Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage Interviews Daniel Mezick on Creating Communitas Using Open Space Events

Daniel Mezick on Creating Communitas Using Open Space Events


1. Good day. This is Shane Hastie. We are still here at the Agile 2013 and this is our third discussion with Dan Mezick. Dan, we got in our previous conversation to the point where we’ve got the Open Space, we have set things up. What happens next?

After the first open space we issued the proceedings, but before that we remind the folks that this is the first Open Space and “Oh, by the way, after six or seven iterations you are getting another one. We are all coming together again to do this again.”


2. OK. So we are punctuating this. We are actually setting this up as this is going to be a pulse, a part of the process going forward?

It is. It is based on the hypothesis that when we do an Agile adoption we are engaging in cultural change. This introduces a concept of liminality. Liminality is not here, not there, you are in “no man’s land” and do not know where you are. You often have this feeling when you engage in some substantial learning or you if go through a serious of life change or some other kind of transition. The word liminality comes from the Latin word limens which means threshold. Tribal societies have managed liminality for thousands of years through something called a rite of passage. So the open Agile adoption process has at its core a passage rite that begins and ends with Open Space events and in between we engage in experimentation and play to get the best idea on the table, to tailor and customize our practices and to engage everyone in the process.


3. How is this different from just running a retrospective?

A retrospective is a periodic lessons learned, what just happened. That is one dimension of the second Open Space. The second Open Space ideally is also a place where the whole group levels up. In other words: we have all been through something these past several months, we graduated, we are closing out that chapter of experience and we are leveling up. Often, the way I like to do it is I like to change my role as the coach. So if I was coaching the teams, when we get to that large Open Space meeting, the next thing that I do is I might just coach the Scrum masters and the product owners and the Scrum masters will now coach the teams.


4. It really sounds like that rite of passage: you are graduating, you are moving into the next step. And what happens after that?

What happens after that is that you generate a spirit of community in your organization. The technical term, the Latin term is “communitas”. It means “the spirit of community”. This is something you get with the passage rite. In a passage rite there is a beginning, there is a middle and an end. There is a generation of this “communitas” feeling and there is also a master of ceremonies who provides structure and guidance and takes the folks from here to there. And when that passage rite is over, that role is no longer in play and the coach basically functions as a master of ceremonies then actually vacates.

Shane: So as coaches, we are working ourselves out of work.

Ideally we are, yes.


5. What happens then?

What happens after that is that in any healthy culture you have periodic or ceremonial rituals that will punctuate certain things that we value. My best idea now is to have a periodic Open Space event every six months or so, so perhaps in early July, before people go on vacation and then in January, after the holidays are over. We have a company-wide event where we literally rehydrate the openness, the engagement, the getting smarter as a group piece, all the signaling that came with that. What this does it that it does something really important. Agile adoptions are an ongoing process of keeping the space open. If the leaders who are making that happen actually vacate the company, there is a good chance that your Agile adoption could crumble, right? But if we have a periodic event on the calendar that is a matter of policy, it is an opt-in invited meeting in say July or January, that are on the company calendar, not in any one leader’s calendar, we have at least the potential to carry the cultural values of openness in communitas forward, without depending on any one leader or any one C-level person.


6. How does this work in terms of engaging, for instance, new employees? Because in any organization people are coming and going all the time. So does this regular Open Space - is it a rite of passage every time for the new people as well?

Well, for the new people it is more of an initiation. Their first Open Space would be an initiation. Personally, the best companies that I have studied and worked for, for example Zappos, have initiation rites. Everyone goes through something. Not at the same time, but they went through a certain thing that they had to do when they came into the company, at their entry point. If I am new employee, I am in your company and I come in in, say, March, folks are going to tell me that the Open Space is coming in July and I am not going to really know what that means. That is going to serve as a kind of initiation or baptism into the culture and again action, not just talk, but action. Not just knowing with your head, but knowing with your heart, through an experience, a felt experience. I will know what it means to be in your company, in the company of everyone else who is there.

Shane: So this really is the cultural stuff. You actually said when we were chatting, you draw heavily on things like cultural anthropology.

Yes. Tribal societies, for tens of thousands of years have been managing liminality and generating communitas through passage rites. Across all cultures and all different parts of the world these tribal cultures have all come to the same conclusion which is: we need a rite of passage to kind of frame or contain or manage the chaotic liminal state. Agile adoption generates tremendous amounts of learning. Learning is very destabilizing to your company. I do not know if you realize that but if you want stability you probably don’t want to have a lot of learning because learning is very destabilizing. It invalidates the thing you used to believe. There is a period of integration that is very destabilizing. That is the liminal state. So, the hypothesis is that Agile adoption generates tremendous amounts of learning, a lot of learning generates liminality, liminality generates anxiety. So at issue is: what are we doing now to manage the modern anxiety and modern liminality that we are generating when we bring in Agile into a company? Tribal societies have the answers to that:: devise the rite of passage, make it easily understood, generate communitas, manage liminality and also have a master of ceremonies, who if anyone is feeling wobbly, the master of ceremonies can remind them about where we are – we are here – so that they can be located in this process of moving from here to there. Then, when the passage right is over we level up. There is a state change. We have a sense of progress which we know as essential to human happiness. So I am drawing these ideas in and these are not things that I have invented. I am actually just recomposing the existing elements that have been around for a long time and I have to thank Harrison Owen personally for the spirit book which is drop dead, the most amazing culture hacking manual I have ever seen. So Harrison Owen, thank you for that and for stimulating my thinking around this idea.

Shane: Wonderful. Dan, it has certainly been stimulating for me and I am sure it is for our viewers as well. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to InfoQ and we really look forward to seeing where this goes.

Yes, thanks a lot, Shane.

Dec 19, 2013