Discovering What is Possible

We live in a world where a mechanistic, “machine” view of organizations has served for some time. The end of this era is upon us, and the transition to a living-systems view is well underway.

Organizations are more like living things than they are like machines. Without getting into all the details of “why,” this essay assumes the living-systems view is the more accurate view, the more useful view. The view that is actually closer to reality.

In the living-systems view, change is not “managed.” Instead of having a definite end point, the process of change is based more on encouraging a general direction rather than a specific, ultimate destination with a date attached.

Which brings me to the subject of this essay: discovering what is possible. For purposes of this essay, assume the organization under consideration has these properties:

  1. The org is a business entity, organized as a corporation
  2. The org is not focused on selling software. Instead it has a services or products that it sells.
  3. Leaders (formally authorized) are contemplating the “change management” that may be involved in helping the entire org change in some way; presumably to become more effective.
  4. The org employs at least one hundred people and may have thousands of employees.
  5. The “formally authorized leaders” (hereafter, the “FALs”) are entirely well-intentioned even as they may be ignorant of certain fundamentals with respect to the conditions necessary for manifesting an adaptive, resilient organization
  6. The people in the organization are for the most part quite familiar with the current cultural game, and are generally happy with the way things are. They know the expressed and implied goals, the rules, and how the overall culture works.

Given these assumptions, the completely normal pattern goes something like this:

  1. Behind closed doors, the 100% well-intentioned FALs formulate a plan for change. This usually includes the “rolling out” of training, followed by some scheduled “coaching” with the help of highly paid consultants.
  2. An announcement of intent is issued. This is usually in the form of some emails from the FALs to the organization’s employees. These emails from the FALs describe what is about to happen.
  3. The program is initiated, usually with an immediate and pronounced uptick in everything that is being measured. This is reassuring- at least at first.
    1. Typically, measurement is happening in a meaningful way for the first time. Before long the highly paid consultants are busy doing their work.
  4. After a while, things start to wobble. There is some “murmuring” from the rank and file.
    1. Not just the rank and file resist the change. Some people who are in authority also are uncomfortable. Their direct reports sense this vibe and adjust accordingly.
    2. Those uncomfortable with the change do not simply vacate. Instead they serve to thwart the change by subtle moves intended to outwit, outplay and outlast the change issues from “on high.”
  5. The budget for consultants is consumed, and they leave. Shortly after that, the “change” begins the process of reversion to the mean. In other words, a backsliding to the starting point.

Does this sound familiar to you? I certainly hope so. I have not told the whole story, but you get the idea.

After a time, the “coaches” and consultants vacate. When they do, the org reverts back to it’s previous state, or, at a minimum, heads in that general direction immediately. At the end, the org has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a “change management program” that never did actually work.

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The Prime/OS approach short-circuits this by-now-familiar pattern of failure, by discovering what is possible.  By helping the FALs figure out the immediate next steps via quick, short, actionable “loops of feedback” that provide rich data for input into leadership decision-making.



Instead of putting down a bet of hundreds of thousands of dollars with far less than 50-50 odds for success, Prime/OS invites everyone affected to come and discuss the change.

Instead of following a monolithic “A-B-C” plan (typically the “framework” of a consulting firm,) Prime/OS invites everyone into the process of changing. And to write the new story. And be a character in this new story.

Instead of an edict or mandate from management, Prime/OS suggests a series of experiments to be inspected.

One of the goals of Prime/OS is to engage the people affected by the change. To do this, Prime/OS leverages the concept of invitation. Those who are curious and want to explore how to make change happen accept the invitation. Those who like things the way they are do not. In all cases, Prime/OS increases your chance of success by increasing the level of human engagement in the change.

Prime/OS increases the level of engagement in the process of changing and this is why Prime/OS actually works.


Avoiding the “Self Organized” Approach

The idea that self-organization and self-management are messy any chaotic is actually quite false. Groups of people who share a common purpose and organize around it are often called “self organizing systems.” This label assumes that people are the same as birds, insects and fish that “self organize.” This is not strictly true, and I therefore prefer the term “self management” when describing how people self-organize. Where people in organizations are concerned, “self organization” is in fact self-management.

Tremendous gains in productivity are possible when individuals and teams are self-managing.

Self-management is only possible when the people involved are making decisions. Decisions are what engages people, and decisions are essential if the group is to self-manage. Since self-management requires enough authority to make decisions, FALs often freak out at the notion of  authorizing self-managed teams, departments and divisions. The assumption is that chaos will ensue.

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In Prime/OS, the FALs to do not encourage chaos and do not give up “control.” Instead, FALs create the very conditions for self-management by clearly identifying and communicating the following:

  1. The direction of the organization (an example might be “towards continuous improvement” or “towards more efficiency in operations.”)
  2. The “guardrails,” or limits outside of which are considered out-of-bounds. (an example might be a set or principles, or a set of rules for action.)

Interestingly, the FALs in Prime/OS need to avoid defining the practices or “ABC” steps needed to get started. Instead, individuals and teams make decisions about the specifics. To encourage this, FALs stop well short of naming specific practices.  If specific practices must be specified, these are presented explicitly and repeatedly as “experiments with specific practices for a specific limited time”, or “a trial period after which we will inspect results.” The “why” behind this is quite obvious: we need the people who do the work to be making decisions if we are to engage them. The entire hypothesis of Prime/OS (and OpenSpace Agility) is very simple:

 Human engagement is essential for any change to be authentic, genuine and lasting.

Sometimes, the definition of practices cannot be avoided. The solution here is to frame the entire thing as an temporary experiment to inspected. The org will “suspend disbelief” and “pretend” during the temporary/experiment period, confident that we will then inspect the results. This framing-the-experience-as–an-experiment is a way to bring everyone into the story of “inspect and adapt.” This is the way to introduce the idea of a change. The hypothesis is that those who resist the change can in fact assure failure. Experimentation affords those who may resist, with the opportunity to speak their mind after getting some experience with the contemplated change.


A Practical Example for Your Consideration

Let’s take a practical example: say you are a formally authorized leader who is going to be introducing some pretty big changes to your organization soon. Let us assume further that specific new practices are the content of the change. Here is your solution:

  1. Define a period of experimentation
  2. Start in “open space.” Call an enterprise-wide, “all hands” meeting to air concerns and issues. Assure everyone that this is an authentic experiment- that is, one to be inspected, 45 to 100 days hence.
  3. Do the experiment.
  4. End in “open space.” Call an enterprise-wide, “all hands” meeting to inspect the results.
  5. Use the wisdom harvested from this process to “go again” if necessary.

The alternative? Simply announce the change, fire everyone who disagrees, and hire new people who agree to the new “game change” you want to implement. There is only one problem with this: it is traumatic for your organization, and will result in chaos, negative emotional energy, and also poor results for years to come, before stabilizing.

A better approach is to view your leadership as cultivation and stewardship, rather than driving a vehicle or operating a machine. Your organization is more like a greenhouse than a train.

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The Prime/OS approach actually works, if you define success as “reaching extremely high levels of engagement in the investigation of how to change.” It starts and ends in Open Space, a meeting that is optimized on creating the conditions for the highest levels of human engagement possible. A key hypothesis of Prime/OS is that for any lasting change to occur, the humans affected must be engaged. Prime/OS therefore encourages very high levels of engagement. And that is why it uses Open Space.

Prime/OS is very simple and can lead to much higher performance across the organization. But to use it, if you are a formally authorized leader, you must first believe that for any change to be genuine and lasting, the humans affected must be engaged in the process of changing.

Prime/OS is a tool for formally authorized leaders who actually believe this is true.

See also:

The Worldwide Employee Engagement Crisis (link)

Prime/OS described (link)

70% of USA Employees Not Engaged At Work (link)




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