In some recent work I have been doing, it occurred to me that Open Space Technology might provide a framework for capturing the Wisdom of Crowds to resolve complex problems. This draws together three very timely business concepts, and I thought it might be worth exploring this further on these pages. Here’s what I’ve come up with.
First, a recap: A complex problem or situation is substantially different from a merely complicated one. Here’s how you know a problem is complex:
A simple example can be found in the accounting profession. Accounting is complicated — there are a set number of well-defined rules and principles that the accounts either conform to, or do not. By contrast, auditing — the art of verifying whether errors or fraud have occurred in the accounts — is complex. The new Sarbanes-Oxley rules notwithstanding, there is no set of procedures that can be performed that will definitively determine whether errors or fraud have occurred, and there are an infinite number of ways such errors or fraud can arise.
Another simple example concerns the occurrence of earthquakes. Designing a bridge that can withstand a 9.0 magnitude earthquake is a complicated problem — there are a finite number of considerations, so engineers can state with a high degree of certainty that the bridge will stand up to such a test. Predicting when and where a 9.0 magnitude earthquake will occur is a complex problem — at least with today’s science, there are simply too many variables, and their interrelationship too indeterminate, to make a prediction with any useful degree of reliability.
This is the challenge we currently face with another complex problem — global warming. There are so many variables, and causality is so difficult to determine, that some industry spokespeople have even been able to deny it is occurring at all, or, if it is, to deny that human industrial activity causes it or affects it significantly. Even though there is much compelling evidence of correlation between CO2 emissions and average surface temperatures, its very complexity provides enough ‘wiggle room’ for skeptics and procrastinators to forestall any meaningful action to address climate change. Similar challenges face us in grappling with other complex, ‘wicked’ problems and intractable problems like designing an effective health care or education system, resolving crime, security issues, poverty, and our propensity for violence, and achieving sustainable energy self-sufficiency..
Dave Snowden, who I think is the leading expert on the application of social complexity theory to business, has suggested that Open Space Technology offers a methodology that might be well-suited to addressing complex problems. Here is how I think such an approach might work:
In an audit, there is no ‘invitation’ per se. The audit team interviews client personnel, asks them questions about internal controls (barriers to error and fraud) and conducts analytical and other tests on the accounting records, and ‘reasonability’ tests on ‘soft numbers’ that rely on subjective estimates. Recently, as a result of the Enron fraud, some additional standard tests have been mandated under Sarbanes-Oxley and similar audit regulations. These procedures, however, have the effect of trying to reduce the complex audit ‘problem’ (detecting any material errors or frauds) to a merely complicated problem. There remain many opportunities for material errors and frauds to occur, though experienced auditors tend to use a variety of intuitive and judgemental procedures in addition to prescribed ones. Even in the aftermath of Sarbanes-Oxley, the number of financial statement ‘restatements’ (mostly downwards) of prior year results attests to the inadequacy of ‘complicated problem’ checklists to resolve a complex problem. And we’ll certainly see some big frauds that these procedures failed to catch.
If we wanted to address the challenge of global warming sensibly, we might use the Open Space process above. The invitation would include anyone who cared about and was reasonably informed about the problem, including the skeptics — any point of view is welcome if it is engaged by the invitation. A partial framework or topology of the entire global warming issue would be sketched out by the event facilitators, and enhanced and mapped to the ‘convened’ conversations as different aspects of the issue were selected and scheduled for discussion. And the ‘scribes’ for the conversations might structure their notes on each aspect according to the nature of the contributions made during the conversations: problem articulations and missing data (“what we don’t know”), stories, relevant data, observed patterns, correlations, and measures (“what we do know”), and hypotheses, assumptions, ideas, theories, models, approaches, and potential resolution methods (“what we suppose”).
Participants would be trained to recognize and appreciate (“open themselves to”) different frames of understanding, perspectives and points of view. They would need to learn to develop critical capacities to understanding complex systems, and to appreciate those capacities in others. And they would be taught to recognize and seek the probes, attractors and barriers through which complex systems are explored and influenced, so that, in starting to put together personal and collective action plans, they would talk specifically of probes (that would ‘test’ the “what we suppose” assumptions about global warming and solicit further information to resolve “what we don’t know”), and of attractors and barriers that would appear, respectively, to encourage behaviour that the participants believe would help ameliorate global warming, or to discourage behaviour that they believe would aggravate it. This, according to social complexity theory, is as close as one can get to ‘solving’ a complex problem — which is why they are so intractable.
Near the end of most Open Space sessions, there is an opportunity for each participant to reflect on the conversations in which s/he has been involved, put together a personal action plan based on the understandings that have emerged, and then approach others to combine, where it makes sense, personal actions into collective actions.
In their book Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner studied exhaustive data sets that confirm the most compelling correlation with (and most likely cause of) the decline of crime rates in many urban areas of the US in the last few decades is the Roe vs. Wade decision, which finally opened opportunities for legal abortions to many of America’s urban poor. While this assertion is highly contentious, I wonder if an Open Space event focused on similar types of complex mysteries might be able to reveal other astonishing and unsuspected correlations with far-reaching implications, in areas where statistical data is much harder or even impossible to find?
If we used the approach suggested above, the overall structure of a Complex Problem Open Space event might look something like this:
Conceptually, this seems to me to be an ideal melding of the best of social Complexity Theory, Open Space Technology and the Wisdom of Crowds principles, and bringing in learnings from Lakoff’s Frames theories and Freakonomics methodology, to provide a means by which intractable problems could be addressed in a flexible, constructive, and yet highly disciplined way, so that a broad and deep understanding of the issue could emerge, and where resolutions that might never be revealed in more traditional ‘problem-solving’ venues might be identified and pursued by those ‘responsible’, in a self-organizing and very fluid and dynamic setting.
What do you think?
This is a convergence of ideas suggested to me by Chris Corrigan, Michael Herman, my business partner John Sutherland, George Lakoff, Dave Snowden, Steven Levitt, Stephen Dubner and James Surowiecki, all of whom I thank, and to whom I apologize for any misrepresentation ormisapplication of their concepts or practices.
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