From catalyst to action through a synthesis in open space

October 6, 2006

In my last post on our Innovation & Culture programme I talked about the metaphorical and physical journey that delegates will go through as they approach Broken Hill. In this last post (for the moment) on that programme I want to talk about the method and resources that we will use over two days to enable participants to continue that journey as they return to their organisations. The first part of that journey, working with the indigenous people of Australia will weaken existing conceptions of culture and is designed as a catalytic event. In Broken Hill we will bring together naive assets with the real world issues of the participants in a dynamic synthesis of concept and practice which will lead to action. We will do that in a complexity informed version of Open Space, a body of methods to which Anecdote (as ever one of the best resources on the web) have provided some useful references and reflection. I want to support the concept of open space and its use, but I also want to look at some of the issues, that I think complexity can help to overcome. Just to wet your appetite I quote from later in this blog:

”it is worth remembering that Socrates was condemned to death by an open space event”

This is a story of the journey that led me to create the method behind the Culture and Innovation programme. You can shorten your journey through a long entry by skipping the next two paragraphs. They are a context setting reflection (and partial stress relieving affectionate commentary) on IBM days so feel free to skip all bar the first sentence and go directly to A trans-disciplinary synthesis.

For those brought up on the use of a Boston Matrix will remember that one of the most attractive areas is existing products, new markets. The concept says that you have something that you know works, but by applying it to a new area or application you get novelty and innovation. It’s one of those simple ideas that just works so I wondered if we could apply it to research. At the same time I was having a real problem with inter-disciplinary work back in my days in IBM’s Institute for Knowledge Management (IKM). Not to mention trying to get normally innovative people to break out of a view in which research is where we the experts go and interview people, draw up conclusions and write a white paper. I never succeeded by the way, despite the credibility of getting ken of the Boston Brahmins.

In the end the member driven IKM fell to an IBM re-organisation that lumped everything with thought leadership into a sales support orientated confabulation called the Institute for Business Value. It wasn’t long before the inspiration behind the IKM, Larry Prusak left. Rob Cross had the good sense to enter academic life and replicate the IKM format around social networks. Others left, or were pushed leaving a rump to write white papers to support sales. The focus on KM and research for its own sake was lost. The IBV does good work, but it’s commercially directed which is understandable given the funding source. IBM cannot afford to be a charity. In all of this, as the sole European I was left homeless. Luck was with me however and some of the good guys in IBM (and they have some of the very best of the good guys, as well as their dark side equivalents by the way) sponsored the Cynefin Centre. As a result I got the freedom over the next two years to think about issues in what I came to call a trans-disciplinary (to distinguish it from inter-disciplinary) approach to innovation. We put an early prototype of what, post IBM became the Culture project and got a lot of interest until it fell foul of IBM procurement rules. Contracts have to be in country, so you have to find a person in each country who will hold the contract; they want $x to do that and y% profit margin. To produce a brochure costs $x per review so the the thought police can apportion their costs to each compulsory transaction, and thus appear cost neutral. When I said we wanted to pay a fee to a First Nation shaman the system broke. Post IBM it took two weeks to put it together and get it place using small company partners; one of the ironies of great companies like IBM (and make no mistake I think it is one of the great companies) is that they succeed despite their systems not because of them. That normally means dense informal networks and people who really care for customers and their colleagues; my fondest memories of the big blue monster come from those multi-threaded relationships.

A trans-disciplinary synthesis

From my own reading, and many conversations I knew that there were rich, but fragmented resources relating to issues of culture in the world of academia. I had learnt more from anthropology & philosophy than from normative management science approaches such as those of Rosabeth Ross Kanter and Hofstede. I also knew that attempts to engineer or determine cultures in organsiation generally fell on deaf ears. Working on the ideas of contextual complexity it became self evident (and should have much earlier) that we could facilitate an emergent process by allowing academic concepts and issues relating to culture to co-evolve. At the same time I was interesting in modifying open source techniques to use some of the new ideas we were having on complexity informed facilitation. If you have a look at some of the pictures of open space events you will see a large circle with the facilitator at the centre of the space. In my experience open space worked well and is one of the best techniques I know. Someone who uses it to outstanding effect is my friend Mary E Boone: we have just co-authored a major article on leadership using the Cynefin framework which will hopefully be published next year. However there are some issues with the approach:

  1. it requires an outstanding facilitators, but can be over influenced by their charisma
  2. it is overly focused on the event itself, rather than seeing open space as a part of a journey
  3. there is insufficient use of dissent and debate and an over focus on consensus and dialogue
  4. the pendulum is swung too far from expert based interventions, to assuming that the group assembled will have the necessary expertise
  5. people not at the event can be excluded from involvement in the follow through
  6. Issues of judgement and validation are assumed to belong to the group regardless of context and responsbility; it is worth remembering that Socrates was condemned to death by an open space event because he made the other participants uncomfortable.

Now the use of open space with complexity theory is a major subject and will be a part of the book so I will not address it fully here. I also know that the above are a set of general comments and do not necessarily apply in whole or in part to open space practitioners.

What I will do here is to indicate by description how we have attempted to take open space, and blend it with other techniques in the Innovation & Culture programme. I summarise this in the table below (demonstrating my growing repertoire of HTML skills although I cannot get rid of the large gap between this paragraph and the text so make sure you scroll down) showing how they have been applied to the Innovation & Culture programme. This is in Cognitive Edge terms an emergent method, its still under development but we plan to publish it to open source in the middle of next year or possibly earlier.

Element Innovation & Culture
Catalytic event or process to disrupt entrained patterns of thinking and prepare participants to be open to novel or new ideas The journey from Sydney to Broken Hill directed by indigenous leaders from a very different cultural background
The assembly of a diverse range of perspectives on the subject of the research programme, done in such a ways as to prevent premature convergence on any analysis or determination of action Cognitive Edge’s software will be used to gather a large volume of narrative material relating to issues of culture in participating organisations in the month leading up to the broken hill event. The results will be clustered by the participants into a series of both general and specific problems and opportunities which can be addressed
A group of naive assets will be assembled for the event. These can be academics who have studied a related but who critically have not applied that learning to the types of issues addressed above. Far from naive in their subject they should be naive in respect of its potential application to allow for innovation. This can also be provided by interested groups: patients, customers, teenagers etc. A body of experts in fields such a anthropology, philosophy, evolutionary psychology, shamans and a few cynical teenagers will be present at the event
The event should bring together the naive assets and the issues/opportunities in a co-evolutionary process. Initially focusing on maximizing friction between the two to create the conditions for innovation and then focusing on specific interventions and tools which are refined before the end of the event into concrete and tangible actions That is exactly what we will do over two intense days
Ideally the research should be linked into a wider programme which wil lead to action, not just analysis Culture & Innovation can be embedded into a wider programme in any organisation, as a part of a wider process. The Cognitive Edge network will be able to offer support to participating companies who wish to use the programme to address current issues within or without the organisation
The programme should avoid gimmicks, psychological pressure to conform and should evidence its serious purpose There will be no tricks or surprises. No attempts to fill our psychometric surveys or discuss personal motivations. There will be self discovery but this a series research & action programme

I could say a lot more, but that is enough! Two years ago at the last programme held in Canada we came up with some great ideas despite limited resources, a lack of prepratory time or software and it being the first time we had attempted the approach. Several of those, such as power mapping are coming out of the emergent method stage and will be posted to the open source section of the web site. I’ll blog as they go up, and also come back to the Programme over the next few months.

Cognitive Edge practitioners will shortly get an email from Sharon inviting them to a virtual space where supporting material for the programme will be available (and will be created – it will be our first wiki).

Next week – expect our second programme for this year on Knowledge Transitions: looking at issues of the aging workforce, knowledge loss through empowerment programmes and the whole issue of high turn over environments.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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