Michael Herman
Opening Space for Business Agility

The following was [adapted from] a paper called Productive Work and Group Dynamics by Robert Rehm, which was itself adapted from Search Conference: State of the Art by Merrelyn Emery in 1994. Italicized sections are my additions, meant to connect the theory of Bion, Emery and Rehm to my own experience in numerous traditional, OpenSpaceTechnology and mixed-mode meetings and conferences. --MichaelHerman

Meeting Design, Group Dynamics and Productive Work:

The Dangers of Mixed Mode Design

The self managing workplace and Open Space approach run on the group dynamics researched by Wilfred Bion over fifty years ago. Bion discovered that when people come together they establish a group quickly. We see this all time in Open Space when a diverse group with sparse existing connections quickly comes to know itself as a "team" or "community."

A group or community is not just a collection of individuals. A group is a separate entity with its own dynamics and behaviors, and it operates on certain assumptions. Bion observed that, at any given time, a group operates out of only one of two possible modes. The group is EITHER in a productive work mode OR a basic assumption mode.

Fred and Merrelyn Emery applied Bion’s insights to workplace design, in their search conference and participative design processes. This adaptation of their writing extends these insights to the design and practice of Open Space meetings and events.

Productive Work

You know a group is in productive work mode when you see people consciously participating and cooperating towards task achievement. When a group has a clear task, goal, and a democratic structure, they do real work.

In Open Space, the goal or task is clearly stated in the invitation, the theme, and the opening briefing. The space that is opened is opened for real work, even in those cases where the task and desired outcomes might be less than concrete. Reflecting, visioning, healing, reconnecting, discovering and the like are examples of real work that is less concrete. Major corporations have also used Open Space to design real, brick and mortar, buildings, so any sort of task or goal will suffice in Open Space, as long as the task is important to those who are invited.

Unproductive Work

Bion's "basic assumption" mode is just the opposite. We call it a “basic assumption” because participants make hidden and unconscious assumptions about leadership (and also the facilitator, process, schedule or other authorities). Participants make three kinds of hidden, unspoken assumptions about group purpose and what is happening:

Dependence on Structure

The way to determine which mode an organization or meeting is in—productive work or basic assumption— is in the choice of design principle. Group dynamics are the result of human structure. Dependency and fight-flight are by-products of living and working in bureaucratic traditional, pre-determined, or otherwise imposed-from-above structures that preempt and prevent participants' deciding for themselves what works best and inhibit cooperative use of all our human capacities for controlling our own destinies.

In the bureaucratic workplace and traditionally organized meeting or conference event, dependency is as good as it gets. People spend a big part of their workday looking up to see where the boss is, what the boss wants, and how to get around the boss. They spend their conference time watching the clock in mandatory sessions, waiting for the cellphone to ring, the food tray to be brought in, or the evaluation forms to finally be distributed.

It’s as though the reason people come to work every day is to look for somebody to rely on or to do what is required just to get through the day. The point is to look good compared to your co-workers. People are distracted from doing productive work by the very structure itself. The clock, the candy dish, and the pencils are more interesting than most of what various speakers have to say.

Instead of seeing these behaviors as evidence of a structural problem, management often calls in Human Resources, complaining of low morale. Unfortunately, you cannot train or team build your way out of a morale problem. And in a meeting, motivational speakers can not break this dependency, because they actually thrive on it! When people are responding to a dependent work environment, wherein the leader or facilitator is ever responsible for the outcomes and even the "mood" of the group, you need to change the structure so that people are responsible for their workplace.


In fight-flight, the leader is seen (unconsciously) as the enemy, opposed to the preservation of the group. In meetings, this response pops up whenever the leader of any sort of group reflection or activity generates even a small level of disagreement, discomfort, or uncertainty.

Doing real work is ignored; the task is to win, or avoid losing. The behavior of the group is anger and hostility towards other groups or the leader. It is either expressed (they get mad and fight) or covert (they withdraw in anger). Fight-flight differs from dependency in that it is an active, not passive, behavioral pattern. Even in extended periods of flight, people will feel stirred up, with adrenaline flowing as in a prelude for battle.

In meeting settings, it is extremely difficult for anyone to lead "ice-breaking" activities or give "motivational talks" that do not unconsciously engage the energies of disagreement and discomfort. Even the posting process in Open Space relies on the tension and discomfort, the uncertainty, about what will happen next. The difference between Open Space and other meetings, however, is that in Open Space people fight to change the reality of "what is" as stated in the invitation. In traditional meetings, participants wrestle (most often internally) with leaders, structures, and their own needs and desires, all distractions from dealing (externally) with "what is."

Fight-flight occurs most frequently in workplaces and also in meetings and conferences where responsibility keeps shifting back and forth between management and the group. We call this back-and-forth dynamic the “mixed mode,” as the structure of the workplace is a mixture of autocratic management direction and work group autonomy. It is common in organizations caught in transition between a bureaucratic and democratic structure and is especially pernicious in so-called "modified Open Space meetings. The epitome of the mixed mode is the purportedly open, self-organizing, participatory group with a facilitator who is by virtue of underlying structural and leadership agreements still really responsible for the work of the group.

Defensive Pairing

Groups operating out of the pairing mode often tolerate a couple of its members engaging in side conversations, distracting or preventing the group from doing its work. Or the group may tolerate some of its members joining forces to plot against some management initiative. In particularly bad meetings, pairings eventually escalate, as individuals emboldened by their pairing connections dare to "take shots" at various leaders or speakers. The unproductiveness of this is readily admitted, often followed by the excuse that '...at least it keeps these crummy meetings interesting.'

When pairing breaks out in a bureaucratic workplace, management often responds by repressing or stopping it. 'Can I have your attention up here at the front please? There will be time for discussion later in the day, during the next exercise, or...' ...whenever it won't threaten the speaker or facilitator.

Productive Pairing

In a democratic, open, self-organizing, adaptive, dynamically-structured, spirited and responsible workplace, on the other hand, pairing is welcomed as a sign of creative energy on the part of the group. Two or more group members may come together because they are excited about a new idea or perspective. It is the embryo of workplace creativity. ''Open Space thrives on pairings of all kinds, literally inviting all kinds of people to get together -- in response to "what is" -- rather than in response to any sort of imposed structure, plan or ideas.

Try using Bion’s structural way of looking at group dynamics, instead of group development models. “Forming, storming, norming, performing” is a popular group-development model. It suggests that any group goes through these four stages in order to become a high performing team. But this is a developmental model not a structural model. It cannot help you when changing to a democratic and productive design.

If a group is storming, with its members rebelling, or fleeing responsibility, it’s because they are in an autocratic structure. The solution is to change the structure, not work through a developmental process. The open, self-organizing and democratic workplace or meeting, in which people are responsible for the control and coordination of their own work, goes immediately into the productive work mode and stays there. Pairings and side conversation become central and productive.

Open Space is Enough

In an Open Space meeting, the goal -- be it softer, personal and cultural, or more concrete, structural and active -- is clearly stated at the outset, in the invitation. When participants arrive, they come to do real work, because they see the importance of "what is" as stated in the invitation. Nothing has been imposed and everyone is ready, and responsible.

Any structure or design that would do more than restate "what is" and point out the paper, markers, tape and bulletin board, automatically siphons some amount of energy, attention and responsibility from the group as they respond, even in small, internal and invisible ways, to rely on, wrestle with, or defend against the authority being exercised.

As soon as the facilitator or leader "takes control" of the process, even for the most well-meaning interventions, everyone starts deciding, moment-to-moment if they will submit to being "in control" or dare to step "out of control." In that moment, the momentum of productive work and felt sense of active, personal responsibility are in danger, as everyone has to choose between what they personally understand as productive work on the task and the structure that is being imposed by the leader or facilitator.

Why force that choice? Why intervene in productive work?