The four elements – Open Space Technology

Continuing the series on the four elements applied to management (see the introduction here), let’s discuss a technique called Open Space Technology (OST).

Open Space Technology ( is a meeting organization technique developed by Harison Owen. Its stated objective is to try and replicate the kind of productive and enjoyable talks people use to have in coffee breaks. The basic mechanism revolves around three steps: In the first part, all the participants are organized in a circle, and every one that sees fit stand up and propose a topic for discussion. In the second part, the different sessions are schedule, by people selecting in which of the proposed topics they’re interested, and agreeing on times and places for the meetings. In the third moment, the actual sessions are held.

It seems to have had incredibly good results so far. Harison Owen claims to have found the key to the success of his technique, namely that it’s caused by the team’s self-organization. I have a different explanation though, and it is based on the knowledge of the four elements.

First of all, although Mr. Owen is referring to self-organization in the sense that the team itself is organizing the meeting, he goes all the way to implying that this kind of self-organization is analogous to self-organization in the sense Per Bak and others talk of self-organizing criticality of dynamic systems. That is what the Jains call Sabdanaya, the error to mistake one concept for another only because they have the same name (one of the errors that the late Wittgenstein fought so hard against).

In the self-organizing systems, there’s no organizing agent, external or otherwise. Any high-level order the system may display comes entirely as an emergent product of lower-level relations. An example is the food chain in ecosystems. No living being in any ecosystem gives a damn about the food chain, they’re busy trying to keep themselves alive (usualy by taking other living beings’ lifes), the food chain and the optimizations thereof are only a by-product of each individual trying to optimize its own survival. In an OST meeting, each participant has already a high-level objective. It’s not as if the participants are only trying to get closer to the coffee break table and voilà!, they’re sitting on a circle.

But even if we assume for a moment that, by coincidence, this kind of self-organization is good for optimization (as the other kind of phenomena that happen to have the same name seem to be), I still claim that it’s not the OST’s success’s root cause.

Let’s look at Mr. Owen’s own words to try and find another clue. In his book “Open Space Technology – A User’s Guide – Third Edition”, he claims that “[f]or Open Space to work, it must focus on a real business issue that is of passionate concern of those who will be involved”. Let’s keep this statement as Lemma 1.

Let’s look for another hint on the OST’s four principles:
– Whoever comes is the right people
– Whatever happens is the only thing that could have
– Whenever it starts is the right time
– When it’s over, it’s over.
Let’s keep it as Lemma 2.

To find another piece to our jigsaw puzzle, let’s look at Chapter X – Follow-Up. In the rest of the book, the message is: OST works, and leads to excellent results. But in this chapter, he points out that, after the meeting is over, there is the challenge to make it really generate tangible products. That’s Lemma 3.

What we can conclude from all that. From Lemma 3, it becomes clear that the results that OST claims to get, and seems to actually get very efficiently are actually results in an Airy sense. OST is really focussed on Air’s goals (good ideas), so it would be unfair to expect it to generate Earth’s objectives (concrete results). But, in the same token, if you need Earthy results, don’t expect OST to be you silver bullet. You’ll still need Earth methods at some point to get down the ideas to the ground.

But what OST does prove is that, if you want Air to blow with all its strenght, you need a good amount of Fire (Lemma 1), and you need to restrain Earth to a minimum (Lemma 2). Several other people seem to have come to the same conclusion, as we can see in other techniques such as Brainstorming. That’s the core of why OST works, IMO.

The funny thing is that Mr. Owen actually came to the same conclusion, but he didn’t go all the way with it, somehow letting himself fall into the self-organization trap.

Let’s let Mr. Owen speak:

“Whole books have been written on the Medicine Wheel, its forms and uses, but for our purposes, it is sufficient to know that many Native Americans understand each individual and all groups of people to be composed of four elements. Those elements are representes by the four points of the compass, certain animal symbols, and colors.

The north is leadership, the powerful trail breaker, pointing the direction and opening the way for Spirit to growand evolve. The animal is the deer and the color is red [My note: this is Fire]. To the east is vision, the high-flying seer of all.  The animal is the eagle and the color is blue [Air]. To the south is community, the warmth of hearth and heart, which binds all people together. The animal is the mouse (as in cuddly, warm, friendly), and the color is yellow, the color of the Sun [Water].  To the west is management. It is quite doubtful that Native Americans ever used this term, but I believe (or at leat I would like to believe) that is what they had in mind. The animal is the bear in his slow, methodical, plodding mode, best seen in the berry patch as he takes care of business. Not vey exciting, but very effective when it comes to handling the details of living in the community. The color is green, as in growing things [Earth].  

The message of the Medicine Wheel is that each individual, and all communities (organizations), have these four elements. Under the best of circumstances, there will be a balance for all are necessary, but none is sufficient by itself. In practice, however, the balance is dynamic, always changing. With the passage of time and the changing of circumstances, different elements are called to the fore: now leadership, then community. But for the people to survive, the overall balance must be maintained.

The balance of elements is affected not only by external factors but also by internal dynamics. Leaders, for example, are always suspicious of folks whose concentration is on community, heart, and hearth [My note: in traditional notation, Water kills Fire]: in contemporary jargon, the warm fuzzies. After all, what do they do really?

At the same time, bears look at eagles and suggest that if they could just come down from their heights, they might understand what the business is about [Earth kills Air]. And the eagles reciprocate by admonishing the bears to get their noses out of the berry patch and maybe the would see where they are going. Each element has its part to play, but not without a certain dynamic that leads to creative tension. But the community is lost when the elements do not work together.

Note also that there is a logical sequence to the Medicine Wheel, which requires that it be circumnavigated (walked) in a clockwise direction. One begins with leadership to the north, providing the dynamism to get the show on the road. It them becomes important to ask which road and what direction. Vision supplies the answers. Once the journey is engaged, the issue is who is coming, and community offers the response. Last but not least, a certain order is necessary for the journey, which is the jod of management. If the elements are taken in the reverse order (counterclockwise, starting with management), the net effect is to create a marvelous organization without ever considering who is being organized, what direction they are going in, or by what power. This may be the way of many businesses. When organizational structure takes precedence over the job at hand, the people, and the overall purpose, it is no wonder that the level of performance is less than optimal. 

Notice that he emphasizes that it works precisely because he starts with Fire and Air, and let Earth (and even Water) for a later moment. Since, as he himself explains, Water kills Fire, and Earth kills Air, if you want Air to blow strong, keep Earth at bay for a moment. But as he himself admits (both in this explanation and in chapter X), Earth must move in at some point, and, at this point, some Airy stuff may die (which is not necessarily bad, since seemingly good ideas may prove not to stand the test of execution). The error would be to assume that (1) OST’s final products are the organization’s final products (unless the organization as a whole plays an Airy part in a bigger value chain where other players play the Earthy roles) or (2) OST’s methods are the best way to go from beginning to end if you need an Earthy final product.

I’ve found some Airy people that seem to do that leap, basically because they, as true Air-heads, downplay the relevance of Earth’s concreteness concerns, and it sometimes seems that even Mr. Owen himself seems tempted to go through that slippery path, his own praises for element balance notwithstanding.

Another remark is that, although I see the relevance of the order he proposed (Fire-Air-Water-Earth) to his purposes (generation of ideas), the traditional order is Fire-Earth-Air-Water. That’s more relevant that it seems, since each element is followed by a contrasting element, helping to bring balance. If you begin with Fire-Air, when Water and Earth kick in, there are only ashes left, whereas by following Fire with Earth than Air and Water, you get this active-passive-active-passive cadence (exhale-inhale-exhale-inhale) that help to get to the balanced center.


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