I am thinking that Elon Musk would love the idea of Open Participatory Organizations (OPOs), although not for the reasons you might think. I think Musk would love the reasoning behind Open Participatory Organizations.
I have never been much of a car guy, but I do love Teslas and I have been fascinated by a PayPal billionaire who risked everything to build SpaceX and Tesla — at the same time. After reading Elon Musk: The World’s Raddest Man, Tim Urban’s famous four-part blog on Wait by Why, I now really love Teslas. I am pretty sure Elon Musk (and Tim Urban) would really love Bonnitta Roy’s work on OPOs. Open Participation might not be as sexy as Tesla and Mars, but Musk isn’t building cars and rockets to be a celebrity. He is a celebrity because he is a first principles thinker taking on some huge challenges in service of humanity. So is Bonnitta Roy and that is why her OPO work is so rad!
This piece got postponed a bit because as I was preparing to start a new piece about Open Participatory Organizations and first principle thinking, I read Urban’s chapter to Tim Ferriss’ Tribe of Mentors. In his contribution to Ferriss’ new book (which I really love), Urban explains how his inquiry “Why is Elon able to do what he is doing?” led him into a deep dive into first principles thinking. Urban describes first principle thinking as reasoning from:
the base facts at the core of life like the limits of physics and in the limits of [our] own biology, [reasoning that] uses that information only as the building blocks…to construct [one’s] conclusions, [one’s] decisions, and [one’s] life path.
In the final installment of the Musk series entitled “The Cook and the Chef: Musk’s Secret Sauce”, Urban uses a simple comparison of the Chef — someone that experiments with ingredients and comes up with some thing brand new — and the Cook — someone that follows someone else’s recipes — to make his point about first principle reasoning and to declare that Musk “is unusually chef-like.” “Change doesn’t happen on a familiar landscape — change has to construct the landscape itself. This is part of the reason the challenges Tesla has taken on are so enormous.”[i]
In my first Medium piece, I mentioned my objective is to write short pieces about Open Participatory Organizations and Bonnitta Roy’s OPO framework in order to unpack and map the territory that Roy has so painstakingly presented. The challenge is to write short simple pieces about foundational topics such as first principles reasoning. Tim Urban’s Elon Musk piece offered me a short-cut to discuss first principle thinking and a reference point (Musk) that most people can identify with. Since this is Medium, not Wait but Why, and my piece should be a 3–5 minute read, I will take another short-cut and I offer two short pieces by Bonnitta Roy that get to the heart of her first principles approach in all of her work: The Map, the Gap and the Territory and Why Metaphysics Matters. If you are interested in the first principle research on which the OPO framework is based, I suggest you start with her Medium pieces under Our Future at Work and Perspectives from Complexity.
The gift of first principles thinkers is they cut through all the clutter of the socially acceptable discourse, outdated mental models and developmental biases, to offer us possibilities that we never dreamed possible. They make points and take actions that seem like big risks. And they stay with it, spending years, even lifetimes on the fringe of the dominant discourse. Eventually dominant old views cannot hold regardless of how deeply they may be held because they simply cannot explain of the overwhelming new evidence in our lived experience. We awaken to discover the first principle thinker was pointing us in this direction all along.
Open and Participatory sound so inviting, so ordinary and so simple, until our rational minds say “how can that work?” Roy, like Musk, has done the deep work for us, to show us that self-organization is not only possible, but it is happening already. Roy isn’t asking everyone to do the deep dive into all the primary research behind the OPO. She is asking us to start by trusting our felt sense of how things actually are in our organizational lives and begin to consider how to make our teams and our organizations open and participatory in every interaction with each other.
Roy is writing her OPO Playbook to facilitate the process of becoming an Open Participatory Organizations. The soon-to-be-released OPO Playbook puts a dynamic toolset in the hands of frontline teams, managers, coaches, consultants and facilitators — anyone engage in working through the challenges of making their organizational lives open and participatory. And I will keep writing to help map the territory Roy is exploring for us.