebody who has all the answers and a master plan in mind. Therefore the task of consultants or facilitators starts long before the actual event: they have to make sure that the mentioned characteristics and pre-conditions apply.

Two Engines to Drive With
OST assumes that if people are encouraged to work on what they are genuinely interested in, their entire passion and creativity will unfold. No passion, no issue.

Those who convene a session in an OS event take responsibility for (i) assigning time and space (i.e., announcing when and where their subject will be explored), and (ii) taking care for the documentation of the working group’s discussion, agreements, results and further steps. The full documentation of all results is handed out to all participants at the end of the conference. In Open Space this is usually called “The Book of Proceedings”.

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