2011 Volume 14 Issue 1

Self-Organizing Conversation as an Invitation to Serendipity

Self-Organizing Conversation as an Invitation to Serendipity

So many accomplishments throughout human history began with people talking together. In a relentlessly changing world, self-organizing conversation can enable learning, adaptation, influence, and co-evolution for the firm.

[powerpress: http://gsbm-med.pepperdine.edu/gbr/audio/winter2011/Axley-serendipity.mp3]

PODCAST: Click here to listen to a podcast interview with Stephen R. Axley on his self-organizing conversation research.

conversation bubblesA late 1980’s song by R.E.M. declared apocalyptically, “Its the end of the world as we know it.”[1] We could just as well say that for every year, extending indefinitely into the future. That’s because change is a constant of modern existence. This truth plays out most consequentially in the organizational world. Both the pace and volatility of change have been accelerating, with no sign of relief.[2] Thus, it’s pretty much always the end of the world as we know it.

The trick for organizations and people, then, is to be resourceful enough to handle relentless change. This article introduces a versatile and effective tool to help meet this need and provides guidelines for its use. The tool? It’s natural and it’s readily available: Self-organizing conversation.

“Change happens when you connect with, rather than oppose, the fundamental forces of human nature.” –Fast Company magazine, “A Letter from the Founding Editors”

The Big Shift

According to the timely book, The Power of Pull, today’s organizational world is experiencing a shift of rationale for the firm—it’s moving away from scalable efficiency and toward scalable learning.[3] Scalable efficiency describes the traditional business idea of seeking lower costs by getting bigger, while scalable learning seeks enhanced learning and performance by effectively integrating more people across institutional boundaries.[4] This is a challenging transition, since the conventional efficiency model is historically embedded in the world of “push”—the familiar, mechanistic ideal of assuming hierarchy, centralized decision making and control, predictability in forecasting, malleability of employees and consumers, the notion of “bigger is better,” standardization, and insufficiency of resources, necessitating optimum efficiency.[5] “Push” has long been the blueprint for modern organizations and institutions.

From Knowledge Stocks to Knowledge Flows

With the pace and amount of change creating almost continuous upheaval, personal and organizational success will come to rely less on static knowledge stocks and more on dynamic knowledge flows. Stocks consist of what’s known at a given time, whereas flows are interactive, ever-evolving streams of knowledge transferred among people, enabling them and their organizations to improve rapidly via collaboration.[6] In other words, transitioning from static knowledge stocks to dynamic flows will amplify a system’s opportunities to constantly learn and change, potentially improving its versatility and adaptiveness to changing conditions.

This requires “pull,” or “the ability to draw out people and resources as needed,”[7] especially toward those connected with important knowledge flows. The authors advise us to “think here of serendipity rather than search.” Information search is not good enough in such a dynamic world, because we often do not even know what to look for. This is where serendipity can facilitate unexpected encounters with people, ideas, connections, even those we do not know of or know we need, but which can add to our own opportunities and knowledge. And among the people and ideas, we most need to pull those who are at the “edge” closer in to us.[8]

Why people and ideas at the edge? Mainly because they are different from people and ideas dominating the so-called “core” of organizations and institutions. Differences are what stimulate innovation and system robustness.[9] The investment of people and resources is usually concentrated at the core. Incumbents, ideas, and practices there—particularly those at the top—have been associated with whatever success a firm might have experienced, and consequently, incentives exist for them to keep doing whatever has been working. By contrast, edges are where the knowledge, thinking, exploration, risk-taking, and people are different. They’re crucial incubators of innovation and learning. So if we want to explore “serendipitous environments,” The Power of Pull urges us to find ways to attract “edge players.”[10]

Shaping Serendipity

Although the authors of The Power of Pull expand on “environments, practices, and preparedness” as ways of “increasing not just the number, but the relevance of our serendipitous encounters,”[11] they don’t identify a particular serendipity-inviting tool. It’s one that is both readily accessible and almost endlessly versatile: self-organizing conversation. In her book, Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into Opportunity, Peggy Holman also endorses the effectiveness of this tool, noting: “The practices for engaging emergence [i.e., serendipity] are rooted in skills of everyday conversation.”[12]

“The most important work in the new economy is creating conversations.” – Alan Webber, former editor, Harvard Business Review

Self-Organizing Conversation

“Founders of major change initiatives often say, ‘Well, it all began when some friends and I started talking.'”[13] Conversation like that may be quite spontaneous and informal, self-organizing, and emergent, like the garden variety conversations we all have. However, conversation can also be intentionally and explicitly designed for participants to flexibly self-organize according to their interests, much like everyday conversation, but within a framework of general, simple rules that are made explicit. It goes something like this: “Let’s try to observe these few principles in our conversation [examples below]; and with those in mind, see where our talk takes us.” The design elements themselves create conditions that will catalyze emergence and serendipity. This is what distinguishes the self-organizing conversation of interest here, versus everyday conversation.

A number of conversational change methods involve this kind of self-organization, but two of the most widely used to invite serendipity are The World Café and Open Space Technology. Each has an impressive track record and supporting body of published work. Each enables thinking collectively to create practical ideas and new knowledge. Such conversation has been called “nature’s strategic planning process,”[14] because it’s as ancient as human community. That’s why people embrace conversational change methods—they’re natural to the human experience. It also explains their efficacy: unlike many traditional—or “push”—change methods, they align (pull) with human nature instead of against it. It’s impossible to predict the learning a self-organizing conversation like this will yield. And that’s the point. Let’s compare the two methods.

The World Café*

Juanita Brown and David Isaacs pioneered The World Café, a conversational process used by facilitators worldwide.[15],[16],[17] It’s extremely versatile and suitable for groups from about 12 to 1,200.[18] The definitive resource is The World Café: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter,[19] a book that is also complemented by a vibrant online community located at http://www.theworldcafe.com.

The book profiles countless cases on topics ranging from international to domestic, large to small business, government, nonprofit, community, civics, etc. Based on tenets of living systems—including self-organization—seven integrative design principles frame the World Café approach. Together, they create favorable conditions for self-organizing conversation to emerge. The design principles include: [20]

  • Set the context: Establish purpose, parameters, and participants, emphasizing diversity to maximize learning (and serendipity).
  • Create a hospitable space: Use café décor with natural lighting, small round tables with a small vase, flowers, colorful tablecloth, multi-colored markers, and large flip-chart paper on tabletops for drawing and doodling. The hosts should review Café etiquette, which encourages participants to contribute, listen, connect ideas, and draw/doodle to capture ideas. The hosts should explain the café’s agenda, usually 3 to 4 rounds of 20-30 minutes each, with participants switching tables and table-mates each round. (Variations abound to implement this principle.)
  • Explore questions that matter: Crafting questions is crucially important, right down to single words. Example: How can Hewlett-Packard (HP) be the best lab in the world? How can HP be the best lab for the world? One word completely changes the question. Questions matter. Powerful ones—there are published guidelines to enhance questions’ power—open thinking and conversation; weak ones close both.[21]
  • Encourage everyone’s contribution: Follow the belief that, “When people feel they belong, they show up, bringing their gifts.”[22]
  • Cross-pollinate and connect diverse perspectives: Participants switch tables and table-mates each round. Usually a table “steward” stays behind to re-cap highlights of earlier rounds for newcomers. People traveling to new tables convey highlights of earlier conversations to “seed” the next round’s conversation. This principle promotes serendipity and learning by connecting diverse people and ideas across rounds.
  • Listen together for patterns, insights, and deeper questions. Participants listen for patterns and themes across conversations. The drawings on each table’s flip-chart paper reflect these insights, preserving conversational highlights.
  • Harvest and share collective discoveries. The entire group conducts a “conversation of the whole,” coalescing themes, insights, and questions emerging from all rounds. A graphic recorder often creates a mural of this conversation in real time, depicting the essence of the “harvest” symbolically in creative, colorful, and vivid forms.[23] A “what’s next?” question may come up at this point, leading to action planning.

As mentioned earlier, the World Café method has been used successfully worldwide. A few  notable examples include the Mexico National Fund for Social Enterprise, which used the method for social and economic development; Saudi-Aramco (oil multinational), which successfully aligned people’s aspirations with company strategic direction, and the Financial Planning Association, which developed a culture of contribution. These World Cafés ranged in size from 16 to more than 700 participants. Many organizations have hosted several cafés of various sizes and purposes over time.[24]

When in action, the World Café’s design principles (inclusiveness, diversity, authentic communication and listening, movement of people and ideas throughout a living network, visual preservation of ideas, insights, etc.) harness the intellectual, creative, and emotional energies of diverse people around questions they care about. It’s a design for engagement, emergence, and learning, and is a compelling invitation to serendipity.

Open Space Technology*

BrainstormingHarrison Owen created Open Space Technology (OST), the second conversational method.[25], [26], [27] Used worldwide, OST works with 5 to more than 2,000 people. OST relies on self-selection, self-organization, and people’s passion and responsibility toward the focal topic(s). It’s appropriate for addressing major issues with high degrees of complexity, diversity, conflict, and very short timelines for resolution.[28]

OST’s major design elements are amazingly simple—maybe frighteningly so, to the uninitiated:

  • A pressing question or urgent theme sets the focus for the event.
  • People gather in a circle or concentric circles.
  • A host explains the four principles and one law of OST, applicable throughout the event:

(1) “Whoever comes are the right people.”

(2) “Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.”

(3) “Whenever it starts is the right time.”

(4) “When it’s over, it’s over.”

And the Law of Two Feet: “Take responsibility for what you love … by standing up for what you believe. If you feel you are neither contributing nor learning where you are, use your two feet and go somewhere else.”[29]

  • Participants volunteer relevant issues they’re passionate about and willing to take personal responsibility for. They write issues on paper and post them on the wall, creating a marketplace of issues. Everyone else visits this marketplace and signs up to work on issues that interest them. Everything from the beginning to this point takes about an hour or so. The rest is completely self-organized.
  • Self-organizing subgroups get to work, eventually composing reports. Total time can be one to three days.
  • At the event’s end, issues are prioritized, with the most important ones targeted for actions.[30], [31]

Sample OST successes include: Designing an Olympic pavilion two months prior to the games; facilitating strategic planning in a government-funded art organization; handling high conflict between Israelis and Palestinians; job search strategies for drug rehab kids, and creating a layoffs and restructuring strategy for an avionics firm.[32] As Harrison Owen claims, OST has been run over 100,000 times, in 136 countries, for more than 21 years.[33] The sheer number of uses says something about its efficacy.

Owen challenges the push-derived criticism that OST lacks structure and control, stating “…totally wrong; there is no pre-imposed structure and control. Such structure and control as is present (and it turns out to be a lot) is all emergent from the people involved, the task they perform, and the environment in which they are operating. In short, it is appropriate structure and control—appropriate to the people, task, and environment.”[34]

From diversity, self-organization, passion, connectedness, comes a design for emergence. Owen notes, “In OST it is a common experience that previously unthought-of, and perhaps unthinkable ideas show up with regularity, allowing impossible situations to find resolution.”[35] It’s a small wonder that from such an invitation, serendipity emerges.

Although the World Café and OST certainly aren’t the only self-organizing conversational methods in use, they’re unquestionably two of the most versatile, accessible, and effective. They both can address an extremely broad array of issues, questions, and contexts, and their limitations are relatively minor and few.[36] Regarding the appeal of such methods, Holman accurately observes that they “engage the diverse people of a system in focused yet open interactions that lead to unexpected and lasting shifts in perspective and behavior.”[37] In short, self-organizing conversation invites and facilitates serendipity.

“In the logic of emergence, 2 + 2 = apples.” – Kevin Kelly, Out of Control; founder/former editor, Wired magazine


So what? How can we apply these concepts to develop knowledge and self-organizing conversations more specifically in our own organizations? Most immediately, the value of learning must be both “talked” and “walked” organization-wide. Happily, the practitioner preparation required to host both World Café and Open Space activities is accessible through “self-directed study.” According to The Change Handbook, “Given a background in group work, with the aid of a book, a video, support from a community of practice (perhaps via the Internet) or some in-person coaching, a new practitioner can take his or her first steps independently … Start with straightforward applications!”[38]

Straightforward describes these approaches, and abundant “how-to” resources accompany each. The first step is to explore some resources, and/or enlist the help of a more experienced host, either internal (check HR) or external (see websites for facilitators, workshops, events, etc.). Then pilot a World Café or Open Space conversation in your organization around questions/issues of interest, such as: 1) How can [the organization] help us advance our job-relevant knowledge? (How can we help ourselves?) 2) How can [the organization] help us develop knowledge/skills of personal importance? 3) How can [the organization] provide opportunities for us to advance or cross-train? 4) What should we be doing as an organization to develop our knowledge here? 5) What questions would energize (or focus) our efforts in developing knowledge? These are just jumping off questions, but the point is to take a deep breath and step into the unknown. Self-organizing conversation is not a spectator sport; the methods are amazingly robust and resilient. With self-directed study, sufficient trust to “let the design and processes work,” and some tolerance of uncertainty, there’s no better way to “think collectively” and experience emergent learning and serendipity than by participating in—and hosting—self-organizing conversations. Let the World Café and/or Open Space Technology help.

So many accomplishments throughout human history began, one way or another, with people talking together. Our special ability to manipulate language and to converse with others energizes our minds and spirits, enabling learning, adaptation, influence, and co-evolution with the world. Lucky for us, it is the end of the world as we know it. The ride only promises to get wilder and faster from here. Adapting and learning under these conditions will be key, assisted by serendipity. That most natural of human tools—conversation—will materially determine how we fare, as individuals, organizations, and even as a species.

[1]Berry, Bill, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Michael Stipe. R.E.M., “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine),” (I.R.S. Records, 1987).

[2]Meyer, Christopher, and Stanley M. Davis. Its Alive: the Coming Convergence of Information, Biology, and Business. New York: Crown Business, 2003.

[3]Hagel III, John, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison. The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion. New York: Basic, 2010: 47.

[4]Ibid, 39, 47.

[5]Ibid, 34-37.

[6]Ibid, 93, 11.

[7]Ibid, 2.

[8]Ibid, 9, 93-94.

[9]Page, Scott E. The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. New ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

[10]Hagel et.al., The Power of Pull: 18, 93, 16.

[11]Ibid, 98-99.

[12]Holman, Peggy. Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into Opportunity. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2010: 44. Holman defines emergence: “Higher order complexity arising out of chaos in which novel, coherent structures coalesce through interactions among the diverse entities of a system,” 18. Unpredictability and novelty seem to link serendipity with emergence.

[13]Brown, Juanita, and David Isaacs. The World Café: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2005: 17.

[14]Brown and Isaacs. The World Café: 17.


[16]Brown, Juanita, and Thomas Hurley. “Conversational Leadership: Thinking Together for a Change.” The Systems Thinker 20.9 (2009): 1-17.

[17]Brown, Juanita, Ken Homer, and David Isaacs. “The World Café,” in The Change Handbook: The Definitive Resource on Todays Best Methods for Engaging Whole Systems (2nd ed.), eds. Peggy Holman, Tom Devane, and Steven Cady. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2007: 179-194.

[18]Ibid, 183.

[19]Brown and Isaacs. The World Café.

[20]Ibid. Page 40 is the first mention of the seven principles in the book. Each design principle, respectively, is then the subject of chapters three through nine, pages 42-153. Further, chapter 10 incorporates a detailed “hosting guide” organized around all seven design principles.

[21]Vogt, Eric, Juanita Brown, and David Isaacs. “The Art of Powerful Questions: Catalyzing Insight, Innovation, and Action,” Whole Systems Associates, September 2003, http://www.theworldcafe.com/articles/aopq.pdf.

[22]Holman. Engaging Emergence: 112.

[23]Margulies, Nancy and David Sibbet. “Visual Recording and Graphic Facilitation,” in The Change Handbook: The Definitive Resource on Todays Best Methods for Engaging Whole Systems (2nd ed.), eds. Peggy Holman, Tom Devane, and Steven Cady. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2007: 573-587.

[24]Brown and Isaacs. The World Café.

[25]Owen, Harrison. Open Space Technology: A Users Guide (2nd ed.), San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1997.

[26]Owen, Harrison. “Open Space Technology,” in The Change Handbook: The Definitive Resource on Todays Best Methods for Engaging Whole Systems (2nd ed.), eds. Peggy Holman, Tom Devane, and Steven Cady. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2007: 135-148.

[27]Owen, Harrison. Wave Rider: Leadership for High Performance in a Self-organizing World. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2008.

[28]Owen. “Open Space Technology,” 2007: 139.

[29]Ibid, 139-141.

[30]Ibid, 139.

[31]Owen. Wave Rider: 71-73.

[32]Owen. “Open Space Technology,” 2007: 141-142

[33]Owen. Wave Rider: 13.

[34]Owen. “Open Space Technology,” 2007: 147, emphasis in original.

[35]Owen. Wave Rider: 74.

[36]Brown and Isaacs. The World Café, 162-163; Owen, “Open Space Technology,” 2007: 144-145.

[37]Holman. Engaging Emergence: 201.

[38]Holman, Peggy, Tom Devane, and Steven Cady. “The Big Picture: Making Sense of More Than Sixty Methods,” in The Change Handbook, eds. Holman et.al.: 19, 22.

*Reprinted with permission of the publisher.  From Open Space Technology: A Users Guide (2nd ed.), copyright© 1997 by Harrison Owen, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., San Francisco, CA.  All rights reserved. www.bkconnection.com

*Reprinted with permission of the publisher.  From The World Café: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matte , copyright© 2005 by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., San Francisco, CA.  All rights reserved. www.bkconnection.com

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Author of the article
Stephen R. Axley, PhD
Stephen R. Axley, PhD, is a professor of management in the College of Business and Technology at Western Illinois University. His doctorate and master’s are from Purdue University, and his research centers around the applications of complexity science to organizations, management, change, and management education, with a focus on organizational communication. He has been published in a number of academic and practitioner journals and authored a book. He has also served in a consulting and training capacity with more than 80 private and public sector organizations, including three state governments and several Fortune 500 companies.
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