Resolutions for a New Millennium

Harrison Owen

(Published in The Journal for Quality and Participation)

It is customary, at the beginning of a new year, to make certain resolutions. Things we have been doing that should stop, and other things, currently left undone, to be undertaken. Collectively this list of “dos and don’ts” constitute our New Year’s Resolutions. As we look forward to the approach of a new millennium (forget about new century or new year!), it is resolution time – big time.

You must make your own list, but mine will start with a real “biggie.” Give up control. Or at the very least give up the flawed understanding that we are, or should be, in total charge of our lives and our organizations. And if not we, then somebody else, for surely somebody must be in charge of this mess.

The issue is not control per se, but what I might call inappropriate control, the sort that occurs when control is understood as a modern day version of the Divine Right of Kings. It comes with the title. Thus if your title is CEO, President, Boss, or Manager, the presumption is you are in charge – totally. And if you lose control (God forbid) you are typically out of a job.

This notion of total control is re-enforced in a number of ways, subtle and not so subtle. Under the heading of not-too-subtle is the typical performance evaluation which considers such important factors as: 1)How many people do you control? 2) How long have you done that? And 3) How well to you do it? If the answers to these questions are: Lots of people, for a long time, and totally – you go to the head of the class and are usually rewarded with a high level of compensation.

A more subtle re-enforcement of the notion of total control comes from all the rest of us who are not in charge. After all, if you are not in charge, you are not really responsible. When business goes south, we all know who to blame, and it isn’t us.

Actually, giving up control, as we used to think we had it, should be a “no brainer”. On the scale of causative factors of executive burnout, to say nothing of genuine Soul Pollution, the compulsion to keep tight control has got to head the list. And of special interest to the readers of this journal, control as we used to think we had it is a real killer when it comes to Quality and Participation.

How Did We Get Into This Mess?

If some of us are coming to appreciate the limitations of control, it is reasonable to ask how we got into our present predicament. The notion of tight control, or as some would have it, an ideal of absolute control over our organizations and their functions, originates with the concept of a closed system. Closed systems are to be contrasted with open systems, and the former are significant because in theory they are hermetically sealed from their environment, with everything passing in or out, and indeed all that transpires within – is subject to the closest scrutiny, might we say control.

In truth, a closed system is a scientific conceit, useful under certain experimental conditions, but never to be confused with reality. For example, if one is seeking to understand the function of some electronic particle, an experimental environment is created in which all other particles (un-controlled variables) that might confuse the experiment are excluded, Practically this means building walls of lead and concrete to keep unwanted critters on the outside. But there is a catch. Despite the best laid plans it almost inevitably turns out that something gets through. This is where hope and faith come in. It is hoped that the intruders will exercise such a small level of disturbance such that the experiment will be valid. Faith is required in order to believe that the experiment is in fact un-contaminated, until such time as this faith is proved unwarranted. The experiment must then be re-done, but this time with more lead and more walls.

The point here is not to denigrate the scientific enterprise, which has demonstrably done very well over the past 100 years or so. At issue is the notion of a closed system, and the fact that it exists only as a theoretical construct (conceit) which is useful in certain laboratory conditions, but never to be confused with reality, and certainly not to be taken as an absolute.

The road from the laboratory to the board room is a strange one, for somehow a theoretical construct turned into a pillar of organizational belief to the effect that our organizations could be viewed as closed systems, and that control might ideally be exercised in a total or absolute fashion. Needless to say, nobody ever quite got there, but that was the ideal.

To the best of my knowledge, the history of this curious turn of events has yet to be fully written, but when it is, I think some of the major milestones may be as follows.

My version of the story begins with the invention of Scientific Management by one Frederick Winslow Taylor just about 100 years ago. Taylor was an engineer who applied the principles of his trade to the design of more productive systems consisting of machines and human beings. Through endless time and motion studies, the holy grail of efficiency was pursued, and it sometimes seemed that the only difference between machine and human was that the former didn’t get tired, rarely complained about working conditions, and never suffered hurt feelings. In an ideal world, human beings would measure up to their mechanical counterparts. In the interim, however, some form of compensatory treatment was required.

B. F. Skinner came up with what seemed to be an ideal answer: Radical Behaviorism and it’s practical application, The Skinner Box. Experimental subjects (usually animals) were placed in a closed environment (a box) and rewarded for appropriate behaviors. Here was a perfect way to control the deviant human so that the ultimate boons of efficiency, effectiveness and profitability might be had.

Doubtless I have unfairly pilloried both Taylor and Skinner, for their contributions were both more subtle and less draconian than depicted. However, I do not believe myself to be grossly in error when it comes to the residue of their thought and practice as it shows up in the minds and conversation of any number of managers and executives of my acquaintance. The ideal corporation sometimes sounds strangely like the ultimate Skinner Box with a floor layout by Taylor. Control, Control, Control, most recently chronicled by none other than Dilbert.

We have obviously come a long way since the glory days of Taylorism interpreted by the principles of Radical Behaviorism. But it seems that old habits die hard. Especially something as addictive as the thought (hope) of really being in control.

Recently resurrected with new names and procedures, the search for control continues. Process Re-Engineering held out the hope that we could finally do the detailed analysis necessary to understand our systems and prescribe their functions. However, except for a few holdouts, this latest panacea has apparently run its course.

Those interested in knowing why such a totally rational, and therefore appealing, idea as Process Re-Engineering was bound to founder need look no further than the latest publications from the chaos/complexity theorists and their organizational interpreters, particularly Meg Wheatley.(1) Life in general, and organizational life in particular, is simply too complex to understand. In a word it boggles the mind. Adding insult to injury, just about the time we have it all figured out, chaos strikes, and it is a whole new ball game. So much for Process Re-Engineering and the search for the Holy Grail called control.

Alternatives to Total Control

The quest for total control has taken a few hard whacks to the side of the head recently. There are some who feel that the pain is worth the potential gain, and that someday we might just get it right. For the rest of us, a search for useful alternatives appears to be in order.

In our search, we might consider an experience now occurring broadly across the planet. Just imagine, 500 people show up at 9 in the morning to identify and resolve the hugely conflicting issues affecting their (large) national organization. In less than an hour, they have identified some 150 such issues, organized a similar number of working groups to deal with those issues, and are off to work. At the end of 36 hours, the groups have made their contributions to the final set of Proceedings (350 pages long), copies of which were available to all participants upon departure. Prior to the meeting there was absolutely no work done on the agenda, there was one facilitator for the whole event, and he went off to take a nap once things got started. What is the magic? Some people call it Open Space Technology. More accurately, it is self-organization at work.

Open Space Technology (2) is a deceptively simple approach to the organization of complex tasks. It was developed 12 years ago, and since that time has been used with groups from 5 to over a 1000, consisting of virtually every sort and condition of human being located on all continents. In every case, participants are invited to sit in a circle, identify issues of significance on a community bulletin board, and get themselves organized in a common market place. Regardless of the group size, complexity of issues, language (or languages) spoken — it always seems to work. Typically, productive activity is taking place in less than an hour and a half. And the only way to bring everything to a shuddering halt is to attempt to control the process and the outcomes. It turns out that being out of control is the only way to go, at least in Open Space.

The Open Space experience appears counter-intuitive to many, and profoundly wrong to some. We have all been taught that carefully planned agendas and tight control of the operative procedures are the only avenues to productive outcomes. And yet in Open Space, precisely the opposite turns out to be the case, and some times very profitably so.

For example, an AT&T design team found themselves in an awkward position. Their design for a $200,000,000 project (The AT&T Olympic Pavilion), which had taken them 10 months to complete, had to be scrapped and redone. Unfortunately only a fraction of that time remained before the due date.

In two days flat, operating in Open Space, the design team went from a blank sheet of paper to working architectural drawings which they all agreed were better aesthetically than the predecessor. In addition they were further along with actual implementation of the new design for they were placing orders for materials even as they were doing the design. And last but not least, the team was still talking to each other, which was useful in as much as they still had to build the Pavilion. This was quality created through total participation, and most remarkable – nobody was in charge, nobody gave detailed instructions on how to proceed. Nobody specified the end results except that there had to be a pavilion.

Seriously out of control, and very profitably so. But just imagine what life could be like if we could regularly accomplish in two days what used to take 10 months. Translated into increments of productivity — that would be something on the order of 1500% increase! Talk about competitive advantage. And if you don’t want competitive advantage, how about just having a life. With all the spare time we might gain it might be possible to spend some of it with the kids, go on a vacation, take a deep breath…

Aberrant Experience?

The Open Space experience could be totally aberrant. Then again it could be pointing to something very useful. Your choice. For myself, I take genuine pleasure, to say nothing of relief, in the apparent fact that letting go of control can have very positive results. It would be nice to think that Open Space Technology is the secret, especially since my name is closely attached to its development. But the real secret, I think, is the phenomenon of self-organizing systems. Indeed, I find myself increasingly afflicted with the totally outrageous thought – there is no such thing as a NON-self-organizing system. There are only a number of people who suffer from the illusion that they did the organizing, are in charge, and should maintain control. And so my millennial resolution to give up control really is a no-brainer. I never had it in the first place.

1. Wheatley, Margaret J. Leadership and the New Science, Berrett-Koehler, 1992

2. Owen, H. Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide, Berrett-Koehler, 1997

________ Expanding Our Now: The Story of Open Space Technology, Berrett-Koehler, 1997