The Ability of a System to Right Itself
by Peter B. Grazier

Originally appeared in EI Network newsletter in January, 1996

A few years ago I was asked to speak to a gathering of engineers of the three western regions of the Federal Highway Administration. The 175 engineers were convened for a 5-day conference.

A few months prior to the event while talking with the conference planners, I noticed that the agenda was made up exclusively of lectures. It was immediately obvious that, without some opportunity for dialogue, people would become "brain-dead" by about mid-week.

I suggested to the planners that we construct an activity that would involve the participants in something useful to them. I would arrive the day before my session (which was to be held on Wednesday morning) and brainstorm discussion topics with the entire group. These would be topics they would discuss in small groups during the four hours allocated to me the next morning.

As we were discussing these ideas, the conference planners began to talk about developing their own topic list. They were concerned that opening up the discussions to just any subjects would be too risky. (I have come to believe strongly that our basic mistrust of the human animal to do what's right drives much of our control behavior, particularly in the workplace.) After much discussion, and a guarantee of my entire fee if it didn't work, they agreed to the open topic format.

At the conference on Tuesday afternoon, a list of 156 subjects was developed during the 30-minute brainstorming session, filling one entire wall of the hotel's ballroom. I then passed out strips of blue stick-on dots (five dots to a strip) for participants to select the five topics they wanted to discuss most. They had until 8:00 p.m. that evening to make their choices. By 8:00, the list of 156 topics had narrowed down to twelve that would become the basis of the next morning's discussions. (The conference planners would later say that they were amazed that almost all of the topics selected were those they would have chosen.)

That night, the conference coordinators assembled twelve groups of tables with placards noting the appropriate topic. The next morning after my scheduled talk, the engineers were given instructions on how to conduct their discussions, then invited them to attend whatever discussion interested them most. Their assignment was to discuss the topic, list three to five key points about it, then offer some recommendations on what to do next.

The energy in the room was incredible! People dove into their topics with more energy than the planners had seen all week and, clearly, people were discussing issues that were important to them.

We reassembled the entire gathering and each table presented its results. In what amounted to a very short morning, they had arrived at some enlightening conclusions about the issues facing their agency. Some of the groups even volunteered to continue their work after the conference. They were taking ownership of their issues.

A few weeks after the conference, I received a letter from the Regional Administrator informing me that the attendees rated my presentation, the brainstorming, and table discussions as "the most valuable session of the conference." I am uncomfortable relating this last part because it sounds so self-serving. My point, however, is to emphasize the enormous power embodied in self-regulation. These people were energized by the opportunity to have a meaningful dialogue on subjects of their own determination.

The Concept of "Open Space"

Last weekend (just before the "Blizzard of '96" hit Philadelphia) I participated in a two-day meeting of about 60 people who were gathered to discuss the topic "Totally Fulfilling Business." The two-day event had no agenda and no prepared speakers. It was conducted under a concept called "open space."

In an open space meeting, the participants determine the agenda around a predetermined topic. In our case, anyone who wanted to discuss a particular topic pertaining to "Totally Fulfilling Business" would write the topic down with colored markers on a 12-inch by 12-inch sheet of paper. Then each would stand at a microphone and read the topic to the gathering. Then they would go to a wall and place the sheet under either the "Friday" or "Saturday" banner. Scheduled times and rooms were already written on Post-itâ„¢ notes, so all they had to do was select one (for example, 1:30-3:00 p.m. in meeting area "J") and attach it to their topic sheet.

Within fifteen minutes most of the agenda and schedule for the two days was developed. After a few additional instructions, people simply went to the discussions that interested them most. The only obligation of the "convener" was to facilitate the discussion, keep notes, and then record the important points in the computers provided. (The intent of transferring the notes of the discussion immediately onto computers was to have a complete record of the proceedings available to the participants by the end of the conference.)

Try to imagine five, ten, or twenty people meeting spontaneously to discuss a topic of great interest to each of them, and you can begin to understand the power of the open space approach.

Open Space in Business

During the conference I had the opportunity to meet and talk with Harrison Owen, one of the originators of the open space concept. Mr. Owen has used this concept in a wide range of applications in many parts of the world. What caught my attention were the applications to business. The open space concept has been used to develop organization vision, design products, solve serious problems, and generally address employee concerns.

In June, 1994, The New York Times reported on one of Mr. Owen's open space meetings of a distribution center of the Rockport Company. Three hundred and fifty employees assembled in a large circle of chairs wondering how something like this could work. After describing the ground rules, Mr. Owen invited anyone with a "passion" about any company-related subject to write it on a large piece of paper and tack it to the bulletin board. Others could then sign up for a discussion about it.

People listed topics from how to get suppliers to send shoelaces on time to how to find out what their competitors were doing to how to help Rockport's women succeed better. More than 100 signup sheets appeared on the wall in less than 30 minutes.

Looking back, Rockport people are astonished at how many people did suggest topics, attend meetings, and come up with ideas that have changed how Rockport is run today. Meeting leaders typed the ideas and proposed actions into computers that same day, and many took ownership of their projects upon returning to work.

During our Philadelphia conference, Mr. Owen related other examples of how open space meetings have been used in business:

  • Designing a pavilion for 75,000 visitors to an AT&T exhibit and initiating action plans, all within two days.

  • How to get former competitors to become colleagues in two companies that had merged.

  • How to solve operational problems in a large western telephone company.

  • How to better use resources at the World Bank.

I started this article with the title "The Ability of a System to Right Itself." An organization is a system of people and processes that produces an end result. Frequently, and for many reasons, that system does not work well, and it is the primary job of management to work toward its optimization. Involving all of the people of the system in its correction is a powerful and natural process.

One might question the term "natural" in light of the difficulties we have had implementing employee involvement concepts. But one has only to watch the behavior of humans in an emergency to observe their tendency to "right" themselves. People bond quickly in an emergency and develop instantaneous actions plans with little regard for hierarchy and control. In fact, hierarchy and control frequently only hinder the response.

The same tendencies are present in humans in the workplace. There is a strong desire to make the system work. We see this over and over when employee involvement concepts take hold.

The open space concept takes us to another level of involvement, where people unite around common issues, develop strategies, and take ownership of their resolution. This, in essence, is a freeing of the system to right itself---removing the controls that inhibit correction. Leadership in the 21st century will probably understand this better than we do today.