Msc Organisation Development and Consultancy

Theo Groot

May 2003


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In September 2001 I had the privilege to take a one-year sabbatical to embark on a course in organization development and consultancy at Sheffield Hallam University in the U.K. It was an intermediate time and space to reflect on my work as a development practitioner and to redefine my vision for the future and it has been a period of great personal and professional growth. This dissertation is a reflection of my learning journey.

During my sabbatical and the writing of this dissertation I have benefited from the help, suggestions and assistance of my family and many friends and colleagues. I would especially like to thank my family for their support, Jan Aukema and Eugene Nizeyimana for looking after my farm during my absence and Ann van Even for her kind attention. Andre Leliveld was a real friend on this journey and dedicated considerable time to accompany me on my at times confusing odyssey. He always had time to read my texts and to give very valuable comments. I am also grateful to Terry Gibson who was my mentor in Open Space Technology.

      The School of Business and Finance at Sheffield Hallam University in the U.K. provided the enabling environment and my sincere thanks goes to my fellow students and tutors. With Richard Sexton I spend many hours discussing a wide range of subjects and with Tracey Lamb I was able to try out process consultation.  I specially want to thank John Darwin, my dissertation supervisor for his encouragement and assurance that ‘weird’ ideas are not necessarily unscientific.

      Kabarole Research Centre in Fort Portal in Uganda made the practical part of this dissertation possible in allowing me to facilitate my first Open Space meeting. Every future Open Space I will facilitate will remind me these three wonderful days we had together in September 2002. I am equally grateful to Broederlijk Delen for the year off I was granted and the financial support received. I am glad to share my new insights and understanding.

      I owe the largest debt to the many Africans who allowed me into their lives, it is in living in their midst that I discovered the challenge of balancing the mystery and the mastery in my life and work.



May 2003







Introduction          1



Part I   4


1. We stand in our own shadow and wonder why it is dark        5

Different paradigms          6

Broederlijk Delen and its practice            8

Characteristics of the ZOPP        9

Critique and adaptations  10

Conclusion            12


2. The wise don’t strive to arrive            14

Complexity theory            15

Autopoiesis            16

Complex Adaptive Systems          17

Complex Responsive Processes    18

Strategy as conversation  21

Conclusion            22



Part II   23


3. Gaze at the stars but walk on the earth          24

Role of language

Appreciative Inquiry         25

Motivation            28

Creativity  28

Dialogue    29

Conclusion            30



4. You smile – the world changes            31

Brief history and description

My own Open Space experiences  33

Underlying assumptions   35

Calling the circle   36

Genuine conversation       37

The interactive organization         38

Conclusion            39


5. Make medicine from suffering            40

Healing rituals: a gateway to organizational dynamics   40

Open Space: a ritual for organizational transformation  43

Healing and Complexity Theory   45

Conclusion            47



Part III    48


6. Know who you are, be what you know            49

The four-fold way 50

The use of self                   54

Energy in organizations    55

Conclusion            56


7. Without anxious thought, doing comes from being    57

From project implementation to realistic solidarity         58

The six-fold path   59

Conclusion            63



References 64

Notes         66




MU !

I still vividly remember the 28th of May 1979 when I got on a plane in Brussels heading for Kinshasa in the former Zaire. A few months earlier I signed a three-year contract to work as a volunteer in Basankusu, a remote small town in the middle of the immense equatorial rainforest. A dream came true and after many years of active involvement in the Third World Movement in the Netherlands I finally could make what I considered a much more substantial contribution to the eradication of poverty and the creation of a better world. These were the days of the New Economic Order, Silent Spring and the report of the Club of Rome. Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich were my guru’s and I had read most of their books.

      The twenty-five years that followed this specific moment in my personal history took me to live not only in Zaire, but also in Rwanda and Uganda and to travel extensively in some ten different African countries. I worked at the grass-root level where I shared my life with villagers as well as in an international NGO where I was to meet with ministers and bishops. I survived the Rwandan genocide and partook the misery of the refugee camps in Tanzania; I witnessed the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and listened to the stories of its victims. During all those years this part of Africa has undergone tremendous change but quite different from what I hoped for on that particular day in May 1979.

      After I had been in Basankusu for roughly a year a representative of the Dutch aid agency ‘Mensen in Nood’ come to see us. It was the period of the milk powder distribution whereby EU surpluses were freely distributed among the poor in Africa. This particular representative was quite aware of the ambiguity of the whole exercise and keen on getting more development-oriented activities in place. And so it happened that I was invited to submit my first proposal for funding. It talked about my vision and dreams and the need to work out things together with the people whereby I abundantly used quotes from my favourite authors. The proposal was accepted and I was in charge of my first donor funded development activities. Over the years I became more professional and got trained in the ‘performance gap’ (Zaltman at all, 1977) and planned approaches to change of which the Ziel Orientierte Projekt Planung (ZOPP[1] – the German acronym of Objectives Oriented Project Planning) and the Logical Framework Approach (LFA) became the main ‘theories in use’ in development work.

But the more professional I grew, the uneasier I felt with the approaches. It dawned on me that the nicely described outcomes and results rarely materialised the way we had planned it. This of course was due to my insufficient analysis at the start, my inadequate monitoring of the changes in the environment and my lacking capacity to adjust the running programmes, hence a need for more training and better analytical and writing skills. I then remembered those early years in Zaire when we did not make rigid plans with SMART indicators but we did make interesting progress albeit by times quite different from what we had in mind at the start. Gradually I came to realise that perhaps it’s not me but the approach itself that needed a revision. Could it be that changes more often than not do not obey to our rationality and that reality is much more complex and fuzzy than we pretend? What is reality anyway? These were the type of questions that rose in my mind and kept me awake at night.

My studies in Organisation Development and Consultancy at the Sheffield Hallam School of Finance and Business helped me to clarify my thoughts and provided me with new insights and tools. I did not get instant solutions and many of the theories I took interest in are real mind teasers but they make sense to me and helped me to get new understanding of what might be going on in my daily life and work in Central and Eastern Africa. This dissertation is a first digestion of an intense year of reading, discussion, exploration and reflection with tutors and other students. Learners are ruminants and it takes quite some chewing to make the food one’s own. This essay therefore is not a clear-cut presentation of a new approach to development work but much more a reflection of my own thinking and searching. I got convinced of one thing however: the rational reductionist way of thinking is not only not helping me, it is quite alien to African thinking and philosophy as well. The mystery of life cannot be captured in problem analyses and strategic planning. As Robert Flood puts is so nicely:

“Seeking absolute mastery as reductionism and science do, misses the point of human being. It turns the magic of mystery in our lives into the misery of failed mastery over our lives…. Balancing mystery with mastery means living somewhere between the hopelessness of the belief that we are unable to understand anything and, at the other extreme, the naivety of the belief that we can know everything” (1999:83)

This thesis is an echo of my own struggle and learning. I did not use the classical approach to writing dissertations whereby the student gives an account of a clear piece of consultancy work he did and his reflections on it. Although I did carry out a specific piece of work being the facilitation of Open Space meetings, I am myself the main client. I took this sabbatical in order to reweave my identity as a development practitioner and to reposition myself within the arena I am working in.

      This dissertation is about a change of paradigm and you don’t decide to change paradigm from one day to the other, this type of enlightenment is rather rare. For more mortal people like myself this process of transformation takes its time, as the Zen koan says: water heats gradually and boils suddenly (Freke, 1997). Throughout this dissertation I use Zen koans as titles for my chapters; they capture in a few words what I often do not succeed to explain in all the words that follow. The table of content may therefore well be the best summary of what I have to say.

      In the first part I consider the theoretical underpinning of my practice. Chapter 1 critically examines my theory in use and I then turn to what I consider my espoused theory in chapter 2.  I really got in the grips of complexity theory and made amazing discoveries. A daunting journey that unsettled my thinking, but also a fascinating one. In part II I look at two useful methods I consider in line with complexity theory: Appreciative Inquiry and Open Space Technology. In the third chapter of this part I search for the organisational dynamics in African Bantu society and explain how complexity theory fits the African reality much better than the Newtonian thinking. Part III focuses more in particular on my own journey as a consultant and a development practitioner. The last chapter is an attempt to translate my new theory in use into a daily practice and at the same time a challenge for the coming years. I tried to pull all the strings together but also accept that there are some lose ends remaining.

      I am conscious that I did not take the easiest way out for this dissertation. Complexity theory is still young and developing and not taken too serious by many mainstream consultants. Neither did I get all the answers on my questions, worries and concerns; on the contrary many of those new insights are undoubtedly upsetting and challenging. However I have this intuitive feeling that in the long run complexity theory will help us to make a significant leap forward in our understanding of development work. I can see how appreciative inquiry and open space technology are important steps on this way.

One of the characteristics of the above mentioned OD course is the harmonious integration of academics, practical skills and personal development. To use an African metaphor: you need three stones to hold your saucepan for cooking food on an open fire. This dissertation has been cooked on such a fire in the quietness of Kayunga, a small village not far from the Ugandan capital Kampala. At the heart of this essay lies an Open Space Meeting I facilitated for Kabarole Resource Centre in Fort Portal. This basic ingredient has been tastefully mixed with theoretical insights and generously seasoned with my own reflections as an OD practitioner. I gladly share this upshot with all those who are committed to the well-being of African men, women and children.






Mu is a traditional Zen koan and literally means “not”

Mu as an answer to a question is a way of saying

that both yes and no are too limited to be the answer.

Can’t you see that in reality everything is One and life

is empty of separateness?

So the answer to the question if NGO’s[2] can bring about

changes in the organisations and communities

they work with is simply MU

(adapted from Freke 1997)



In the first chapter I share my struggle with notions of change and the modern paradigm. I clarify how concepts of change are embedded in a set of assumptions; these assumptions determine what we consider to be true and how truth can be established; in other words the ontological and epistemological questions. At first I thought that Burrel and Morgan’s (1979) approach to social paradigms could help me out. I thought that my unease with strategic planning had to do with a mismatch between the discourse of the organisation I work with and its daily practice.

The ZOPP practice that I use in development work roots in the mechanistic thinking whilst the discourse of Broederlijk Delen is much more anchored in the radical humanist paradigm. However this clarification did not ease my dissatisfaction with the planned approach to change and I came to realise that both paradigms have a similar outlook on change and how to get to grips with it. This in turn raises questions for me about Burrel and Morgan’s concept of paradigm and I argue that the four social paradigms they describe are in fact no distinct paradigms but rather different images of social reality. Complexity theory and in particular the insights of Stacey (2001) provide the new insights I was looking for and I came to the conclusion that the key element in the discourse about paradigm shifts is the perception of the human being.

The second chapter therefore starts with an exploration of complexity theory and its application in organisational thinking for which I draw extensively on the insights of Wheatley (1999). Using Stacey (2001) I continue to explore what could be considered the fundamental paradigmatic difference between the old and the new science: the perception of man. As long as the human thinking is rooted in a cognitive psychology promises for radical new insights get ‘neutralized’ and all that remains is a repackaging of the rationalist theories. Stacey’s proposal of a relationship psychology is a daunting way of looking at people and almost impossible for us who come from a strong individualistic culture with a clear separation between thinking and doing, body and mind. I attempt to apply these insights to change and related questions of strategy and power. At the same time I came to realise that this ‘new’ paradigm is in fact already as old as Methuselah and can for instance be found in the Eastern Philosophies as well as African thinking

Chapter 1


We stand in our own shadow and wonder why it is dark

Development organisations by their very nature are focussed on bringing about deliberate change in the communities and organisations they work with. For Broederlijk Delen[3] as well as many other Non-governmental development organisations (NGOs) strategic planning is the common approach to achieve those changes. Strategic planning is conceived as a rational formulation of long-term development goals based on clear analysis of both the situation of the local beneficiaries, the local partner organisation and the environment in which it operates. Relevant action plans to achieve those objectives are mapped-out and adequate resources allocated, progress is measured against clear indicators.

      For many years I have facilitated strategic planning workshops and wrote a considerable number of project proposals using this recipe. However the experience in the field showed me that most of those nice proposals disappeared in drawers once the funds approved and I increasingly got the feeling that we were just accomplishing a ritual to please donors. The problem orientation that is the central notion in this method does not focus the change process itself and people’s capacity to live with and integrate change in their lives; development work then becomes mainly problem-solving and therefore a ‘repair approach’ (Wheatley, 1999). Moreover the focus on problems and problem-solving implicitly discourages people since out of the hundred problems brought forward by a community in rural Africa when preparing their ‘problem tree’ only a few are to be solved by the project, many more remain unsolved. It conveys the message ‘you really are poor, ignorant people, look at all the problems and the little you have done so far to solve them’. Besides since projects are mapped out over several years with clear formulated results that have to be obtained, I felt put under an enormous pressure to make sure that local organisations performed and achieved even if circumstance where such that it was barely impossible to determine in a detailed way today what was to be achieved within three to five years. As a consequence contacts with partner organisations mainly concentrated on the obtained results and the reasons why they did not perform as ‘agreed’, which in turn strained relations. In the end I started to doubt my own capacities; what to say of a development worker who persistently does not achieve the planned results.

      For Thich Nhat Hahn, the Nobel Peace Price winner and spiritual leader things are much simpler: “The world will change because of your smile”. Is this simplistic happy-clappy talk from an enlightened soul who has lost all contact with reality? Is this just spiritual stuff that ignores the hunger, illness and oppression many people in Africa are faced with on a daily basis? Whatever the answer he invites me to reflect on my practice as a development practitioner; what do I consider change and are there strategies to bring about change in the lives of the people with whom I work? In this section I will look at change in more detail and clarify how it is embedded in a set of assumptions. These assumptions determine what we consider to be true and how truth can be established. Strategic planning is a methodology to bring about changes and as such product of certain image we have of reality. And although a same approach can be used within different sets of assumption, I will explain that a method reflects a way of thinking and using the method reinforces this same type of thinking, form and content are closely linked. My argument is that the commonly held perception of change and the main method to bring about change are mutually reinforcing and this makes it difficult to think out of the box. We stand in our own shadow and wonder why it is dark.


Different paradigms

Years ago I visited a training centre in Lingomo in the heart of the Congolese rainforest. The lady in charge took me around and I asked her how many participants the centre could accommodate. She did not understand my question and I clarified “how many beds do you have, how many people can sleep here”. She still looked puzzled by such a silly question and answered: “I don’t know it depends on how many they come”; a European question and an African answer. Both of us were talking from a different set of assumptions. For me the number of beds determines the capacity of a centre. For her it all depends on the number of people that arrive, if necessary two people can sleep together in a single bed and you can put as many mats on the floor as needed.

The way we look at the world and the events that are taking place determine what we see, or as others might say shape what is happening. An exercise that is frequently used in workshop in East Africa shows the picture of a woman who can be perceived as an old lady as well as a young girl at the same time. Its aim is to make participants aware that people can see the same thing, disagree and both be right. Many debates among development workers[4] reflect fundamental differences that are often unconscious and derive from a different tacit set of assumptions. Organisations too operate within different set of assumptions: those of local development organisations in Africa may differ considerably from the Belgium Development Cooperation. The dialogue between Broederlijk Delen and its partners in the South is at times unsatisfactory and this is partly due to the fact that both unconsciously talk from a different paradigm. A genuine dialogue therefore should start with the clarifications of each other’s set of assumptions. Later chapters will explore how to get those type of conversations started. I therefore think it is helpful to explore the notion of mindsets more in depth since it brings to the surface the unconscious contradictions and raises questions about our own assumptions.

The physicist Thomas Kuhn introduced the notion of paradigm in his book ‘the structure of scientific revolutions’ as a set of assumptions scientists take for granted. The most influential book on paradigms in social science was written by Burrel and Morgan (1979); they distinguish four key paradigms based upon assumptions about the nature of society and the nature of social science. The two poles of their dimension that deals with the nature of society are formulated as regulation and radical change. The former assumes that society, organisations and institutions search to maintain a stable equilibrium and that the main characteristics are consensus and cohesion; changes are the necessary measures to keep the organisation in balance. The latter stands in sharp contrast and is primarily concerned with the structural conflicts, modes of domination and deprivation in society and seeks ways for radical change and emancipation of individuals. With regards to the nature of social science we can consider the world as an objective reality outside ourselves that can neutrally be observed, explored and described. Or we ascribe to the idea that what we see is greatly determined by our own thought patters; we are part of the world and therefore constantly influence it, reality is a construct of our mind. For Burrel and Morgan the answers to the questions above lead to four distinct paradigms that exist at the same time but are mutually exclusive. Two of those paradigms I will discuss more in detail since they help me to understand better my own organisation and the ZOPP as an important tool of strategic planning.

The dominant paradigm in social science is what Burrel and Morgan call the functionalist paradigm. The image that Morgan (1997) uses in his later work is that of a machine. This is the world of positivist thinking where things are clear and straightforward: the world out-there is to be explored, discovered, tamed. It is an objective reality, complex and fascinating that we can gradually unravel. Truth is an independent foundation based on the objective observation and interpretation of facts. It is an attempt to bring social science in line with the scientific thinking that is reductionist and analytical whereby systems are reduced and understood by their parts. There is no doubt that most of our present comfort, health and well-being is a direct result of the positivist approach to science. Also in social science does positivism play an important role whereby the same research methods are used to develop theories that can explain and predict the human behaviour.

Positivism adheres to the correspondence theory of truth, that is to say the truth corresponds with the facts ‘out-there’ in the world and scientist can describe it in a theory neutral language that is representational, value-free and that gives a real picture of the external reality. Hypotheses about what is thought to be the true can be established inductively or deductively. It does not really matter where they come from, once they are confirmed they are true. Both ontology and epistemology are objective (Johnson et al, 2000).

A second paradigm is what Burrel and Morgan call that of the ‘radical humanist’. Here it is assumed that the world is subjective, a product of our own thinking, there is no such thing as an objective reality out-there. Humans are sense-making agents, “When people engage in acts of sensemaking, it is more precise to think of them as accomplishing reality rather then discovering it” (Weick, 2001: 460). Reality is socially created and sustained. There is however a danger of groupthink whereby people fall in what Morgan calls the “cognition trap” (1997: 407). Since the world is created and sustained by conscious and unconscious processes people can actually become prisoners of their own creation, their own beliefs. Like a fish will not be aware of the water it is swimming in, people take their world for granted. This is what Paulo Freire (1972) calls the occupation of the unconscious of the poor by the oppressor; the poor think that their oppression is ‘natural’ and cannot be discussed. It also explains why the oppressed often turn into oppressors themselves once they access positions of power. In his later work Morgan links this paradigm with the metaphor of the psychic prison where people are imprisoned by the bounds of the reality they have themselves created thus alienated from their potentialities and alternative visions.

For radical humanists the functionalists create and sustain a view of social reality that reinforces the status quo and is thereby part of the ideological domination. Mankind and especially the poor live in a world, which constrains rather then develops the human potential, hence the need for emancipation and liberation. Here they differ from the Marxists who subscribe to the need for radical change but reject the central role of man as the conscious and unconscious creator of his own world. For Marxists the world is objective and changes in its politico-economical structures suffice to bring about the required changes. Truth in the radical humanist paradigm is not absolute but lies in the hope for emancipation and progress and the development of a critical consciousness. The search for truth requires a freeing from domination and asymmetrical power relations that distort reality. The knowledge we create about our world is always value-laden; objectivity does not exist.


Broederlijk Delen and its practice.

People see the world and the human activities from a particular mindset, a set of assumptions they take for granted. Life would become rather complicated if every time everything would be questioned. The danger is that we no longer are aware of those assumptions and fall in the cognitive trap; we take things for granted and suppose that others operate from the same assumption as we do. Paradigms are also self-reinforcing; you do things a certain way because you assume it is the right way and by doing so you reinforce this notion of correctness. In this section I explain how development work operates within a specific mindset and like the fish that is not aware of the water it swims in, we intend to take for granted the way we do development work.

      Taking closer look at the discourse of Broederlijk Delen[5] it appears to me that three main concerns emerge from different documents[6] and conversations with members of the organisation. A first concern could be labelled ‘freeing voices’; Broederlijk Delen is a strong advocate for democracy and real participation of the rural and urban poor in their own development. Allowing people to speak, to bring to the fore their views and opinions lays the foundation for human emancipation and liberation. Language, speech is the key to unlock forms of oppression. A second theme that becomes apparent is ‘strengthening organisational dynamics’; here the organisation is still somehow vague about how this could be done since it is conscience that it should go beyond building local capacities to formulate and implement projects. For me it meets Weick’s (2001) notions on self-designing organisations and Owen’s (2000) interactive organisation whereby organisations are opportunity oriented instead of problem solving; create and invent their own environment; strategies emerge out of actions; unpredictability and uncertainty are seen as learning opportunities. A final care is for ‘cultivating spirit[7]’; Broederlijk Delen is a Christian organisation with its roots in the Lenten campaign[8] of the Catholic Church and very much aware of the fact that the material and the spiritual are no separate entities. However it wants to see spirit and spirituality in a very broad sense, in its documents there is talk of ‘inspired communities’ and ‘organisations with a soul’, places where people are touched, moved and inspired to work for peace, justice and sustainability.

The discourse of Broederlijk Delen neatly fits the radical humanist paradigm that is characterised by subjectivism and radical change; people are trapped in socially constructed realities that they themselves help to sustain, this is the subjectivist nature of reality. Broederlijk Delen beliefs in the capacity of man to re-create the world, to be co-creators and to take responsibility.  All kind of cultural, political and socio-economical restrictions prevent most people in the South to fully participate in the re-creation of our common world.  The aim therefore is to free people from these constraints, to conscientise them so that they realise the trap they are in and thus bringing about radical change. Paulo Freire (1970) is for many NGO development workers the embodiment of this paradigm. Development, liberation and transformation thus are all aspects of the same process of freeing the oppressed from the bounds of poverty and oppression that make their lives increasingly inhuman.

      The main tools to bring about those changes used by Broederlijk Delen is the ZOPP and it is interesting to see how this instrument, more or less imposed by the main donor the Belgium Development Cooperation over the years has gained ground to the extend that at present it is assumed to be the right method.


Characteristics of the ZOPP

Darwin et al. (2002) identify seven characteristics of the functionalist or as they call it modern paradigm and the ZOPP neatly fits all of them. The first is logic; ZOPP is by all means a logical and rational approach of making strategic decisions and choices. It makes verifiable choices using several analytical tools as SWOT[9] and others to get a clear picture of the existing situation and the context. Once you have a clear image of where you are and where you are going there are logical steps to get there. A second attribute of the modern paradigm and closely related to rationality is linear thinking. ZOPP follows a clear linear sequence: preparatory steps that include stakeholder and context analysis, followed by problem analysis, the analysis of alternatives and the selection of the intervention strategy, the formulation of overall goals and intermediate results, determining the objectively verifiable indicators and the means of verification and finally the allocation of necessary resources. The third characteristic is quantification. ZOPP is very keen on formulation of objectively verifiable indicators since ‘the precise descriptions given by the indicators allow us to measure in how far the results and objectives have been realised’ (South Research, 1997). In order to formulate reliable indicators baseline data have to be available. Fourth is cause and effect. This is very clearly present in the ‘creation’ of the problem-tree whereby identified problems are considered either a cause to the central problem or an effect of it. A fifth feature is reductionism, a way of analysing problems and things by dividing them in simpler parts. A clear example of reductionism in ZOPP is the way possible disturbances in the context are dealt with by reducing them to some clearly formulated assumptions as ‘conditions outside the control of the project’s manager which must be realised for the intervention to succeed but which are not under the control of the intervention’ (South Research, 1997). Sixth is the split between thinking and doing. In ZOPP this split is situated at two levels. First the thinking is done before the doing; ZOPP is an intensive thinking exercise that has to be completed before any action is to be taken. And secondly whilst stakeholders are invited for the planning exercise, during the course of the project the management team mainly does the thinking and adjusting. A final feature is control. It is obvious that the detailed planning and the precise description of the context, the expected results and the action to be taken on which ZOPP is based require a strong control. Any small deviation from the outlined project design is to be controlled and the implementation has to be brought back on track. Control equals regulation.

      ZOPP then is not simply a tool; it reflects a way of thinking about change and strategies to change. Strategic planning, Logical Framework, ZOPP are based on the assumptions of the functionalist paradigm whereby change is seen as something human agents can bring about in a systematic, predictable and controlled manner.


Critique and adaptations

Broederlijk Delen and other radical humanist NGO’s realise that ZOPP as a tool and a reflection of the functionalist mindset does not meet all the requirements of their own way of thinking and have tried to adopt the method. I will first formulate some of the basic critiques and then indicate how NGO’s have tried to adapt the tool to their own radical humanist thinking.

Based on the work of Minzberg et al (1998), Darwin et al. (2002) and Stacey (2000) the following critiques of strategic planning in the context of development programmes can be defined. A first critique is the dichotomy between formulation and implementation. Project formulation is clearly distinct from its implementation to the extend that funding will not be made available unless a clear strategic plan is proposed. Once the long-term project proposal is approved, it then becomes quite difficult to make major changes. In the course of the implementation yearly plans have to be submitted that may only slightly deviate from the master plan. This dichotomy leads to regular gaps in funding during which period organisations will uphold actions and go in a kind of winter sleep stage. Fixed costs as staff salaries, rent an others have to be paid of course. An even stranger complication arises when a local organisation applies for an NGO development worker. Often this request, with the accompanying plan about how this assistance in personnel is going to contribute to the realisation of the overall goals has to be made more than half a year ahead. It is only when the ministry of cooperation, at the beginning of each year has approved the proposal that a development worker can effectively be recruited. Given the often lengthy procedures of employment and preparation it may well be that the local organisation is requested in June of the current year to formulate a new plan for the intervention of the development worker for the coming year whilst the person concerned has not yet even arrived to take up the implementation of the current year’s plan, formulated the year before!

The separation between thinking and doing is another important critique that goes hand in hand with the earlier mentioned dichotomy between formulation and implementation. In spite of efforts to make some representatives of the beneficiaries participate in the ZOPP workshop, most of the thinking is done by a small group of development professionals during the preliminary analysis, the final formulation of the project proposal, the monitoring and the evaluation. The strategic planning process is simply too complicated for people whose situation the project intends to change. The extensive use of ZOPP has greatly contributed to the development of a NGO elite that controls the access poor people have to donor funding.

A third critique involves the preoccupation of strategic planning with prediction. It is understood that the internal and external conditions of the organisation can be known. A whole range of analytical tools is available as SWOT, PEST, stakeholder analysis and Force Field analysis to mention but a few. Strategic planning is a realist approach whereby the context is objective reality out-there and can be measured, explored and described. Even the future is talked about as a pre-given reality since the planner can describe in quantifiable detail how the future will look like in five years time. Given the extreme volatility of the African region it is obvious that any long-term forecast must be highly unreliable as the developments over the last decade clearly showed. But not only in Africa, even in a European and North American environment is it impossible to develop procedures to forecast discontinuities.

Another critique is the central role of thought and linear causality. A SWOT analysis for instance is presented as an objective, thoughtful representation of the present reality, but is in fact nothing more than an intellectual activity. How can the correctness of this analysis be tested? A same SWOT analysis made by different groups of people gives as many different SWOTs as there are groups[10]. Strategic planning is a clear illustration of the dominant western thinking about cause and effect: linear and unidirectional. As it is described in the ZOPP manual: if the detailed tasks are executed correctly, then the planned results will be obtained what will then lead to the realisation of the project purpose and thus contribute to the achievement of the overall objective (South Research, 1997:25).  Strategic planning is a rational exercise with little room for creativity, intuition and emotion.

A last, major critique concerns the role of control. Quantification of goals, prediction, decomposition of the problem situation in smaller units that can be solved by series of precise action, it all has to do with control. If you have enough data available, before and during the intervention than it is possible to control the process of change from A to Z. But not only is the government concerned about the changes that take place in some far away villages in Africa, it is mainly interested in controlling the use of tax payers money channelled through Northern and Southern NGOs. Writing of good proposals, progress reports and evaluations seem to build a better reputation than the actual improvement of living conditions of rural poor. Strategic planning is more a ‘command-and-control’ tool than an instrument to bring about change.

Within the development world certain aspects of these critiques have been taken in consideration and some modifications were introduced. The ZOPP tried to address the dichotomy between thinking and doing and introduced some notions concerning learning and power sharing. ‘Transformation is only valid if it is carried out with the people, not for them’ (Freire, 1970: 43). Within the NGO world there has always been a strong belief that people need to take part in the development processes they are involved in and the ZOPP has introduced ways to make people participate. This is mainly done in bringing 20 to 30 representatives of the different stakeholders together for a five-day strategic planning workshop. But serious question can be raised. The number of project beneficiaries often goes in the thousands, so we talk about a participation rate of roughly one percent. Moreover the education level of most beneficiaries is relatively low and they are not acquainted with a workshop type of approach. In case participants who are familiar and followed higher education, serious questions can be asked about their representation. ZOPP facilitators admit that although the approach is designed to broaden involvement and participation, there is a real danger that individuals or departments in organisation can use the exercise to strengthen their own position. In spite of a strong participatory talk, the strategic planning is mainly done by the local NGO thus favouring the rise of an African development elite who controls and commands.

      Building local capacity is another buzzword within development work and Africa has been inundated with training workshops, ‘we need training’ is a frequent remark I get when visiting local organisations. However most of this training has focused on skills training and hardly ever do I meet situations in which the organisation instead of the individual is at the centre of learning. In spite of all the training people still didn’t learn how to learn. Most monitoring programmes are based on single-loop learning and negative feedback. People learn from consequences of actions in order to adjust the next action. Once the five-year strategic plan has been approved the fundamental questions can no longer be asked since this would seriously endanger future funding. Thus the ZOPP predominantly allows single-loop learning. An important reason why real organisational learning does not take place may well be the fear to loose control and power. Double loop learning[11] is to bring about organisational change and it is highly likely that change of an important kind will alter the power relations between people (Stacey, 2000:183).



I have argued that development work is done with a set of assumptions in mind and is therefore not value-free. Most of the time we are not aware of the mindset in use and we can easily get in groupthink or fall in our cognitive trap. The aim of this chapter was to demonstrate that the paradigm within which Broederlijk Delen operates could be described as ‘radical humanist’ in the terminology of Burrel and Morgan (1979). Change is seen as making people aware of their situation, their oppression by world market forces, political and religious leaders and to empower them as communities so that they can take up their entitled position as co-creators of this world. The mindset is people centred and aims at radical changes of the social reality. It is thought that the organisation can effectively contribute in bringing about those wanted changes. The dominant strategy to achieve the desired change is strategic planning with as main tool the Ziel Oriented Projekt Planung (ZOPP), which as I have showed come from a clear functionalist paradigm.

      At first I thought I had solved my unease with my own work at this stage. There simply was a mismatch between the discourse of Broederlijk Delen and its main operational practice. To say it in radical humanist language: the organisation’s unconscious has been occupied by the dominant functionalist discourse of strategic planning through the imposed ZOPP methodology. Uneasy about the felt but not realised inconsistency between the own assumptions and the underlying assumptions of the ZOPP NGO’s tried to accommodate the tool to their needs by stretching the boundaries to its limits. This in my eyes was however an unsuccessful attempt and that was why I felt so uneasy about using the tool. We had to look for tools and approaches that are more in line with our radical humanist mindset.

      It then gradually became clear to me however that strategic planning and its main tool ZOPP could actually be used within both paradigms. Either paradigm considers man as an autonomous agent, in principle capable of taking his destiny in his own hand and to produce desired changes in his environment. Whether you see the world as an objective reality or as subjectively created in the minds of people, in both cases practitioners believe that they can bring about changes in that particular reality and that these changes can be determined measured and planned. Thus there is no real difference in the perception of change and the way to bring about change between the two paradigms. I realised that I am still standing in the shadow of my change perceptions and wonder why change does not take place as planned. Burrel and Morgan did not help me much further with their paradigms and I needed to look for new insights.





We stand in our own shadow

and wonder why it is dark
Zen teaches us that when we think there is a problem

with life, the problem actually  lies in ourselves.

We are trapped in our own assumptions about life

and cannot see life‘s wider purpose.

The problem is that you perceive it as a problem.

Accept it as a challenge that life wants you to face.

(adapted from Freke 1997)



Chapter 2


The wise don’t strive to arrive

As humans we differ from the other living creatures on this earth by our self-awareness, at least we presume that we are unique in this sense. We are conscious of being in a mysterious world and we constantly wonder what on earth is going on and what is the purpose of all this. Under impulse of the Enlightenment we came to believe that we could understand our world and the purpose of our existence through rational reductionist thinking; science would help us to understand the world, people and what is going on. We would be able to determine causal laws, which would make behaviour and events predictable and by altering one or more variables we would then be able to bring about and control changes. This is the basis of our scientific thinking that is rooted in physics with its closed systems where the system and the environment are separate. If we control the environment we are able to cause changes in the system.

There is no doubt that this worked very well in the non-living world and it made much of our present material well-being possible. But laws in social science are of a totally different nature (Stacey 2000). Social rules are agreed upon by people who can decide to change them, but not only can humans decide to change the rules, every individual can and does have his own interpretation and intentions. Power and power games are part and parcel of human society and it is an illusion to think that one single authoritative person can direct its dynamics. People more often than not do not think and act rationally. Human systems therefore can ultimately not be predicted and controlled; they are complex interrelationships with emergent behaviour that is inherently unknowable to the human mind. Human action is not a linear process of problem-solving and problems cannot be thought of as if they are real things that can be separated out of a situation and solved. Situations are full of issues and tensions that are difficult to unravel and to understand. ‘The problem with problems as a concept is that it poorly represents social situations and misdirects people’s actions’ (Flood, 1999: 88). However in this seemingly chaotic world there is some order and coherence because of self-organising principles that are at work, without it the human race would have been extinguished long ago. The philosophy behind this thinking is complexity theory.

‘Complexity theory questions whether long term intended action is possible. It points out that the way things unfold is inherently unknowable to the human mind, emerging through spontaneous self-organisation originating from some distant detail, rather than advanced planning’ (Flood, 1999:90).

The genocide in Rwanda, the war in Congo, the spread of HIV/Aids and the El Ninjo weather patters with their devastating drought in one place and flooding in another to mention but a few major events that occurred in the region over the last years all escaped from the planning table[12]. Strategic planning and ZOPP approaches make no sense as long term planning tools. Nor are the radical humanists any closer with their planned radical changes they would like to take place.

This does not exclude human action. It is like the story of the butterfly that flaps its wings in the Amazon rainforests eventually causing a hurricane in Hong Kong. Likewise we are unable to predict the full impact of our actions let alone to control it.

‘The most we can do is to manage what is local, whilst appreciating the incomprehensibility of global complexity. Managing what is local entails continually considering outcomes that extend over a small number of interrelationships, very few stages of emergence, over only short periods of time into the future. This is what I mean by learning with the unknowable. We learn our way into a mysterious world.” (Flood, 1999:90)

It is my growing belief that Complexity theory with its set of assumptions can be of greater help in my work than the theories rooted in a reductionist thinking that I discussed in the first chapter. The ‘predict and control’ approach in development work can only lead to frustration and disillusion and prevent creativity. There is no controlled future and we better stop looking for it and learn how to live and work with the unknowable. Applying complexity theory to development work implies an overhaul of concepts as decision making, problem solving and strategic planning. This chapter explores some of the central issues in Complexity Theory and the role of the human agent. It also looks into the question of strategy and suggests Stacey’s strategy as conversation as an alternative to strategic planning.


Complexity theory

Complexity theory has enjoyed growing interest over the last years and authors like Battram (1996), Wheatley (1999), Stacey (2000) and Darwin  (2002) point out how complexity theory can contribute to a new thinking about strategy and change.

      The roots of complexity theory are to be found in the natural sciences and particularly quantum physics when discoveries at the subatomic level could not be explained by the Newtonian thinking. At the subatomic level there are no ‘things’ but only relationships, dynamic patterns continually changing into one another,

“there are what amount to so many patterns of active relationship, electrons and photons, mesons and nucleons that tease us with their elusive double lives as they are now position, now momentum, now particles, now waves, now mass, now energy – and all in response to each other and to the environment” (Zohar, cited in Wheatley, 1999:34).

Quantum physics broke through the boundaries of the modern paradigm of an objective, pre-given world that can be neutrally observed and analysed. It shows us that the world does not exist of elementary units as Heisenberg noted: there are no massy particles at the sub-atomic level, space is filled completely by pulsating fields[13]. Particles only exist because of their relations; they are patterns.

“The quantum field is seen as a fundamental, physical entity; a continuous medium which is present everywhere in space. Particles are merely local condensations of the field; concentrations of energy which come and go, thereby losing their individual character and dissolving into the underlying field” (Capra, 1975)

These are fascinating insights and difficult to grasp in full and probably as stunning as Copernicus insights that the earth circles around the sun. It will take us in the West years to make this paradigm shift.

      Similar ideas then developed in the social sciences and questions were raised about rationality, objectivity and causality. Here too we have to start living with the notion of fields, invisible forces that occupy space and influence behaviour. Wheatley (1999) gives the example of the fall of the Berlin Wall that seemingly happened all over sudden. In the time before many small changes took place throughout the whole of East Germany and the overall impact became visible in just a few days. For her organisational vision and values act like fields, unseen but real forces that influence people’s behaviour.

      Complexity theory helps to develop a totally different outlook on change. Wheatley mentions two fundamental paradoxes. One is change in order to remain the same; living systems produce themselves constantly and will change in order to preserve that self. This inward, unifying urge is called autopoiesis. The other paradox is me and not-me; organisations and communities constantly reinforce their identity but at the same time they are part of a larger network without which they could have no identity. The self can only be created through the intimate relationship with others in the system. Boundaries between the organisation and the environment are fuzzy and largely constructs of our minds.



Autopoiesis means ‘self making’ and refers to the self-preserving tendency of systems (organisations, communities). Maturana and Varela, two Chilean biologists, developed the notion and although they oppose an extrapolation to the social science, the concept can serve as a metaphor in understanding social ‘realities’. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus already noticed that you can never step twice in the same river because the water you step in will not remain the same. A clear example of autopoiesis in biology is the human body where cells are constantly renewed and changed to the extent that my actual body is totally different from what it was a few years ago; still I am my body. In a similar way are social systems maintained. The process behind this ‘self-making’ is the inherent model the system has of itself and the world. The system is self referential in the same manner as my body more or less remains my body over the years.

      A second learning from autopoiesis is the notion of boundary between the system and the environment. As we have seen in the reductionist mindset the organisation can clearly be differentiated from the environment and reacts to changes that occur outside itself or in development terms to problems that it wants to change. The creation of this boundary between the organisation and its environment is highly paradoxical and can only be achieved by the assumption of an external observer. However we are part of the system and therefore cannot think outside it; the organisation or community is a whole within a greater whole like a set of Russian dolls. The boundaries we create are mental constructions; from a complexity theory perspective the system and the environment are one. This also questions the way the organisation reacts to the environment. From a reductionist framework the organisations responds to the environment and tries to influence it. In development work great importance therefore is given to getting to know the environment seen as a given reality that can be realised. But seen from an autopoiesis standpoint the organisation does not respond to the environment since it is at the same time both organisation and environment; there is no stimulus – response mechanism at work. It is the internal model of the world that determines the view of the world and not the incoming data. In other words the way we perceive ‘reality’ is more determined by the model we have of reality in our mind then by what we actually see and hear. This explains the so-called ‘resistance’ to change that so often undermines our development plans; the external data may give all reasons to change, but since the reality is perceived according to the model people have in their minds, the incoming data have no real impact. Thus although it is common to draw a clear line between the organisation and its environment it is better to see them as two elements of the same interconnected pattern (Morgan, 1997). What changes are the patterns. I will now explore how those patterns function and explain that patterns can only be changed by bringing a system to the edge of chaos.


Complex adaptive systems

Systems not only have an inward urge as described above, they also have an outward urge that pulls the organisation away from its current situation. The individual agents of the system initiate this outward pulling. As we have seen individuals within an organisation or a community are not rational thinking and behaving agents but react according to their own needs, the prevailing power games and whatever other reason there may be. This outward moving is another central concept in complexity theory whereby an organisation, or a community are seen as a complex adaptive system. A complex adaptive system is an interconnecting network of many agents acting in parallel with dispersed control. It is constantly anticipating the interconnected patterns between the organisation and its environment, learns from it and allows individual agents to self-organise whereby strategy is emerging out of their participation. The ingredients for change are not problems identified in the context but internal complexity[14], randomness, diversity and instability. As we have seen in the above paragraph on autopoiesis systems intend to self-organise according to their patterns that develop around certain attractors. These can be anything that brings people together: values, goals, theories, and leadership. Although the word implies a certain active force it is in fact descriptive, it simply depicts where the system is heading (Battram, 1996). Often organisations and communities may be under the influence of several attractors. Change occurs when the self-organising patterns change under the influence of another more powerful attractor. As we have seen above patterns do not change because of data coming from outside the system. Patterns could change when the organisation is at the edge of chaos that incites the system to flip over to a new self-organising pattern.  Small changes seemingly insignificant can bring about qualitative change. Like with the butterfly, flapping its wings does not cause the weather pattern to change, this would be linear causal thinking, but a small change might trigger of another one and so on. Changes even fundamental changes do take place but never as a result of grand design and certainly not in a controlled way (Morgan, 1997). As I will explain in chapter 6 this insight has consequences for the way a consultant can work around change in organisations.

      It becomes clear that this way of looking at change is totally different from what we have seen in the first chapter where change from a positivist perspective is considered to be a rational formulation of long-term goals based on a clear analysis of the environment in which the organisation operates. Man can bring about change in a predictable and controllable manner. The distinction between the functionalist paradigm and the radical humanist paradigm proved not very helpful to solve my dissatisfaction with my work. Both paradigms differ with regards to the type of change that needs to be brought about: change to bring the system back to its equilibrium or radical change that will lead to a new balance but converge with regards to the way change is perceived and can be provoked: the human agent as an autonomous being in control of his world. Complexity theory as we have seen rejects the central role of the agent and recognizes the inherent complexity of our world and the fact that we have to learn to live with the unknowable. This viewpoint is developed more in detail by Stacey (2001).


Complex Responsive Processes

For Stacey complexity theory is often interpreted in a way that leads to its incorporation into the orthodox management and organisation theories. The radical promises for new insights get ‘neutralized’ and all that remains is a repackaging of the rationalist theories. In his work he explains how most organisation theories, including most interpretations of complexity theory find their roots in a cognitive psychology of the human being that sees the individual as an autonomous agent prior and primary to the group and that emphasis the role of the manager as the objective observer who can stand out of the process. It is this cognitivist psychology that prevents the potentially profound insights of complexity theory to develop in organisation theory. He proposes therefore Complex Responsive Processes as a radical approach to complexity theory based on what he calls a relationship psychology.

      Everything starts with relations similar to the discoveries of quantum physicians: particles are temporary appearances of relationships patterns, nothing exists independent of its relationship with others. Likewise one could consider organisations, communities and individuals as temporary appearances in our world that of course last longer than the mesons and nucleons physicians come across, but still they are the product of human relationships and need constantly be recreated, without relations they cease to exist. This is a daunting way of looking at people and almost impossible for us who come from a strong individualistic culture with a clear separation between thinking and doing, body and mind. It goes a step further then the social constructionist who argues that we create our own environment and are subsequently influenced by it, but still maintains the autonomous individual. In Stacey’s relationship psychology the individual is not just influenced by the environment including other humans, but s/he could not exist without these relations. “The individual person and the group are simply different aspects of the one phenomenon, namely relating” (id: 369). This is a subjective option for strategy whereby strategy is seen as an expression of relationships (Darwin et al. 2002: 273). In this case strategy is consensual and informal that is to say the ‘whole system’ is involved and somehow comes to an informal consensus about the way forward. It is an emerging strategy.

      The main characteristic of relating is conversation. Humans relate to each other through gestures and responses that are interwoven with feeling and emotions. Those responses may then cluster around specific themes. As soon as people meet, certain themes are brought out and quickly cluster around an attractor theme or emotion. The dynamic play between themes is like the steps of a dance whereby one step naturally follows the other. In the case of a free-flowing conversation creative new themes may come up and function as a new attractor. The conversation is the space where the emerging themes organise themselves, cluster around certain attractors and recreate relationship. Thus relating is bringing out themes and at the same time being recreated in a new form. It may also be that certain conversational themes are avoided or repeated all the time, in this case the conversation gets stuck in the basin of attraction and people may find it difficult to get out. This in turn will lead to dissatisfying relations and a group can go into a negative spiral. We all know these situations where the conversation takes a negative turn whereby it seems impossible to bring in something positive. The intention to undertake specific action therefore is not resulting from an objective analysis of the problems an organisation or community is facing, but is emerging out of the conversations and particularly when conversation takes a of free-flowing form. Thus what is self-organising in Stacey’s complex responsive processes is not the individual agent but the themes. This leaves us with the question where to situate the individual and his or her mind since this obviously does not mean that the individual disappears from the relational scene altogether.

      From a cognitive perspective the mind is clearly located in an individual and to a greater extent is the individual. In relationship psychology the mind of an individual is constantly emerging in the process of relating, minds are not located within individuals, but between them. The individual mind then is a silent, inner conversation based on the internalisation of social relations and the individual body the container of this inner, silent conversation. A human cannot exist without relationships, in other words one cannot be born a hermit, but one can choose to be one once the inner conversation is going and can be kept going. Thus the individual is the singular, while the group is the plural of the same phenomenon, relationships (Elias cited in Stacey 2001).

      This way of looking at strategy as an expression of relationships according to me gets very close to the African perspective. Conversation in oral societies takes an important role, as do relations. A perceived ‘problem’ in a village will become the subject of conversation, all villagers will talk about it informally at many different occasions and gradually certain attractor themes will emerge around which a consensus clusters. When the elders finally meet to discuss the subject they actually formalise the consensus that has grown and the Chief legalising it concludes the process. Kaunda, the former president of Zambia called relating Africa’s contribution to world culture: ‘let the West have its Technology and Asia its Mysticism! Africa’s gift to world culture must be in the realm of Human relationships’ (1966:22). Africa is a collective society where individuals exist as members of a relating community and the relationship prevails over the individual. Ill health for instance, as we will see in chapter five is often considered a distortion in the relationship and a blockage of the conversation. Healing therefore has to take into account the whole community whereby relations have to be re-established and the flow of communication unblocked. Possession as a form of ill health is the cultural language to signal problems in relations. By bringing the patient in a trance the healer unblocks the conversation by allowing the patient to say what cannot be said since it is not him speaking but the possessing spirit; it is a way to move the conversation out of the basin of attraction.

An element that needs further exploration is the notion of power since if relations are at the heart of strategy one could argue that power relations within a group will distort or at least colour the relations in that group. Strategy then becomes the strategy of the most powerful, especially in Africa where relations are always heavenly influenced by power inequalities: men – women, elders – youngsters, chief – subjects, parent – child, ancestor – the living, employer – employee. The most powerful will dominate the conversation. It should also be noted however that the power of the Chief has been strongly increased by the colonial power. As we have seen before the power of the Chief in a traditional society is limited to legalise the consensus that had emerged in the community. The colonial power however saw decision-making as invested in one person and attributed the Chief with powers he never had before. As Mintzberg (1998: 261) states, ‘strategy formation can therefore not be seen as a process devoid of power and politics’.

      Strategic planning greatly ignores the role of power and politics in strategy formation.  Strategy is based on clear analysis and the actors are considered to be rational and to a certain extend emotionless although very often power games play in the backstage. Strategic planning tries to mediate this by the introduction of stakeholder analysis whereby the different stakeholders behaviour is analysed and explained and possibilities for coalition are analysed (Freeman in Mintzberg 1998). As Mintzberg argues ‘stakeholder analysis is an attempt to cope with political forces through a rational approach. (1998:250).

      Stacey makes clear that power is not something objective that is possessed by one or the other. Power is constantly shaped and reshaped through conversation. As soon as people enter in relation, this relation constrains and enables what can be said, done and even thought. Would the coloniser have known this, the African power arena would have developed differently. Ideology is a set of themes that justifies power relations and makes the current power relations feel natural. In conversations people can through reflexivity, influence the conversational themes and thus the power relations. Too often power is seen as something fixed, unchangeable, but as Stacey explains power is not a property of an individual or a group as well a kind of relation that emerges out of the conversation. Broederlijk Delen’s endeavour to free voices should be seen at this level. A few years ago I started using appreciative inquiry and I now realize how this is a way of introducing new themes in the organisational conversation. Power relations are indeed challenged when the conversation changes, as I will explain in more detail in the next chapters.


Strategy as conversation

Time now to return to our reflection on strategy and change; how do complex responsive processes help NGOs like Broederlijk Delen to deal with the issue of change strategy in their work with poor rural and urban communities in Africa as strategic planning does often not bring forth the espoused changes. Quantum theories broke through the boundaries of the modern paradigm of an objective, pre-given world that can be neutrally observed, analysed and changed. Many have argued that we have to move from strategic planning to strategic thinking (Mintzberg, 1998), strategy of ‘good enough’ (Battram, 1999) or ‘just-in-time’ strategy (Weick, 2001). All agree that predictability and command and control are impossible and state that strategy is emergent in the action.

      Stacey proposes a fairly radical approach that we could label ‘strategy as conversation’. He argues that the intentions for change emerge in conversations at the margin of organisations and not from the analysis of the problems. For him strategy therefore is mainly trying to refocus attention on five themes. A first area of focus is the quality of participation. By this I do not understand having some representatives of the beneficiaries participate in the planning exercise. Participation requires the admission that intentions for change will emerge from conversations with as many people as possible i.e. through Open Space Meetings (Owen, 1977, 2000) or other large group interventions. This will be explored in more depth in chapter 4.  It also requires that those in leading positions, both managers of organisations as well as representatives of the donor agencies, admit that they are inquiring participants instead of objective observers. They can propose certain themes, but they cannot control how people will react to them.

      Secondly attention should be focussed on the quality of conversational life in the organisation or community since it is from here that intention and change will emerge. My experience with appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider et al. 2000) shows that you can indeed change and improve organisational conversation for the better. Leaders are those who are able to spot blockages at the basin of attraction and who can bring in new themes to unblock the conversational flow and bring the conversation into a state of bounded instability. Closely linked with the first two areas of attention is the containment of anxiety whereby a climate of trust and support is created. Changes may bring about alterations in the organisational and individual lives, in the power relations that could be threatening to some. Another critical area of attention in an African context is the quality of diversity. A search for consensus in the early stages could well lead to a dead lock whereby the majority will simply applaud the themes put forward. Leaving space for deviant voices and the ‘weird’ brings in the conversation new themes that will play their role in the self-organising process.

      A last area of focus is that of unpredictability and paradox. If we accept that we cannot predict the future or the course of events, then it is important to be able to live with this not-knowing since this should not lead us to become incapacitated. Thus a strategy as conversation is knowing and not-knowing, predictable and unpredictable, conformity and deviance at the same time.



In this chapter I have tried to view change and strategy from a complexity theory perspective. We have seen that organisations are self-referring and tend to organise around existing ‘attractor’ patterns. As such they will not respond to changes in the environment. They will only change if we bring in new attractors that in a first instance destabilise and then will create new patterns. The Rwandan genocide clearly shows that deep disturbance as such does not lead to new patterns, because after the genocide the society relatively quickly reorganised according to the pre-genocide patterns. As a matter of fact nothing has been solved and all the ingredients for a new genocide are still present.

      Change will only take place if the self-referring patterns change and organisations and communities will change these when this is necessary for their own survival. The introduction of new attractor themes in the organisation might initially bring the organisation to the edge of chaos but will then allow new attractor patterns to develop. Stacey (2000) underlines the importance of conversation as key characteristic of relating. Intentions for change emerge out of conversations.

      I must admit that I don’t find it easy to leave the familiar path of strategic planning. I remain convinced that development activities have to lead to real, tangible improvements in the livelihood of people but perhaps we have to learn to look at development work afresh. What do we consider real tangible improvements? The only real change would be a change in the self-organising patterns. Chaos then is not something to be afraid of, but a mystery to be embraced since it will lead to new perspectives and new relations. I agree with Wheatley that more attention has to be given to the invisible processes, the fields that are underneath what we see.  Stacey’s contribution on conversation works on one of the invisible processes that engender visible changes in an organisation or community and although I don’t want to see his approach as exclusive since we should not return to a new dogmatism either, I do believe that complexity theory with its emergent character of strategy and its invitation to search at the edge challenges NGOs like Broederlijk Delen to rethink their strategy; it does indeed bring new themes in the conversational life that hopefully will lead to the emerge of new intentions and actions.



The wise don’t strive to arrive

Zen teaches us to give up goal orientation and simply be.

Life it not about getting somewhere but enjoying travelling.

This does not exclude full commitment to a better world,

but it helps to realize that we are part of the invisible fields

and that we may trust in the self-organising process.

(adapted from Freke 1997)



Although I think it is not possible to view the world and one’s role abruptly from a totally new perspective, one can start using certain approaches that will create a favourable environment for these transformative processes to take place. I consider Appreciative Inquiry and Open Space Technology to be such methodologies that match complexity theory and they will be discussed in the chapters 3 and 4. I learned about Appreciative Inquiry for the first time in 1999 during a workshop in Arusha, Tanzania and then introduced it in my work in the region. It is fascinating to see how an appreciative inquiry approach changes the type of energy in groups and organisations. I came across Open Space Technology during my studies in England when I met Terry Gibson[15], a UK consultant with extensive experience in this approach. I decided to take Open Space as the ‘practical’ part of my dissertation and to use it with a local Non Governmental Organisation in Uganda. In the end I was able to facilitate four different Open Space meetings in a few months time. Part of the inspiration for Open Space actually comes from the traditional African village with its importance of relationships, its spontaneous flow of information and its recognition that both the spiritual and the material are equally important. Both approaches enable self-organizing groups to deal with complex issues and to develop ways forward parting from their own strengths and successes. Change then is considered more a mystery to be welcomed then to be planned rigidly. In chapter that follows I explore more in depth the relevance of complexity theory in an African context. I use anthropological insights about healing rituals to discover the invisible processes at work in Bantu society and show how these processes work in a similar way in Open Space Technology meetings.


Chapter 3


Gaze at the stars but walk on the earth

In earlier chapters I have explored the philosophy and the theory at use in development work and concluded that the positivist Newtonian thinking prevails; change is seen as something man can perceive, plan and control. There is little difference between functionalists and radical humanists in their perception of change and strategy and one could even argue that Burrel and Morgan’s (1979) distinction between paradigms is not really discriminatory since both paradigms assume autonomous human agents as the main instigators and controllers of the change process. Complexity theory on the contrary accepts the intrinsic mystery of life and the unknowable as part of our reality. Initiatives that could eventually trigger off change may be taken, but at large the long-term outcome of the change process remains highly unpredictable since it will be the result of numerous emerging interactions. Complexity theory largely recognizes that change does not depend on one authoritative agent alone but that change is constantly shaped in transformative processes. Change therefore is not a matter of formulating clearly defined measurable goals to reach along a clearly spelled out road map but being sensitive to the hidden forces at work, fields that occupy space and influence behaviour. Where the functionalist approach to change focuses on the end result, the emergent approach stresses the process.

      In the two following chapters I explore two methodologies that take the insights of complexity theory serious and give us as ways forward as how to approach development work. One is Open Space Technology that creates the environment for transformative processes to take place and the other is Appreciative Inquiry that focuses on the importance of language as an entry to change. In this chapter I discuss appreciative inquiry and its premise that the language we use not only influences the way we understand the world around us but that it also affects it. Situations change when people change their dominant discourses (Garvey, 2002:81).


The role of language

Over the last years I have discovered how language has a real impact on what people say and eventually on what they do. In development work we have always been focussing on the problems communities and organisations are facing. We use words as: analysis, objective, planning, intervention, verification, result, problem, logic and indicator. The vocabulary shows linear and logical thought patterns with clear cause and effect relations. The discourse reveals a mechanical image of social reality (Morgan, 1997) as something relatively stable that is out-there and can be worked upon. The matching strategy for change is prescriptive in nature (Mintzberg, 1998) with a strong urge for control. In other words our language in use nicely fits the positivist paradigm described earlier.

Language is the communication tool most used in our every day life. We talk almost constantly and even if we are not talking to somebody else, there is the never ending talking that goes on in our own heads, a process we call thinking or self talk. For Elias language, reason and knowledge, speaking, thinking and knowing are different words for exactly the same phenomenon; they all have to do with handling symbols. (in Stacey, 2000). Little are we aware of the fact that language not only describes what we see, feel, do, it also recreates, shapes and forms. With language we are able to capture our everyday experiences in abstract symbols that we can then ‘bring back’ as objective and real elements in a different place and time (Berger, 1966). Language provides me with what Berger calls a ‘ready-made possibility for the ongoing objectification of my unfolding experience’ (id: 53) that I can then share with everyone within my linguistic community. However this is not a straightforward process, this linguistic turn is never innocent, language is not just a reflection of reality, it is at the same time our interpretation and our externalisation or re-creation of reality (Darwin, 2002).  Language expresses worldviews, cosmovisions[16] and as an individual I am influenced by the dominant assumptions in my culture and its power differences. From childhood I have been socialized to see the world through a certain frame. Heisenberg and Bohr show that even the most scientifically controlled experiments are shaped by the assumptions and view of the scientist involved (Morgan, 1997:272). So we may conclude that language forces us into its patterns, a set of culture bound rules and assumptions that enable us to act together. This makes acting easier, but we tend to forget that our way of doing is just one among many others.

      In our conversations or working together there is a whole range of anticipations and expectations about what the other and I will say or do next. We know ‘instinctively’ how to go on. Language and action are interwoven. The ‘form’ of the conversation we are in, begins to ‘call out’ a repertoire of cooperative behaviour, like the steps of a dance where we automatically ‘know’ which step follows which[17]. The reality of the dance is recreated ‘spontaneously’.  These are often unconscious patterns that we have learned and therefore can be unlearned. Unlearning thought patterns however is not an easy process because we have years of thorough training behind us and these patterns are deeply ingrained. Such a pattern of thought, which determines the way we perceive a phenomenon and act upon, could also be called a discourse or narrative, the words are often used interchangeably (Darwin, 2002). You very quickly become aware of those unconscious patterns once you start working in a different culture; suddenly you notice that the language you use does not call out the behaviour you expected. My visit to a training centre in Congo described earlier is a nice illustration.


Appreciative inquiry

In this section I explore how appreciative inquiry differs fundamentally from the problem-solving language and how an appreciative language can contribute to a new ‘culture’, way of doing things, in development work. One of the remarks I frequently get when I try to explain the difference between the appreciative inquiry and ZOPP is that ‘it is just a matter of language’. I think this is precisely the key element: it is in fact the language that matters, words create worlds.

The reality of development work in the poor, the underdeveloped or the developing countries is a social construction.  The evolution of the terms that are being used is in itself a clear indication of how a certain perception of reality is created. People determine that some countries are poor and others rich, people decide that a certain set of actions is to be undertaken to bridge the gap. Four years ago I discovered appreciative inquiry during a workshop on organisation development in the Tanzanian town of Arusha and have since tried to use it in my work. Not an easy task I learned since it revealed how much my own thought patterns are determined by the positivist thinking and how difficult it is to change one’s way of thinking and eventually behaving.

In the appreciative inquiry language frequently used words are: best practice, appreciation, dream, vision, energy, dialogue, future, creation. It is a vocabulary of hope (Ludema, 2002) and reveals creative and innovative thought patterns. Uncertainty is seen as a challenge and an opportunity to explore the future. The discourse shows an image of what Morgan calls ‘Flux and Transformation’ (1997). Human systems can be changed and reconstructed because of our capacity for imagination and language. Mintzberg calls this a change strategy for transformation (1998).

Appreciative inquiry is a form of action-research and its creators are considered postmodernists (Bushe, 1995). The ‘tool part’ can be summarized in four steps: discovery, dream, dialogue and destiny. The discovery phase aims at finding the positive capacities in an organisation or community. It is a grounded observation that brings out the best in people and organizations, ‘that which gives life’. Appreciative inquiry avoids the ‘problem-trap’ and makes sure that every carefully crafted question is positive (Cooperrider, 2000). ‘The thrill of the discovery becomes the thrill of creating’ (id, 11). The inquiry is mostly done through bottom-up open interviews and brings out the stories of the community. In the next phase the interview stories are used to create a dream for the future; the stories are like the different colours on the pallet of the artist painting a completely new picture. Once a powerful image of the future has been expressed, it becomes easy to indicate what needs to be done to make this dream come true. Focus is on the creation of a dialogue between all those involved. In this phase people involved also agree on a set of ground rules. The last step is called destiny, here the main focus is on amplification of what is energizing for people and making appreciative inquiry the theory-in-use of the organization or community.


When I meet with farmers groups somewhere in the region I am often regarded as the representative of a donor agency and farmers very quickly adopt their language to what they think meets my requirements. They use a deficiency language and talk about their problems and needs and I feel how energy levels drop. When talking people become convinced that their life is miserable with hardly any perspectives for improvement and that I am their Messiah who as by miracle will solve their problems. The course of action would then be to identify one key problem that fits the overall goal of my organisation and agree some kind of collaboration whereby we provide money and they solve the problem. It is of course true that the life of many small holders is all but easy, but when I try to use an appreciative language, a vocabulary of hope, the conversation takes a different course. Together we come to realise that in spite of the many constraints they did manage a certain number of results, they succeeded in many ways otherwise the community would not exist today. We try to find out what those successes are and what made them possible. Building on those we then explore the challenges they are facing and how they could tackle them given the strengths we identified earlier. Two things always strike me: people are happy to talk about their successes, they feel respected and dignified and secondly problems are really seen as challenges, they get energy to do something about it and our contribution is not manna from heaven but something that reinforces their own efforts[18].


In our development efforts we have to look for new and creative ways of encouraging change. The dominant use of the left side of the brain has to be complemented with the creative thinking of its right side. This could be called the development of new thought patterns and it is my belief that appreciative inquiry is an approach that helps to do this. ‘Because of our capacity for imagination, for language, for creation of images of the future, human systems are alterable and can be reconstructed, beginning in the collective imagination communities of discourse’. (Cooperrider,1995). Or in the words of Einstein: ‘you cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that created it’. A new thinking means a new language. Blantern suggested the same: ‘get people to talk differently so that they don’t go straight to embedded solutions’.

In chapter two I discussed how new themes can be brought into the conversational life of a community or organisation and how they become new attractors. The transition of one attractor to another can change patterns, the inherent model an organisation holds. Appreciative Inquiry unsettles communities; it is totally different from what they are used to and what they expect. This initial instability will help new patterns of behaviour to emerge. Appreciative Inquiry helps to break the power of the established attractor and the introduction of a vocabulary of hope creates new thought patterns, a transformation of the mindset. It is important to note that you can never clearly define the precise form this new attractor pattern will take. It is like with homeopathy, the ‘medicine’ used will not cure the disease but acts as a catalyser that sets the self-healing process in motion. Likewise the introduction of a new language stimulates the self-organising principles of the community or organisation. Appreciative inquiry generates new understanding of the situation and engages in a new type of action that can transform the autopoietic processes of self-reference through which the system produces and reproduces its basic sense of identity (Morgan, 1997:270). To end this chapter I will shortly discuss three interrelated key issues linked to language and thought patterns namely motivation, creativity and dialogue.



As we have seen the problem-focused approaches thrive on a vocabulary of deficiency that leads to a growing cynicism. A problem is a deficient state that needs to be solved. Communities become defensive and the focus on problems forces them to look backwards. It erodes individual and social well-being. When I do those ZOPP workshops and the wall is covered with all those small cards with all the problems you feel how the energy slips away. The wall full with problems gives the organization, the community the definite feeling that there is something wrong, they are worthless, since they have not been able to do something about it so far. They may be motivated to solve their problems, but no matter how many problems they will solve, there will still be many that remain unsolved; once you start looking for problems, you will just find more. 

Appreciative inquiry builds up a vocabulary of hope. Communities of inquiry share stories, evidence, and examples of best practices, of what went well and gave life. They then expand and enrich this vocabulary through dialogue and collective visioning. The vocabulary gets spread in the language and contributes to the construction of reality. People like Martin Luther King and Paulo Freire were people who spoke a language of hope and they inspired millions. Ludema (2000) describes four conditions that favour the development of a vocabulary of hope: relationships of mutuality, conviction that the future is open and can be influenced, dialogue and generation of positive action. Creating a new vocabulary he states is less a technique than a commitment. Appreciative inquiry brings a new dynamic in groups and organizations; the focus on the positive motivates.



Today’s management literature on creativity is fast growing, but as Garvey and Williamson (2002) point out in this dominant discourse creativity is seen as yet another tool in the ‘quick-fix’ box. Real creativity is about transformation, ‘creative thinking involves new thoughts (id: 116). Fritz (1991) explains how creativity needs the uncertainty, the unpredictability because it creates the tension and the freedom needed for real creative processes to take place. The creative process goes through different stages and appreciative inquiry nicely fits this model.

      Creativity, Fritz argues, starts with conception, an idea of what you want to create and that is different from what problem you want to solve. A creation draws you towards the future; a problem pulls you back in the past. From a general notion of what you want to create you move to a vision of something specific, tangible. Only then you start looking at the current situation. No need to go in all the details, it is not an ‘objective’ analysis. Looking at the present with your vision in mind creates a structured tension and it is this tension that will motivate you to take action. Here again there is a great difference with the problem-focused approach. There is no need to make a detailed planning and to think everything through. On the contrary you start with an action and allow the path to unfold itself, it is about invention and not convention. ‘Inventing in the creative process is developing an original path between the current reality and you vision. Convention is adopting a path others have already used and institutionalised’ (id.: 31). Going your path is a continuous adjusting and learning process where mistakes are allowed and gradually you will develop your abilities and build momentum; a ‘flow’ will emerge, a ‘set of experiences (…) through almost effortless action (where people) feel they are living out the best moments in their lives (Garvey and Williamson: 2002:116). Then at a certain stage it is important to declare your creation complete, to be good-enough and to allow yourself to live with your creation, to celebrate it. It is important to note that the visioning, the creative imagining of the future is grounded in the current reality, the sky is not the limit, but often much more is possible then we think. Many limitations in the present can be stretched much further. As the Zen koan goes: gaze at the stars but walk on the earth.



Another outcome of appreciative inquiry is real dialogue. The word dialogue comes from the Greek and Bohm (1996) translates it as ‘stream of meaning’. Dialogue he argues emphasis creation as opposed to discussion which means ‘breaking things up’ and stresses the idea of analysis. Dialogue is aimed at the whole thought process and not at fragmentation, which is thought that divides things up. ‘When we see a problem (..) we then say, “we have to got to solve that problem”. But we are constantly producing that sort of problem – by the way we go on with our thought’ (id:10). Our whole thinking is analytical, we do not perceive wholeness but immediately tend to break reality down in components, this is our mechanical thinking at work. A problem then is identified, as a part of the whole that is not working, not all right and as a consequence needs to be fixed. In discussion we talk in terms of arguments whereby we try to convince the other that our view is the correct one. We do this because we have difficulties in accepting that a same reality can be perceived differently whereby all the different views are right. Genuine dialogue is a way to transform this nature of consciousness, both individually and collectively and implies the will to share meaning, to suspend assumptions and to think together (id: 46).

For Bohm dialogue is practically organised when people come together, preferably a number over forty to avoid ‘cosy adjustment’, sit in a circle and create a free, open space, no leader and no agenda. As we will see this much resembles the open space technology of Owen (2000), which allows for the self-organising principles in a group to emerge. Real dialogue and creativity go together, are different sides of the same coin.

      In her book ‘turning to one another’ Margaret Wheatley (2002) describes human conversation as the most ancient and easiest way to cultivate the conditions for change’ (Wheatley, 2002:3). Conversation is the way to discover how to transform our world, together (id:27). It is striking to realize that so many of our conversations are not focussing on genuine contact, real listening and a free exchange of ideas and emotions. And yet genuine conversation is simple and easy, we can practice it any time, anywhere, but it does require courage. We need to be willing to be disturbed because it is when I get unsettled or surprised that my invisible beliefs come to the surface. If what you say makes me feel uneasy then that is because it clashes with one of my beliefs and this uneasiness helps me to become aware of my thought patterns.



Appreciative inquiry is together with Open Space Technology an interesting new methodology for development work. In this section focus was on appreciative inquiry and I showed how the use of appreciative language could help to construct a different reality. The vocabulary of hope is in sharp contrast with the one of deficiency. Appreciative inquiry builds motivation, allows for creativity and favours genuine dialogue. In the next section I will explore how Open Space Technology in a different way contributes to the same. Both approaches get the spirit moving and create openness for transformative processes.





Gaze at the stars, but walk on the earth

We cannot escape life as it is

and we are still walking on the solid earth

Dreams about the future are like stars,

far away but at the same time shedding light

in our dark night.

(adapted from Freke 1997)

Chapter 4



You smile – the world changes

In the previous chapter I briefly presented Appreciative Inquiry as a methodology that looks at change as emergent. I explained how changing the language contributes to the development of new thought patterns that develop motivation and genuine creative dialogue. Change is built on the successes of the past and the organisational dynamics in an organisation or community. In this chapter I look at another emergent approach to change: Open Space Technology. As with Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space Technology is both a philosophy and a method.

The facilitation of an Open Space meeting was the practical part of this dissertation and after a brief presentation of the method I give an account of how this meeting[19] went whereby I also refer to three other Open Space meetings I facilitated since[20]. Open Space creates a space where transformative processes can take place and I explain how the insights of complexity theory described in chapter 2 find incarnation in the daily organisational practice.


Brief history and description[21]

Open Space Technolgy is closely linked with the name of Harrison Owen, its ‘inventor’. The story of the creation of Open Space is often told; Owen once was asked to organise a big international conference that took him an enormous amount of time and energy and although the conference went according to general expectations, he noticed that the most lively debates and exchanges took place in between the presentations during the coffee breaks. Combined with earlier insights about how meetings are organised in African villages where he worked before, he conceived big meetings as one prolonged coffee break. When I tell this story at the beginning of an Open Space meeting it is usually met with a pleasured murmur of consent. Open Space is one of several large-group or whole- system interventions that have been developed over the last fifteen years and is considered to be the least structured (Bunker and Alban, 1997).

      The classical Open Space meeting is a two and a half day event whereby as many different people from an organisation and their relevant stakeholders are invited to work together on a particular theme that is important to the organisation or community. There is no fixed agenda and after a short word of welcome by the convenor and a brief explanation about the procedures by the facilitator, participants bring up relevant issues related to the theme. In less than two hours after the kick-off participants generate an impressive programme for some forty or more workshops they are going to organise themselves in the coming days. Soon after people go off to the workshops of their choice and participate actively in the often lively debates and dialogues that take place. Reports of every workshop are made by one of the participants that are fed into a computer, printed out and published on the ‘Village Bulletin Board’ available for all participants to read. Every evening and morning they come back to the initial circle for announcements and to share some feelings about the meeting. When participants gather for the morning news on the third day they receive a copy of the book of proceedings that contains the reports of all the different workshops that took place the previous days and after an hour of reading they casts their votes in order to prioritise the different issues. The top ‘hot issues’ are then written on big paper sheets and fixed upon the wall and participants are asked to walk around and add possible action they think could or should be taken. They are then asked to sign up for one of the issues and create action groups that will take responsibility for the planning and implementation of precise actions after the event. This is where the meeting as such ends.

      A few simple principles and one law guide an Open Space meeting. These are: whoever comes are the right people, whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened, whenever it starts is the right time and when it is over, it is over. The first principle accepts that the wisdom to understand the theme and to take appropriate action is within the group. Focus is kept on the best possible effort in the present, no worrying about ‘what we should have done’. Creativity cannot be controlled, but arises when the time is ripe and things last as long as there is energy for it, so when it is over, it is over. The one law is the one of mobility or the law of two feet; if you feel you cannot make a contribution to the discussion or dialogue that is going on or if you feel that you are no longer learning in that particular workshop, do not stay and get annoyed but use your feet and go somewhere else. Some people will consequently move frequently from one group to another, they are real bumblebees cross pollinating the meeting, others on the contrary never get to any meeting at all, but hang around in the premises. They are the butterflies and although they do not participate as such they often have casual conversations with other by-passers.

Open Space meetings are mainly self-organised. Participants go to those breakout groups on issues they feel themselves passionate about. In this way people take responsibility. The conversations in the small groups are not just discussions whereby arguments for and against are exchanged. In the group of their choice participants seek genuine dialogue, determined to explore together all the different related aspects. Although a full Open Space Technology meeting takes three days valuable work can be done in a shorter time. In a three-day meeting the last day is dedicated to move issues to action steps. Open Space Technology recognizes three types of actions:

-           those actions that do not need extra resources and can be implemented immediately

-           actions that do require additional means and planning. They are the main focus of the action groups

-           actions that remain vague and confused, they could be the theme of a next Open Space

Open Space has one outstanding feature – it raises energy and commitment in an organisation or a community. It also has one outstanding enemy – control. It will not work if leadership wants to control the outcome of the meeting and is not willing or able to allow voices to be freed and Spirit to be cultivated.

Open Space meetings therefore are more than just a new methodology; it is a philosophy on organisations and change. If all stakeholders have a genuine concern to move forward and to navigate change Open Space Technology is a wonderful way of doing this.


My own Open Space experiences

Before explaining the underlying values and dynamics and how Open Space fits complexity theory I will shortly narrate my own experiences with this approach so far.

As mentioned earlier facilitating an Open Space meeting was the practical assignment for this dissertation. Not only did I want to reflect on my work from a theoretical perspective as I did in the first two chapters, I also wanted to translate theory into practice. What can you practically do if you take Complexity Theory as your theory in use?

How does one get to know something new, how did I stumble into Open Space Technology? It is always interesting to look at these questions because they explain how attractors work in complexity theory. I picked one of Owen’s books from the shelves in the library because of its title ‘the power of Spirit’. The vision of my organisation has something to do with building inspirited communities in North and South and I always felt that we did not really got to grips with it. I read the book in one evening and got fascinated. Then a few weeks later I had the opportunity to participate in a conference on mentoring and coaching where I met Terry Gibson a consultant with an extensive experience in Open Space. As they say in Appreciative Inquiry: ‘you find what you are looking for’.

Unfortunately I was not able to participate in an Open Space meeting before I went back to Uganda so I had to facilitate my first meeting all on my own. Luckily Owen’s ‘user’s guide’ (1997) is extremely helpful and although at times it feels as if he exaggerates in detailed description these are as he explains necessary and helpful, since facilitating an Open Space is like ‘rubbing your belly while reciting the alphabet, a few people can do it but most mortals get confused’. I admit that I kept his book at hand all the time throughout the meeting and referred to it over and again. Of course secretly in a hidden corner! Not only did it give me clear instructions on what to do and particularly what not to do, it felt like having Owen whispering in my ear and reassuring me that everything would go fine. As Terry said: ‘Open Space always works’. And it did, not only then but all the three other times as well and I now feel confident. This does not mean however that just anyone can do it, as I will explain in a next chapter.

It was an exciting moment when seventy-five people walked into this room where I had carefully arranged all the chairs in more or less a circle because of the rectangular shape of the room[22]. The next two hours were going to be decisive. We got started and I felt my confidence growing when I slowly walked the circle and opened the space. Another breathtaking moment is when participants are asked to write their issues; my fear was not grounded, on the contrary they rushed to the centre to grab a marker and to write down their issues. It was difficult to get people to read them aloud orderly and I just let go remembering that chaos is necessary for growth and change. From here on things went smoothly and I felt the rising energy levels in the room. People signed up and went to their first break-out group. One of the staff members of KRC was my logistical assistant and I kept him informed about the next step in the process so that he could very diligently steer the participants where necessary. For all of them this was a completely new way of meeting and working and not everyone got always a clear idea of what to do and where to go, but without being directive he gave those little pushes. Another great help was the secretariat, with most participants being computer illiterate the reports were handwritten and the secretariat of two people typed them in and made sure the reports came on the wall. The handing out of the book of proceedings on the morning of the third day rose quiet a bit of excitement, this was never performed before. Reports mostly get out long after the meeting or workshop when most people only vaguely remember what it was all about. This was extraordinary and participants felt really proud since they were the ones who produced it. They voted their ‘hot issues’ and six action groups were formed that till today are meeting on a regular basis.

A few weeks after the Open Space meeting I send most of the participants a short questionnaire to ask for their reactions. All but one, reactions were very enthusiastic and positive with only one person feeling that although interesting it was too time consuming. During a later visit it was nice to notice how some of the language had entered the organisational conversation. The law of two feed and the ‘when it’s over, it’s over’ principle really took root. The organisational meeting culture had changed.



What do you like about Open Space, what did you learn, what struck?

·                    I liked the interactive, free and spontaneous nature

·                    Members create their own agenda

·                    High levels of participation

·                    I was surprised by the high number of issues that were brought out and discussed

·                    I was amazed that you can work effectively with such a big group

·                    I learned to be more open and to accept other people’s views

·                    What made the difference for me was that without much protocol and a leading figure people generated many productive ideas

·                    I now realize that you don’t have to stick to set programs but flexibility in thinking can solve many problems

·                    Every person could make a contribution

·                    I now apply the law of two feet to most of the meetings I have to attend

·                    Free discussions unlike in other workshops

·                    Every person can make a contribution somewhere

·                    So much information was generated in such a short time



Underlying assumptions and values

As I clarified in the first chapter everything we do, every theory is rooted in a set of assumptions we take for granted. The assumptions underlying Open Space are very much in line with those of Complexity theory.


An organisation or community is a complex adaptive system

It is acknowledged that the challenges we face are often far more complex than one or a few people can imagine. Therefore so-called objective context analysis all have their limitations, they will only catch a glimpse of what is going on. Organisations or communities will constantly try to adapt to the ever-changing environment, take actions, assess the results, adjust and try again, there is no clear-cut line between the organisation and its environment . Open Space also assumes that organisations and communities are systems in the sense that changes in one part, will most likely have consequences for the other parts. That is why it allows space for bumblebees and butterflies; it values the breakout group of just one person who shares his insights on a particular issue. Change processes are non-linear and not determined by majority or an individual leader.


People are at the heart of the matter

In Open Space it is believed that people who come to a meeting have all the information and knowledge needed to work on the theme. There is no need to bring in expertise from outside. It is assumed that people want to be involved in what really matters to them and are capable of structuring reality and organising themselves.


Importance of open communication

Open Space can only work if people can communicate freely with one another. The conversations in the small groups are not just discussions whereby arguments for and against are exchanged. In the group of their choice participants seek genuine dialogue, determined to explore together all the different related aspects.

It is important that the leaders of the organisation or community are present and participate like any other participant. They have a role to play in the identification of the theme and the formulation of the boundaries of the topic and the work, what Bolton (1995) calls the ‘givens’, but in the process they are just one of the participants.

      On several occasions people expressed fear that in an African context with its great power differences between man and women, adults and youth, elders and the rest, several groups of participants would not be able to speak freely and express themselves. However in neither of the Open Space meetings I have facilitated this has been the case, not even in the one where we worked with many participants from local governments. Some district governors were not happy with the way the meeting was taking place because they had certain expectations around allowances and a required protocol, but they simple left the Open Space. The others freely engaged in the conversation.

If someone tries to dominate the conversation, people will simply walk out and go elsewhere. When there are fifteen breakout groups at work at the same time, those powerful people simple cannot keep up, they cannot possibly be everywhere at the same time. In the feedback I got from participants many mentioned this free and open dialogue as one of the great assets of the Open Space meeting.


Positive energy is contagious

Like a cold people are caught by positive energy and those who try to influence the process negatively, so-called space invaders will rapidly discover that they get no chance. This atmosphere is created and sustained by the way the meeting is organised: open circles, informal talks and discussions, flexible time table and the seize and composition of the group.

The dynamics of a large group where it is impossible to have face-to-face contact with all participants are quite different from those in a small group. There is no doubt the danger of people being left out but in a large group almost everyone is able to find someone with whom he gets along. Especially in more collectivistic societies people do not easily feel overwhelmed by the group and can readily accept just to listen and be part. Moreover most of the conversations take place in smaller groups.

The role of the facilitator as limited as this may seem from the outside is determining in creating and maintaining of a real contagious open space. I will come to this in more detail in the last chapters. I will now look at three important aspects of an Open Space meeting: the use of the circle, the significance of conversation and the opening for transformation.


Calling the circle[23]

A key feature of Open Space Technology is the circle as the place where the transformative work can take place. There is something magic about a circle as Owen writes: ‘there is power in a circle, to the point that within a very short time (typically fifteen minutes) a group is enabled to move from chaotic disparity to focused and productive activity’ (Owen, 2000:46). A circle takes out the hierarchy and puts every participant at the same level. Baldwin (1998) calls the circle the first and future culture that equals honesty, equality and spiritual integrity. She describes how a circle helps to create space and process for conversation that move to the deeper levels of an organisation or community.

      She indicates three principles of circle work. One is ‘rotating leadership’, in the circle of equality it is recognized that resources to accomplish the circle’s purpose are within the group. This is one of the assumptions of Open Space as we have seen. Even in the small breakout groups are participants encouraged to sit in an open circle and every convenor of a workshop will open the conversation by explaining why he feels the issue is important to him and then facilitate the discussion or ask someone else to do this. With an average Open Space bringing out over thirty issues, there are at least thirty leaders in the group. A second principle is closely linked to the first one and called ‘sharing responsibility’, everyone pays attention to what needs to be done or said next. As Owens explains Open Space is about passion and responsibility. Proposing an issue comes with the responsibility to convene the workshop and to make sure that a report is handed in. When it comes to formulating actions participants are asked to propose those actions for which they want to take responsibility, it is not a matter of recommending what others should do as is often the case with many workshop declarations. A last principle Baldwin mentions is ‘relying on Spirit’, the centre of the circle serves as a sacred place; it is opening space for Spirit. Organisations and communities are places where people produce meaning and make sense of the world around them. In chapter two I mentioned the notion of fields and how in complexity theory words change from ‘things’ and ‘parts’ to ‘forces’ and ‘flow’ (Owen, 2000:161). The visibly empty circle is in fact filled with the pulsating invisible field.

      Thus the circle is not just another way of arranging seating, it is the heart of the Open Space. When people sit in a circle they move to the edge of the space they are containing and the circle contains the great void that hold potential for transformation. ‘When the circle of caring people is established, emergent order manifests, automatically, no problem, no cue. And the circle is important. Good stuff simply does not happen in squares and rows’ (2000:138). Sitting in circle is an ancient way of meeting. At many occasions I participated in meetings and gatherings in African villages and always will people spontaneously sit in a circle. The morning and evening news are moments where the whole group gathers to start work and to bring the day to a closure.


Genuine conversation

David Bohm (1996), in his writings about dialogue introduces the circle, without explaining why, as the physical set-up to convene and he invites participants to throw ideas and issues in the open space. Characteristics of real dialogue he mentions are the absence of a pre-set agenda and the limited role of a facilitator. He considers forty to be the ideal seize of the group in order to avoid ‘cosy adjustments’. The aim of a dialogue is to see things clearly and as freshly as possible, people enter real conversation when they are relaxed and have a non-judgemental curiosity. If these conditions are united then authentic trust and openness can emerge in a group even if the members do not have shared extensive personal stories. So a new type of conversation, deep listening and trust building emerge out of the energy in the circle.

Wheatley (2000) also talks about the value of conversation:

‘I believe we can change the world if we start listening to one another again. Simple, honest, human conversation. Not mediation, negotiation, problem-solving, debate or public meetings. Simple, truthful conversation where we each have a chance to speak, we each feel heard, and we each listen well.’ (2002:3).

It is in conversation and dialogue she says that an organisation and a community will discover their power to change. And earlier I mentioned Stacey who equally underlines that conversation is the space where the emerging themes in an organisation organise themselves, cluster around certain attractors and create new relationships. It is in conversations that the intentions for change emerge, there where people are confronted with their boundaries. Open Space creates a space for people to engage in real conversation.

The interactive organisation

It is obvious that Open Space meetings are not just once-in-a-while events after which it is business as usual. Once an organisation or community engages in Open Space, it gradually becomes a way of being, ongoing open space and grows into what Owen calls ‘the millennium’ organisation. He describes several stages of organisational growth. Often organisations start out of a garage, enthusiastic people working day and night, informal and product oriented. He calls this the reactive organisation. When it grows, it becomes more organised, more structural and the strain of the early days fades away. Owen calls this the responsive organisation like the local pub. Most organisations these days have left the pub and are increasingly pro-active, they open up to the wider world and rational planning and control make their entry. At best they are well-oiled machines, the prototypes of the modernist paradigm. We are however according to Owen moving towards the interactive organisation that fully operates in the field of complexity theory.  Planned approaches are replaced by emergence and change is no longer considered a nuisance that needs to be controlled, but rather a challenge. The final stage is still difficult to define and is called the inspired organisation where form is completely made subordinate to the content. The millennium organisation will be fully interactive and is constantly clarifying its purpose, meaning and identity. It appreciates chaos and constantly scans the environment for opportunities, it sees itself as open and self-organising. It constantly learns and seeks breakthroughs and practical application. Structures will continue to exist, but they are no longer a rigid harness and are changed whenever necessary. Open Space is a perfect way to make the transition from a pro-active to an interactive organisation, it adds nothing new but it simply uncovers what is already present (Owen, 2000:127)




In this chapter I looked at Open Space Technology as another methodology that operates within Complexity Theory. It is a fascinating way of dealing with change in organisations and communities. From my own experience I can now say that it works. Open Space is not only an effective way to bring the whole system in the room and to work with large groups; it is also a way of being organisation or community. In recent management literature spirituality is a hot item[24] but often this tends to be just another fad. The Spirit cannot be managed; if managing people is like managing cats then managing Spirit is like managing ghosts. Spirit will find its own way, the only thing we can do is to open ourselves, our organisations and our communities for its transformative presence, in creating the Open Space the Spirit will manifest itself.





You smile – the world changes

If we serve others because we want to seem

like a good person or because we feel guilty

then we are actually serving ourselves.

Real change is provoked by distant details

and we don’t know how

(adapted from Freke 1997)

Chapter 5


Make medicine from suffering

As we have seen Open Space technology is a methodology as well as a philosophy on change and organisational development that fits the discourse of Broederlijk Delen much better than the positivist methods as ZOPP among others. In this chapter I will show that Open Space Technology and complexity theory more in general, are also much closer to African Bantu cultures than the current theories and practices in use in development work. Open Space meetings have a lot in common with African rituals; not only is there a great similarity in form, also the processes at work are analogous. I use an anthropological insights to discover the underlying ‘grammar’ of Central and Eastern Bantu societies and using Devisch (1984, 1998) I consider healing rituals a privileged window of opportunity to get hold of the invisible processes at work throughout the different layers of Bantu society.


Healing rituals: a gateway to organisational dynamics

Harrison Owen the founding father of Open Space Technology titled his book in which he explains the ‘theory’ behind Open Space ‘The Power of Spirit’. Open Space is where the ‘Spirit’ is at work and where the organisational transformation takes place. In an earlier book (1997) he tells the story of his experience as a photojournalist in a small village in Liberia where he participated in a boy’s rite de passage and how he was struck by the geometry of the circle and the rhythm of the movement. The essence of the rite of passage was the Spirit at work. The circle and the dancing created the conditions that allowed the Spirit to engage in its transformational work. This he says is where he found two of his basic mechanisms of meetings. Two additional mechanisms, the community bulletin board and the village market place, were added and Open Space Technology was born.

Walking through Kampala with its modern buildings, endless traffic jams, a state-of-the-art shopping mall, watching the government employees sipping their coffee on one of the terraces and the young urban professionals enjoying their coke and hamburger one could easily get the impression that African culture is just a slight variation of the western way of doing things. Browsing through the many management books on the shelves in Kampala’s best bookshop, visiting Makerere Business School or participating in one of the hundred workshops that are annually organised throughout the country by the donor community, only confirm this impression. One is struck by the globalisation trend; the Anglo-American management orthodoxies are dominant and almost everything fits the functionalist paradigm described earlier. There is however far more then meets the eye and although African cultures undergo rapid and sometimes fundamental changes the ‘grammar’ or pattern of society remains much more constant and stable. It is my growing conviction that current theories and practices in use in the field of development work do not sufficiently root in the host culture, they are like transplanted organs that can only be prevented from being rejected by the constant use of drugs. Fowler (2000) comes to similar conclusions when discussing the role of NGOs in building civil society. They are seldom organically rooted in the society but often created as an image of their own creators, the Northern aid agencies.

How then can one grasp a glimpse of what lives deep in the hearts of people, what are the unconscious rules that hold a society together and help its members to make sense of their world? Why is it that Open Space always so miraculously works? Rituals, like the one Owen witnessed are great windows of opportunity to grasp the ‘grammar’ of a society. In my search for this grammar I draw heavenly on the work of Renaat Devisch[25] who made an interesting study of the Khita, a ‘gyn-eco-logical’ healing cult among the Yaka in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Devisch 1984,1993). His insights also helped me to understand my own experiences with the Jebola cult of the Mongo in the RDC, the former Zaire in the 80-ies.  Taylor (1992) comes to similar conclusions in Rwanda and Malidoma Some (1998) provided more practical understanding of how rituals can be used in today’s world.

      Devisch shows convincingly how the ritual healing of female infertility reveals the complex patterns of the Yaka society. He demonstrates how the corporal, the social and the cosmological bodies are structured by the same ‘grammar’; the body, the group and the life-world resemble. There are relations of homology between the way the Yaka or the Mongo view the world, their view of how a society should function and their view of a healthy individual body. Taylor (1993) also makes clear how illness highlights the organizing dynamics of a society since the organizing principles permeate apparently distinct domains of social action. Rwandan concepts of misfortune are linked to the exchange of gifts. The change from a gift economy to a commodity economy disturbs this flow of gifts and consequently provokes distresses at the bodily and societal level. Healing rituals as explained by these authors are therefore privileged occasions that make visible what lives inside a community.

      Illness in Central and Eastern Bantu Africa be it physical or mental, which distinction is not as clearly made as in Europe, has to do with a disturbed flow of life. This flow/ blockage dialectic operates on the level of the three different bodies. The infertility of the Yaka woman is caused by a blockage of her womb or by too much openness, in both cases the vital flow is disturbed. At the level of the group, the social body, troubled relations prevent harmonious cooperation and an extreme dry period or flooding disrupts the flow of life on the life-world level. Illness, social conflicts and drought are all caused by the disturbance of the same flow of life. That is why fluids play such an important role in the construction of social relationships; rain, beer, milk, blood, semen are liquids involving human and natural fertility and a balanced flow of these liquids, not too much, but not too little either guarantees a healthy body, a harmonious group and a fertile land. Healing therapy consists of restoring this flow of life, the energy flow. Because of the interrelatedness of the corporal, social and cosmic, what is done on the level of one body influences the other two. The infertility of the woman therefore is not just a gynaecological problem but has also to do with the relationship with her husband and her family in law. ‘Healing frees and taps the life flow through a metaphorical reweaving of life’s diverse dimensions into a resonant whole’ (Devisch 1993: 258).

      Most healing rites go through similar stages; in the case of the Jebola rite of the Mongo people five distinct stages can be observed. In the first stage the sick person will be diagnosed by the healer after which the preparations for the ritual are made. During the next stage the social situation is analysed since the blocked flow of life at the corporal level is induced and sustained by blockages at the social and cosmic level. This analysis is done by divination whereby the patient is exposed to herbal fumes that open her up for the spirits to speak. In this projective space the patient has the opportunity to speak up whereby she has nothing to fear from other group members since it is the spirit who speaks through her and she cannot be held responsible for what he says. This divination, guided by the questions of the healer is often a mixture of accusations and confession. Then follows a period of seclusion whereby the patient stays for some weeks or months in a specially constructed hut. During this period intensive body work is done: the patient learns to dance the Jebola, gets frequent massage, is anointed with oil and eats special food. This period is concluded with the second divination whereby the now healed person is publicly confirmed in her new state of health, the flow of life has been re-established. She then returns to her family and with the help of the healer and a group of old patients reintegrates in society.

      Four transformational processes are at play in the healing method. There is the freeing of voices; the patient is allowed and encouraged to speak up, to voice, through the medium of the spirit, all that is worrying and troublesome, her fears and anxieties, her feelings of culpability. It is done in a safe and secure environment, culturally recognised whereby she will not be blamed for whatever she says. The second process is that of seclusion, the creation of an intermediate space and time where the patient can temporarily step out of her normal life and can gradually learn and heal. This transformational process is compared with the cooking of food, the fermentation of the palm wine or the gestation of a child. Working the boundaries is very important; the seclusion hut is a protected and sacred place clearly marked. The body is worked upon and special attention is given to the body orifices that mark the inside and outside. This whole period is extremely symbolic and constantly refers to the dialectics of inside/ outside, raw/cooked, life/death, closed/open, flow/blockage, continuity/ discontinuity; borders are probed and redefined. Another transformational process is the reconnection with and the active participation of the group; the patient is helped to redefine his or her place in the extended family and the clan. In the case of the Khita rite the barren women does not as by miracle produce children, although this may happen as well, but she is accepted and reconfirmed as a person in her full rights and no longer considered ‘useless’ because she didn’t give birth. A last process at play is that of self-renewal, the weaving of a new self. Learning the complicated choreography of the Jebola dance is both a confidence building exercise as well as a re-appropriation and appreciation of the own body.

      Healing as restoring the ‘flow of life’ is more than just administering some drugs or doing psychoanalysis, 'it is a gathering with others in order to feel Spirit's call to express spontaneously and publicly whatever emotions needs to be expressed, to create in concert with others an unrehearsed and deeply moving response to Spirit and to feel the presence of the community, including the ancestors, throughout the experience (Some, 1993:143). Several other elements are worth underlining. The focus of the ritual is on self-healing; it is an incarnation of values arousing conviviality and empowerment (Devisch, 1993:255). Also what happens is less important than how it happens; the process prevails over the outcome. The ritual does not impose meaning but aims to disclose and to activate; it provokes creativity. A fourth element is that the ritual is a transformative drama, it is a re-enactment, the flow of life is unblocked there and then through the active participation of all involved and the inducing environment. Another Jebola or Khita ritual performed by the same healer will never be the same. The ritual only creates space to allow the transformative healing to take place. What heals is not the healer, the patient, the spirits, or the larger community but the ongoing intertwinement of the vital flow between the bodily, social and cosmological fields. ‘The healing drama celebrates the love of life; it is a quest to transmit, enhance and optimise life, it makes one fundamental statement: that this world is real, prolific, all encompassing, composite, interrelated and thus accessible (Devisch, id: 258).

      Lastly it is important to make a distinction between a ritual and a ceremony. ‘Every time a gathering of people, under the protection of Spirit, triggers a body of emotional energy aimed at bringing them tightly together a ritual is in effect (Some, id: 141). In the ritual there is no control by the healer or the patient, control is surrendered to the spirit. It is the active participation of people gathered that makes a ritual work. And although a ritual has planned aspects like the preparation of the space and the overall choreography, the heart of the matter is unplanned and emerging. This is in sharp contrast with a ceremony where participants play a mere passive role. Ceremonies are orchestrated, controlled and reproducible. Most of our conferences and workshops are ceremonies where one person performs and the others politely observe. That is no doubt why they often become so boring.


Open Space: a ritual for organisational transformation

Development or underdevelopment in Africa has everything to do with a blockage of the flow of life. Corruption is a disturbed flow whereby one takes too much and leaves others with too little, Aids is rampant because of troubled social relations whereby university students sell their bodies to pay for their tuition fees and others live a promiscuous life that was not accepted in the traditional society. El niño is an irregular weather pattern causing droughts in one place and flooding in another. All societies and African societies are no exception have to deal with unbalanced, blocked, disturbed flows of life, of energy. Organisations suffer from the same phenomena, conflicts between team members, dictatorial behaviour of the executive, misuse of means, it all deals with this flow of life. It is therefore fascinating to realise that Bantu African societies have the openness to allow and to recognize this flow of life: freeing voices and cultivating spirit. This is in sharp contrast with our western societies where we have closed ourselves off from the Spirit and don’t recognize energy flows as real and important any more.

On the invitation for an Open Space Meeting to 200 representatives of local governments from all over Uganda the organisers called it a conference. And although it was clearly explained in the letter that this was going to be different, quite a number of participants turned up for a conference, which in Uganda includes all kind of allowances for travel, body-guards, drivers, attendance and the like. Five participants were provincial governors, most of the others where leaders of municipalities and for many of them the start of the ‘conference’ was a bit of a shock. For the provincial governors it was all unacceptable and they walked out (thanks Owen for the Law of two feet), but the others quickly adjusted and we had a great Open Space Meeting that was more of a ritual than a conference.

Rituals are about change and transformation. Success depends on how much change and what change the key stakeholders are willing to invite. To what extent they let go off control and allow the soul to dance with the spirit. There is therefore an important aspect of surrender; our governors could not make the step. The mechanisms of the circle, the rhythm, the village bulletin board and the market place do not explain why Open Space works; it helps creating the conditions but what it is really all about is the harmonious flow of life. The short explanation of healing rituals that I gave above - the rite of passage Owen refers to can undoubtedly be read in the same way - provides us with an overwhelming amount of links and associations.

The five stages of the Jebola ritual are also present in an Open Space meeting. The first step is that of diagnosis and preparation. When preparing an Open Space considerable time must be given to the exploration and definition of the theme. In these discussions the consultant helps the client to go beyond the obvious and to see the theme in its broader context. A second important matter deals with what Birgitt Bolton[26] calls the ‘givens’, what are the constraints and boundaries, that cannot be altered; these might be for instance legal and financial constraints The limitations for creativity and transformation however are always much less restricting then we tend to think, a lot more can be done in the given constraints then we allow for. The first divination frees the voice of the sick and allows him/her to speak up; in an Open Space after a short explanation of the method by the facilitator participants are invited to raise those issues they feel passionate about and for which they want to take responsibility. This often leads to an avalanche of issues. The seclusion period of the Jebola is the time and space where the transformational process can take place. In an Open Space this is the lapse of time between the raising of the issues and the closing ceremony. During this period participants meet in small groups to exchange ideas about the issues, share meals together and feel free to take some time off. During the second divination the now healed person is presented to the community and accepted by it, likewise the closing ceremony acknowledges the work that has been done, celebrates the successes of the last days and makes the participants to come aware of the different processes that unrolled over the days. It is the realization that nothing could have been accomplished without the active participation of all; the participants themselves brought about whatever has been accomplished or are responsible for everything that did not work out. As in the healing rituals the healing is brought forth in the process, it is the Spirit at work. The last part of reintegration is often the most difficult one, now is the time to integrate the transformations in daily life. In the case of the Jebola the healer and the community of ‘healed patients’ play a key role and in the case of Open Space ample attention should be given to supporting the action groups and the client of the meeting.

The four transformational processes at work in healing rituals are equally present in an Open Space meeting. As we have seen voices are freed, participants are free to raise the issues of their concern and to discuss them freely in the small groups. It is very difficult for individuals to dominate the discussions since there are many different encounters going on at the same time and the ‘law of two feet’ allows participants to walk out it they think the conversation is no longer interesting. And every voice is heard, if it so happens that the convenor of an issue finds him/ herself all alone, she can write a report and share with the others all the things he wants to say about their issue. This report will have an equal place in the final report and may even be chosen as one of the ‘hot issues’ of the meeting.  The actual Open Space meeting whether it is a full two-and-a-half day gathering or a shorter version, provides an intermediate time and space, a seclusion area where transformative processes can take place. Nothing will take place without participants freely engaging in the process; the spirit arises in the relationships between people. And in the end no one can remain untouched, you cannot be just an observer. Where people become passionate and are ready to take up responsibilities they change, they become renewed and transformed.

Other elements of the Open Space meeting are similar to what happens in the healing rituals. It is a self-generative process, the facilitator creates and holds the space but it is the Spirit that takes over control. Like the healer he or she is the midwife who neither is the one going to give birth nor the one who will hold the child, but who by her presence allows and facilitates this natural, unavoidable process of birth to take place. What is going to happen once the space is opened up is fairly unpredictable and the process prevails over the outcome. This does not imply that there may be no very practical outcomes, but quite often these are completely new, not thought off before since Open Space provokes creativity. Open Space like healing rituals are transformative drama whereby healing both on the corporal as well as the organisational level is created in the process.


Healing and Complexity theory

From what I explained about complexity theory in an earlier chapter it is now not difficult to see how healing rituals are clear examples of complexity theory at work. A healing ritual has more than a  cause and effect relation; the simple administration of the different drugs and therapies does not as such lead to the healing of the patient. Healing emerges out of the creative and adaptive behaviour of the patient, the healer and the larger social group. Drugs and therapies are the vehicles used. The healing community is a complex adaptive system constantly revising and readjusting in response to the feedback from the environment. Health is never a fixed, stable state but always ‘in equilibrium’ a constantly changing balance between the different life forces, when it is stable the person is dead. In the healing ritual the patient is brought to the edge of chaos; the whole Jebola therapy is working upon the boundaries thus exploring, changing and redefining them. We see autopoiesis at work, this mystery of life whereby an organism achieves a certain closure, makes the difference between ‘me’ and ‘not me’, the self-production or the production of the self. It is ‘a self-preserving tendency to retreat to the core of the identity’ (Battran, 1998: 227, Wheatley 1996)). The boundaries of the patient are too open or too closed, she is either completely absorbed by the social group or she is completely inward oriented, in both cases is her identity lost. The ritual helps her to weave a new self. New social order whereby the barren woman is reinstated in her full rights as women and wife emerges from a self-organising process. We see what Battran (id:128) calls the ‘game of life’ demonstrated; healing is not produced by one miracle intervention but through small, simple and repeated gestures, manipulations and applications.

      Owen (2000:42) refers to Kauffman when stating the preconditions for transformative processes to take place: nutrient-rich, relatively protected environment, high level of diversity and potential complexity, drive for improvement, sparse pre-existing connections between various elements and operating at the edge of chaos. Kauffman’s work deals with the ‘molecular stew’ but the same applies to healing rituals and open space meetings. The healing rite takes place in a sacred area, a well-defined place and time that is extremely rich in symbolism. Calling an Open Space meeting is creating this intermediate time and space where people can gather, leave their daily occupations and allow themselves to enter the playground of the spirit. Infertility among the Yaka is an extremely complex issue that can not simply be resolved by distributing some herbal medicine and the theme for an Open Space meeting needs to be chosen carefully allowing for as many related issues as possible to emerge, a theme people feel passionate about and that goes for the complexity first before analysing and reducing. Both the sick woman, her direct family as well as the village community at large sincerely want healing, would like to see this person happy and healthy again. An Open Space will not work if convenors and participants are not passionate, willing to change, to take responsibility and to make clear steps forward. Or in the words of Owen: ‘Open Space simply doesn’t work out very well when used in what might be called a “demonstration mode” (2000:52).

A healing ritual as well as an Open Space meeting will not succeed if all the people concerned are not present. The healing of the barren woman depends on the recognitions of her healing by the entire community and the theme of the Open Space will not reach completion if not all the stakeholders concerned are present. In both cases the whole system has to be involved. The prolonged sickness of the women has brought her and her family to the edge of what can be supported. The Khita or Jebola ritual is not to be engaged in lightly, it will have severe implications for everyone and there is a great deal of uncertainty about how it will work and what will come out. Organisations should equally realize that engaging in an Open Space meeting is not just another day-off exercise to boost moral, in a first instance it may bring out more problems than it is going to solve and it can certainly not be controlled. But if those conditions are met both the Khita ritual and the Open Space bring forth healing at the level of both the physical and the organisational or social body.



In this chapter I took Bantu healing rituals as a gateway in exploring the organizing principles of Central and Eastern African societies. The flow of life, the importance of the boundaries between the corporal, social and cosmological bodies, the freeing of voices and the significance of balanced relationships emerged as the key dynamics of society. Healing rites are also clear examples of complexity theory at work in Africa and they show that the linear, rational, mono causal and objective way of thinking used in our western world has no roots in this part of the globe. I then demonstrated that Open Space Technology meetings can easily be grafted on the Bantu cosmology and could be considered organisational healing rituals.





Make medicine from suffering

What ever causes suffering

Zen teaches that this is an opportunity

to awaken spiritually.

Healing rituals and Open Space meetings

Provide the intermediate space and time

For these transformative processes to take place

(adapted from Freke 1997)



As a development practitioner I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the way I was working with local African development organisations and the results we obtained in changing living conditions of the rural and urban poor. It became clear to me that many of the changes that took place in the local communities we worked with over the years could only marginally be linked with our change efforts. Furthermore most local development organisations had serious problems with our requirements for strategic plans, logic frameworks and objective oriented project implementation. A sabbatical during which I undertook a masters in Organisation Development and Consultancy at Sheffield Hallam University in the U.K. provided the intermediate time and space to reflect on my own practice and to develop new insights.

      In the first chapter of this dissertation I described how the theory and practice in use in mainstream development practice are rooted in the functionalist paradigm. At first I thought that Burrel and Morgan’s (1979) distinction between functionalist and radical humanist paradigms could help resolving my dissatisfaction but it became clear to me that both ways of looking at the social world share a same vision on change. Both consider change as something we can bring about in communities and organisations through objective analysis and careful long-term planning. Such a concept of change however is entrenched in a specific mindset that takes things as linear causality, predictability, objectivity and control for granted.

      I then discovered Complexity Theory and it made this my espoused theory.  Here change is considered as emerging out of the complex relationships that take place in our world and largely out of our direct control. The fundamental difference with the planned approach to change is the status and role of man, the human agent; man is no longer the objective outsider who holds all the strings of social reality. Stacey (2000) takes those insights furthest with his relationship psychology suggesting that man is only a temporary appearance of relationship patterns. Those insights are very close to Eastern thinking where the individual is just an illusion and only an expression of a great pulsating energy field. Also in Africa the relationships within the group often prevail over the individuality of a group member and someone’s identity largely coincides with the group identity.

      I considered two methodologies that root in the assumptions that underpin complexity theory: Appreciative Inquiry and Open Space Technology. Both approach change as emergent; Appreciative Inquiry comes from a social constructionist thinking that still endows considerable autonomy to man whilst Open Space Technology largely lets go most of human control to give way to the Spirit. The way Open Space enables transformative processes to take place has great similarity with African healing rituals.

      In the two final chapters I consider how these new insights influence my practice as an OD consultant as well as my work as a development practitioner; in other words how I tried to make complexity theory my theory in use and what the use of complexity theory means for my daily work.

Chapter 6


Know who you are, be what you know

Consultancy may be compared to a journey the consultant and the client undertake together; a powerful image that allows us to explore some of the hidden features of the thinking about consultancy work. In our European setting a journey lost most of the thrill and excitement it had in earlier days and often still has in Africa. In the west travelling these days is usually a straightforward and efficient move from point A to point B. We have exact timetables, reliable means of transport and rarely causes the journey any discomfort. We no longer enter this intermediate space and time that allows us to departure from our present situation and anticipate the arrival. A journey has become at best an opportunity to finish some work or to catch up with some sleep. For many consultants and clients alike consultancy is such a journey; the organization has to be taken from point A to point B in the quickest, most efficient and least disruptive way. Yet as on our motorways and railways, delays, disruption and diversions are commonplace. Consultancy interventions therefore do not always yield the expected results and leave both client and consultant with feelings of dissatisfaction. Where are the days that a journey was an expedition, an odyssey or a pilgrimage (Harrison, 1995a)? To me that is what consultancies most of the time are: challenges and opportunities for growth for both client and consultant.

As a development worker I always had a strong urge to fight for justice and to empower people to become subjects of their own history and Paulo Freire (1972) was one of my favourite authors. Radical changes in the human condition were necessary which required a radical critique of the status quo. I saw it as my task to help people to create a more democratic society convinced that those in power will always try to impose their way of viewing the world and reality, a view that obviously supports their stand and maintains the status quo. Humans and human processes had to be respected, but challenged, provoked at times. It was my honest belief that we could largely create the world we wanted and reflecting back I think I could consider myself a strong social constructionist. Years of experience in Central and Eastern Africa however proved that bringing about radical changes in societies is not as easy as thought. The social construction of reality is not a straightforward process and it became obvious to me that there are many forces at play we cannot possibly understand, anticipate and direct. I pitilessly was confronted with the insight that the world is less mouldable then thought. For years I was made to believe that the poor result of our development interventions was mainly due to insufficient analysis, inadequate planning and meagre monitoring which let to a growing frustration. It is only now that I start to look at the world around me from a different perspective, with the new mindset of complexity theory I gradually come to realise that my frustration is a mere creation of my own thinking. Once I started to accept that change is emergent and not planned, but the outcome of an intrinsically unknowable process that I can look at life and my role in this world as important and at the same time irrelevant. I discovered the wisdom of all main religions: St Paul already said: work as if everything depends on you and at the same time realize that it is God who determines all. My study of complexity theory was at times shocking and threatening, but at the same time a liberation. The world is self-organising in ways we will never understand simple because we are part of it. I cannot step out of this world and this life and look at it from a distance; I am part and parcel of it. I have to struggle with what Flood (1999) calls the paradox between mystery and mastery. For years I only focussed on the mastery, now I rediscovered the mystery. This has serious consequences for how I see my consultancy practice. It does not imply that what I do is unimportant or that anything goes. In given circumstances I have to act as a professional, try to understand the context to the best of my abilities and constantly reflect on my action. What I do, does make a difference only that I will never fully understand what difference and how those differences will come about.

Most of the consultancy work I see taking place here in Africa can be labelled the ‘doctor – client’ approach (Schein, 1999). There is a lot of talk about processes and participation, but often it comes down to the consultant writing a report with clear recommendations to be implemented by the client. It is an approach that goes very well with the dominant culture where the older, the wiser knows best and is respected for his good advice. Reflecting back I recognize quite a bit of transference going on and I fell in this trap myself several times. The client easily feeds the consultant with information and then expects a clear advice and I in turn feel flattered and readily take up this role of teacher and advisor. Once you take complexity theory as your theory in use, your role as a consultant changes dramatically. In the work of Arrien (1993) I discovered an interesting way of understanding my role as consultant within the complexity theory mindset.


The four-fold way

In her book ‘the four-fold way’ Arrien (1993) explains the four paths one has to walk to be able to navigate change. I consider the four archetypes she describes as four key aspects of consultancy; a consultant needs abilities of leadership and being able to be fully present. He also needs to pay full attention to his client, be able to give voice to the transformative processes that are taking place in the client system and do all this in such a way that albeit deeply concerned he remains non-attached to the outcome. He has to walk the paths of the warrior, the healer, the visionary and the teacher simultaneously.


Consultant as warrior

The warrior chooses to be fully present and to show honour and respect. He is the leader, the protector and deals with power.

In Ugandan culture the leader is the boss, or at best the paterfamilias. He is extremely well informed, often through third persons (gossip, stories) and relies on speculative data and verbal communication. His work style is hectic, unplanned and he will easily jump to conclusions. Networking is one of his strong points and he is always busy representing the organisation. He holds a strong control over resources. Personnel is hired on basis of contacts in his network and presumed loyalty. He is not very task oriented and will only occasionally check on his employees. In case things go wrong, he simple changes people. His time horizon is fairly short. As a consultant you are often considered to be a temporary leader in this sense; it fits the expert and doctor models Schein(1999) describes.

In her book “New Leadership” Wheatley (1999) refers to a leader as someone who is able to provide clarity about who an organisation is and who supports decision making in the midst of chaos. Leadership from a complexity theory perspective has nothing to do with telling people what to do when and how. As a consultant it is therefore important to convey the client a new image of leadership without openly attacking the leadership style in use. The self is the most important tool for the consultant and I will come back to this in more detail further on.

In chapter two I introduced the notion of attractors, which may be values, principles, theories. It is around attractors that energy and information will cluster and bring out new patterns of behaviour. An integrative person with clear intentions and energy could also act as an attractor and I would like to see a consultant, as in fact any leader in the organisation or community, as such an attractor person. The art of consultancy then is to depersonalise the attractor and once the consultant has been effective at replacing his consultancy role in individual form with strong abstract attractors, then the organisation can be expected to continue on its own[27].

So by saying that the consultant has to go the path of the warrior I mean he has to be fully present in the organisation or community and function as a ‘strange attractor’ in the organisational conversation thus allowing new patterns to develop and he will then depersonalise the attractor and stimulate the people concerned to gain full ownership.

Reflecting back on my role as Open Space facilitator I can now see how these insights operate. As a facilitator I was fully present, without me the process would simple not get started, but very quickly the group took ownership of the process whereby the issues brought in the Open Space by the participants became independent attractors.


Consultant as healer

The healer deals with the power of love, it is about compassion and courage. Courage comes from the French word ‘coeur’ and etymologically it means ‘the ability to stand by one’s heart or to stand by one’s core’ (Arrien 1993:51). Compassion and courage then are closely related.

      For me people are at the heart of consultancy work and not structures or plans. In one of the organisations I work with tremendous tensions had build up between the project manager and the expatriate advisor to the extend that they were no longer on speaking terms and the implementation of the project was severely hampered. Several elements played a role: the job descriptions were not clearly spelled out which left much room for misinterpretation and power struggle, competencies were an other aspect and it appeared to me that at least one of the two did not meet the job requirements. All this went out of control because of their conflicting personalities. Together with an external consultant we worked jointly for four full days taking sufficient time to clarify jobs and responsibilities, to make competence profiles and to help the chairperson of the board to own the process. A quick-fix solution would have been to replace one or both of them and although painful decisions may still have to be taken, the integrity of the persons involved was respected, the people concerned took ownership again and necessary changes became learning opportunities for the persons involved.

      Being compassionate however does not mean covering-up; it goes with the courage to call a spade a spade but to do it appreciatively. World Vision in Tanzania works a lot with appreciative inquiry also within their own organisation. Like in any organisation sometimes difficult decisions have to be made and people are fired. The terminology used is ‘allowing someone to graduate’; it is not at all utilized in a pejorative way, what is meant is to help the person concerned to learn from what has happened and to look for new opportunities to put his learning in practice elsewhere. In Africa it is not common to give and to receive positive criticism and too often problems and tensions are ignored and allowed to deteriorate. The way the African Union often deals with problems in member countries is an all to clear example. Compassion with one person should never result in misery for many others and that is where the courage comes in. In several cases I have been called in as a consultant to clean out the mess and to make clear recommendations so that the person in charge could put the blame for a decision on the consultant. In cases like these it is the role of the consultant to make the client understand that he is fleeing responsibility and not allow himself to be used in the internal power arena.


The consultant as visionary

As a visionary the consultant needs to be able to speak frankly and to tell the truth where necessary. It goes with the courage I mentioned before. A visionary is able to transcend the muddle of the daily practice and to get people focused on their vision, help them to give it voice and to develop creativity. Vision implies authenticity without denial whereby certain issues or people are avoided out of fear. Authenticity also leaves out indulgence whereby certain ideas or people are treated in a special way.

      Being visionary is particularly important in development work where two dangers lie around the corner: dreams without grounding and activism. In Appreciative Inquiry the dream stage is preceded by the discovery stage precisely to avoid daydreaming. Dreams for the future need to be based on the successes of the past and an appreciative understanding of the context otherwise visions become disempowering instead of empowering. Another danger for many development practitioners is the activism whereby the organisation runs from one action to the other without asking why they need to be undertaken all together.

      A second aspect of the visionary work of the consultant is linked to the language he uses. We all know these type of conversations whereby an idea or remark derails the discussion and participants are carried away. Serious tensions between people are sometimes caused by a comment that was interpreted wrongly. We then get stuck in what is called the basin of attraction, this is largely involuntary, we simple ‘end up’ there and it is rarely caused by conscious choices. It often needs someone from outside the organisation or community to get out of this ‘lock-in’ situation.

      Appreciative inquiry is a powerful tool to use in such cases. I have noticed several times that when I start asking people about their successes and what gives life to their community they react surprised since they expect discussions about their problems. They are so stuck in this problem thinking where lack of resources is often the most common cause that they simple cannot think out of the box. Another example in development work is the famous ‘aid chain’ that refers to the chain from donor to beneficiary. The use of the word ‘chain’ includes a linear metaphor and locks all thinking in this metaphor. The introduction of an ‘aid network’ opens the horizon. The words we use should remind us of that we are trying to open up for: emergence and transformative processes and not impose the linear control thinking.


The consultant as teacher

Being a real teacher is a practice in trust and being comfortable with uncertainty. It is the learning process of the learner that counts; in a process approach to consultancy it is not the consultant who will with a magic trick produce the white rabbit from the magician’s hat. What he will do however is to help the client to open up to all possibilities and to explore them. He will help the client to deal with the fear and ignorance that comes with the inquiry into the unknown. It requires from the consultant to be deeply concerned and at the same time be able to take distance.

      During the facilitation of an Open Space I discovered what Owen means with ‘containing the space’ as the main activity of the consultant once the meeting is in progress. Visibly he does not do much and does not seem to be very present either, but appearances are deceptive. The opening and closing of the space in the morning and evening, the presentation of the simple rules and principles and his being around seemingly doing not much more than picking empty tea cups create the environment of trust and confidence that raises in people the awareness that they are capable and in charge. Every report that gets published on the village bulletin board reinforces this idea. The most difficult thing for an Open Space facilitator is to let go control and to have full confidence in the self-organising dynamics present in the group. If the consultant does not embody those values, he will not be able to create and contain the space required. That is why I said earlier that facilitating an Open Space meeting is simple but not easy.


Going the four-fold path as a consultant is not a straightforward approach with clear contact, entry, diagnosis, proposed solutions and implementations. It is much messier with often very fuzzy boundaries between the professional and the personal, the task and the process, the known and the unknown. As I mentioned earlier the main tool of the consultant in this whole process is his own self, he needs to be the living embodiment of the theory behind his work. In the next part I will therefore explore this self in more depth.


The use of the self

The consultant is himself the most important instrument in his consultancy. This notion of the self is very much in line with the Rogerian approach to counselling. Carl Rogers developed his person-centred way of helping people in the 1930s and 40s as an alternative to the analytical approaches that where in vogue those years. Rogers was convinced that people have a self-actualising tendency, which means that people in favourable conditions grow towards goodness (Rennie, 1998). Such a growth-inducing climate is characterised by three conditions to be provided by the helper: unconditional acceptance, emphatic understanding and realness or congruence. Together they are called the core conditions (Mearns and Thorne 2000 and Rennie, 1998). And although these conditions seem rather simple it takes a helper a lifetime to be able to accept someone unconditionally, to be non-judgemental, to understand the other from within allowing the client’s emotions and his own emotions to touch and to be completely real and transparent. Being a counsellor is not a role someone takes up during a working session with a client, it is a way of being, a state of mind, a lifestyle. 

Harrison (1995) while reflecting on his own journey comes to the same conclusion: ‘I am convinced that we (…) use the self as an instrument of change and growth, placing ever deeper aspects of ourselves in service to our work …’(1995:xiii).

In the Gestalt approach this is called the presence that is defined as:

‘The living out of values in such a way that in “taking a stance”, the intervenor teaches these important concepts, that which is important to the client’s learning process is exuded through the consultant’s way of being’ (Nevis, 1987:70, stress in the original).

Nevis (1987: 58) suggests that ‘development of self is the single most useful means of becoming an effective consultant’. A good knowledge of the self is therefore indispensable.

A powerful instrument for my reflection on the use of the self is the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator[28] I have always been rather sceptical about psychometric tests but I have to admit that it is powerful. Two insights particularly have been of value for me: importance and role of feelings and the significance of details.

As an INTJ[29] type I draw energy from and pay attention to my inner world (I), like to see patterns and connections, the big picture (N), use logical analysis in decision making (T) and like a structured and planned life (J). I use my intuition internally (Ni) but communicate this through logical decisions (Te) whereby I don’t easily allow loose ends and ambiguity. This gives the outside world the impression of a highly organised, structured, clean and somehow distant person. People who know me a bit better often tell me that I shield of my feelings and emotions and that they find it difficult to apprehend my inner motives. I came to realise that as an introvert I work things through in my head before I communicate the end result with as consequence that others cannot always follow my reasoning since I kept them unaware of the processes that went on in getting to a result. My learning is that I have to pay more attention to my feelings and anxiety and those of the client. I have experienced that (sparingly) sharing these with the client helps to create a climate of trust and openness. In making myself vulnerable, the other feels more free to let go certain barricades and masks.

With my focus on the overall picture, I tend to neglect details. Once the picture is clear to me I am inclined to move on but this may be too quick for the client. The start of a consultancy is a particular difficult phase for me; the client, who has been struggling with the problem for some time already, tends to pass on a lot of information that is often fragmented. S/he may talk at large about all the details I sometimes consider unimportant since I got the bigger picture, the Gestalt already. However I discovered that it is important to allow the client to tell her story since explaining all the details, living it again can become a real catharsis leading to understanding. Trust is not build if I brush the details aside as less relevant since I got a picture of the whole already. I use my self as a consultant or helper when I provide the earlier mentioned climate of trust and allow myself and the client to stay in the ‘flow’, a ‘non-reflexive union of feeling and thought and behaviour (Rennie, 1998:4).  Being intuitive seems a great asset to me in consultancy since it allows me to get the broader picture easily and often the client struggles with the issue precisely because he or she has a too narrowed view of it but the danger is that I tend to overlook emotions and details. How to express emotions and how to deal with emotions in an organisation I discovered is one of my greatest challenges.


Energy in organisations

A last learning in my consultancy journey I want to mention is the discovery of energy in organisations and communities. Diagnosis just to use that word again is not about gathering and analysing data but far more about finding sources of energy in the organisation. It is this energy building that is fascinating about Open Space. Every time I facilitated an Open Space meeting I was struck by the amount of energy that build up in the group and several participants told me how energized they felt, ‘so different from how we normally feel after a three day workshop’. I learned that as a consultant it is extremely important to sense the level and the type of energy in a group or an organisation. Darwin (2001) uses the notion of energy in his ‘wheel of change’: energy in organisations can be cool positive whereby there is a feeling of accomplishment and contentment, people are happy the way things are going. Energy can be cool negative, here people are in denial, and there is stagnation, boredom. Energy can also be hot negative and hot positive. In the former the group is living intense conflicts, there is confusion, anger and fear, in the latter there is joy and ambition, people feel inspired. Owen (2000) talks about energy in terms of the grief cycle and stresses the importance of finding out in which stage of the cycle people are: shock, denial, memories, acceptance, questioning, new vision. All stress the importance of energy and it is the type and the intensity of the energy that greatly influences what help you as a consultant can offer an organisation or a community.

KRC was clearly in hot positive energy; many things had been realised over the last two years and the organisation had grown very rapidly. New programmes like Human Rights and Civil Peace Education had started and they definitely had gained the confidence of the donor agencies. I felt it important to help them to consolidate. It was obvious that staff needed a more formal human resource policy and relations with stakeholders had to be more formalized with KRC allowing them to take on more responsibilities. An Open Space meeting could be useful to the organisation; it would allow them to share their enthusiasm, since almost a third of the participants would be KRC staff members. At the same time listening to their stakeholders could help them to become aware of their grievances, their ambitions and their potentialities.



My learning about consultancy turned out to be quite different from what I had in mind when I started this course in Organisation Development & Consultancy. At that time I was still thinking within the modernist paradigm and although I used the process consultancy language, I operated mainly in the doctor – client framework. Complexity theory has unsettled me but also made me discover a new mindset. Finding a new balance between mastery and mystery is one of the greatest challenges I remain with. The rediscovery of mystery came as a relief.





Know who you are, be what you know

Consultancy is about being authentic.

If you are not living a life that expresses

your inner self, consider what changes

you need to transform yourself and your life

so that you can really be you

(adapted from Freke 1997)

Chapter 7


Without anxious thought, doing comes from being

In this last chapter I will try to translate my learning into my daily practice and make it usable in my work with relatively small local development organisations in the Great Lakes Region. The aim of the dissertation among others was to reflect on my own work and come up with new ideas that could help Broederlijk Delen forward in its development work. The way we look at change is a key feature in development work I looked into. For sake of clarity I opposed the two main methods to change: the planned and the emergent approach. The former is rooted in the modernist paradigm; the latter finds its foundation in complexity theory.

      The planned approach is the method in use in mainstream development thinking. We, the planners in both the Northern and Southern NGO’s assume that we are able to understand the root causes of the problems our beneficiaries experience. Of course we make the analysis of their environment in a participatory way and have them as much as possible involved in the whole change exercise. Our analysis is objective and largely complete and where we remain with some vagueness we formulate clear assumptions. We discuss possible strategies with the beneficiaries and then make a clear action plan that will help our target groups to move from the present undesired situation into a future desired state. We assume that our actions have a more or less direct impact on what we defined as the problem. We formulate predictable results that can be measured against clear indicators. The whole process of change is to a great extend under our control.

      The emergent approach to change is not too sure about how changes take place and the role we can play. The social issues we deal with in development work are enormously complex with many stakeholder groups and individuals involved with sometimes very irrational motives. Many processes, known and unknown are going on at the same time. A clear target as increasing the income of small farmers in five years time is subject to all kind of socio-economical and political processes. A government policy to enhance these efforts may be obstructed by corrupt politicians in a ministry, the economy may go into recession, and jealousy in the community may discourage the entrepreneurial farmers to mention but a few unpredictable incidents. Robert Flood (1999) formulates it very accurately:

‘I wonder whether long term intended action is possible. The way things unfold is inherently unknowable to the human mind, emerging through spontaneous self-organisation originating from some distant detail, rather then advanced planning’ .

Fowler (2000) in a paper for the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development also warns development organisations not to overestimate their role and states that the NGO contribution to social change is less substantial and durable than imagined. In a planned approach to change we presume to be the masters of our lives, able to command and to control. The emergent approach does not deny a certain degree of mastery but allows mystery to be part and parcel of our living.

                  In 1998 I got the idea of building a small organic farm outside Kampala and as I write I am sitting in my own house on a six-acre farm where I keep diary cows, goats, pigs and chickens. If I look back at how my farm came to be, then I must admit that in spite of me being a professional development worker and hence a supposing good planner, I did not write detailed project proposals nor did I make yearly and monthly planning documents. It all emerged slowly by slowly: clarifying my dream, scanning for opportunities, taking decisions on the basis of what I hoped for, the information I gathered on the way and what seemed possible. How then could I expect a group of local farmers or a small development organisation to do everything I did not do myself?  In development work we spend a lot of money, energy and time first on making project proposals and then on evaluations to measure the gap between what we intended to do and finally managed to realise. We would better use those resources for the action itself. The writing of this dissertation convinced me that complexity theory and emergent approaches to change will help us much more in development work than the current planning methods with logical frameworks and ZOPP.

      Some people with whom I discussed my learning journey felt I was unrealistic and argued that what Africa needs is not emergence but an even better planning. Seeing change and approaches to bring about change as emerging is in their eyes an irresponsive way of dealing with tax payers money. It is therefore important to clarify that looking at change as emergent does by no means imply that everything goes whereby you just wait and see and hope for the best. On the contrary taking the emergent route is extremely demanding, focussed on details, constantly learning and very planned albeit only for the short term. To quote Flood once more: ‘the most we can do is to manage what is local and to appreciate the incomprehensibility of global complexity’ in other words master the short-term local and accept the mystery of the global long-term.

Another frequent remark is that it seems as if emergence does away with context analysis, the passion of radical humanists. I do not think this is the case; within an emergent approach you constantly scan the environment for opportunities to bring your vision a step closer. The difference is in the assumption of how much we can know about the context, planners assume that a fairly complete and objective understanding is possible and once a thorough analysis is made it remains more or less valid for the three or five year project period. In the emergent approach it is accepted that the context is complex and therefore can never be fully understood whereby the understanding you get is only valid for as long as it lasts and never objective. How to put these insights in practice is what I will explore in the next part.


From project implementation to realistic solidarity

Broederlijk Delen wants to be seen as a solidarity movement much more than an aid agency. Solidarity for Broederlijk Delen has to do with freeing voices, strengthening organisational dynamics and cultivating spirit. It is my impression that solidarity with people who live in an extremely volatile environment does not go very well with mid-term and long-term project planning if we want solidarity to be more than a financial commitment for a certain number of years based on expected, measurable results. Solidarity implies flexibility and the willingness to take risks. Solidarity is not based on pre-agreed development objectives but on people and the confidence in people that they will do what ever they can to realise a shared dream. I propose a six-fold path to solidarity rooted in an emergent approach to change: choose your partner, develop a vision based on core values, change the language, engage in genuine dialogue, call a circle, realise instrumental actions. These aspects are intertwined and reinforce one another and each one is an opportunity to start with.


The six-fold path


Choose your partner

Solidarity in development work is a long-term commitment if you want to take organisations and communities serious and the decision to move into a solidarity partnership should not be taken lightly. In the past organisations were mainly chosen on the basis of project proposals they submitted; good proposals that fitted the philosophy and vision of Broederlijk Delen were approved inasmuch as money was available. We then moved away from projects and turned to partnership with local organisations, but as Fowler notices the language about partnership is highly distorted and a good example of how rhetoric masks disparities in power and the maintenance of dependency (2000:viii). When you nail organisations down on measurable results they should achieve in a given time span than there is hardly talk of partnership, a joint-venture at best. But on the other hand we should not accept just anything either hence the importance of choosing partners carefully. A key criteria in my opinion is the integrity of the people in charge of the organisation or community, as Drucker noted:

They (executives) are servants of the organization – whether elected or appointed, whether the organization is a government, a government agency, a business, a hospital, a diocese. It’s their duty to subordinate their likes, wishes, preferences to the welfare of the institution’ (in Bennis 2000:156).

 A second key aspect in developing a partnership relation is the quality of the relations. Stacey (2000) underlined the importance of relationships; it is from relating between people and organisations that the intentions for change will emerge, not from the analysis of problems. The creation of a climate of trust and support is therefore vital and this is not realised over night.

We should however remain realistic, Broederlijk Delen might well want to develop partnership relations but this does not necessarily imply that Southern NGO’s we currently work with want the same. It makes more common sense if we initially recognise the great variety in relationships we have with local development organisations and name them for what they are. Gradually going the other paths a more sincere partnership might develop.


Develop a vision based on core values

As I explained in the first two chapters our thinking about change and development work is determined by the set of assumptions we take for granted. These are the mental maps about how things should be and what is important in life. Social reality does not comply with the same rules and laws as the non-living world. As Weick (2001) explained social activities are activities of sensemaking and heavenly depending on the social context, our own identities, earlier experiences and what we think is plausible. 

In development work we face yet another challenge namely that of culture. We work in a different culture with people who are programmed differently. Culture too can be seen as the collective programming of the mind, it is the software people unconsciously use to communicate and to relate to the world (Hofstede, 1991).

In chapter five I have tried to unravel some of the hidden processes in Bantu societies with its importance of flow, boundaries, balanced relationships and the interrelatedness of the bodily, social and cosmological world. I showed how certain development practices like Open Space are closer to the core values of Bantu Society than for instance a logical framework.

Each time therefore we undertake an action we have to keep in mind that we take decisions that fit our own mindset. We create a temporary action area in the local context. Such an area is determined by our judgements of the boundaries[30]. Action areas are not necessarily geographic but refer to a certain space and time, things we are involved in. Boundaries are mental constructs so we can draw them any way we like but we constantly define boundaries since without them we cannot work, we cannot live. Even if we undertake a ‘global’ action we still act upon a small part of that ‘globality’ and therefore leave out other aspects. Our boundary judgements determine what at this point in time at this particular location are the issues, concerns, dilemmas, goals and the people involved and those not involved. And each time we can decide to draw the lines differently. It is in this decision making that the ethical choices come in.

It is common these days to ask organisations to produce a vision and mission statement and even small NGO’s in a remote corner of Uganda will have such a document in one of their drawers. But often these are just empty slogans developed because donors want to hear these things. Visions can only be developed on the basis of ethical decisions taken; they should reflect the core values the organisation and its people believe in.


Change the language

As we have seen in chapter three the language in use in development work is mainly problem oriented, it is a deficiency vocabulary. Appreciative Inquiry shows that changing the language will gradually change the thought patterns. The use of a vocabulary of hope raises the energy levels in a group and motivates. The 4-D cycle of discovery, dream, design and destiny is a practical tool that helps organisations and communities to understand their environment for as far as it can be understood and to develop a dream or a vision that is based on the successes of the group, grounded in reality. My own experiences with appreciative inquiry are very positive although I must admit that changing one’s language is not easy and regularly I slip back in the old problem thinking. I consider Appreciative inquiry a very important tool for building organisations and communities.


Engage in genuine dialogue

As Margaret Wheatley (2002) said conversation is the simplest way for people to explore possibilities to improve and change their organisations and communities, but it is often also one of the most difficult things to do. It needs courage to ask the real questions that bring people to levels of deeper understanding. If I feel surprised or disturbed by what someone says, I am actually confronted with my own assumptions and beliefs. Too often we hold conversations with those we agree with and we then just go round reinforcing our own assumptions. It takes courage to listen to deviant thoughts, as Tom Peters said it is important to the ‘weird’ in. Relations between Northern and Southern NGO’s are often distorted by power differences that block real ownership and commitment to change. Genuine dialogue can be a powerful step on our way to real solidarity.


Call a circle

An Open Space meeting is build on sitting in circles, as Owen said ‘good stuff simply does not happen in squares and rows’. There is something special about circles, could they contain the morphic fields Sheldrake[31] talks of?  Rupert Sheldrake is a Britisch biochemist who launched the theory that everything including social groups form a morphic unit and it is the energy filed around such groups that characterise structure and patterns of organisation; according to Sheldrake all self-organising systems are shaped by morphic fields. For Owen the Open Space is the place where the spirit can do its transformative work. This notion of energy fields that pulsate during Open Space meetings sounds weird I admit, but from the four Open Space meetings I facilitated I learned that a circle is more than just a democratic way of sitting together, it builds positive energy that is contagious.

Open Space meetings are a very powerful way of dealing with complex issues, but any meeting irrespective the number of participants or its lengths is an opportunity to sit in a circle thus creating space for conversation that moves to the deeper levels of an organisation or community.


Realise instrumental actions.

‘Think globally, act locally’ is a well-known slogan in our globalised world. As we have seen however globally we think our area of action will always be restricted in space and time. In accepting the mystery of living we might well be able to achieve a certain mastery of the moment (Flood, 1999). The emergent approach to change gives great importance to the precise actions we undertake. The fact that we are not able to plan on the long-term does not mean that we should not plan the short-term. When an organisation has a clear vision and purpose it will then constantly scan the environment for opportunities to bring this vision a step closer. It will try to comprehend the context to the best of its abilities and decide what action to take. But all the time we will be aware of the fact that life is much more complicated and of the fact that taking decisions for action is bounded by our own judgements. Once an action area has been determined, it then becomes important to plan the realisation of this action as scrupulous as possible: breakdown of the action in smaller steps, allocation of resources, determination of expected results in short planning as usual.

      During the implementation of the action it is important to remain alert to changes that are taking place. An interesting tool to use is After Action Review; the name is slightly misleading since it gives the impression that a review is only made at the end. After Action Review is a technique aimed at reviewing what is going on in such a way that lessons can be learned for the future. After Action Review takes place immediately after an action is completed and preferably at important moments during the action involving all team members. Three key questions are asked:

1.                  What was supposed to happen? What actually happened? Why where there differences?

2.                  What worked? What didn’t? Why?

3.                  What would you do differently next time?

It is a simple but very powerful tool that can easily be learned and does not require a lot of resources and time. It is important that After Action Review becomes a habit, it is not like a one-ever-so-often evaluation exercise.

‘In a complex situation, most of what you learn from a single experience is the wrong answer. So you go out and choose a different answer to the problem, and it’s wrong too, but maybe it’s less wrong….. You’ve got to learn in small bites, lots of them, over time, and they’ll work, eventually, into a complete solution to a problem. This cannot be accomplished in a one-time reflection event that happens only after a project is complete’. (Darling and Parry, 2001)


This six-fold path is a practical way of working from a complexity theory mindset, it recognises the complexity and at the same time gives enough handles to deal with development issues. Although I have been working with different aspects already, I will go this path in a more systematic way the coming three years with six selected organisations Broederlijk Delen works with in the Great Lake Region.



Writing this dissertation has in many ways been a very challenging experience. It brings to closure my sabbatical, a period during which I have gained many new insights and restored faith in my work. Development work is often difficult and in the light of what has happened in this particular region one could easily lose heart. Being a development practitioner is more of a vocation than a job, allowing yourself to be confronted with the extreme poverty two third of our world population lives in, makes you feel helpless at times. And one thing is for sure, it is not going to change overnight: many more children will die, natural environments will be destroyed and the liberty and freedom of people will be suppressed. Our development efforts are important but their impact is necessarily limited and the future of this region is to a large extent beyond our predictability and control. The acceptation of communities as largely self-organising relieves me from the burden of being responsible for all the changes that need to take place. This does not lead to irresponsibility but to a realistic acceptance of what is. Development work as any other human endeavour is finding a balance between mystery and mastery.




Without anxious thought, doing comes from being

Zen teaches us that it is possible to live spontaneously.

This is not condoning a wildly irresponsible approach to life.

It is about allowing our natural decision-making process

to function efficiently.

Allow answers to emerge spontaneously from your intuition

and go straight to the solution.

(adapted from Freke 1997)



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[1] Throughout the text I will use the German acronym in line with what is common in Africa (see for instance the project planning handbook of Olive in South Africa)

[2] Non-Governmental Organisations, this is a commonly used word for what in England are called charities.

[3] Broederlijk Delen is one of the bigger Belgium NGOs and can be compared to CAFOD in England. The author is the regional representative for the organisation in the Great Lakes Region in Africa.

[4] I use the term ‘development worker’ for everyone who claims to work for change in organisations and communities in developing countries; they may be NGO volunteers, IMF officials or government administratives

[5] I take the example of Broederlijk Delen because it is best known to me, but the same applies for many other development NGO’s.

[6] Most of the policy documents are in Dutch

[7] I use the word Spirit quite often in this dissertation without defining it because I feel producing a definition is just another ‘scientific’ way to capture what cannot be captured. We all know what Spirit is when we encounter it and we constantly use it in our daily language when we talk for instance about be inspired or a team having a good spirit.

[8] Every year at the start of lent, a six weeks period before Easter, Catholics are asked to share some of their wealth with those who are poor.

[9] SWOT stands for Strenghts, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats

[10] Personal communication by John Darwin

[11] The notion single-loop and double-loop learning comes from Argyris. In single loop learning people react to negative feedback and adjust accordingly. Double loop learning reconsiders the basic assumptions, reconnects to perspectives from outside and reframes the action.

[12] Even if the genocide was carefully planned, it finally ended somewhere totally different from what its planners had in mind.

[13] Quoted in Capra 1975

[14] A distinction needs to be made between complex and complicated. The inside of the computer on which I write this dissertation may be very complicated for a layperson but it is not complex. Given some effort and training I can understand how it works, repair it, predict and control.

[15] Terry Gibson in Dorset, UK (email:

[16] The way a certain people perceives the cosmos (or world). It includes assumed relationships between the human world, the natural world and the spiritual world. It describes the perceived role of supernatural powers, the relationship between humans and nature, and the way natural processes take place. It embodies the premises on which people organise themselves, and determines the moral and scientific basis for intervention in nature (Haverkort, B. (ed) 2002, Ancient Roots, New Shoots. London, Zed Books)

[17] Blantern, C. and Anderson-Wallace, M. in a talk at Sheffield Hallam University, February 2002.

[18] My experiences are very much in line with those of others as for instance described in ‘Lessons from the Field’ by Hammond (2001)

[19] Open Space Meeting with Kabarole Research Centre in Fort Portal, Uganda

[20] Together with Terry Gibson I facilitated in October an Open Space meeting for 200 local government officials in Mukono. In December I did an Open Space in Rwanda with 25 representatives of partner organisations of Broederlijk Delen and in February 03 I had the privilege to facilitate an in-house Open Space in Belgium for the South Department of Broederlijk Delen.

[21] With this dissertation goes a eight minute video impression of the Open Space Meeting I facilitated for KRC

[22] I am sure that further expansion of Open Space will lead to architectural changes

[23] Title of a book by Christina Baldwin (details in references)

[24] See for instance the article of Ruth Garret-Harris: Let’s go spiritual in Quality World

[25] Devisch is a renowned anthropologist at the CatholicUniversity of Leuven in Belgium.

[26] Birgitt Bolton is a Canadian who is a pioneer in using Open Space as an organizational development tool. More information on

[27] I got this idea from McMaster cited in Battram 1998: 155

[28] Two other instruments I find very helpful are the enneagram (Riso, D.R. and Hudson, R. (1996) Personality types. Houghton Mifflin) and Daniel Offman’s core qualities quadrant. (Offman, D. (1992) Bezieling en kwaliteit in organisaties. Utrecht, Servire). It is interesting to see how much overlap there is, in other words how all three tools in spite of their different approaches point out the same things in my personality and interpersonal relations. All three also stress the dynamics of the approach and avoid putting labels on people.

[29] Introvert Intuitive Thinking Judging, this is one of the 16 Myers-Briggs personality types

[30] The notion of boundary judgements comes from C.W. Churchman (1979) The systems approach and its enemies, New York: Basic books

[31] I discovered Sheldrake’s ideas in the last stages of the writing of this dissertation and have not been able to explore them in depth but they are definitely challenging