Living Projects – The Space to Become Lively
This is the third of a 3-part article – you can read the first 2 parts via the links below:
PART 1: Living Projects
It is not possible to “control” lively self-organizing processes. It is possible to enhance Kauffman’s conditions and intentionally create a focused “space” within which self-organization flourishes and enables a project or change to develop and grow effectiveness.
Open Space Technology does just that. Discovered by Harrison Owen, this approach is partly rooted in the new science of complex adaptive systems but also incorporates a deep understanding of what enables spirited dialogue, performance and appropriate structure to emerge. Owen describes it as a way to practice navigating at the edge of chaos, the place where life or renewed life emerges (Owen. 2001)
Open Space Technology creates the conditions for emergent self-organization around a theme or topic of the meeting, be that the development of the elements of a new corporate strategy or a project to re-design airplane doors. The sponsor and the facilitator co-construct a real and positive theme related to the task at hand. The sponsor invites an appropriate diversity of participants and informs them as to the context and anything that must be taken as given for there to be a successful outcome. Sponsors also decide how many resources they will commit to the “nutrient environment” of the meeting and the ongoing work.
When the group gathers, however, the sponsor becomes a participant in the self-organization related to the theme. Participants sit in a circle to suggest that new relationship patterns can and must emerge to find new approaches. The agenda topics are created by the participants and the work groups are self-selected. Open Space Technology operates on four principles and one law. These reinforce the conditions for leadership to emerge from the group and for participants to take responsibility for the nature of their participation. The following table gives some examples as to how the principles of Open Space Technology enable lively and productive self-organization during the session.
|Open Space Principle||Living Project Practice|
|Whoever comes is the right people||After the invitation is given, it is the people who care enough and can show up who are the ones to take the conversation, or project, forward in a given time and space. That could be one person or a 100. If they care about the topic they can move it forward.|
|Whatever happens is the only thing that could have||Conversations, people and projects will get as far as they can in a given time frame. To worry about what might or should have been prevents doing what is possible in the moment. Being so attached to particular outcomes, particularly those that are not based in what can really happen now, is debilitating for projects or teams. Taking full advantage of what is possible now often leads to surprising results in a short time frame.|
|Whenever it starts is the right time||This may seem to be an anathema to PERT charts and engineering plans. Just-in-time delivery of resources for manufacturing or road construction is not what we are talking about here. When “it” is real dialogue, clear thinking, new strategy or spirited commitment, then it starts when it starts. Making this assumption reduces performance stress.|
|Whenever it’s over it’s over||In any given meeting or event (whether part of a project or not), a time will come when it is no longer productive or meaningful, when the energy for “it” dissipates. As human systems there are limits to attention and connection. When a group reaches that point, it is better to say, it’s over, at least for now. Trying to continue on takes too much energy. If it’s not over, it is better to keep going rather than let the artificial time frames of a meeting prevent going forward.|
In Open Space meetings, the participants practice being fully responsible for their use of time and space to find the energy or spirit to move forward on the topic. This is further aided by the “Law of Two Feet”. Individuals in Open Space meetings who are neither learning nor contributing in a work group or discussion are encouraged to move on, to go do something else where they can learn or contribute. This freedom of motion enables the behavior of bumble bees and butterflies (back to our living systems metaphor). Bumble bees go from group to group and cross pollinate ideas and butterflies stand at the coffee pot and attract others into connections and conversations. This creates a flow to open space events. Like any good self-organizing process, the event allows “components” to find each other and connect in ways that often enable new insights or personal connections that can serve the interests of the theme or project. Many participants also talk about a connection to the whole, the spirit of the organization that energizes and informs new thinking and behavior.
Using Open Space Technology, project work groups can emerge with people who have a passion for their part of the project. Some of the energy and commitment from such groups can carry on until the task is completed, when the conditions are right. Intentionally and appropriately connecting the emergent energy with the often required accountability hierarchy can sustain the momentum and the performance. If people are overloaded with other work, have few resources to carry out the effort or the context changes then sustaining a particular group’s energy may be more difficult. There are a variety of ways to support and re-invigorate such groups.
Open Space Technology can also be seen as a way to navigate between letting go of things that cannot work and finding what can. A key component of Open Space theory is that living systems do “grieve” when a loss is substantial, when an idea doesn’t work or a part of a project fails, and that can block moving forward. Complex human systems become attached to ways of doing things or ideas that they “are sure” will work. As Harrison Owen states in The Practice of Peace, “It is only when we fully appreciate what we have lost that we can fully release our attachment” (Owen. 2002). It is surprising how Open Space Technology meetings can often create a safe space for dealing with the attachment and moving on.
For the time of an Open Space event, participants can practice being a spirited living system and can achieve substantial results in a short period of time. By creating the conditions for the interests and passions of the participants to emerge in addressing the task at hand, this approach can accelerate the learning and the growth in effectiveness of projects.
Transcend and Include
We are going through a shift in our view of what practices or processes are required to get the results we want and expect. If we agree that complex systems are better understood as living systems (with some mechanical parts) than as mechanisms, then our understanding of how to foster change or reach goals must also change from the mechanical images we for the most part hold.
Common “project manager” language belies our current understanding. For example, you cannot “leverage” an amoeba or tiger the way you can a financial position or a large rock. “Aligning” wheels on a car is certainly possible. We can cage tigers to “align” their behavior. We can get our spine “aligned” so that our posture is better and that we have a good frame for our body system. We cannot “align” all the components of a living system without reducing its ability to adapt to the next change that comes along.
We can attract commitment and energy through good leadership, rewards and good ideas. We can prod or disturb a living thing so that is gets moving and begins to discover what is needed to find its “fit” with its environment. It is amazing what simple communication between living components can do. Some of the most complex engineering projects are carried out by ants that live for one day each, have no command and control hierarchy (it is a myth that the queen gives instructions, only baby ants) and have a surprising communication process. We are learning that our brains, the cities that work and the best of current software have emergent properties that no one can or should try to control. (Johnson. 2001) Living projects have to engage those emergent processes if they are to survive let alone be successful or thrive. Life is a state of continuous change and development.
As I stated before, a shift to a new paradigm or set of practices transcends and includes the previous one. Recognizing that we need a new perspective on projects does not negate the need to use and improve upon what we have learned over the last 100 years in developing effective project management. It does not negate the need to set target outcomes. It just puts them in a new, more complex and reality based context. It requires that we know and understand the implications of the fact that living systems take on a life of their own. Aspects of those outcomes will likely have to change as the project grows into what is possible in its context or environment. Being too attached to particular outcomes is not healthy. Anyone who has raised children or cats knows this. Being able to both provide focus and to flow with what emerges is a different set of skills than management by objectives.
The next “project management” set of practices are emerging. Those who effectively sponsor and lead projects already have changed some of their behavior and are following their intuitions as to how to create success. I have talked with facilitators and consultants around the world who are trying new practices like Open Space Technology to accelerate the growth of projects. Starfield Consulting is now applying its “Project Accelerator” approach in a variety of organizations, using living system engagement with Appreciative Inquiry insights as part of the practice. Becoming aware of the full implications that complex projects are living realities will come as we experiment with new practices and develop new theory based on what we learn.
There is much more to be learned as we translate our current experience and practice into the new perspective. We need to clarify the roles, tasks and capabilities needed for sponsors, for project managers or a PMO, to effectively enable a self-organizing, successful living project. The nature of the governance processes for such a project also require much more thought, especially when a community of organizations must form partnerships to sponsor and support a project. There are, however, quite a few of us now on this journey and the learning is just beginning.
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Owen, Harrison. 1997. Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco.
Owen, Harrison. 2004. The Practice of Peace. Human Systems Dynamics Institute.
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