The Mountain and The Plain

Here in Southern Ontario the landscape is fairly flat. Rolling hills are as high as it gets, except for the occasional outcrop along the Niagara Escarpment. This is far different from the landscape of Southern California where rugged mountains were very much part of my life and perspective when I was growing up.

Recently I was thinking about the differences in these landscapes and the way they speak to how organizations perform and are led. Until relatively recently, organizations were run from the mountain top, so to speak, where individual wizards or a small bands of arbiters carefully crafted strategy and gave direction they expected others to follow. Whether or not renowned leaders from the past worked in such a manner, the predominant mindset of organizational performance was the mountain. A plain, in contrast, brings to mind a ‘level playing field,’ one where unobstructed sight lines invite open collaboration and communication between diverse perspectives.


What often amazes those who shift from the mountain to the plain when devising future direction is that things don’t simply fly apart in chaos, but go from tentative dabbling, to strength and innovation at a speed that could not be predicted. Multi-stakeholder meeting approaches such as Open Space, Future Search, Appreciative Inquiry and World Cafe draw their strength from encouraging serendipity, self-selected conversation and the bringing together of diverse perspectives without a central figure in command.

The movement away from the mountain to the plain has gained speed with the emergence and acceptance of the Internet within and across organizations, in all sectors. In their recent book, Wikinomics, Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams argue for organizations and their leaders to adopt a new science of collaboration, one based on principles of openness and peer-production.

There is no doubt that the plain has proven to be a powerful way to innovate and initiate change faster than thought possible. And much hope has been attached to the various methods of multi-stakeholder collaboration mentioned above. Rather than favoring the plain over the mountain, it is best to see that both the mountain and the plain have benefits and limitations.

One of the chief benefits of the plain is derived from its diversity. Put a large cross section of an organization or a community to work on an issue of importance – examples include revised approaches to revenue sharing amongst members of a national health charity; and creating a culture of safety in a community. It’s not just the numbers involved that matters, but the different ways of seeing and knowing. Up to the point where ideas are generated and commitments made – tasks that require little coordination – the plains is a well suited, even preferable, model. When a lot of coordination towards a shared goal is required, a large group of informally and formally connected people can lose sense of the whole without some form of central coordination and authority – the mountain is a better fit than the plain.

Projects we have undertaken using Future Search, Open Space and Appreciative Inquiry – all decentralized meeting models – have been most successful when a small group, or one individual, (the mountain) coordinates the work and communication of the plain community to shape it towards shared goals. While I began this piece making a distinction between the plain and the mountain, they are not really two incompatible approaches to organizational innovation and success. The plain adds speed and diversity to the mountain; the mountain adds focus and discipline to the plain.

The bottom line is that multi-stakeholder meeting and collaboration process are powerful tools, but they are not some family of wonder drug. They can speed up relationship building, idea generation, get lots of small groups of people from diverse perspectives working in parallel on new ideas. They can also offer the benefit of adding customer, supplier, funder, marginalized voices and other perspectives. But shaping the whole, guiding it, defining the boundaries and helping the parts communicate are best done by a small group of talented people who collaborate closely to give coherence and refine contributions.

The mountain and the plain: though you may prefer one over the other, you need them both. Identify the talent required to help define the system and shape the end goals; invite multiple stakeholders to help build relationships across the system, generate ideas for change and commit to actions to reach desired goals.