[OSList] Space. Wonderful Space!

Diane Gibeault diane.gibeault at rogers.com
Wed Feb 1 13:37:45 PST 2012

Hi Harrison,
This piece is very useful. If there is one thing people often associate OS with when trying to describe it it's brainstorming. 

Many see a connection between throwing out ideas without order and the OS announcement of topics and the look of chaos at the market place. They miss a very important distinction. In OS topics are well thought out and are anchored in passion and the biggest distinction of all I think: they are tied to responsibility.

The research on the effectiveness - or lack of - of these two methods and the similarity in the success factors of the Building 20 method and Open Space can be just the nudge that some sponsors need to get out of their comfort zone and make the leap. 

Thanks for this nugget Harrison,

> From: Harrison Owen <hhowen at verizon.net>
>To: 'World wide Open Space Technology email list' <oslist at lists.openspacetech.org> 
>Sent: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 10:54:51 AM
>Subject: [OSList] Space. Wonderful Space!
>Our continuing conversation about Charrettes, space and architects coalesced in my mind (and reading) with an article from The New Yorker, entitled GroupThink: The brainstorming myth. The tale is a little shaggy, but goes straight to the heart multiple discussions we have had over the years about space, it’s quality and uses. The author, Jonah Lehrer,  starts out talking about brainstorming, that hoary method created by Alex Osborn in the late forties. The method is a simple one. Given an issue of concern (advertizing campaign, new product, etc) people sit around and shout out ideas as fast  as they can. The only rule is that there be no criticism. Just let the ideas roll. Sounds wonderful, and the presumption was that all sorts of juicy, creative ideas would spring forth. In fact “brainstorming” and creativity have almost become synonymous in some circles. The only problem, according to Jonah, is that just isn’t so. After a rather extensive
 review of the Creativity Literature, brainstorming came in pretty much dead last. It turns out that other factors (not a lack of criticism) enhance the creative output, including such things as diversity of opinion, random associations, lack of a plan, multiple interest groups, etc – and perhaps most important a space that permits and encourages all of that. “Space” here is not just physical space, but would include cyberspace, intellectual space – but at the end of the day, at least for Jonah, physical space (as in buildings) is what he concentrates on. One might presume that the best of such physical space would be elegant, clean, rationally organized, well provisioned, carefully planned etc. But it turns out that the “winner-take-all” structure was an anomalous monstrosity known a Building 20.
>Building 20 was built on the M.I.T campus during World War II to house a major (and secret) research project. It was huge and literally thrown together in weeks – all plywood with few amenities. Supposedly it was to have been torn down at the war’s end but returning students and rapid growth left the University hungry for any sort of space. And so a motley assortment of people and departments were consigned to the monster. The initial reaction was doubtless less than positive – but it turned out the Building 20 had major advantages. Because there was no rational plan, people went everywhere, bumping into each other, wandering through other departments, talking to each other regardless of departmental affiliation... And because the walls were plywood, they could be moved, torn down, rearranged – Total chaos! 
>Jonah’s concluding paragraphs are marvelous, I think…
>“Building 20 and brainstorming came into being at almost the same time. In the sixty years since then, if the studies are right, brainstorming has achieved nothing – or at least less than would have been achieved by 6 decade’s worth of brainstormers working quietly on their own. Building 20, , though, ranks as one of the most creative environments of all times, a space with almost uncanny ability to extract the best from people. Among M.I.T. people it was referred to as the “magical incubator.”
>The fatal misconception behind brainstorming is that there is a particular script we should all follow in group interactions. The lessons of Building 20 is that when the composition of the groups is right – enough people with different perspectives running into one another in unpredictable ways – the group dynamic will take care of itself. All these errant discussions add up. In fact they may even be the most essential part of the creative process. Although such conversations are occasionally unpleasant – not everybody is always in the mood for small talk and criticism – that doesn’t mean they can be avoided. The most creative spaces are those which hurl us together. It is the human friction that makes the sparks.”
>I particularly like, “The lessons of Building 20 is that when the composition of the groups is right – enough people with different perspectives running into one another in unpredictable ways– the group dynamic will take care of itself.” Sounds a lot like our learnings from Open Space, and had he used the magic words, “self-organizing” my day would have truly been made. But he surely came close, noting that “the group dynamic will take care of itself.” And had he cited the 5th Principle (Wherever it happens is the right place) – Wow! But he surely did good!!
>You can read all about it yourself: “GroupThink: The brainstorming myth,” Jonah Lehrer, The New Yorker, January 30, 2012, pg 22ff
>Harrison Owen
>7808 River Falls Dr.
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>189 Beaucaire Ave. (summer)
>Camden, Maine 20854
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>www.ho-image.com (Personal Website)
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