Qualifying Spaces of Possibility

Our analysis confirms and extends work by scholars who have addressed the connection between space and possibility. Lewin (1951/1997, p. 268) suggested that undifferentiated space is not only full of uncertainty but full of possibilities. This assumption is also reflected in the work of contemporary scholars such as

Komberger and Clegg (2004), who argued that “space has to contain possibilities, which might be perceived as emptiness” (p. 1106) and that organizations need “chaotic, ambiguous and incomplete space” (p. 1106) in order to generate creative problem-solving. Other scholars, too, have suggested that “spaces of ambiguity” (Stark, 2009, p. 3) and “incomplete” work environments lend themselves to the kind of collaborative inquiry that is needed to deal with problems characterized by a lack of clarity and ambiguous information (Horgen, Joroff, Porter, & Schon, 1999, p. 197). The implication is that the experience of undifferentiated space creates potential for producing new ways of thinking and acting. In an analysis of aesthetic experience with theater, Woodward and Ellison (2010) struck a similar note, describing it “as a space of imaginative elaboration, extension and perhaps even a space that afforded a type of ‘reflexivity’ in that it drew on existing structures as the basis for the realization of creative social action into the future” (p. 53).

The results of the experiment lead us to qualify these assumptions about undifferentiated space as spaces of possibility and to add the concept of unencrusted space. When faced with a space that generated uncertainty, almost all the groups went into the Meeting-Mode configuration. The participants sat and talked in a small circle, making no use of the open space of the room, of the artistic materials, or of other objects in the room. It appeared almost as though they created a room enclosed by invisible walls within the larger space. Thus, in a large room offering many possibilities in principle, people tended to reduce their uncertainty about how to engage with each other and the task by recreating a traditional kind of meeting space that utilized only a small fraction of the total space.

We hypothesize that the Meeting Mode provided participants with a sense of security and order in the face of uncertainty caused by a vaguely defined task and a large, strange, and undifferentiated space—and that the Meeting Mode exacts a price for this sense of security. Although we do not claim that the Meeting-Mode configuration necessarily prevents groups from thinking and acting creatively, our inference from the experiment is that the Meeting Mode is less likely to offer opportunities to experience surprise or newness. Once in the Meeting Mode, all the groups had a hard time breaking out of it and transitioning into what we called the Expansion configuration, and some of them never moved into Creation. We hypothesize that the Meeting-Mode configuration reflected a powerful norm or mental imprint that dictates how people come together to work at least in this particular organizational and cultural constellation. A theater or dance ensemble, like other groups from the art world, would most likely have perceived and used the space very differently. Future research could clarify whether mixed groups of participants who already have experience working together might be more experimental and playful than our participants were while working on a new task in the studio or whether their prior knowledge of how to work together would reduce the range of possibilities they could envision in the space.

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