Ancient Wisdom: Leave the Decisions Up to Individuals

DecisionProcess.gifThe Idea: Open Space offers a process for decision making that is the exact opposite of that used in most Western organizations: A collective understanding emerges from conversations, and individuals are then entrusted to decide what should be done.

One of the things that really struck me in my recent conversation with Chris Corrigan about Open Space meeting protocols, Appreciative Inquiry (“discover pattern, dream/envision, design, do”) and the Four Practices (“opening, inviting, holding/making room, acting/practicing”) was how it turns the hierarchical business model of doing things on its head. In business, the decisions on what to do are usually made by a few ‘experts’ (executives, specialists etc.) and then those decisions are carried out (if they know what’s good for them) by everyone else.

Here’s how Chris & Michael explain the process of acting using Open Space: “It is the personal and individual (I, me, my) pursuit of the good that we invite, in the space that we provide.” The knowledge and understanding that prompts the decisions on what to do come from collective activity, and the decision about precisely what to then do is entrusted to each individual. The individuals who are (if the process has gone well) inspired to action have the context to know best what exactly should be done in their own area, community, job, or situation. In business, the ‘experts’ cannot hope to have the Wisdom of Crowds (all of the individual knowledge and context of everyone affected), and hence are prone to make wrong, even dysfunctional decisions. The frustrated, untrusted employees are forced to implement these decisions, or quit, or, as more often happens, find ‘workarounds’ that allow them to implement what they know really needs to be done without too obviously ignoring the instructions from the top.

The result in business (as I keep saying) is that things are the way they are for a reason — and usually the reason is that the knowledgeable employees have brilliantly found a way to do what needs to be done while still appearing to be conforming to the relatively ignorant and often counterproductive instructions from the boss. It doesn’t take new employees long to catch on to this incongruity between what actually happens on the front line and what the manuals, directives, plans and organization charts would have you believe are happening. In fact the whole new field of ‘cultural anthropology’ in business entails spending enough time to study this incongruity, and gently and sheepishly report back to the executives, experts, specialists and consultants the perfectly good reasons why their advice and instructions are being ignored.

Only a few organizations (Semco and WL Gore are reputedly among them) actually use the Open Space approach to run their operations. This is, after all, scary stuff for executives who get paid to make good, tough decisions. Yet most tribal communities (other than those that have been coerced into using Western governmental structures) have used the Open Space approach successfully for tens of thousands of years. In Open Space cultures nobody tells you what to do.

Why do our business, social and political organizations ignore this obvious wisdom? Is it arrogance on the part of the executives? Is it a means for ‘experts’ to justify their large salaries? Are line staff complicit so they can always say they were just following orders when things go wrong? How and why did the mistrust and disempowerment of the front lines arise? Is it because modern organizations, public and private, are just so big they have become unmanageable, and command-and-control is hence a charade to avoid acknowledging the endemic reality of inefficiency, disconnectedness, distrust and chaos in big organizations, to their customers and other stakeholders?

Diagram above: The ‘classic’ decision-making process, adapted from NASA.

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1 Response to Ancient Wisdom: Leave the Decisions Up to Individuals

  1. AND…Visa of course is well known as being the first trillion dollar company without a CEO…not entirely Open Space, by the Chaordic Organization is certainly leaderless in a traditional sense. It’s folly for naysayers to say that this structure can’t be profitable. The idea that no one tells you what to do does not QUITE capture the essence of Open Space. Rather, Open Space runs on passion bounded by responsibility, so that stuff happens because people issue invitations and see who shows up. Sometimes a whole crowd shows, and sometimes the inviter is the only one to appear. The compulsion to be involved arises out of the invitation of the Law of Mobility: essentially, if you’re not learning or contributing go somewhere where you can or start something that wants to be started. In that sense we are compelled by ourselves to do stuff, and in Open Space individuals will do well if they continually reflect and step back and assess the value of their contribution from time to time. If it’s just not working, the freedom to find a better place to be is what keeps the whole thing together.Fine distinctions, but then again, it’s a subtle art, this DOING business!

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