Michael Herman
Opening Space for Business Agility


From the OpenSpaceTechnology/OSLIST in March 2004...

Okay, a dose of theory here.

I came across a paper by Frank Smits from Sydney, Australia, courtesy of the Plexus Institute called [http://website.lineone.net/%7efrank.smits/Essays/Stories.htm How stories affect human action in organisations, http://website.lineone.net/%7efrank.smits/Essays/Stories.htm last week.

I've had a chance to read it and it posits a number of interesting points.

My reading of the paper follows the development of these key ideas:

1. Organizations are not "things" but rather relational processes.

2. Human beings use story to represent and understand the patterns of experience.

3. Stories only represent partial versions of reality and so narrative interpretation is subject to power dynamics.

4. Powerful storyteller can make people "captives" in the story; this is the process of mythmaking.

5. "Organisations, in fact the 'organising via relating, exist in order to 'do something'. Hence somehow, the individuals in the organisation need to 'act'...if our identity is clear and we are actively interconnected in interdependent processes that when information comes available, action can emerge. The information sharing happens in interactive processes between individuals (either inside or outside the 'organisation')."

6. "In the language of Gover (1996) 'our identities are being constitutes and reconstituted with their physical, cultural and historical contexts'. The roots of narratives and identity, he claims, 'merge, inextricably embedded and nurtured in the soil of human action'."

7. Narratives that resonate with an individual's experience create meaningful and sustained emergent action.

8. If people in organisations don't pay attention to the Individual Intention, the likelihood of the vortices of the narratives in those organisation resonating with the vortex of the Individual Intention is purely one of chance. It is due to individuals themselves to actively spend the time to understand other people's Individual Intention.

9. By consciously working on understanding Individual Intention and consciously work on fuzzifying the narrative the complex responsive process of interaction between the people will move to the attractor at the critical point. This can only happen in self-organised process of interactions where meaning can start to flow.

All of this is interesting stuff, especially the deep connection between narrative and action. Organizations as relational processes, as arenas for the practice of storytelling and mythmaking (with it's attendant careful attention to compassion) and all of this as a propellant to emergent action. It's a lucid thread.

For my money the last point is the most interesting and an example of it cropped up for me in an Open Space meeting I facilitated last weekend.

I was working as part of a team developing a transportation demand management plan for a city in British Columbia, basically coming up with a strategy to get people out of their cars. As part of the process we convened a 1.5 day Open Space meeting with the intention that the participants would begin to work on citizen-based initiatives to get the message out.

These people didn't know each other, and so Day One was taken up with a lot of conversation about the "typical" issues. The day was essentially about getting to know each other, testing out ideas and theories, exploring the stories and myths about the issue and basically sussing out the power relationships, the allies and the opponents. There was very little new content, but the day was a rich field of developing and dissolving structure, process and relationships, coalescing around stories. Because we were in Open Space and the agenda was driven by deep personal passion and responsibility, the process of group-forming was accelerated. By the end of the day there was one story that emerged to invite action. Someone mentioned that in the very neighbourhood in which we were meeting, the world's first curbside blue box program had been initiated. Whether or not this was an observable fact, it became the story upon which we hung the potential for citizen action in Day Two.

Day Two was a two-hour action planning session, and I opened with that story and my interpretation of the fact that we simply don't know when and how small initiatives will blossom. And so the invitation for action planning was to start something small that could change everything.

Within two hours there were three major initiatives sketched out. One involved closing a street down for a one-day festival promoting biking, walking and bussing. One was a project to have coporations sponsor evening busses into town from the suburbs on weekend nights to encourage teenagers to stay out of their cars. The third idea was the formation of a website and the coordination of letter writing and lobbying campaigns to align actions on specific issues. All of these ideas had champions, follow-up meeting dates and committees or teams of people committed to working.

I found the way this Open Space event evolved to be right in line with a few of the paragraphs from Smits' paper:

"By consciously working on understanding Individual Intention and consciously work on fuzzifying the narrative...the complex responsive process of interaction between the people will move to the attractor at the critical point. This can only happen in self-organised process of interactions where meaning can start to flow. That is the domain of dialogue; it is the art of 'thinking together'... Or, in the words of Bohm:

From time to time (the) tribe (gathered) in a circle. They just talked and talked and talked, apparently to no purpose. They made no decisions. There was no leader. The meeting went on until finally it seemed to stop for no reason at all and the group dispersed. Yet, after that, everybody seemed to know what to do. Then they could get together in smaller groups and do something or decide things.

-- David Bohm, On Dialogue (quoted in Jaworski, 1998: 109)

In this quote Bohm describes how dialogue as a way of people interacting manages to let meaning emerge because of people understanding each other's Individual Intentions. Effective action could emerge. Note that the course of action was not decided by someone outside the process or decided via a compromise! It was emergent because the process allowed the Group Intention to move to the Edge of Incoherence."

This is exactly what happened, with people saying in the closing circle that they were very surprised at how quickly the action plans came together. This echoes my experience of using an Open Space action planning process we call "non-convergence," so-called because it eschews voting, preserves the diversity and complexity of the Day One conversations and keeps the space open for subtle pattern and meaning-making by those motivated enough to initiate action.

Smits' paper gives me a nice theoretical frame to understand that process. I thought it might spark some discussion here as it suggests a move from seeing organizations as complex adaptive systems to complex relational processes. In Wilberian terms, that seems like a very big shift from the right hand side to the left hand side.

At any rate, I've also posted this to my weblog at http://www.chriscorrigan.com/parkinglot/2004_03_01_archive.html#107916653320999533 for comment.


Well Chris, this is interesting soup indeed. I think the real positive here is the emphasis on Story Telling. For 40 odd years, ever since the days when I presumed to be an academic delving into the mysteries of myth, ritual and culture in the ancient near east -- I have felt that we (all of us humanoids) are essentially story-tellers, it is the way we make meaning and communicate meaning (as in the natural first question of a new person -- "What's the story?"). For the last 20 years, after having fallen into the world of Open Space, I have observed that a (maybe "the") central activity in an Open Space is storytelling, and it is certainly "fuzified" storytelling, for initially there is no single story, nor story teller. It is what I have called Collective Storytelling. Meaning emerges, and action follows (usually) as the collective tale comes into being, having been woven from the myriad narrative strands brought forward by the participants. Frank Smits is definitely riding a train I have been on for quite a while, and although that certainly doesn't make all of this "true" -- it is certainly in line with my fundamental prejudices. The fact that he casts the discussion in the new language of complexity theory is an added gift, for it gives me (gives us) a new set of spectacles with which to view our experience. (If anybody cares for the details of my random thoughts, check out Chapters 11 and 12 in my book, "The Power of Spirit" (Berrett-Koehler, 2000) For an earlier and more arcane version of all of this click on http://openspaceworld.com/mythos.htm where you will find the opening chapter of my first book, "Spirit: Transformation and Development in Organizations" -- now out of print)

But I am not sure that Smits appreciates the full depth of Storytelling as meaning making. First of all, although it is true that stories can be told with words, this in my experience is just the tip of the iceberg. Powerful stories which shape and form cultures (otherwise known as myths) appear in the rich garments of ALL modes of human communication -- the total dance of a peoples' life. This may seem just an academic quibble, but I think it has some real implications concerning our ability to fully understand what is taking place. In a word, we are faced with a level of complexity (even with a small group of humanoids) that simply boggles the mind. And when it comes to the role of the facilitator, the boggled mind is not helpful, particularly if the facilitator's role is as Smits describes it --

"But, in order for Facilitators to participate, as a listener, a 'neutral' narrator or focaliser, they need to be able to understand the language, power relationships, semiotics, etc. in the group of people. In other words, they need to be 'external insiders'. As the name suggests this is a very paradoxical role (see Figure 6). By somehow becoming an 'insider' there is potentially an element of 'risk' for the Facilitator with the outcome (emergent action). A delicate balance."

A "delicate balance" indeed -- and one which I suspect is neither possible nor necessary. Does that mean then that as facilitators in Open Space there is nothing we can do? If "doing something" means acting as the "focalizer," then I believe the answer is, Yes. Bluntly stated, we simply do not have the horsepower to do that -- to say nothing of the mental capacity. But there are realms where we can and do "do something." Specifically, we can create the space for storytelling. We can even shape that space when we work with the client around the theme. And lastly, we can also create a space for reflection. But when it comes to telling the story, interpreting the story, and acting on the story -- I think the people do it all by themselves. Which, after all is what self organization is all about.

Thanks for bringing all this to light Chris! There is lots of good stuff to explore here, and I look forward to the continuing conversation.



Thanks for your thoughts on this. I like the depth of storytelling that you bring to light. I have the same quibble with Smits' notion of the facilitator's role, although I know he's coming from the perspective of the facilitator in Bohm's dialogue model. That's pretty close to space holding, but at any rate you capture the OST facilitator's role well as doing something to open space for story..

However, there is a piece of Smits' paper that I haven't addressed yet, but that I find a lot more interesting, and that is the way stories are contextualized in power relationships. Here's the idea:

1. We gather knowledge about the world through observing and interpretation.

2. Observed "facts" don't give us the whole picture, so we need interpretive stories to make meaning out of what we observe.

3. Stories represent part of the truth, and as such, non-linear stories dwell in a power space within the organization. Telling the story can be powerful; having the story believed can be even more powerful.

4. Here's the money shot from Smits: "Stacey (2001a, 183) argues that when there is diversity of participation in the conversations that happen in organisation, there is the potential for the organisational identity to be 'threatened'. In the language of Gover (1996) 'our identities are being constitutes and reconstituted with their physical, cultural and historical contexts'. The roots of narratives and identity, he claims, 'merge, inextricably embedded and nurtured in the soil of human action'.

But this is complicity! Stories and identity are being formed by human action ('experience' in Stacey's words) and at the same time form human action."

This is amazing, because it gets at some of the writing and thinking I have been doing about "living in truth." I don't see the term "threatened" as being a bad thing. I see it as inviting a decentering of organizations away from command and control models where the stories are churned out of a high level communications suite and the drones are expected to buy the stories. These stories can be about anything: the organization's mandate, the way it is in the world, the kind of people we are, the kinds of things we make and do, where we have come from and where we are going...all the ripe fields of human mythmaking and meaning making.

Complexity and diversity in participation threatens the organization's identity because it pokes holes in the large assumptions that the powerful pieces of an organization can sometimes hold over everyone else. These power stories could be societal and cultural myths or beliefs as well, and they could inhibit a huge set of opportunities and potentials. By inviting a large diversity of people into the shared meaning-making storyspace, we invite challenge to the myths and a much more dynamic process of social and organizational truth telling that makes organizations or societies very robust. And I think that is a very good thing. It's good for democracy, it's good for productivity, it's good for engagement. People recover their agency, groupthink becomes a thing s of the past, minds are opened and passion AND responsibility is engaged.

The story of the OST meeting I did last weekend illustrates this writ small, but I think we cannot underestimate the power of letting go of that power of control over the stories and the myths. People might ask "but where do we then find stability for our organization or society?"

And in a changing world I would have to reply "thank me later..."


For a good, no-nonsense introduction to the what-why-how of storytelling, check out "The story factor" by Annette Simmons <http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0738206717/positiveshari-21>;. I've been using storytelling more and more over the last couple of years, and this book really gave me a handle on how it works and why it's important. It's also very practical with lots of tips.

I've reviewed it here: http://www.positivesharing.com/journal/00000337.htm