Chapter One

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What is OPO?

         

“OPO” is short for Open Participatory Organization. It is a platform for organizing people and work in new ways that deliver special advantages when dealing with rapid change, unpredictability, uncertainty, and the kinds of ambiguity and information overload that characterize the future of work. The OPO also features a suite of applications that help teams drop old habits and routines and expand into new action-potentials such as exploration, experimentation, discovery and innovation. As workplace design, the OPO organizes people and technology into an integrated architecture, communications and governance platform that is more dynamic, responsive and innovative than conventional approaches. For example, the OPO offers an organizational design template to help companies shift from top-down and top-heavy legacy structures to responsive and lean workplaces that continuously evolve along with changing circumstances. The toolkit also includes protocols that help organizations switch over their communication systems from low-resolution and sluggish information systems to human sensemaking networks that have high-definition and early detection capabilities. 

OPO is an invitation to completely rethink what “organization” means. It shifts our thinking away from the notion of an organization as a “thing” to the experiences and practices of how humans organize their ideas and their workflow together. We recognize this shift when people talk about self-organizing as teams. As a way of acting, the OPO breaks out of the old organizational structures that limit our actions to a set of institutionally-conditioned habits.  As these structures and habits are disrupted, we discover, through exploration and experimentation, new choices we can make, and new actions we can take. By using action templates that say “instead of that, try this,” OPO practices avoid common temptations and hidden traps that can lead back into those old habits of thinking and action. These templates, just like templates people use to start a blog or website, won’t take you all the way to where you want to go; but they will help you get started. Think of the OPO as a kind of “sandbox” or “game board” that allows people who are experimenting with self-organizing, to generate emergent structures that in turn, further increase the likelihood of open participation. In other words, the OPO is a platform for self-organized, self-generated, open participation.

The OPO can also be thought of as the “open space of participation” that is enacted by people becoming more open and more participatory. Each step of the way, we can ask “How can I increase this open space of participation?” “How can I make this encounter more open?” or “How can I create more participation in this situation?”  These two qualities, openness and participation, are guided by our felt sense—which is the way we feel about the situation, in our bodies. Felt sense is a “gut feeling.” We can ask “Does this situation feel open to new perspectives and possibilities?” or “closed by formal roles and standard routines?” Our felt sense will tell us if this situation invites our whole participation, or whether it excludes part of what one would think and say through rules and regulations determined by others. These rules can be formal and explicit, or socially enforced, implicit rules of conduct. Either way, the space of participation is closed by them. It might be easy to argue that a governance includes explicit provisions for addressing people’s needs, but only our felt sense can tell if governance is actually responsive to changing circumstances, and the ongoing evolution of shared understanding. If in our experience, governance feels lethargic, irrelevant, and hopelessly out of tune with the times, then this means that the written rules and formal scripts are not adequate to the pace of change and the reality of our participation.

Often, it is more helpful to turn these kinds of questions in on ourselves, by asking “how am I positioned in this situation?”  “Am I open to new perspectives? or defending my own opinion?” “Am I inviting a broader participation? or creating a tight boundary around me and my team?” “Am I seeking new possibilities, despite the taste of risk? or settling for comfortable habits, despite the lack of effectiveness?” “Am I in a ready-state for innovation, improvisation and play? or stuck in the steady-state of repetition, ritual and ‘stay’?”

When people organize around principles of open participation, they optimize for self-organization. This generates patterns of trust, power and action that enact rich environments, where people can respond, adapt and evolve along with changing circumstances, and inject novelty into the mix. In the OPO, these patterns of trust, power and collective action, are never formally defined or fixed, determinate structures. They are patterns that emerge through the dynamic rhythms of the complex processes of human relating. These are the rhythms of both continuity and change, phases of “steady-states” that run on repetition and ritual, and phases of “ready-states” which are primed for innovation, by improvisation and surprise. OPO sensemaking practices enable teams to discover their own dispositional states, which helps reduce ambiguity in complex environments and increases reliability in volatile situations. In addition to these, the OPO platform includes a set of strategic applications, that scale organizational performance by building strategic depth, based on purpose and values at multiple strategic levels, from local participation in teams, to larger and larger strategic wholes.

When thought of as an ongoing process of organizing the OPO is seen to be a shifting continuum of patterns in a sea of complex practices. The complex practices include both conscious and unconscious processes, false starts and abrupt stops, cycles of repetition and phases of interruption, sequences of convergence and divergence, periods of enabling dynamics and periods of constraining ones. Seen in this way, we enter the perspective from complexity science, where, as discussed later in this book, we sometimes practice making sense of the situation in order to take action, and sometimes practice taking action, in order to make sense of things.   

Why OPO?

In the decade between 1970-1980, a new approach to working with complex software development emerged as a backlash against top-down and top-heavy approaches to software design and planning. In contrast to the way technical engineers before them applied large-scale systems design, planning and control, small teams of developers were emphasizing different skills and practices. The results were dramatic and indisputable: small groups of developers who focused on team dynamics such as trust, collective learning, self-organization and self-leadership, operating with little outside resourcing, consistently out-performed large centrally planned projects that were backed by comparatively unlimited resources. By 1990, a set of foundational theories and practices describing these new approaches came to be known as agile software development. On February, 2001, seventeen people met at the Snowbird Lodge ski resort in Utah to ski, relax, and to share insights around this dramatic shift in ways of tackling complex tasks. Although they all differed in many respects, they found common ground by identifying four key values[1] that came to define the agile movement.

Exponential growth in the information economy created the demand for agile implementation in almost every industry. Initially, this was reserved for software development teams only, which resulted in isolated “islands” of agile operations sequestered off inside large legacy organizations which retained their traditional structures, including managerial hierarchies, top-down information practices, systems-based planning, command and control policies, and administrative bureaucracies. Eventually, smart companies were taking another look at the principles and values behind agile software development and increasingly applying them to organization-wide workplace development.  This is where the OPO steps in and provides organizational design templates that optimize agile principles and values that also­ can be adopted at greater scale and implemented in larger corporate contexts.

Why now?

We now face problems that grow in complexity faster than we can make sense of the situation. Our technological innovations are expanding at exponential rates, but the ratio of positive to negative consequences that technology brings, is rapidly deteriorating. We are making great progress on many fronts, but we are sacrificing too much elsewhere. Our dreams of a better future seem impossible to attain under the tremendous inertia “in the system” which has grown too complicated to change. To make matters worse, all our interventions tend to escalate, rather than alleviate the levels of complexity we face.

We cannot address complex situations without collective sensemaking and collective action—both of which depend on how we organize ourselves. And while our organizations have grown in scale and complexity, they have become complex in the wrong ways. With too little participation, they gain too much inertia. As they scale in size, they lose degrees of freedom. Information flow is caught up inside tight boundaries and too many fixed dependencies clog up response times. Centralized hierarchies lose sight of vital cues in the environment that signal change and the onset of disruption. Top-down decision-making practices desensitize people from ongoing processes of human relating that are the bases of sensemaking and practical judgment in complex environments.

Our organizations are addicted to standardization, and disrupted by surprises that are inevitable. We have reached the point of decreasing returns: the amount of inertia and complexity in our organizations is already too high a price to pay.  We need an alternative way to organize our collective sensemaking and our collective actions, one that releases the complexity “in the system” and frees up energy to build new cognitive and relational skills. This is what the OPO platform offers. It offers first principle thinking, embodied sensemaking practices, and simple, yet powerful protocols that boost our potential for collective action.


[1] The key values, drafted in the form of an Agile Manifesto are:

              Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

              Working software over comprehensive documentation

              Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

              Responding to change over following a plan