Opening Space for Nichtwissen (The Question)

Harrison Owen

The German word, Nichtwissen, has – so far as I am aware – no direct cognate in English. Wissen, of course comes across easily as “knowledge,” but Nichtwissen is radically different and much deeper than the dictionary supplied translation – Ignorance. Even worse is the secondary translation of nescience, a word that I personally have never previously encountered. So what English word might communicate the essence of Nichtwissen, (which means literally “no knowledge) but without the pejorative flavor of ignorance? Something positive and useful – the condition precedent to knowledge?  I think the word might be question.

In ordinary speech we normally juxtapose knowledge with ignorance with never a thought for The Question. Perhaps this explains why, at least in American circles, we are infatuated with knowledge, but remain almost oblivious to the power and impact of the precursor of knowledge – The Question. Ignorance is something to be eliminated. The Question, however, is to be cherished and cultivated, for knowledge without the question is shorn from its roots. In worst case scenarios, such knowledge becomes trivia; incidental facts and figures with no way to understand the place and purpose.  Given the current interest in the generation of knowledge, now elevated to the status of field or discipline, as in Knowledge Management, it is very much as if we were playing a most important game with one hand tied behind our back. Or some might say we play with half a deck of cards.

Knowledge and the management of knowledge have become critical issues for all those engaged in the progress of civilized life. For businesses the effective treatment of this issue marks the difference between profit and going out of business.  The issue is no less critical for governmental organizations and NGOs, albeit the nice measure of profit and loss (the bottom line) may be less obvious. Indeed this issue has become sufficiently compelling that Knowledge Management is now capitalized and whole departments, associations, and professions have been established to carry out the task.

The definition of knowledge is an elusive undertaking, but it may suffice to understand this critical element of our human enterprise as the sum total of our collective experience. Some of this experience is readily available for our daily use, and a much larger part has been forgotten. The accessible elements of our human experience are put to work everyday, and the hidden parts become the special passion of those dedicated to unearthing our past. Historians of all sorts plow the fields of the past, hoping to turn up critical snippets and profound insights that may be of use today. Knowledge Management and knowledge managers assume the daunting task of bringing all of this together for the enrichment of our common lives.

As important as knowledge and Knowledge Management may be, it seems to me that our fixation on all this has effectively blindsided us to an equal, or perhaps more important concern: The Question.

In the early 60’s I found myself at Johns Hopkins University, a citadel of learning and knowledge. While there I was privileged to meet and know a leading geneticist, Bentley Glass. We talked of many things over the course of several years, but what I remember most particularly was his passion for the question. On a wintry day our conversation turned to his work and how he did what he did. In an off handed comment he said – “Making a major discovery is exciting, if only because it expands our field of knowledge. We reward people for such discoveries. But for myself, the real passion is the question. Getting the answer is easy once you have the question right. I have always thought we should have Nobel Prizes for the super questions.”

Some 20 years later (1977), Rosalyn Yalow won the coveted Nobel Prize for her work on nuclear magnetic resonance, which has become the foundation for much of the science and practice in non-invasive medical imaging (MRI). Roz, as she was known to her friends and colleagues, did all of her work at the US Department of Veterans Affairs, where I was also employed. When she won the Nobel, we decided to make a movie about her life and work. It was a good movie, I think, but the best part was a small snippet of an on-camera interview. The interviewer asked the provocative question, “Roz, why do you do what you do?” to which Roz replied, “I do what I do because each morning when I come into my laboratory I know that I have the opportunity to ask a question that nobody has ever asked before.”

A passion for the question, or a reverence for the “unknowing,” is not a recent phenomenon. Sometime around 500 ce a Christian mystic, known to the world only as Dionysius the Areopagite wrote at length on what he called the “Great Cloud Of Unknowing.”  Never to be confused with ignorance, and vastly deeper than knowledge, either as fact or theory, The Great Cloud of Unknowing was in truth the deep source of all knowledge – the primal question. Or perhaps we might better say – the primal quest.

It may be argued that early Christian Mysticism has little relevance to the current fad of Knowledge Management, and I would find it difficult to disagree. I suspect, however, this lack of perceived relevance reveals a profound weakness in the current Knowledge Management enterprise. The fundamental concern has been with knowledge. What is missing is a deep appreciation of the fundament of knowledge: The Question. A more robust enterprise would include both, knowledge and its source, the answer and the question. And this robust enterprise, by whatever name, must concern itself not only with harvesting the fruits of knowledge (fact, figures, theories, procedures) but also the preparation and maintenance of the field from which all knowledge grows.

Opening Space for The Question: Preparation of the field of Knowledge

For the past 20 years I have been involved in a marvelous natural experiment with Open Space Technology which can, I believe, shed some useful light on the issue of the “preparation and maintenance of the field in which all knowledge grows.”

Open Space Technology is a very simple method which enables groups of people, large and small, to constructively deal with complex and conflicted issues in a surprisingly short period of time. Along the way it inevitably occurs that new knowledge and approaches to old and emergent problems are developed – in addition to multiple other positive results. But it is the knowledge generation aspect which makes Open Space relevant to this present discussion.

Briefly described[1], in Open Space the people concerned with some significant issue are invited to sit in a circle, create a bulletin board on which they post the critical sub issues that each person wishes to address with their colleagues – after which a market place is opened where the details of time and place of meeting are negotiated. And then it is off to work. It is significant that all Open Space events start with nothing but a question. There are no presentations, no preset agendas, no conference management committees, no resource people, and no intervening facilitators – only a question.  The precise nature of the question of course varies with the situation, and so if the people are gathered to enhance the water supply for their village, the question might be something like, “What are the issues and opportunities for enhancing the quality of the water supply for our village.” The question is broad enough to allow for the exploration of an infinite number of answers. But it is sufficiently focused to insure that the people who come know why they are present. And if they are not interested in that question, they probably should not attend.

In the 20 year period since 1985 when I created Open Space, it has been used in excess of 60,000 times in 108 countries with groups ranging in size from 5 – 2000.  Typical applications have included such things as strategic and tactical planning for Rockport Shoes Inc – in which some 400 employees established goals and directions for their company in addition to developing a totally new product and redesigning their inventory system. All of this was accomplished in 2 days, and except for the opening and closing of the event there was absolutely no intervention by the facilitator (me) at any time. The people did it all by themselves. In another case, some 2008 German Psychiatrists gathered for a single day’s event intended to synthesize their collective learning at the conclusion of their biannual conference and further build the common body of knowledge. In all they created 236 working groups in about half an hour, self-managed the entire process and produced a book of proceedings as a record of their effort. In the United States, a much smaller group (23) of architects, technicians, and executives completely re-designed the AT&T Olympic Pavilion for the 1996 Olympics. They essentially started with a blank sheet of paper, and at the conclusion of 2 days had a totally new design down to the level of working architectural drawings for the $200,000,000(US) project. Once again the group did it all without outside intervention.

In a radically different application, 50 Palestinians and Israelis met in Open Space. These 50 souls were not your standard “peaceniks” – but rather an extreme representation of the conflicting passions and positions in that troubled part of the world. They came together in Rome around the question: What are the issues and opportunities for ending the cycle of violence?” For two and one half days they engaged the issues and each other with fierce intensity, but by the end they had found a number of ways, large and small, to make their common life more livable. It would be a gross overstatement to suggest that full peace broke out in the Middle East, but it would not be an error to say that in the moment the participants experienced real peace characterized by mutual respect, trust and hope. Peera Chodorov, a senior advisor to the Israeli Foreign Minister said, “The visual memory etched in my mind: smiling people, embracing, even kissing, a certain sense of intimacy in the “Open Space.” I pray that we shall be able to safeguard this initial start, and succeed in imparting it to more and more people.” Once again the people did it all by themselves with no advance training, or intervening facilitation.

There is no such thing as a complete record of the various ways in which Open Space has been applied or the results achieved. However, fuller descriptions of these and other applications may be found in the books cited above in addition to the OSLIST[2] which is the ongoing (now 10 years) electronic conversation of the global Open Space community of Practitioners. My observations and conclusions are based on 20 year experience with Open Space. However, if you are looking for proof of my assertions, at least in any rigorous, scientific sense of the word, “proof,” you will find none. The reason is simple. To date there have been no formal studies of Open Space and its applications. Why the academic community has ignored something so simple, surprising and powerful is a mystery to me. For me and the thousands of people who have used Open Space, conducting formal studies has not been a high priority, if only because we have been concerned with application. And after all, when a procedure has been utilized thousands of times with predictable and comparable results, proof in the formal sense seems a little beside the point. My comfort level in making apparently unsupported observations and conclusions, however, is enhanced because, as I said above, Open Space and its applications have become truly a natural experiment, which can be replicated.[3] If you question my statements, and I hope you will, I invite you to Open Space yourself. The experimental conditions are easy to specify and the procedure is outlined in clear detail. If the conditions are present and you follow the procedure, I would expect that you will confirm my results and perhaps come to similar conclusions. But you will have to try it for yourself.

The specific applications and results of Open Space are as various as humanity itself, ranging from the development of micro-economic policy at The World Bank to the solution of water distribution problems in small underdeveloped villages. Having said that, it is also true that every Open Space in which I have participated, or heard about, achieved a common set of results, or behavioral characteristics, which I would characterize as follows: 1) High Learning 2) High Play 3) Appropriate control and structure 4) Genuine community. Of the four, it would seem that High Learning had the most to do with our present concern, but in fact all four are interconnected and supportive of the generation of knowledge, not by specifying that knowledge, but rather by creating the rich environment in which powerful knowledge may develop and grow.

High Learning is an adaptation of Thomas Kuhn’s phrase “High Science” which refers to those paradigm breaking moments when new insights radically alter the way the world is viewed.[4] I could have used the phrase in its original form, but chose to change “science” to ‘learning” simply to make the point that we are not talking about the special feats of world class scientists, but rather the deep learning experience of all sorts of people as they come to view their world in new and more effective ways. Out of the diversity of opinions and life experiences, which were often in conflict (sometimes violent conflict) come novel approaches and insights – knowledge in the most practical form.

 High Play   High Play denotes the manner in which the people involved approach their task – playfully. Quite often play is understood to be a trivial incidental compared to the real business of living. I think this is a profound error. Play for me may be the most serious (important) of our many undertakings. The importance of play derives from the fact that when we experience reality in different and unexpected ways, we seek to understand (develop knowledge about) our new experience by telling likely stories, or in more formal terms, creating theories. We take the available evidence, combined with our prior experience and try to construct reasonable explanations for the newly observed phenomenon. Almost inevitably our first attempts are flawed, and it is often the case that there are as many theories (stories) as people telling them. If everybody treats their version as the “gospel truth” it is not long before the dead hand of dogma descends, and the search for understanding degenerates into a fight amongst ideologues.  On the other hand, when people treat their new adventure in a playful fashion, there may well be serious competition, but there is also deep respect for the “opponents,” and a real joy in the game. In Open Space it is very common to see the game of knowledge building played with real skill and enjoyment – even by people who have never done anything like that before.

Appropriate Control and Structure It is often assumed that when people are invited to do only what they would like to do there would be little structure and less control. Indeed it would seem likely that the whole thing would quickly go totally out of control. In Open Space, quite the opposite occurs – to the surprise of many. When 2000 individuals (the German Psychiatrists described above) create 236 working groups, all of which meet, conduct their business, and conclude with written reports, there is obviously a level of structure and control that no conference planning committee would ever even dream of. But there is a difference from the more usual situation – all of the structure and control is emergent, created by the people themselves as needed and virtually instantaneously. Far from being an arbitrary imposition, such structure and control is completely appropriate to the people involved, the task they are performing, and the environment in which they are working. One major effect is that the structure and controls do not create barriers to knowledge creation, but rather are totally supportive of the effort. This might be contrasted with the situation in many organizations where departmental walls often create insurmountable barriers to the generation and transmission of knowledge. Communication is supposed to go up and down, but rarely across the organization chart, thus creating an obstacle course that defeats even the best of ideas. And when knowledge is guarded with fierce proprietary zeal under the assumption that knowledge is power, and power is rarely to be shared, it could be argued that contemporary organization design represents the ultimate repressive mechanism for the generation of new knowledge.

Genuine Community Without question one of the most surprising aspects of the Open Space experience is what I can only call genuine community. This is to be distinguished from what might be called pseudo community – the sort that occurs each holiday season when people gather for the annual office party, and the president/director stands before the group to proclaim, “We are all one big family.”  In Open Space it almost inevitably occurs that the participants treat each other with respect from which grows trust and hope. Even in hugely conflicted situations genuine community can make an appearance, as witness the situation with the 50 Palestinians and Israelis described by Peera Chodorov as, “smiling people, embracing, even kissing, a certain sense of intimacy in the Open Space.” The appearance of Genuine Community does not mean the elimination of conflict. If anything the level of conflict is amplified as people say what they really mean and really care about as opposed to veiled code words and mushy politically correct pronouncements.  In terms of knowledge generation, genuine community might be described as a truly collegial environment in which the full diversity of talents and interests available are welcomed and respected. This is not to suggest that all ideas are good ideas, or that all points of view are valid. But when viewpoints and thoughts are arbitrarily excluded, possibility space narrows to the point of nonexistence. It may seem that such exclusion advances the cause of knowledge generation by creating a sense of calm and order.  But the sense of calm is a false one, for the thoughts and viewpoints continue to exist, albeit underground, and useful conflict which might sharpen and clarify turns into a subterranean and destructive struggle. Ideas untested in the heat of genuine intellectual conflict are almost inevitably shallow in the extreme. 

Knowledge Generation and the Four Behavioral Characteristics

Clearly High Learning is the critical factor in terms of knowledge generation in Open Space, however the other three characteristics are very important. High Play insures that the discussion remains free from dogmatic pronouncement and ideological gridlock. Appropriate Structure and Control insure that the mechanics of organization serve and support the process of knowledge generation as opposed to being impediments created by artificial barriers. And lastly, the presence of Genuine Community allows for the participation of the full diversity of talents, experiences and opinions present in the group. Diversity, in short, becomes a resource to be cherished as opposed to a problem to be solved.

Were one able to mandate the presence of these characteristics, or possibly train groups in their manifestation and use, it would seem that almost any group could achieve effective levels of knowledge generation without reference to Open Space Technology. No need to start with the question, sit in a circle, create a bulletin board and open a market place – just get on with the business. Yet my 20 years’ experience in Open Space tells me that the behaviors and interactions reach a level of complexity and speed of manifestation as to render rational analysis almost impossible. In a word, I find it impossible to think at that level of complexity, let alone prescribe the detailed steps necessary to create, manage, and control such a situation. More to the point, I find little need to do so, if only because everything seems to happen all by itself – with minimal to no assistance. The obvious question: What is going on?

Opening Space for Self-Organization

Open Space Technology is simplicity itself. With something less than 20 minutes’ introduction by the facilitator, groups of all sizes are enabled to create their agenda and engage their enterprise. By the end of an hour and a half, working groups have assembled to probe and discuss the critical issues they identified. Over the course of the Open Space (usually one to two days) groups continue to meet at the self selected times and places, and as each group concludes its discussion reports are generated and distributed to the entire body. The facilitator, who began the event, is practically invisible, offering neither direction nor intervention during the process. Some facilitators (myself) have even been known to take a nap. In a word, the people involved do it all by themselves without benefit of a management committee or external intervention.

Seen from the viewpoint of the conventional wisdom and practice of group process and meeting management, the experience in Open Space is an enigma. In fact it probably could not, or should not happen. “Everybody knows” that you can not take 2000 people, leave them to their own devices without benefit of agenda or direction, and expect that anything other than mass confusion will result. Yet in thousands of instances over the past 20 years, groups ranging is size from 5- 2000 have done the impossible. Once again – the question: What is going on?

The only plausible explanation that I have discovered is that Open Space works because self-organization works. The precise nature and definition of self-organization is an evolving discussion, the end of which is hardly in sight. However, the reality of self-organization has assumed a firm position in the minds of many in the scientific community.

My favorite guide to the emerging thought world of self-organizing systems is Stuart Kauffman and his colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute.  Kauffman is a biologist whose life work has centered on the interesting problem of how it happened that life emerged from the primal ooze. I am not sure that he would agree with my way of phrasing this, but it all comes down to the incredible fact that out of the boiling caldron of odd chemicals found on the surface of the early Earth, we showed up. And how did that happen?

Kauffman’s answer, shortly stated, is that it pretty much happened all by itself.[5] Or as he says with mantra-like regularity, “Order for free.”  Given certain very simple pre-conditions, the dis-organized gets itself together. The essential pre-conditions are: 1) A relatively safe, nutrient environment. 2) High levels of diversity. 3) High levels of complexity 4) Sparse prior connections 5) The search for fitness 6) Being at the edge of chaos.

A Relatively safe nutrient Environment   Even a self-organizing system requires a little peace and quiet to get its act together. In the early days here on Earth that might mean being in the shadow of a friendly protecting rock, temporarily blocking the violent radiation from the Sun. High Levels of Diversity means that the stew out of which the new organism (organization) will emerge must contain a lot of different elements. If everything is the same, not much will happen. High levels of complexity might better be rendered “High levels of potential complexity. The point is that the soon to be organized elements must have the capacity of fitting together in a variety of complex interrelationships. If it only goes together in one way, it is possible that organization might emerge, but the chances go way down. Sparse prior connections is probably a more obscure statement than it needs to be, for the idea is quite simple. The point is that the elements to be organized should not already be organized – hence they are not connected in a prior (previous) organizational form. The Search for Fitness is, of course, the touchstone of Darwinian evolutionary theory, although it is more usually rendered (incorrectly, I think) as the survival of the fittest.  The central point is that there is present a “desire” to function at a higher level, and therefore a search for a better way to fit in with the surrounding world. Those who fit better, survive better.

Since Kauffman is largely talking about atoms and molecules coming together in new and better ways, the ascription of “desire” to these inanimate objects may be rather a stretch, and would certainly imply some level of consciousness at the atomic level. Who knows whether that is true or not, but my intent is only to indicate that there is a search for a better way to be (conscious or not). Thus if you are an atom and I am an atom, getting together to form a molecule may present some positive advantages in terms of our ability to get along in the world. Likewise, if two simple molecules get together (organize) they would constitute a complex molecule, which could have its own advantages.

The last pre-condition, Edge of Chaos, is (if you will) the kicker. Simply put, if the whole atomic stew is sitting there as an inert blob, not very much is going to happen. It is only when the stew is a churning mess (chaos) that the possibility of self-organization raises.

According to Kauffman, when these essential preconditions are manifest, order happens. Nobody needs to do a thing, plan a thing, manage a thing – organization just happens. When it all works, the net result is what Kauffman and his colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute call a Complex Adaptive System. It is complex in the sense that it is composed of multiple elements linked in a variety of ways. It is adaptive in the sense that the process of self-organization is ongoing as the entity searches for new and better ways to be in the world. This search may also be understood as learning, which would seem to have something to do with the process of knowledge generation. And it is a system in the sense that it all works together.

I am by no means competent to judge the quality of Kauffman’s science, a judgment which must be left to his scientific colleagues. However, I can say that at this point, the reviews of his work appear to have been largely positive, and if Kauffman has not managed to get everything precisely right, his peers seem to feel that he is heading in the right direction. While the wheels of science are turning in their own inimitable fashion, I have found myself drawn to what may be a radically pre-mature conclusion, but it is a conclusion nonetheless. What Kaufman has described in general and in detail is the key to an understanding of Open Space, and why the seemingly impossible happens with predictable regularity. Open Space works because self-organization works.

I was led to this conclusion by the possibly serendipitous correlation between Kauffman’s preconditions and my own formulation of the conditions of use for Open Space.[6] A number of years ago when asked about the best conditions for the use of Open Space, I replied,  Open Space works well when the following are true: 1) You have a real business issue of genuine concern. 2) Characterized by high levels of complexity such that no single person or small group can begin to get their minds around it. 3) High levels of diversity in terms of the people/disciplines/parties involved. 4) The presence of actual or potential conflict. 5) There is a decision time of yesterday. In short this is a matter of immediate concern. Given these circumstances, Open Space not only seems to work – it always works.

Obviously there is a large leap required in the move from self-organization at the molecular level to self-organization at the level of human systems. What happens in one place need not happen in the other, but it certainly could happen. Indeed, if self-organization is a fundamental force in the cosmos from the very beginning (all 14,000,000,000 years) as many would argue, would it not be strange if that small, recent part of the cosmos, human systems, be somehow exempt? One might equally expect the exemption of human systems from the force of gravity. Further more, as I read Kauffman’s  material, I was struck not only with the verbal similarities between his preconditions for self-organization and my own conditions of use for Open Space, I also believe I could point to specific ways in which the Open Space process itself created the conditions for self-organization a la Kauffman. Over time, suspicion moved to intrigue until at this present moment I find myself convicted by the conclusion that Open Space is self-organization at the level of human systems.

Time will judge the validity of this conclusion, but in the interim I ask that you accept it, at least for the sake of the argument, or perhaps as a testable hypothesis.

Possibility Space and the Search for Fitness

Having made the jump (at least for the sake of the argument) from Open Space viewed as a curious meeting management procedure to Open Space as an exemplar of Self-organization at work, we may now press on with our central concern of the role of The Question in the generation of knowledge. Or perhaps, the necessity for unknowing as a prerequisite for knowing; Nichtwissen as the precursor (foundation) of Wissen. The key, I believe, lies in the Search for Fitness, and of equal importance, the place (space) where that search is carried out – which I would call Possibility Space.

The researchers at the Santa Fe Institute have denominated self-organizing systems Complex Adaptive Systems. The key word is adaptive, which indicates that the system, be that molecular or human, is constantly adapting to its internal and external environment seeking a better fit, a better way of getting along in the world. This might also be called learning, for the system is not only finding better ways to be, it is also remembering them for future use. In short a body of knowledge is being built which will enable higher levels of survival. Obviously in the case of atoms and molecules we do not have neuronal pathways created in nonexistent brains, but the “memory” (and learning) is real nonetheless, captured in the novel structures created: new molecular confections which are able to do what no molecule had ever done before.

The adaptive process is also visible in higher level systems, for example ant colonies.[7] These tiny creatures, without benefit of anything that we might call a brain, construct architectural wonders, engage in hugely complex social behaviors, and manage to sustain themselves in a constantly changing world. And they learn with great rapidity and quickly apply the fruits of their learning.

Each day as the dawn breaks (metaphorically, for it seems the ants discovered 24X7 long before their human neighbors) the ants emerge from their home. Although they march forth in a single column (ant hills usually have but a single entrance), the column quickly breaks ranks and the individual ants disperse across the landscape in a seemingly random and chaotic fashion – but there is a purpose, a quest, a question – and it is called FOOD! And there is an abundance of Nichtwissen. If the goal is food, the location and nature of that food is unknown, lost we might say in a great cloud of unknowing.

And how do you get there from here? Judging from the ants’ behavior a straight line approach is not part of the strategy. Each individual ant picks its own way. No tightly controlled “matrix search” for these creatures. Each ant is on its own, does its own thing – back and forth across the landscape.

What seems random for the individual is in fact a concerted effort for the collective. However, to achieve the hoped for results (food) certain basics are required: Lots of space. Lots of ants. Lots of redundancy.

The space is what I have called Possibility Space. To the casual (or uninformed) observer it would appear that there was nothing there. This is a profound error, for the space is literally full – of possibility. While nothing may be visible at the moment lots of things could be there. And the more space, the more possibility. Of course, there are no guarantees, save one. If you limit the space, you will limit the possibilities. Under ideal circumstances, the Possibility Space would be absolutely unlimited. This of course, would mean that the possibilities (of finding food) are unlimited.

Unlimited possibility is a wonderful ideal, but realizing that ideal can be a problem, unless you have available an infinite number of “space explorers.” Mother Nature doesn’t quite do “infinite,” but the numbers are definitely impressive, as every picnicker realizes to their discomfort when the ants invade their picnic.  From nowhere and everywhere the thousands invade, and just as you manage to choke off one point of entry, the persistent hordes find another. At that point it will dawn upon you that what appears as random (pointless?) behavior is extraordinarily effective. For the ants, the infinite Possibility Space in now full of substance. The end of their quest is in view: FOOD.

Beneath all of the activity, there is a secret weapon in operation. And like many good secrets, it is hidden in plain sight. The secret is redundancy. Individual ants repeat, and repeat, and repeat the basic actions of their fellows. There are minor variations for sure, caused by the peculiar characteristics of each ant (yes, ants are different) and the terrain being negotiated, but the fundamental action is the same in every case. But differences, even very small differences, do make a difference.[8] The small variations in apparently identical behavior effectively expand the area of search, and so by seemingly doing the same thing over and over again, new territory is explored, new Possibility Space is encountered. Redundancy is powerful.

To many people in the modern world, particularly managers and executives, redundancy seems to be the ultimate waste of time, the epitome of inefficiency. For apparently good reasons major efforts are devoted to the elimination of redundancy. And indeed, when you actually know what you are doing, redundant behavior is wasteful. However, when the objective is the pursuit of knowledge, the exploration of Possibility Space – redundancy is not only useful, it is a marvel of efficiency, as we are rediscovering with the advent of massively redundant computer systems. Parallel processing beats serial processing every time. And massively parallel (redundant) processing is unquestionably the king of the heap.

When redundancy and numbers triumph Possibility Space reveals its treasure. For the ants this means FOOD, and for you it means keeping a special watch on that sticky tart you were saving for desert. It could be gone. In an instant, the apparently random behavior of the ants transforms into a single column of industrious ants demolishing the tart piece by piece and carrying the prize home. The secret is simple, accurate, and quick communication. According to the people who study such things, the ants use a potent combination of  little dances and trace chemicals to inform their fellows not only that the search is successful, but also the most direct route to the food and back to the hill. Random behavior becomes concerted action. Your tart is history.

What we learn about learning from the ants may be summarized as follows. Given large numbers and redundant action, all combined with simple, accurate and quick communication, Possibility Space will yield its treasure. For the ants the fruits of knowledge are quite concrete: dinner. It is also worth while noting that this marvelously complex, albeit elegantly simple, exercise in learning and knowledge generation happens all by itself. There is not a professor in sight, nor a curriculum management committee. A Complex Adaptive System is a Learning Organization, which might suggest that special efforts to create Learning Organizations are rather a wasted effort. If the science is correct, Learning Organizations have been in existence from the beginning – all 14 billion years.

Open Space as Possibility Space

Every Open Space event starts with nothing but a question, and a question unlike statements, creates space. The space created is not nothing. In the first place it is a defined space having broad limits, but making it clear that we are talking about “this” space as opposed to all others. “What are the issues and opportunities for enhancing the quality of water supply for our village?” This question creates the conceptual space where the focus is the water supply for our village.  Certain things are excluded, as for example the water supply on Mars. It is also evocative space for those who care about “our village” and “the water supply.” Only those who care will be drawn to this question. The magnetism of the question charges the space with the electric sense of possibility. But please note — there isn’t an answer in sight. For this is a real question as opposed to a rhetorical question.

When the question is asked and the people assemble, they sit in a circle – with nothing in the middle. There are no tables, no podiums; only the people facing each other, with nothing in the way. And if there are 2000 people it is a very big circle, a very big space. But even with smaller groups, the intervening space feels strange to most participants, awesome to some. It is worthwhile noting the behavior of the group as the people take their seats. Some appear confused as to where they should sit, for no places are marked, and in a circle there is neither front nor back, head nor foot. Like small children approaching a cold swimming pool, they are keenly aware of the edge and when they cross that edge (stick a toe in the water), they will quickly retreat. If they find it necessary to go to the other side, they will walk all the way around the circle rather than cutting across.

The physical space and the conceptual space complement each other. The magnetism of the question draws people in and the awesomeness of the open space keeps them at a distance. The atmosphere can be fairly described as charged, as an electrical field is charged. The empty open space is negative – which is not to say bad or nasty, but negative in the sense that an electrical field has a negative pole as well as a positive one. Metaphorically (and perhaps in reality) the open space is the grounding point, a huge void summoning the positive flash of energy and insight from the people on the perimeter. This, I believe, is the power of The Question. It is Nichtwissen made manifest. And except for The Question in everybody’s mind, not a word has been spoken. But the field in which knowledge may grow has been prepared.

What happens next in a typical Open Space is a major surprise for many first time participants, and quite unbelievable to most people who have never witnessed such an event. The facilitator very briefly outlines the approach and then invites the participants to come to the center of the circle with all the issues they wish to pursue. From start to finish, the facilitator’s introduction usually takes about 15-20 minutes. When the words end, there is a moment of total silence – which may seem like an eternity to the sponsor of the event, but rarely last more that 10-15 seconds before the first participant arrives in the center of the circle to write his or her issue on a piece of paper and announce it to the total group. The rush to the center is often almost overwhelming, and it is not uncommon to see a queue of 50-60 people standing patiently waiting to announce their issues. As each issue is announced the participant posts the issue paper on a large blank wall and the announcements continue until there are no further issues to be raised. The number of posted issues can be staggering; 236 in the case of the 2000 German Psychiatrists. When the last issue is announced, the entire group is invited to go to the wall and sign up for issue sessions they wish to attend, and if there are problems in terms of meeting times or duplication of subject matter the participants themselves make the necessary changes. In short order the group has dissolved into multiple small groups, and once again the open space is empty. All of this occurs in an hour to an hour and a half, or less.

To a casual passer by, the happenings in Open Space appear chaotic, confusing and random. Several thousand people moving to a wall without any direction or facilitation appears as nothing short of a mob scene. And while it may become quieter over the next day or two in Open Space, the actual situation is, if anything, worse. Although it may seem that the participants have nicely organized themselves into smaller groups around particular issues, it quickly becomes apparent as the groups begin their discussions that in many instances the posted topic is only a starting point with little predictive power in terms of the final result. Discussions begun in one place will end in another – or even multiple places. Physically, the groups may appear stable for a short slice of time, but over time (even a short time) it becomes apparent that there is constant movement as participants come and go. In fact this movement is encouraged by the one Law in Open Space which is proclaimed by the facilitator in the opening comments. This is known as the Law of Two Feet. Briefly stated the law says: “If at any time you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet. Move to some other place where you may learn or contribute.”

In a word, Open Space is characterized by constant movement – intellectual, physical and (often) emotional. To the outside observer this moment appears chaotic and random, having all the characteristics of a real mess. However, for a majority of the participants the constant motion seems natural, even purposeful, and while they may not know exactly where they are going, they seem to enjoy the journey (mostly).

Over the course of one or two days, which is the normal duration of an Open Space, a strange phenomenon puts in an appearance. Disparate themes and issues coalesce and transform to become common stands weaving through the discussion. Without a vote or any other formal action being taken a consensus appears. Conflicting ideas complement each other to produce more robust understandings and approaches. In a word, answers are created for issues raised. New knowledge is manifest out of the initial unknowing. Wissen emerges from Nichtwissen.

The specificity of the answers, knowledge or approaches varies with the starting point of the overall conversation. If the starting point is global (something like Peace on Earth) the ending may seem rather diffuse. However, if the starting point is more concrete and focused it is quite common to conclude with action plans ready for implementation, or in some cases, already implemented. And how did all that happen?

The Search for Fitness in Open Space

With due respect for my fellow humanoids, I make bold to suggest that the operative mechanism is one well known to the ants – to the extent that ants can know. It is the age old quest, the search for fitness. As with the ants a few basic requirements for a successful conclusion exist: plenty of space, lots of randomness, large numbers. If all of this is added to a means of communication which is simple, accurate, and quick, a positive outcome, while never guaranteed, is highly probable.

I have already described the nature of the space. It is very big, although bounded sufficiently to make clear the focus and intent of the gathering. As for the random behavior, there would seem to be more than a great abundance to the point that casual observers are often overwhelmed by the mess. When it comes to numbers, there is virtually no limit. It is common in Organization Development circles to advocate getting the “whole system in the room.” Observing this admonition usual means gathering a small, representative sample of stakeholders. With Open Space, the sky is quite literally the limit. Groups in excess of 2000 have worked well, and there is no reason to think that number could not be increased. Eventually, of course, physical space may become a problem, but not an insoluble one. Given the power of Internet communication, it is quite possible to hold simultaneous, multi-site Open Spaces on a single theme for a single, very large group in several places. More people? Just add spaces.

Mention of the Internet brings us to a consideration of communication in Open Space. In a typical situation, computers are provided for the participants’ use. As each group completes its discussion, the convener of that group will make a short report on the computer. That report is then instantly distributed online and in hard copy to all participants. By the conclusion of the gathering there will be a full written report of the effort available for participants to take home or view online.

Wiring Open Space produces communication for the group which is fairly accurate, quite simple and usually fast, provided people read what they have been given – which most people seem to do. After all this is a report on the discussion of a question that the participants cared sufficiently about to come to the gathering. Normal curiosity insures that they will read in order to find out what happened. That said, the computers and reports are but the tip of the communication iceberg.

The most powerful communication happens through the oldest of mechanisms. You may call it office gossip, back channel communication, hallway whispers – but the experience has been that well before some newsworthy item showed up on the written reports or on the computer screens, it has already been flashed across the Open Space landscape. There are also times when the speed of communication across the group appears to outdistance even the capacity of office gossip and the rumor mill – which after all requires that one person talk to another. I cannot explain it, but only report that on multiple occasions it appeared that communication was virtually instantaneous, and the content of that communication was much more complex than a single word or fact. It appeared that something like a “collective consciousness” was in operation. Collective consciousness in this case is not to be confused with deep shared consciousness manifest in the Jungian archetypes, but rather a functional intelligence that appeared capable of observing a situation, consider the options, and then take concerted action – all without a word spoken and in an incredibly short period of time (minutes)[9]. How this works, I don’t have a clue, but in the situations where the collective consciousness became manifest I found myself reminded of the behavioral shift of the ant colony when they moved from random search to well ordered columns, bringing home the tart, all of which seemed to happen with the snap of a finger. I suppose if ants can do it, humans might be capable as well.

Learnings about Learning – The Gift of Nichtwissen

So what have we learned about learning? What have we learned about the pursuit, acquisition, and maintenance of knowledge? How would we practice a truly robust Knowledge Management? A simple answer to all these questions might be: Open Space!

I do not believe such an answer would be wrong, but it is certainly less than satisfying. In fact there are probably a number of situations in the business of Knowledge Management where the elegant simplicity of Open Space Technology could be truly useful. Given a burning question requiring immediate solution (knowledge), invite everybody who cares to sit in a circle, create a bulletin board, open a market place – and get to work. While there are no guarantees in life, it is highly probable that after a day or two, pertinent answers will make an appearance, or at the very least the question itself will be better understood.  

However, for the majority of situations where the use of Open Space Technology may be neither possible nor practical, but the need for knowledge no less compelling, I believe there are at least two fundamental imperatives. First, honor the gift of Nichtwissen. And second, respect the power of redundancy. Doubtless there are many more considerations, but these two fly in the face of much of the conventional wisdom and practice when it comes to the generation of knowledge. It is therefore likely that they will be forgotten or avoided in the enterprise.

Honoring the gift of Nichtwissen (un-knowing) is the point of departure. Here in the United States, and I suspect in most other parts of the Western world, the drive towards the acquisition of knowledge is so strong that the critical point of departure is often (usually) overlooked. In all too many cases, the question is carelessly tended to and so the answers, when they come, look nice on paper, but have little relevance. This rush to judgment has buried us in an ocean of answers for questions we never asked, or only dimly perceive. Is it any wonder then that we find ourselves overwhelmed by a flood of information?  Sorting the good from the bad, the useful from the irrelevant is a critical task made all but impossible without reference to the question.

There is a phrase, perhaps even a practice, that comes I believe from the Quaker Tradition. It is “sitting the question.” The notion is a simple one, however hard it may be to implement for impatient knowledge seekers. When deep questions arise, Stop! Don’t move a muscle; keep your fingers off the keyboard and away from Google. Don’t talk to a soul and avoid the library. Just wallow in the question, savor it, and consider it from all angles. Go under it, around it, inside. And for goodness sake, don’t even think about an answer, for surely as the sun rises, any answer you think of will be premature. And a premature answer will not only be irrelevant, but it will also prevent you from experiencing the bitter-sweet moments that arise when sitting the question. And who knows, as you sit it may happen that the question evaporates into thin air, in which case you are spared the thankless task of finding an answer to a meaningless question. Then again, the question may become deeper and you will be consumed with the possibilities of not-knowing, and your Possibility Space will have expanded almost without limit. Nichtwissen will have given its gift.

It should be noted that not all questions are deep, and therefore worth “sitting.”  Unworthy questions would include such things as trivial questions – questions asked simply to annoy, tease, or test. For example, a parent’s questions to small child, “Have you picked up your toys?”(annoy). “Did you kiss that boy?” (tease) – or “How much is 2+2?” (test). Such questions should be answered quickly or avoided. There are also Loaded Questions, where any answer is wrong. Example: “Have you stopped beating your wife?”  Since you can’t win with a loaded question, the best thing to do is ignore it. Lastly, there are rhetorical questions where the answer is already known and/or implied. Example: “Do capitalists love money?” Unfortunately our lives are filled with such unworthy questions, which may be one of the reasons questions are not taken seriously.  

However, even an unworthy question is worth a moment’s reflection, for it may turn out that the questioner simply did not realize the jewel he or she was offering. A marvelous example is the so called “dumb question.” These are also known as “childish questions” – the sort that any moderately informed person would immediately know the answer. Simply to ask such a question immediately shows the lack of sophistication and education of the questioner, for the question has long since been settled. But has it?  When a child asks, “Why is the sky blue?” an impatient parent may pass quickly by. Or, with a little reflection (sitting), a marvelous journey could begin up into the stratosphere of our incredible blue planet. Dumb questions often turn out to be the Achilles heal of the conventional wisdom, revealing forgotten or unknown passage ways to unexplored stretches of possibility space. Personally, I have never met a dumb question.

When Possibility Space has expanded, it is time to begin the search. But remember the ants! Their random approach will appear to many modern managers and executives (not to mention Knowledge Managers) as the epitome of inefficiency. Much better, they suggest, narrow the field of inquiry, restrict the number of inquirers, and conduct the whole affair in a tightly controlled, rational fashion. Above everything else, you have to have a plan, and then rigidly follow it. The ideal approach is to have a small group of intelligent, highly informed experts consider the question, analyze the data, and move to speedy resolution. Best of all, have a single individual do all of the above.

In fact this tightly disciplined approach will work quite well, but usually only in situations where the answer to the question is already known to the experts. Speaking personally, I find this an exceptionally boring sort of question. My eldest son, Cam, remarked one day that he would quit his job should his supervisor assign him tasks he already knew how to do. I agree. Be that as it may, the approach described dominates the field, and on occasion is elevated to the status of formal program.

The Dupont Company made such a jump when they created what they called “Programmed Research.” They proposed to treat the process of innovation, knowledge generation, and the development of new products in the same way they might treat any other asset, potential or real. Areas of potential new business would be defined, cost/benefit analysis performed, and research conducted all according to a rigidly defined protocol. I suppose the approach worked reasonably well for them, or at least they seemed to think so, buttressed by the fact that they are still in business and doing very well, thank you.

However, on the single occasion when I was privileged to work with elements of Dupont, I encountered a rather different reality. I had been retained by the group of research scientists who developed and supported the product Dacron, a fabric used in everything from rugs to sails. The issue was that the product had become old and increasingly unprofitable, and senior management determined that unless new and more effective ways could be found both to manufacture and use this product, it was to be withdrawn. For the researchers involved, this also meant that their jobs would be at withdrawn. There was, therefore, a high level of motivation to do something new, or as the researchers phrased it, “achieve breakthrough research.” My job was to help them do just that.

In preparation for my assignment I spent some time with the senior laboratory directors, and asked them at one point if they had ever had a “breakthrough” – on the grounds that we might use that as a benchmark for our undertaking. They indicated that there had been 6 fundamental breakthroughs in the life history of Dacron. I did not ask them what those breakthroughs were, knowing that my ignorance of the mysteries of polymer chemistry would prevent any useful understanding. I did ask, however, whether any of these breakthroughs had been achieved in accordance with The Plan (as in The Plan for Programmed Research). There was an embarrassing period of silence until the youngest of the Directors said that none had followed the plan. I then asked a seemingly irrelevant and possibly outrageous question. “Did any of these breakthroughs almost fail to come to fruition for reasons other than technical?” Once again the youngest director replied, “One of them.” I suppose the devil made me do it, but I pressed on with a follow-up question, “Could you tell me the circumstances of this almost failure?” Again a moment of silence, and the answer was, “It almost failed when we tried to manage it.”

Interesting fact. Of six major breakthroughs, none occurred according to The Plan (in short serendipity or randomness ruled), and the one near failure occurred when those involved tried to control (manage) the situation after the fact. So much for rigorous Programmed Research! But Dupont clearly tried, and it was apparent that they truly believed in their process. But the reality, at least in this particular instance, was quite different. In fact the random search of Possibility Space occurred despite DuPont’s best efforts to the contrary. All of which suggests that they could have done better had they intentionally followed the practice of the ants. They would have ended up in the same (or better?) place without the wasted effort of following a plan (observing structures and controls) that was inappropriate to their undertaking.

The essence of the ant’s practice, as you will remember, was to employ lots of ants behaving randomly. In more colloquial terms, the swarm was sent forth to do its thing. Over the millennia, swarm behavior has been demonstrably effective, witness the fact that the ants are still very much here to upset your picnic. It has been often argued, however, that while such behavior may be appropriate to lower orders of life, human beings have risen beyond. Yet when we look closely at particular situations, such as DuPont, it appears that the proclamation of such a rise may have been premature. Further, if we are to believe the experience in Open Space, swarm behavior is not only alive and well in the human domain, but quite effective. It may well be yet another example of attempting to fix something that was not broken.

Swarm behavior has also received no small amount of bad press because it apparently demotes the individual from the preeminent position assigned in most Western Societies. It is common to speak of the inventor, the innovator, the leader as if there were one person who did it all. And the brilliant insights of the individual are contrasted negatively with the muddled mess that supposedly emanates from the swarm, the mob – as a product of group-think. Common sense should question this understanding if only because we are all, to some large extent, a product of our cultures and communities, and while one person may have said the words, written the equation, expressed the thoughts, none of those words, equations, or thoughts could have seen the light of day had it not been for the embedding culture and community.

Common sense, however, does not seem to having much of an impact on our infatuation with the individual. And the fear is often expressed that should the swarm or the mob have free reign, the individual would surely be sacrificed. Perhaps there are some circumstances where such fear may be justified, but one of the most curious facts of the Open Space experience, where the collective group (nicer words for swarm or mob) is very much in evidence, is that individual participants will often report that never before have they felt so accepted and respected for who and what they are, nor have they experienced their own individual power so acutely. It would seem that the stronger the communal sense (what I called Genuine Community) the greater the sense of individuality.

In sum – what have we learned about learning, knowledge and innovation in terms of practical application? Simply put: Sit the Question and thereby receive the gift of Nichtwissen. And then, in the power of that gift, head for the hinterlands of Possibility Space in the company of all who care to come. Forget The Plan. Do your own thing, but keep the question firmly in mind as your guiding star. If enough of you do this often enough, possibility will often become reality.  It is called the search for fitness, and it has been going on for 14,000,000,000 years.

[1] For a complete description please consult my book, Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide, Berrett-Koehler, 1997. A German translation is also available with the title, Open Space Technology: Ein Leitfaden fur die Praxis, Klett-Cotta, 2001. See also  Expanding Our Now: The Story of Open Space (Berrett-Koehler, 1997) or the German translation, Erweiterung des Moglichen: Die Entdunkeng von Open Space (Klett-Cotta, 2001)

[2] To join the OSLIST go to  It is without charge, but you will have to register.

[3]  For more on Open Space as a natural experiment, please see my book, The Power of Spirit, (Berrett-Koehler, 2000, page 3 and following).

[4] Kuhn, Thomas, Structures of Scientific Revolution,  University of Chicago, 1962

[5] Kauffman, Stuart, At Home in the Universe,  Oxford University Press, 1995

[6] In the interest of the reader’s time, I have limited my explanation to the briefest of terms. However, a fuller description of the relationship between self-organization and Open Space will be found in my book, The Power of Spirit, Chapter III, “Chaos, Order, and The Creative Process.”

[7]  See Johnson, Steven, Emergence, Scribner, 2001

[8] With thanks to Gregory Bateson for this profound insight. See Bateson, Gregory, Mind and Nature, E.P. Dutton, 1979

[9] For a description of such a moment see my book, Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide, Berrett-Koehler, 1997. Page 120. This is the story of The Naked Lady.