[OSList] Structure -- Heavy, lite, whatever....

Harrison Owen hhowen at verizon.net
Fri Feb 28 10:25:32 PST 2014

I just love the serendipity! The LIST was dead silent for a day or two, and
suddenly there is this marvelous conversation about structure, heavy, lite,
whatever. Turns out OSLIST was not dead at all. Just gestating. And during
that period of gestation, I received a note from a friend raising issues
about structure. That note turned me on, and I replied at length - not
knowing a thing about the burgeoning conversation online. Imagine my
surprise when I signed on! And being the lazy sort that I am ... I am simply
passing on my response to my friend with his name removed. But he does know
that stuff is happening on OSLIST, and perhaps he will join us?







XXXX -- Love to talk about structure. As a matter of fact, it is a subject I
have found myself pondering increasingly over the past several years, often
taking me to some odd places, which shouldn't surprise you, knowing me as
you do.


Your observations and questions are rich places to start,  ("Nothing gets
done without a structure. Open Space is a minimal structure which is why it
doesn't get in the way of self-organization. Does it mean that it is the
only minimal structure? Can it be combined usefully with some other minimal
structure? Are there situations where another minimal structure might be
just as or more useful?"). However, my wanderings, make it necessary to back
off a bit, explain a bit, and then proceed. Sorry for the detour, but it is
the best I can do. J


Last spring, Peter Block did a conference, and prior to its opening, he
invited me to sit for a filmed interview which he moderated. I don't
remember how the subject came up exactly, but Peter asked me what I thought
about structure, and my reply surprised even me. I said that I rather
thought that structures were possibly a figment of our imagination, or at
the very least a snapshot of the process of reality at a moment in time. My
basic thought was that everything from the moment of the Big Bang is flowing
energy, which does in fact assume certain configurations in the moment, and
then flows on. What we call structures are actually a freeze-frame
representations of a moving process. Thus whenever we depict a structure it
is always a picture of how things were in that moment now past. That picture
does not, and cannot, capture the present reality, and it is no predictor of
future configurations. Perhaps not figments of our imagination, but
artifacts of our memory?


So, for example, if you look at a mountain, we might say that for sure we
are confronting a "Structure," some might say an eternal structure.
Mountains, after all seem to hang about for a bit. But all of that is only
"true" within our restricted (one might say, infinitesimal) snap shot of
time. Extend that time frame to cosmic proportions and the solid mountain
structure transmutes into a flowing sea of cresting waves. 


I rather suspect that the same sort of thinking applies to Organizational
Structures. Most people, I believe would acknowledge that the famous
Organization Chart is most notable for its irrelevance. At best it
represents how someone thought things should look, but everybody "knows"
that isn't how things work. Were we to move from something supposedly cast
in stone, or at least printed in all the corporate manuals, to a more
contemporaneous representation, we have a similar problem. No matter how
hard we try we have, at best, a snap shot of how things were at that point
in time. 


The situation doesn't get much better with the structures we design. They
can only represent how we hope things will work, and even if the design is
truly detailed and elegant, the moment they are put into operation, things
change. I think this is true at every level of our endeavors, from the
"design" of a simple meeting or process up to the design of a whole
corporation. It may look great on paper, but the instant the "start" button
is depressed - things change. 


If any of this thinking coincides with how things actually are, we have some
interesting difficulties. Or at least all those who presume the priority of
structure as an a priori truth in organizational life, have some
difficulties. They (whoever "they" are) take it as an article of faith that
FIRST you create/design the structure and THEN you do the business. That
certainly makes logical sense, but I fear the logic is based on a pretty
weak reed. A figment of our imagination, I could say.


I believe the source of our difficulty arises from that strange creature you
and I so much enjoy, the phenomenon of Self Organization. I will confess
that my infatuation with the critter over the last 50 years has led me into
some strange places, to say nothing of heretical opinions, as some would see
it - but it has been a fun ride. The history of that adventure is lengthy
and convoluted, but as I approach the end of my journey I have come to two
conclusions, which may well be the only things I have truly learned in 78
years on the planet. Whether this is the result of Insight or Alzheimer's I
can't say - but the conclusions are as follows:


All systems (including all human systems) are open.

All systems (including all human systems) are self organizing. 


The first conclusion (All systems open), I take to be self evident. It is
also true that I can't think of any possible way to prove it. In the
scientific community, as I read the literature, I think there would be
substantial agreement. From the cosmos as a whole down to the level of the
lowliest Quark, with ants and asteroids in between, it is all one big
churning mass with each element actually, or potentially, interacting with
all others for 13.7 billion years. Yes there are discrete systems, here
today and dissipated tomorrow - but none stand in splendid isolation. It is
all connected and therefore open to any and all interactions. At least that
is how I hear the story. 


The second conclusion (All systems self organizing) certainly could be open
to debate, but from where I sit, it is the natural correlate of the first.
In as much as all systems are open they are all subject to the pushes, pulls
and challenges of the external environment, which is constantly shoving them
out of their comfort zone (equilibrium) into chaos.  Self organization is
the natural response through which life and existence is sustained. And it
doesn't start with order (structure). It creates order/structure. In a word,
structure is emergent. Which is what self organization is all about.


How and why all this alchemy takes place is obviously a matter of major
moment. If you can accept the work of Stuart Kauffman "the magic sauce"
seems to be a set of very simple pre-conditions, which if present,
automatically initiate the process. But note, these are preconditions and
not structures. Indeed one of the preconditions is the lack of pre-existing
structure. My memory is a little foggy, but I think Kauffman describes this
as "minimal prior connections." Another one of his preconditions is that the
system be at the "edge of chaos" which is actually the dissolution of
structure. I understand that Kauffman's work is subject to ongoing
discussion, but I have not seen any substantial disagreement with his core
idea, although others surely suggest different conditions or ways of
describing them.  On more familiar ground, I like Kauffman's
explanation/preconditions because they parallel almost exactly the
"essential preconditions for Open Space" which I had noticed for a number of
years before I ever heard of Kauffman. When asked when to use Open Space my
response was that it always seems to work when the following preconditions
are in effect. 1) A real business issue that people care about. 2) With mind
numbing complexity 3) lots of diversity. 4) Much passion and conflict. 5) A
real sense of urgency. 


And now - at long last - back to the points/questions you raise about
structure and Open Space. In all honesty I just do not think that the
initiation of Open Space has anything to do with structure, minimal or
maximal. Certain preconditions - YES. But structure, NO. Structure does
manifest in Open Space (as it does in all self organizing situations) - but
it is emergent, and not prior. At least that has been my experience. 


Recently I have found myself fascinated with what I might call "natural
occurrences" of Open Space. This began with a conversation with Claudia
Gross, a friend and colleague from Egypt. We were talking about the events
of Tahrir Square in which she participated. She remarked that the overall
impression of the happening was that of a great mob scene, with thousands of
people milling about in apparently random patterns. Occasionally someone
would ascend a makeshift podium and address the crowd, but there was
something else going on. Smaller groups would form in the midst of the mass,
spiraling inwards to form circles of conversation. In the center of these
circles, the focused attention was such that the ambient noise and confusion
seemed shut out. The conversations themselves were intense but respectful.
To be sure there were flashes of passion, but there was also a sense of
shared intimacy, and people spoke of an awareness of brotherhood and
connectedness. The conversation circles would continue for a time, some
longer, some shorter - and then the circles would dissolve, only to form
again with different people in a different place. Sounded an awful lot like
Open Space to me, but its occurrence was purely a natural phenomenon. There
wasn't a facilitator in sight, and certainly no prior structure or process.
It was all emergent. 


Some little time later, I had occasion to speak with another friend who had
been in Tiananmen Square, and she reported precisely the same phenomenon.
Those are my only two examples, but I strongly suspect that were one to make
a broader study of such events, the Natural Open Space would be seen as a
regular occurrence. All of which made me think that we needed a 5th
Principle - "Wherever it happens is the right place."  


So where does all this leave our discussion? For me it comes out something
like this. Open Space is in fact a naturally occurring phenomenon. It is
clearly not a process that I, or anybody else, invented, and it is certainly
not initiated by  a "structure" of our design, be that heavy or light - see
Tahrir Square above. However, when the essential conditions are present, it
is possible to invite or "allow" space to open. Of course it is always
possible to fight or oppose this natural emergence - which sadly is what
much of management seems to be about. 


It is also true that we may encourage the appearance of Open Space with the
provision of certain simple elements: a place to meet, chairs to sit in,
magic markers, post-its, flip charts, and even temple bells. J But none of
that is essential. In fact Open Space works all by itself. Self organizes. I





Harrison Owen

7808 River Falls Dr.

Potomac, MD 20854



189 Beaucaire Ave. (summer)

Camden, Maine 04843


Phone 301-365-2093

(summer)  207-763-3261



www.ho-image.com (Personal Website)

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