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Catalyzing Innovation in New Product Development & Organization Change:
Using Open Space Technology

By: David Morgan, General Manager
Perkins Products of Perkins School for the Blind

LEAN is dead! Well, not really. Lean principles continue to drive real productivity improvement in many, many manufacturing organizations in New England and around the world. LEAN is not, however, necessarily the best or only approach to catalyze and foster real process and product innovation. Lean is, after all, not much more than the natural evolution of sound industrial engineering principles and practices. Principles and practices that have been with us since Frank and Lillian Gilbreth created the process of work measurement and MTM (motion time measurement) a hundred years ago. Methods analysis combined with Fredrick Taylor’s landmark work, “The Principles of Scientific Management,” published in 1911, formed the foundation of much of our current management philosophy and practice.

We have had much success using classic methods analysis to manage our operations and improve operational efficiency. Approaches like Lean, Theory-of-Constraints, Process Re-engineering, Demand Flow Technology, Total Quality Management and the myriad of other techniques have undeniably improved our manufacturing operations. In all cases though, these techniques directed our attention inward toward improving the current system, not outward to questioning the very system itself. I would argue these techniques modernize our operations, not so much transformed them.

  • Is this the path to real innovation?
  • Is this the path to creating disruptive new technologies and innovative new products?
  • Is this the path to organizational transformation?

I think not. Sometimes real innovation requires disruptive change and a different kind of approach to catalyze and fuel the change.

There are new approaches that embrace the emerging sciences of quantum mechanics, chaos theory, and self-organizing systems. In Leadership and the New Science (1994), Margaret Wheatley introduced us to new leadership theory and models for innovation and transformation based on the power of open dialog and self-organization. Ten years before Wheatley, Harrison Owen had already embraced these principles.

An organizational change consultant, Owen was frustrated with how long it took to organize and facilitate a conference on transformation leadership. He reasoned that a conference on transformation could benefit from process he witnessed in his study of tribes in Africa. Elders organized in a circle of people, engaged in energetic dialog, and completely gave themselves up to the moment. He witnessed creative breakthroughs to challenging problems. He experimented with this process and eventually crafted a number of laws and principles into a process he called Open Space Technology. Today more than a 100,000 Open Space events have taken place all around the globe. According to Owen, Open Space Technology works best when four conditions are present:

  1. a high level of complexity, such that no single person or small group fully understands or can solve the issue
  2. a high level of diversity, in terms of the skills and people required for a successful resolution
  3. real or potential conflict, which implies that people genuinely care about the issue
  4. a high level urgency, meaning the time for decisions and action was "yesterday."

He goes on further to describe "Four Principles" and "One Law" that are typically quoted and briefly explained during the opening briefing of an Open Space meeting. These four principles and one law are:

  1. Whoever comes is the right people.
  2. Whenever it starts is the right time.
  3. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
  4. When it’s over, it’s over.

And the “Law of Two Feet.”  If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else.

Crazy huh? Strange as it seems, order emerges out of chaos. You can’t explain it and you can’t stop it from happening. A few simple principles, the energy of the moment, and the power of self-organization catalyze real creativity and innovation. Participants are energerized. Meeting minutes and an action plan emerge. Powerful stuff!

I’ve personally used this process many times – a few year ago to re-imagine and redesign the famous Perkins Brailler®, the most widely used mechanical braillewriter for the blind in the world. The original brailler was design in the 1940s and released in 1951. Some 330,000 have been sold worldwide. A modest group of 13 people got together for “Opening Space for the Perkins Brailler in September 2005." Our small group included blind users, managers of our overseas assembly facilities, a couple of leaders from the blindness field, and a number of current and potentially new vendors. What happened during our 2-1/2 day event was magical and became the basis for what became an entire product roadmap and the core of the new design for our new mechanical braillewriter.

We officially launched the Next Generation™ Perkins Brailler® in October 2008. The new braillewriter has been a great success. In 2010 we have sold more Braillewriters and served more children and adults than ever before. This past summer Newsweek Magazine honored us with a Silver Award IDEA award. This Spring, the Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design awarded the 2009 Good Design Award.

The principles of self-organization and Open Space Technology have help transformed how we drive organization change and new product development.

If you would like to learn more about Open Space Technology and how you might use this process to transform your organization please contact David Morgan at [email protected] or 617-972-7320.

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