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"Stop!"

(i'm imagining that we could make this first chapter title "stop!" because this is the feeling i think we're looking to tap into... people who are just fed up with how things are. i'm imagining that the sixth chapter could be called "let's go!" ...pulsation, obviously enough. and also, these are the two things it seems that i am always confusing people with... people who think i'm always saying no are stunned when i all of a sudden say, yes, let's go. and vice versa. anyway, these are the two things i find myself saying and feeling a lot in organization. stop and let's go.)


We're in a hotel meeting room in Beloit Wisconsin, looking out over the Beloit River. In the room 15 college students from the Beloit Leadership Institute are engaged in a simple exercise to help see the dynamic nature of self organizing systems. Each person is asked to secretly pick two others and to place themselves equidistant from those people. When the experiment begins, the students erupt into a constantly swirling system. There is no perfect end state. There is no stillness. Everyone negotiates their position in relation to the two people they have chosen, trying to form equilateral triangles with their mystery partners.

Finally one student speaks up. "Stop!" she shouts. "I can't handle this!"

The room breaks up into laughter and we stop to consider what is so troubling about the constant motion. It's the lack of stability that is driving her crazy. She is fighting an urge to stop everyone from moving.

I ask anyone if they would like to try to control the situation, or try to manage it. One smart economics major suggests that control lies with the variables and he suggests that we run the experiment again but this time we choose to connect to three other people. Perhaps instead, this would bring some stability; if we could be in relation to more parts in the system things might be more manageable.

Armed with that hypothesis, the experiment begins again and even more chaos and confusion reigns. Another student, a mathematics major, calls out. "Wait! It's impossible! We can't be equidistant to three other people!" No one listens to him, and the students keep trying to make it work. Gradually some of them realize that he might be right, but only after he has given up. In truth the only way to be equidistant to three other people is to be in the middle of a circle, with the others on the perimeter. The math major is frustrated. I ask him how it feels to be in possession of the truth when no one else is willing to believe him. He is almost angry. "If everyone had just listened to me, we would have avoided this chaos."

These are important lessons for the students, all of whom have been chosen to be here because they show unique leadership qualities. The systems exercise, originally conceived by Joanna Macy, challenges their assumptions about control, responsibility and accountability. I want to show them something about how cause and effect work in systems, so I have everyone stop again. There is a sigh of relief.

I pick one student. "Okay, you move to the other side of the room, and those who were in contact with him follow suit." The student moves. Three other people move with him and then another four people move with this second generation. I stop one of the four, to whom I am connected. "Hey! What are you doing, forcing me to move?" She shrugs. "Just doing my job." Laughter again.

All of us are following basic rules and all of us are "just doing our job" and none of us can figure out how to bring a bigger view to the system.

A month later, high on a hill top on Bowen Island, we run the experiment again, and this time the group chooses to see if they can make the chaos accomplish something. For the 12 in the room, the job will be to move a table from one of the room to the other. Two people are required to lift the table, and without knowing who they were connected to, the two swirl and bob down the room and eventually get the table to its target. It isn't simple and its not a straight path, but it works. Somehow, the group is able to keep its awareness of the system intact AND keep its eyes on an objective. But it wasn't a straight line.

Being a participant in this exercise is one thing, but being the rule setter is another altogether. Very light and simple rules create the container for complex behaviour, and although the parts of the system are self-organizing, no part of the system seems to be aware of the whole. It's too much just to stay equidistant from your chosen mystery partners.

We use this exercise to demonstrate the structural practices that support the open space world view: the power of simple rules, the difficulty of managing self-organization, the trick of activating agency. The exercise gives us a good sense of how to wrestle with the reality that the world is constantly in motion, and there is no time to rest before a change in the environment dictates that we must change too.


Now consider the workplace. A project director is fixed on her boss and her 10-year-old son. The guy in the cube across from her if focused on balancing his mortgage payment and his wife's failing health. His assistant is watching the division chief and the receptionist. A stock market ticker peaks out from behind the email window on the computer in the cube next to him. Maybe some are watching more than two guides, juggling multiple projects and clients, but . Some may be watching nothing but the clock, but even they seem to perk up and a bit when the boss walks through.

The same goes on in communities and public meetings, so many of us watching what happens in our block or backyard on the one hand and some group or leader or board on the other. My house and the zoning rules. My house and my neighbor's tree. Our school and the district budget. Our local programs and the Feds. We live in a world of polarities, split attention and allegiances, trying not to lose connection with any of the many things we care about.

In any one moment, everyone is watching and caring about a couple of somethings or someones. Everyone and everything keeps moving because everyone and everything keeps moving. That old cliche about change being the only constant. So what of that other old cliche, that says "the more things change, the more they stay the same?" Can it be that we are swirling, and stuck, all at once?

How often do we find ourselves caring about two dimensions, striving to balance two needs, choosing a path that is equidistant from two goals or guides? How often to we think or feel or even say "Stop! I can't handle this anymore!"? How often have we had insights and solutions that could not be heard by others? How often do we insist on straight-line achievement -- and how often is that how the world really works? How often, even when named "leader", do we feel in charge of what's happening? How often does it turn out that we really are in control?

How often does this happen at work? In meetings, on project teams, planning retreats, professional conferences? Does it ever happen in the PTA or school board meeting? How about the parish council or fundraising committee? Where else do we bump into complex webs, of unique (sometimes truly odd) humans beings, some of them moving gracefully and carefully, but some of them bound to crash and burn in conflict, all of them somewhere in the flow between swirling and stuck, none of them denying the urgency of the needs, yet all of them bringing, at best, some partial solution?

So what is a leader, any leader, or any other person who cares, to do? How often have you walked away from a meeting, shaking your head and muttering to a colleague, "There must be a better way." Or been puzzling over circumstances and thinking, "If only there was a way to get everyone together on this, all in one place at the same time, then we might actually solve this thing." How often have you found that even people in positions of apparent power, yourself or others, good people who care, and want to do the right thing, are lacking the information and/or support to take the steps they'd like or need to take?


In early 1980, Harrison Owen looked around at what was happening and not happening in the world, and proposed somehting he called Organization Transformation. Proposed it as much as a thing we were in as a thing that we should do. He wrote his observations up in paper and...

...history of open space

...what is method of open space is

...how it honors the reality of care without control, responsibility without escape

...the beginning of the inv org stuff about fast company and strategic questions... what is the next strategic question... because it ends up defining Inviting.

my best guess for now.


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Last edited August 8, 2006 3:07 pm CentralTimeUSA by MichaelHerman
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