Sticky Issue #1: Open Office

We hope you'll share your sticky issues with the community to help us demonstrate how Adaptive Action works in the real world, test its flexibility and power, and open up new options for action for you and your team.  

HSD Professionals practice their praxisOur Sticky Issue #1 comes from a change leader in a large urban county.  To save space and encourage collaboration, the county literally "took down the walls."  Now, 150 social services staff work in a large, open space. Closed offices are available for confidential meetings and calls, and some people have their own permanent desks, but most of them "hotel" their office space.  They work offsite in clients' homes or in their home offices.  When they come in for meetings they pick a desk--any open desk--and settle in for the day.  

WHAT? Not everyone was forced into the new space.  People who wanted to work at home and have more flexibility chose this office.  Still, some distressing patterns emerged in the first couple of weeks.  No one knew where to put their personal items, and they didn't want to carry them around all the time.  People would "reserve" desks for their friends, so the same people repeatedly ended up with the choice spaces.  Work teams became even more like cliques as individuals protected the relationships they valued.  

SO WHAT? Time, client engagement, and personal relationships were wasted during the first two weeks of the new office.  One-by-one individuals and teams came to complain and ask for transfer back to the "old" space.  The County Board and Executive were completely committed to making the new arrangement work, so moving out was not an option.  Management certainly felt stuck.

NOW WHAT?  In the Adaptive Action practices of human systems dynamics, we talk about setting conditions for self-organizing .  We don't believe you can predict or control the behavior of people, but we do believe that conditions can be set to encourage patterns of individual satisfaction and collective productivity.   

Our theory and practice reveal three conditions.  C--container--holds agents together until coherent patterns emerge.  In this sticky issue the C had changed radically and quickly and wasn't likely to change back.  Large, open containers set the conditions for system-wide confusion and tight local connections.  This group experienced both those patterns in the new office, and there was no possibility for returning to small, closed spaces.  Options for action deal with shifting the other two conditions to shift the emerging pattern.  

D--differences--articulate the pattern and also hold the energy and potential for future change.  Too many differences, and the system looks random.  Too few, and the system locks into place.  The new office space broke the too-few differences of the old, locked-in bureaucracy, but it went too far.  Individuals found it difficult to find themselves among the many, many differences in the space and longed to return to the safety of few and clear differences.  Several options for action can help manage the differences in the system and encourage productive patterns.  Here are just a few:

  • Use color coding to distinguish among desks in the open space.  Some might have special tools for specific tasks or access to healthy treats or a certain kind of chair or a particular method of filing materials or closer access to water or restroom.  Select a few differences might make a difference, and use those to create a meaningful pattern in the furniture of the space.  
  • Focus on the individuals' differences.  To help people feel valued and know each other, reserve a wall space and name it "Who am I . . .?" Encourage each person to put up a picture and short description of themselves.  Invite people to cluster the images by various things--parents/not; born in the US/not; favorite color; time with the organization; and so on.  Each clustering allows for new patterns to form.  
  • Reduce the differences based on arrival times.  Number the desks and have a basket with numbers at the door.  Whenever anyone comes in, they randomly pick a number and take that desk.  This action erases one set of differences (arrival time) and replaces it with emergent differences that put new people in contact every day. 
  • And many more you can imagine.

E--exchanges--are the third conditions for self-organizing.  Exchanges connect agents in the self-organizing system so that they influence each other and generate system-wide patterns over time.  Tight exchanges tend to make systems predictable and stable.  Loose ones help parts and whole adapt over time. Uncouples leave agents alienated and disconnected.  The new office space "uncoupled" many people from their usual friends and colleagues.  Several options for action might address this issue.

  • Hold a 15-minute meeting at the beginning and ending of each day.  Whoever is present gets to share one positive thing that happened to them that day. 
  • Put up mailboxes to allow people to leave hand-written notes and surprises for each other. 
  • Turn one of the private offices into a "chat room," and encourage people who want to catch up on personal or professional news to congregate there.
  • And many more you can imagine. 

Self-organizing systems and their conditions are flexible and powerful ways to open adaptive action.  No matter how stuck you are, you can consider the current conditions (CDE), see the ones you do an don't have control over, and take action to influence patterns.  No need to do them all.  Any one of these single changes--either D or E--will shift the pattern and reframe other options for future action. 

Do you have a sticky issue?  If so, share it with us and see how Adaptive Action can generate new options for action to get you unstuck!  

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