The difference that makes a world of difference

This post is about the two key ways that the OPO (open participatory organization) is a radical departure from the old paradigm of organizational life.

An OPO has no direct-report dependencies

However different, just the same:  these are all direct-report dependencies

However different, just the same:  these are all direct-report dependencies

Unlike other organizational designs, the OPO has no direct-report dependencies. Which means there is no preset power relationships that authorize certain people to use disciplinary power over others to constrain their activities or leverage their motivations. Pre-set direct report dependencies is the evil that lies within our organizations, the reason why, as W. Edwards Deming (the developer of TQM) confesses about management:

Our prevailing system of management has destroyed our people. People are born with intrinsic motivation, self-respect, dignity, curiosity to learn joy in learning. The forces of destruction begin with toddlers-- a prize for the best Halloween costume, grades in school, gold stars-- and on up through the university. On the job, people, teams and divisions are ranked, reward for the top, punishment for the bottom.

Our natural enthusiasm for the company and creative interplay of others has been compromised by the institutionalization of natural human agency and relationship.  We have replaced the lively, dynamic and adaptive and emergent kinds of power negotiation, that takes place in the continuous interplay of autonomous agents in relationship and interaction with each other and through which a natural dynamic order emerges, with the  socialized, legalized, bureaucratized and militarized versions of order. 

It is no wonder, then, that as we move through the 21st century, it is still extravagant today to propose that our workplaces be places of open, democratic, participatory practices! 


By contrast, the OPO is based on  1) operational frameworks that emerge in the locations we call  core value zones, and 2) the strategic outcomes that emerge through the everyday activities in the locations we call network value zones. Like public buildings in a village, locations are part of the common wealth of the participatory community. In the OPO village, core value zones function like the industry or businesses that generate economic value-- manufacturing or educational or agricultural centers for example. In the OPO village, network value zones function like the infrastructure and services that allow the community to thrive and help transact value from the economic centers of activity to the village common wealth and beyond to a larger participatory ecology of humans and nature.  In the OPO village, every person, has a primary address which locates their central focus of participation, and specifies their proximal and distal relationships in the organization (those relationships that are closer and further away). The more open the organization, the more people are invited and attracted to participate beyond their primary focus-- to move in and out of more public spaces .  

Scrum: an operational framework for software development

Scrum: an operational framework for software development

Operational frameworks are the everyday ways we systematize or operationalize activities so our work generates more value. This can mean ways that are faster, more efficient, more quality control, more elegant design, more user-friendly. Operational frameworks describe steps to be taken, sequences to follow, feedback loops to watch, and define terms such as "entry point" and "done." SCRUM is a popular operational framework for software delivery.  Operational frameworks evolve through the continuous adaptation of processes to new contexts and conditions; and novel operational frameworks emerge when the old forms become obsolete as a result of disruptive innovations.

Strategic outcomes emerge from the interplay of operations in the core value zones and the activities in the network value zones which support them and are responsible for transacting value from core operations to the larger organizational community and beyond. The four network zones in the OPO delineate the kinds of strategic activities that every modern organization requires to sustain itself, and potentially to thrive. Each zone differs from the others with respect to a generalized domain of activity, based on what kind of resources it transacts between the larger participatory ecology and the core operations. Each zone also differs in what kinds of thinking about or language of change is best suited for that domain.

In other words, strategic choice emerges from the interplay of resource transactions and the ways we think about change.


In the OPO architecture, these domains of change are illustrated Access, Adaptation, Support, and Incubation.  They loosely correspond to the panarchy cycle of change in complex adaptive ecologies, which has also been shown to be relevant to the cynefin model of sense-making and action. Each of the domains of strategic action rely on different strategic capacities, or action-potentials that emerge only at the collective level, through participatory processes

Dispositional Action-Potential



The ways we think about change, can limit or expand our ability to make sense of it, and therefore, determines how many possibilities we see for action, and hence, how many choices we have to respond. The domain of Access requires a degree of dispositional intelligence, which relies on intuition and relates to how much we can allow into our field of perception, how sensitive we are to contexts and conditions, how finely attuned are we to subtle valences of difference and change. This is the territory of strategic detection, where we have our feelers out and into the nooks and crannies -- the shifting nuances of the world. Dispositional intelligence can be illustrated by a rock climber who can discern the route from the ground to the top of a wall that otherwise the ordinary person would see as impossible to climb. This ability to discern opportunities is what we call "affordances" in OPO strategic choice theory.  Affordances are perceptions of opportunity that reveal themselves through adequate participation in, and mastery of the task demands of the problem situation. Furthermore, just like the rock climber, dispositional intelligence requires the mitigation of anxiety over real and potential risk and the mediation of fear of the unknown.

Positional Action-Potential


The domain of Adaptation requires a great deal of positional intelligence, which relies on actively imagining multiple possibilities for action in response to multiple potential emerging conditions. The best analogy for this is the hockey goalie who must know what positions to take up depending on the many different configurations of play on the ice. Sometimes the goalie must be high on the circle and to the right, other times the best position is deep in the circle and hugging the left goal pole. In OPO strategic choice theory, positional intelligence is a matter of being able to hold a complete repertoire of positions in one's imagination, while continuously shifting and re-positioning oneself in virtual possibility space. This repertoire is also an outcome of a kind of mastery of multi variants of situations, which individuals of great strategic talent, can perform in the virtual simulations of active imagination.

Gestural Action-Potential 

In the OPO architecture, strategic support demands an effective degree of gestural intelligence, which is the ability to activate resources from a broad range of place and coordinate them into applied action. The direction this action will take emerges from the combined participation of strategic teams who are simultaneously on the look-out for shifting conditions, shaping choices in response to them, and evaluating the ability to act with ready and available resources. In the OPO strategic choice emerges from the many many local interactions of people participating in teams whose performance, objectives and values are strategic in nature.  In other words, these teams that operate in the strategic domains of the network zone in the OPO, just like the other teams in the OPO, who are responsible for core value activities, do not rely on formal roles or direct-report dependencies.

In the OPO, therefore, strategic choice is not something that can be performed by managers in any position to act upon "the system as a whole."   

Rather, people who occupy strategic teams are engaged together in continuously probing, prodding and proving organizational choices from the possibilities they can intuit, the affordances they are able to imagine, and the collaborative actions they can achieve. 

This brings us to the second key feature of the paradigm shift in OPO thinking, namely that:


An OPO is not a System

Emergence entails open participation not systems that can be "known."

Emergence entails open participation not systems that can be "known."

The new paradigm entails a move from thinking in terms of systems that can be "known" or "designed" or "intervened upon" by a person or persons who occupy a privileged position outside that system, to thinking in terms of complex responsive processes of human interaction. Since the 1940's there have been different ways in which we came to think about organizations as systems. The early systems thinkers relied on cybernetic theories of regulatory feedback loops that were encountered  or that could be designed inside the system to produce predictable outcomes. Today, cybernetics is still useful in creating operational frameworks where regulatory points function as reminders: what to measure, when to anticipate errors, when to test, how and when to review our work. Cybernetics works well inside closed operational systems that are simple and where results are reproducible.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

However, whenever we are dealing with humans, complexity arises in the many many local interactions that take place between them in their ordinary everyday activities of organizational life. There is no "outside position" from which an individual or leader can take account of "the whole" and impose interventions on it. This is the meaning of the popular phrase Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Every attempt to control the complex responses of people in participation, only escalates complexity through other measures -- adaptive push-back, gaming the system, deviant behavior, leveraging power, ranking and politicking strategies, obfuscations of all sorts, and the like. Furthermore, there is no way to align culture  since culture is constituted by streams of values that are continuously shifting in every individual while simultaneously being negotiated among them. When people come together they spontaneously begin to accommodate, assimilate or reconcile power relationships that result from asymmetrical values, needs and skills. During this process, the field of participation continuously shifts from configuration to configuration, creating ever-more complex formulations of what it is to be an I,we, me or us.  The notion of searching for fitness in a complex adaptive landscape readily comes to mind.

What "fitness" represents in this process of human interaction, is a coherence that is established when what it is to be I -me  is generalized from the myriad particular instantiations that are possible within the context of individuals, into a imagined "whole" or "unity" that is experienced as we-us.  This requires that both the autonomy of each individual -- the felt sense of the I, accommodates a socially shared aspect -- a role that functions as a me; and that this "me" is simultaneously assimilated by every other individual until the moment of reconciliation when the felt-sense of we-ness emerges as a shared reality.  This we-ness can be further reified through shared narratives among the many, or rhetorical devices from the few, peer pressure and social anxiety, politics of exclusion and inclusion, and xenophobia and ethnocentric tendencies -- to eventually construct a strong sense of an us which is dialectically opposed to a them. This is the point where group coherence -- the lively, adaptive, responsive, creative and complex mode of participation-- collapses into its invariant and pathological form: cohesion -- an outcome of unconscious tendencies to concretize the  I-me-we forming processes into abstract and invariant formulations of bounded wholes, with insides and outsides, strong delineations of inclusion and exclusion. It is at this point that the people in the group drop their capacity to authentically participate, and instead fall into paranoia, stasis, and group think that are key indicators of group cohesion. It is only in this state, where people begin to act more like programs than as authentic agents in a field of participation, that the manager can adopt the posture of "acting on" the collective from a privileged position where the manager is free to act, whereas everyone else is subject to interventions from "outside." Except in extreme cases where either physical or psychological force  is employed, the manager's posture is merely an illusion, only made possible by the collusion of the collective, who, for reasons of their own, act  along with the manager in sustaining a fiction that offers some convenience for everyone.

It is this convenience of human collusion, that we commonly call "the system."