Catalyst Level Leadership and Open Space Agility

I’ve found some new alignment with the findings of Bill Joiner & Stephen Josephs in their book, “Leadership Agility” which I have been reviewing again. Originally published in 2007, the book is now 10 years old, and aging like fine wine, in my opinion.  The principles it reveals are timeless classics, and as I review their bibliography I find I share an appreciation with Joiner and Josephs for great authors and research in the field of organizational development, behavioral psychology and business coaching, to be quite closely aligned.

From page 93 to 95, under the heading “WHAT LEADERSHIP MEANS AT THE CATALYST LEVEL” I noted a flurry of parallels to several constructs which are pervasive to the Open Space Agility movement which professional agile coaches, Open Space facilitators and business performance consultants would find quite valuable, I believe.  The authors are relating the story of a senior health and safety officer, named Brenda who is a “Catalyst-level leader” at a global chemical corporation.  She relates how it was that a massive business turn-around was accomplished there in the 1990s:

“In the U.S. facility, my team identified our emission levels and where they came from.  Traditionally, the next step is to give this analysis to the manufacturing engineers and have them fix the problems. But in my experience this doesn’t create the best solutions, nor does it help employees adopt an environmental mind-set.  Instead, we pulled together a set of cross-functional teams that included everyone from frontline people to the facility’s most innovative thinkers – maintenance operators, operations people, process engineers, manufacturing engineers, you name it. We told them what the problem was, the outcomes we needed, and we turned them loose to do their best and most creative thinking.”

In the parlance of Open Space Agility, “pulling together a cross-functional team”, “telling them what the problem was, [and] the outcomes needed”, followed by turning “them loose to do their best” is called “Inviting everyone to Open Space” and then “Holding Open Space.”  The freedom to self-organize and creatively solve extremely complex problems which would be far too daunting for an individual or even an entire department to solve, is actually a prerequisite to calling something “Open Space” as the technology was originally defined by Harrison Owen.

Almost as if to tutor the reader on how to set up and execute and Open Space Technology event, Brenda’s account continues:
“What this did inside the organization was remarkable.  People felt empowered, people felt excited, people felt honored. Somebody was looking at them saying, “You’re not just a cog in the wheel. You’re a smart, creative human being.”  People came alive in the environment.”

When an executive sponsor of an Open Space event is crafting the Invitation Letter which will be sent out to anyone and everyone in the entire organization under the purview of the executive’s authority, the Invitation itself pays respect for the personal gifts, talents, insights and aptitude the organization has retained their efforts for in the first place.  Needless to say, by simply issuing the Invitation, morale will improve, regardless of whether or not each recipient is available or “qualified” to attend the event and contribute to the solutioning of the problem at hand, which is explicitly stated in the invitation.

Inviting others to collaborate in the problem space is NOT an admission of guilt or inadequacy on the part of the executive sponsor, by any means.  Rather, it is a “Declaration of Trust” and the belief in the collective abilities of the larger team which the executive publicly re-affirms via. the Invitation Letter.  It is the manifestation of respect, trust, and acknowledgement implicit in the invitation that spurs the hyper-engagement of the people who are Willing to attempt a solution, and have a sense of Passion and Responsibility about the problem space.

Brenda continues by describing the pay-off for such a generous, courageous act of executive leadership:
“And guess what?  They came up with a really inexpensive way to capture one of the largest emission sources and reintroduce it into the process in a way that significantly increased our daily output.  That’s like gold.  We got rid of fifteen tons of toxic emissions.  That’s just one of over thirty major improvements they came up with. The whole approach we took, not just in that first facility but in many different facilities, is based on seeing the facility as a community, a place that can come alive when everyone is treated like a real human being.”

The direct benefits to the business emerge from implementing the solutions designed via. experiments from the Open Space events themselves.  Even more valuable than those business results, is actually the by-product of the event: the sense of community, or “communitas” as the Open Space Agility movement calls it.  This spirit of community is like the Goose that Lays the Golden Egg, or the gift that keeps on giving, because it leads to a “much higher level of engagement, employee retention, and overall organizational learning.”  I liken it to a jet engine that blows out gold dust, rather than the occasional drip that you’ve been used to.

The authors then turn their attention toward the Catalyst leadership orientation’s resilience against liminal anxiety, which is what the Open Space Agility practices are intended to address in an organizational transition.  On page 94, the authors assert:
“The Catalyst leadership orientation is supported by the mental and emotional capacities that emerge at this level.  When you grow into this level, you begin to feel more at ease with change and uncertainty, and you develop a broader, longer-term view of your organizational environment.  Because you realize that what’s made you successful in the past may not be what’s needed now, you tend to be more visionary in your response to the new leadership challenges.”

In the training of Open Space Agility, leaders use their authority to recite the organization’s origin story with respect and appreciation for the contributions of the characters who played active roles in delivering the group intact to the present state, while unfolding the presence of a new chapter by authoring the vision of where the organization is about to navigate through liminality next.  Essentially, the leader is inviting others to co-author the next chapter by creating a context or container within which collaboration about what’s possible, and experiments can be authorized to validate a new course of action.

Joiner and Josephs write, “Your interest in engaging with stakeholders comes from the conviction that strategies and solutions are usually better when they’re influenced by a diversity of relevant viewpoints…Because you understand that you do not and cannot have all the answers, you’re more likely than you were at the Achiever level to use participative decision making to empower and develop your people.”

I submit that Open Space Technology driven events are exactly the context that empowers and develops people to engage in participative decision making, and collaboratively assemble solutions and strategies that no single mind could possibly match or exceed.  This post-heroic leadership, which Joiner and Josephs call “Catalyst leadership” is more highly evolved than what we’ve historically thought leaders to be, and is capable of delivering economic victory where it has been elusive before to an organization.

Jon Jorgensen
President, Needle Hop, Inc.

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