Today’s pressure on companies from volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) as well as digitalization requires them to be innovative at all times. Companies typically respond by organizing Design Thinking sessions, inviting employees to various think tanks, providing space for start-ups, etc. Yet these approaches are only single sparks in time, invite-only a predefined set of people, and proceed from the assumption that management is responsible for inducing innovation. They jump to the demands of VUCA and digitalization rather than boldly leveraging VUCA and digitalization.
These methods often miss the innovative power of the whole staff. All too often people get hired if they look like a good match for a predefined job description and are then expected to fulfill that job. From the employee’s viewpoint, he or she looks at the job description and thinks, “I’m a good match and now I know what I am supposed to do.” Yet every individual has more to offer than defined in a job description. So if their first priority is always to fulfill the expectations of that “job box”, the individual’s potential outside that box goes to waste. While few managers would likely dispute that the key to leveraging VUCA is leveraging every individual’s innovative potential, the reality is that managers don’t have the capacity to think about each individual’s skillset and design a way to use those skill sets effectively. Stacking and rearranging “job description boxes” is a lot easier than accounting for the individuals occupying those boxes. A question then is how can a company gain the capacity to “leverage VUCA by considering every individual’s innovative potential”?
There is a known facilitation technique for achieving this increase in capacity. Called Open Space (or to be precise Open Space Technology – see Owen and the principles listed in the Appendix below), it has proven successful in mobilizing everyone’s innovative thinking during a one-time event. Many conferences or rather Unconferences use this power by saying: “do not to limit yourself by a predefined program, but to use all possible ideas of the people who are present to discuss (and solve) the issues that are present with the people.” So Open Space invites everyone to bring their full potential (and not only the expertise that goes with a predefined concept) to this one-time event, quite outside of their job descriptions.
Ensuring that a company can benefit from individuals bringing their full potential not only during a one-time event but in their daily work requires a different application of Open Space principles called “Organizational Open Space”. The primary change is that in an event, the “space is opened” at the beginning of the event and closed at the end. With Organizational Open Space (as it has been introduced by BOSSA nova, see Eckstein & Buck), the space is always open.
For example, video game developer Valve Corporation invites staff to suggest ideas about a new game or improvements to existing games whenever the idea occurs to them during the workweek. If there are any colleagues who believe in this new idea, they will join together to make it happen. Another example: at W.L. Gore (the outdoor equipper) everyone is invited constantly to suggest a new product, a new feature, or maybe even a new process. In both cases, if enough staff are interested in implementing this product, feature, or process, that interested group will pursue it. If there is not enough interest in the idea, the idea dies because the missing passion signals that it is probably not worth implementing. The opposite is also possible: if staff tires of an activity, they can stop doing it so long as they take care of existing customers.
Note that passion in Organizational Open Space is always bounded by responsibility. You don’t suddenly drop a product line and leave loyal customers stranded or you don’t start working on a product that goes against the company’s ethical values. “Passion bounded by responsibility” allows a company to leverage the innovative power of each employee.
Organizational Open Space can be implemented in small steps, for example:
- Invite employees to select their teams. In this case, management decides upfront what work needs to be done and how many teams are needed and then staff is invited to follow their passion and choose the team they want to work on (see Mamoli & Mole). This self-organizing step can be organized at a special event.
- The next step could be for management to invite everyone to suggest what work needs to be done and what kind of teams will be needed to get that work done. Then everyone self-selects their teams as in step 1. The whole process can be implemented through a series of special Open Space events.
- And as a kind of a final step, management can create an invitation, open at all times, for staff to initiate new products whenever they are moved to do so – or to sunset older products and services that have run their course.
When fully implemented, Organizational Open Space is not tied to special events. It is an organizational strategy (or, if you will, an organizational mindset or attitude to innovation).
Note that, there are a number of techniques with jargon that can be confusing. They sound similar to each other but are quite different. For example, the following shouldn’t be confused with Organizational Open Space:
- “Open Space” is used for facilitating different events by many companies that are going through an agile transition. For example, “Open Space Agility” is an approach to implementing Agile that calls for frequent Open Space events to support the Agile transition. (see Daniel Mezick et.al)
- “Liberating Structures” offer different facilitation techniques (amongst them Open Space) that can be used for different – Agile or not – events.
- “Open Plan” is sometimes referred to as an open space office. Open Plan is an interior design for offices in which people have space to collaborate in different areas, the space is open (no cubicles) and often people don’t have an assigned desk but work at a spot that supports their actual task best.
In summary, Organizational Open Space is not about facilitating a meeting but about using Open Space principles in an organization. As Open Space uses these principles for facilitating an event, Organizational Open Space uses these principles as a strategy to leverage the innovative potential of everyone working for the organization.
When deciding to “leave the space open at all times”, you’re entering an advanced management approach that expands the responsibility for managing innovation to all employees. Innovation no longer relies solely on assignments via job descriptions, or a few “innovative” people (like the R&D department) or on specific events like think tanks. Innovation happens all the time by everyone.
Eckstein, J. & Buck, J: Company-wide Agility with Beyond Budgeting, Open Space & Sociocracy: Survive & Thrive on Disruption. CreateSpace. 2018.
Mamoli, S. & Mole, D.: Creating Great Teams: How Self-Selection Lets People Excel. Pragmatic Bookshelf. 2015.
Mezick, D. et.al: The Open Space Agility Handbook. Freestanding Press. 2015.
Owen, H.: Open Space Technology. A User’s Guide. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. 2008, 3rd ed.
Wikipedia on Open Space: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Space_Technology
Open Space Principles
From Wikipedia on Open Space: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Space_Technology
- Whoever comes is the right people …reminds participants that they don’t need the CEO and 100 people to get something done, you need people who care. And, absent the direction or control exerted in a traditional meeting, that’s who shows up in the various breakout sessions of an Open Space meeting.
- Whenever it starts is the right time …reminds participants that “spirit and creativity do not run on the clock.”
- Wherever it is, is the right place …reminds participants that space is opening everywhere all the time. Please be conscious and aware.
- Whatever happens is the only thing that could have, be prepared to be surprised! …reminds participants that once something has happened, it’s done—and no amount of fretting, complaining, or otherwise rehashing can change that. Move on. The second part reminds us that it is all good.
- When it’s over, it’s over (within this session) …reminds participants that we never know how long it will take to resolve an issue, once raised, but that whenever the issue or work or conversation is finished, move on to the next thing. Don’t keep rehashing just because there are 30 minutes left in the session. Do the work, not the time.
In addition to these five principles, there is a law available, called the “Law of Two Feet”: If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet to go someplace else.