"Mandatory" Open Space, Power & Control
kloth at tmn.com
Tue Sep 8 02:38:46 PDT 1998
Ralph, John, Birgitt, et al;
I am interested in pursing this line a little farther. My sense is that
there are a number of assumptions about power and control that are
implicit in our respective perspectives. Since "power" is one of the
issues I sense many organization and community professionals are
uncomfortable examining as a neutral resource waiting to be unleashed
rather than a problem to be addressed, I will try to share a few of my
assumptions to stir the pot.
First, I always prefer an inviting environment for Open Space and other
interventions, rather than mandatory environment.
However, when I was an employee in organizations I always knew I had a
choice about the many mandatory meetings I was sent to. I knew how to
discover or create problems or prior commitments which allowed me to
avoid the meeting. More likely, and no surprise to those who know me,
my choice was to go and choose one of a number of stands:
to sit and pretend to pay attention;
to listen, hold my tongue and then, either
join in the post meeting debunking of "them and their ideas" and
blaming them for not ever
privately create passive aggressive strategies to undermine;
to ask impertinent questions, which required that I listen and, to avoid
future payback, do so in
a way that seemed as if I cared for the questioner; or
show up with the intention of influencing the situation according to my
passions or willingness to accept responsibility.
In any case, I was clear that they made the choice to attend...
physically,intelectually, emotionally or spiritually.
While I always preferred to be invited to a meeting, I was invited to
plenty which turned out to be less productive than the mandatory
meetings. They often had less open space than the manadatory meetings!
It was as if people figured that if you invited input people would be
less "critical" or less "negative" (two very different things in my
book) of their intentions. At least the people who called the mandatory
meetings figured they were going to have to deal with resistance and
were prepared to do so. Like racism in the old south of the USA, at
least it was more honest than the covert racism of the enilightened
Is this the healthy world of organizations we aspire to or hope to
model? Of course not, but very familiar to most of us.
Over time I noticed a few more ironies. First, when I showed up and
paid attention, whatever my predisposition, I often discovered that
there was an element of the issue that I was not familiar with because I
had been working on my work or had been on the road or had my own bias,
or....sometimes I discovered that, while I did not like how I got there,
I was glad that I now had the new perspective or information.
Another irony was that the more impertinent questions I asked, the more
resistance I offered, the more of my own ideas I countered with the more
meetings I got invited to!
Now, for those of you who take Myers Briggs more seriously than I do,
this may sound like the ENFP that I am. Is it possible that there are
many people who feel less powerful about their choices and options?
Absolutely. Is it because we often have managers who don't "get it ?"
Sure. Have we made it hard for some people to contribute in the past
and, therefore, less likely to contribute in the present or the future?
Yes. The questions have a paternalistic feel to them that I am not
comfortable with. And the next question does to: how will we get them
back to acting on the power they are full of?
One approach is to only invite people, model the alternative and, over
time, have more and more people join in. As one who has been accused of
patience in the extreme clients and partners alike i can relate to
this. I have seen it work in powerful ways. I prefer it.
I am convinced that there are situations that demand attention and
involvement faster than we have time to spend creating enlightened
leaders or empowered members. I know that there are examples of how
open space has made a huge difference in a short time with only invited
people. It is part of why I value the technology.
However, in some situations I have been involved with, including social
issues like race relations and immigrant public health practices with
potentially fatal implications and corporate issues like the company was
just sold and needs to get reorganized from the bottom up now if we are
going to change the former negative culture in a small window of time, I
believe a courageous stand may to call a mandatory meeting to take a
dramatic new step. Is this paternalistic or heroic or both?
While I hope that I am alert and grounded enough in the pre-work to know
when to differentiate among the possibilities. What I believe about
open space is that however the people got there, how we open the space
has the potential to free everyone to find their power and choice in the
I remember listening to a group of skeptical factory workers with grit
under their fingernails and smoking unfiltered Camel cigarettes which
they took from packages rolled in their t-shirt sleeves. They were
convinced that this meeting was bogus and that as soon as wages and
benefits were put on the table management would pull the plug. As I
listened anonymously I recalled how the vice president had told me the
night before that he was afraid that workers would use open space to put
wages and benefits on the table and "blow the whole deal!"
When the first round's biggest session focused on wages and benefits and
was packed I got glares from the VP and smirks from the workers who now
knew my role. I was torn between "trust the process" and "I will never
work again!" 90 minutes later the entire group was abuzz with energy
and enthusiasm. They had faced the issue in ways neither thought the
"other" would never consider.
So, is this rant a huge rationalization for justifying my own arrogant
belief that I know what's best and an abuse of the "spirit" of open
space for commercial gain? Is it a recognition that there are times
when we have to step into the mess of a particualr situation and provide
a window to an alternative view? Is it a zealot's assertion that Open
Space is so potent that if we use it with respect of the process and
without attachment to the outcomes or the choices people made to be
I don't know. What do you think?
More information about the OSList