Open Participatory Organizations in Our Future

Photo by “My Life Through A Lens” on Unsplash

Just over 2 years ago, a series of articles on self-organization and open participation were published on Medium by Bonnitta Roy. Although they were posted without a lot of fanfare, they did not go unnoticed. Roy had already established a significant international following in Integral Theory circles and these Medium articles conveyed a rigorous, well-researched presentation of ideas that people had come to expect from Roy. Although immediately acknowledged by people in those circles, many seemed to miss just how fundamentally different Roy’s proposition was from most of the current buzz about self-organization and open participation.

Rather than spend her time and energy drawing comparisons and contrasts between her view of “How Self-Organization Happens” and the most popular work on self-organization (e.g. Holacracy and Reinventing Organizations), Roy has focused her time and energy on what is actually happening when people come together to get work done and getting to work engaging with organizations that were already open and participatory.

Now 2 years later, Roy’s work on Open Participatory Organizations (“OPO”) is beginning to be recognized in places where new ways of working together have taken hold and communities of practice are well established, such as the Agile community in Sweden. People in these communities are looking for guidance on how to scale their open and participatory organizations without escalating complexity. Many people are finding Roy’s work provides them with a dynamic tool-kit to work through the strategic challenges of open participatory organizations in a world still very much stuck in the “dominate discourse” of strategic management as Ralph Stacey has so aptly noted in Strategy Management and Organizational Dynamics.

OPO not a Model, but a Meme

At a recent Open Participatory Organization (“OPO”) 3-day workshop in Norway, Roy opened the first morning by making it clear that “the OPO” is not a model for self-organization. OPO is simply a meme and Roy’s work has been to track what is actually happening in a rigorous non-reductive way — to do the extensive research needed to make sense of the lived experience that many of us see as a new Zeitgeist — a more open and participatory world.

Why does it Matter?

Roy makes a bold statement that under the dominant discourse of strategic management, we don’t know how to organize to solve our biggest problems. What she has been tracking is the new Zeitgeist — a world where new minds that are innovating organizational life in new ways that people never thought possible — people with a new open and participatory spirit that trust the ingenuity and intelligence of their teams in solving the problems that are most important to them.

The OPO is a “work-ing platform” to provide just enough scaffolding so we can perhaps move things along faster. The OPO is “model-like” just to give people enough to get started. Roy’s OPO work provides a dynamic tool-kit to allow individuals and teams to cut through the complexity and focus their energy of their teams to reach new levels of performance excellence.

Facilitating the OPO

Last week I was lucky enough to spend a day with Roy and a young company that is a wonderful example of an OPO. Unlike a typical consultant or coach, Roy has been facilitating the process of building strategic depth in the organization by working with the OPO idea of locations. Most organizational thinking sees the setting of strategy as a leadership function or executive role, but in the OPO, all strategy discussions are within locations and distributed across the entire team in a location. Strategy in the OPO is a way of talking about change and everyone participates in strategy. Many of us who spent years working in conventional organizations can’t help but ask “how could that possibly work”? Once you experience how distributed strategy is performed in an OPO, you realize how natural and intuitive it is and how it gives the OPO a significant strategic advantage.

Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash

Open Participatory Organizations

I am writing this piece as a “starting position” (an “OPO move”) for what I intend will be a starting point for many more pieces by me, and maybe (hopefully) others, to unpack the OPO work that Roy started a few years ago. If you have not read Roy’s Medium articles, they are a great place to start. Roy has a unique knack for distilling complex research in many disciplines into actionable templates and operating principles without being reductive.

I have been lucky enough to work with and around Bonnitta Roy for several years, so I hope I can add something to enhance the growing enthusiasm for her work and more importantly, to support any initiatives that cut through the limiting assumptions around corporate structure, leadership, operational frameworks and human resources and make the world more open and participatory.

The natural question would be “why does it matter to me?” One of the operating principles of the OPO is each individual is always solving the puzzle that is most important to them and teams of individuals self-organize to solve more complex puzzles that require more skills and resources. You might say that it is our capacity for collective puzzle solving has allowed human beings to flourish. As far back as I can remember and more intensely since I had children, the puzzle that has had the most energy for me is “Is this really the best we can do…” as a team, as a country, as a planet? It started in my business life as a keen interest organizational strategy, leadership development and systems thinking and evolved into a life-long passion in collective intelligence and human potential. After years of a deep drive in collective practices like Theory U, Decision Mapping, Circles of Trust, Art of Hosting, Systemic Constellation work, Quaker meetings, Global Round Table practice, I met Roy and participated in her research into collective practices, which eventually provided some insight and inspiration for her OPO work.

How to work with the OPO

At the OPO workshop last week, there were several leadership and organizational consultants and the question was asked “we really can use in our work?” Roy’s immediate answer was “Yes, all of it. Make it your own.” Since the mission of Roy’s organization, App Associates, is to support transformation to an equitable society and a thriving planet through her work with individuals and teams working at being Open and Participatory, so how could any of her work be anything but open source and an invitation to everyone to participate.

Roy’s Our Future at Work Medium articles are a great way to start to learn about what it means to be an OPO. If you have the opportunity to attend an OPO Workshop, do it! And look for the release this spring of Roy’s OPO Playbook, a Practical Guide for Becoming an Open and Participatory Organization (http://www.appassociates.net/opo-playbook/). In the meantime, I would invite my friends and colleagues to help me unpack the rich landscape of Roy’s work on Open Participatory Organizations.

Experimenting with Game B Network Marketing, Breaking Kayfabe, Open Participation, Team Flow…

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