Under What Conditions Is “The Answer In The Room” …Or Not? 1: The Problem

“I like Open Space Technology, but …”       This set of posts explains why I like it and also explores some ideas about limitations and (later) what to do about them.

I like Open Space Technology. I like Open Space (OS) both when used relatively directly (that is, following the prescription of the phases of generating groups, sending them off to discuss the ideas generated at the start, etc.) and I like the core idea that ‘the answer is in the room’. The latter allows powerful extensions of the narrower ‘method’ to cognate modes and to a generative, positive, appreciative inquiry (AI) mode.

In my new consultancy partnership with Pamela Kinnear (stand by for a new website etc. soon) we have been energetically discussing approaches and trying hard to identify what works and why. This discussion is a sub-set of that work, triggered by Pamela asking focused questions that touched on a few niggles I had started to feel.

OS is very popular. Search for the phrase “the answer is in the room” on Google and as of July 2015 you’ll get over 836,000 hits. On the other hand, search for “the answer is not in the room” and you get 6 and several of these are using the phrase differently—referring to the idea that reflection in one’s room without engagement with others is a weak idea. (The phrase “the answer isn’t in the room” is actually a GoogleWhack—only one hit! There is something interesting going on here.)

Intellectually, OS appeals because of the link to chaos and complexity theories. These are far and away more powerful for understanding human groups generally—and organisations in particular—than the common folk theories that abound in modernity which are inherently linear, rational and individualistic. These accounts, the inheritors of a Cartesian approach to consciousness, a Newtonian mechanistic view of causality and an individual liberalism that has flourished since the English Civil War and the American and French Revolutions (to name but a few!) are deeply embedded in approaches that are as varied as economics, accounting, civil law and that brand of management theory that loves KPIs and such like devices. My point is not that these approaches offer nothing but rather that they are far too limited in their world view and ineffective if what is needed is real change, synergy and commitment.

At worst, the top-down, listen-to-my-message approach to change that grows out of such methods reminds me of the old joke about the Sergeant-Major, moustache bristling, swagger stick under the arm, eyes glinting, bellowing at a bunch of intimidated recruits, “On my command, you will become … SPONTANEOUS!”

Practically, my consultancy experiences bear out the relevance, applicability and effectiveness of using an OS/AI approach. People are encouraged when they can express ideas, have them taken seriously, hear others and experience real dialogue, etc. Several methods contribute to this with variations of the World Café and Fishbowl discussions being staples that I’ve often relied on. Combined with other methods as needed I have created “Workshops that Work”, a phrase I adapt from Adrian Segar (see his excellent site www.conferencesthatwork.com).

Nonetheless in recent times I have hit a few glitches around a central notion of OS, namely the idea that “the answer is in the room”.  What happens when the idea is not in the room, or if it is, it does not emerge?

Briefly, here are three recent instances where the answer in the room proved a weak assumption:

  1. A Citizen’s Jury innovation was used to explore some ideas around a social policy issue which I facilitated. Citizens, recruited via a randomised contact procedure using the electoral role, were invited to a day-long meeting. At that meeting, we divided them into small discussion groups of about five people (an ideal number for a conversation). A number of experts were present and we rotated them around table by table during the morning in a kind of (moderate) speed-geeking logic. Each table thus had a chance to hear each expert and talk in some depth with her/him. Then some strategies were used to generate key discussion ideas (along OS lines) which small (re-mixed) groups debated before brining all the ideas together at the end.

The model worked quite well overall, but in one city we hit a simple but challenging problem. In the group, we had one out-spoken and mildly domineering person who had some related experience as a minor government official, which no one else could match. Despite moving him within groups and some gentle interventions to get all voices heard, his views rapidly dominated the group, many of whom were apparently pleased to follow along relatively uncritically. In that city the output was like a Citizen Jury than a Citizens’ Jury.

  1. Working together, we ran a series of workshop commissioned to discuss a major relocation of separated elements of an internal, technical service group in a large organisation to a new, combined, purpose built office space. Because the group was scattered in a number of small sites around a large, sprawling complex a ‘silo’ mentality had developed with internal friction at some points. It was anticipated that problems might arise over ‘turf’ issues and norms of interaction in the new building.

Despite a number of techniques designed to spark conversation (for example, asking cage-rattling questions like, “How could you sabotage the move?” a question that did generate energy) it proved very difficult to get the groups to get beyond what we called the 3 metre radius. What happened around their desk area (noise, distraction, smells, rubbish, etc.) or in the shared meals area (people not cleaning up, etc.) appeared to exhaust the repertoire of most folk. Absent a more ‘sociological’ frame, most people were unable—even when the issues were raised directly at points—to engage with ideas about group norms, ‘turf’ issues, etc. In short, the answers seemed not to be in the room because there was no consciousness of the issues in the room.

  1. A large workshop (over 100 people) was convened to discuss the possibility of reforming some core elements of supplier/purchaser relations in an area where very large government purchases were being made, in many cases from large, international corporations. People present included users of the goods, procurers, suppliers and maintainers. Following oversight presentations on desired ways forward to a more cooperative and collegial way of doing business, we divided the group into to three broad theme rooms to explore possibilities for a new way: what would stop, what would begin that was new, what would be retained?

Each of these three rooms used a World Cafe logic, with table outputs being combined at the end into a single view. While these syntheses were being created by a working group, other OS related techniques (including an OS Fishbowl) were used with the bulk of participants to explore the idea of a ‘behavioural code’ that might sustain a new, more collegial more cooperative and less contested way of doing business.

Was the answer in the room? Well, there were several answers that the discussion showed were needed. Many were present. A few critical ones were not.  Overall, the group seemed to very clearly:

  • Identify problems with the existing model, both practically and behaviourally
  • Describe what a better future would look like
  • Identify numerous technical fixes that would help move forward.

They were, however, unable to engage in any depth with the underlying psycho-social issues that might be producing the problems nor did they have any real insight into what it might take to fix them.

Looking on, two frames could be used to identify their problem:

  1. Using (loosely) the idea of the ambidextrous organisation, we know that the dominant hand–doing what we already are familiar and hoping that honing those skills will be enough—easily takes over form the non-dominant hand of unfamiliar and challenging novelty. The room had many technical experts, so not surprisingly they leaned, whenever there was room to move, towards the technical fix.
  2. Heifetz and colleagues have talked of the difference between the technical and the adaptive challenge—crudely put what to do vs, how to be. In this context, it was very hard for people to identify or grapple with the adaptive challenge and they had relatively few ideas about who that might be done.

These three examples do not undermine using an OS / AI approach, but they do raise some important questions about blindly assuming that (for example) the answer IS in the room. This is important because, given the overwhelming enthusiasm for Open Space and the limited critique available, we risk just jumping on an untested bandwagon.

Instead, what would happen if we asked questions like:

  • What if there is no answer in this room?
  • What if there is an answer, but we cannot ‘get it out’?
  • What if there is an answer, but it’s nonsense?

I’ll look more at these soon.


About stephenmugford

Once a sociologist (1970-1997) then a consultant who reads a lot in psychology, cognitive science, complexity, etc and wanders along paths from one topic to another.
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