Accelerating change in a multi-national corporation: Open space: the critical moment in systems change

(Lieven Callewaert & Nancy Bragard, 5-2016)


 (important note: Because we share a lot of insight information, we choose not to mention the organization by name, but describe the processes we went through instead. This in respect for the continuation of the process.)

End of december 2015, we were requested to organize the yearly leadership event of a multi-national organization, bringing together the decision makers of that organization as a yearly community gathering. Being a technically driven service provider, these events were evolving step-by-step from a technical forum towards a community gathering.At the same time, some colleagues were already responsible to guide change processes in that organization. The exchange around that topic with the top of the organization made obvious that the event would be an ideal spot to accelerate the changes, needed in the organization.

The changes they were going through, were quite drastic. They wanted to implement a regional structure (6 worldwide regions) instead of now having a dispersed organization with 124 local entities. On paper, this already existed; in reality, it did not live.We asked and got the mandate to create the event as a “change lab”, where the wanted change would be lived instead of talked about, and where co-making around the change would be key. We got enthused reactions to this proposal from the decision makers, and started working out a concrete approach.

The power and difficulty of participation

In order to make the change lab happen, different steps were taken:

  • We created a core-team, with internal-external facilitators
  • We made the key-players for the future organization co-responsible for the event
  • We build a design that gave space to the needed transition, using the framework underneath.

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During the 2 months towards the event, we worked with a team of 3 external people for 50% of our time to prepare the 5-days event and engage the right people:

  • Having the buy-in from the direction committee helped us starting this up in a good way. The Global heads that would lead the regions, were brought together as a learning group, and gave the whole change a boost
  • Creating space for the people that were in charge of topics with big relevance for the new organization, really gave a commitment and enthusiasm
  • To who-ever we presented our participative format, we got enthused reactions within the organization


However, some strong lessons were learned too:

  • Designing a participative process creates enthusiasm, but also a lot of uncertainty. People that were in charge of the future and held an important stake in the current structure, were in favour with words, but resistent in action. The whole process brought the hidden tensions within the management committee to the surface, while we did not have a mandate working on that element.
  • In order to make the change real, strategy and decision making needed to be part of the game. This only awoke more fear with current decision makers, stepping in the “unknown”.
  • Many of these problems were reflected into our internal-external hosting team. While working for and with the change manager in the organization, who was new in the organization, we were constantly confronted with double agendas within the hierarchy, of people wanting to control the output of the event. This led to a lot of frustration with ourselves: we constantly had to be conscious not to “become part of current dynamic”, while being involved enough to have the mandate for change.

Examplifying the complexity: we developed 32 versions in order to come to a final version of the agenda of the event…


Why Open Space is so powerful…

At the end, from a participative point of view, we worked with the following format.

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Within this design, the 124 participants were thus involved in a lot of interaction and dialogue. Throughout the whole event, they were invited to mention all relevant open topics onto the “strategic conversations” wall. This gave them both trust but also perspective that they could have the specific conversations, while knowing that what keeps them awake will still be adressed too.

By knowing from the beginning that they would have a full day together to work on what really mattered for them, they felt ownership and were eager in engaging into all kinds of information and learnings that came their way. To put it into the words of the ceo: “the open space design is the guarantee that we will leave this seminar, knowing that all that needs to be said, will be said within the room, and not afterwards”.

These words summarize in a strong way what open space did within this change lab. It became the container for all previous interventions, to give it meaning and connection with each other.

Because all other puzzle-pieces were als owned by stakeholders within the organization, real community engagement emerged within the open space, and brought the action plans the day after to a tangible level, not a “intentional level”.

The enthusiasm and satisfaction towards the whole week was very high. People really left the week very engaged, and real changes already took place within the week.

Also, some main roadblocks became obvious, and could not be avoided anymore. This made the process vulnerable, since the new process only got birth…


Conclusions and lessons learned

  1. This was a really great experience in what we know in “the land of participation” as: “Give people the space, and they start taking ownership.” We saw people really growing throughout this 3 months- process, and take up their role completely differently.
  2. “let people experience the change they have to be in the future”: we brought “meat to the table”. Instead of talking about global regions, they were the regions. In this way, the reality starts to happen and is not questioned anymore. And from there, people build bridges between their current situation and the newly, experienced situation.
  3. “If you design for relationship, community will emerge”: by giving people the time to connect to what really matters for them, and that is linked to their daily activity, they find the support they need. If you let that flow happen and design the proper, consecutive steps, it just happens. The only role we need to take up as facilitators is guard the conditions.
  4. Open space methodology is the needed “closing moment” into a systems change process: without this container, all processes can still remain artificial or not owned. Bringing in open space means that we experience “the space to name and adress what is not adressed yet. And that every event becomes a reality, since we co-build it ourselves. Remarks as “this was only a seminar”, or “we do not agree” or “we were not involved” are just not present anymore.
  5. “Timing is key”: the whole set-up and use of participation is serious business. If you want to use participative tools with an impact, it requires the art of really sensing into the situation at stake and read the possibilities in a right way. And really know what you want to achieve.
  6. Last but not least, a difficult conclusion: “the more light you create, the stronger the darknes becomes”. While we had a big mandate to facilitate the change towards the event and the event itself, we did not have any control on what would happen afterwards. Two scenario’s were possible.
  1. Either the organization continued on the energyflow of the seminar, using the new energy to solve the though problems of the past
  2. Or the resistance to change even became stronger and tensions between the old and the new rise even more.

At the moment, both are present at the same time, and we observe a powerplay, while not being engaged. How we could have done this differently, we don’t know yet, but it is a hard lesson in humility and “being at service.” And in trusting the process that the things that need to happen, are happening right now.