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You'll Never Know Who will Bring In Your Next $20,000,000

On Thursday, October 21, 1993, The Rockport Company closed down for two days to explore new directions. They held an open space meeting -- a form of conferencing in which attendees self-organize into workshops and task groups with little direction. The bean counters objected to the costs of suspending operations, but company president John Thorbeck was adamant. Almost the entire workforce attended.

The conference was held in a cavernous warehouse. People from all levels of the corporate hierarchy mixed together in dozens of groups discussing company issues and possibilities. Managers, line workers, supervisors, clerical staff and dock workers had unprecedented access to each other.

As the warehouse hummed with excited energy, a security guard (who was not a Rockport employee) wandered among the shelves, crates and circles of people. He lingered over a discussion of new products, finally pulling up a chair. "He mentioned that he spent a lot of time on his feet and would love to wear the kind of comfortable shoes that Rockport made," writes Srikumar S. Rao in Training magazine. "But his company would never buy them because they didn't 'look right' as part of a guard's uniform. Why couldn't the company redesign the uppers so that they met the security company's uniform specifications?"

Suddenly the guard found himself barraged with questions. Someone pulled some shoes off the shelves and started cutting them up and fitting parts together. Within a few hours they'd sketched out the new product idea. "Rockport is proceeding to develop such a line of shoes," writes Rao. "If it is an average performer in the market, [CFO Anthony] Tiberii expects sales of about $20 million per year."

Compiled from a talk by Harrison Owen, founder of Open Space Technology
and from Srikumar S. Rao, "Welcome to Open Space,"
Training, April 1994, pp. 52-56

COMMENTARY: Inclusiveness and collaboration are two trademarks of co-intelligence. Many other ideas emerged from this particular Open Space gathering, but I find it significant that the most profitable idea came from someone who wasn't an employee. The willingness of the group to embrace an outsider made the company millions of dollars. That willingness was no accident. The spirit and structure of the Open Space approach treats everyone as a creative, responsible peer and helps them welcome unexpected developments. The processes, structures and cultures we operate with can make all the difference in how co-intelligent we are.