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The Organizational-Activity Game as a Method of Collaborative Planning and Problem Solving in the Former Soviet Union

Articles by Robert E. Howell, Irena G. Postalenko and Dmitri M. Rabkine


Collaborative planning and problem solving is growing in popularity as a means of bringing diverse groups of stake-holders together to work on the resolution of complex public problems where there is potential for controversy. These methods have been used both in the resolution of potentially contentious and difficult community problems (Strauss, 1993) and natural resource disputes (Walker and Daniels, 1994). This paper reports on a method of collaborative planning and problem solving that was uniquely developed in the former Soviet Union. The method, which is known as the Organizational-Activity Game (OAG), was investigated by the authors while the first author was on professional leave in Russia during the 1993-94 academic year.


During a roughly 20-year period of rapid social and economic change in the former Soviet Union that preceded the period of perestroika launched by the Communist Party General Secretary Michael Gorbachov during the latter part of the 1 980sa period which has been characterized as a revolution ofthe mind by Russian scholar Blair Ruble (1993), significant developments were occurring associated with the development of a unique method of collaborative planning and problem solving. Known as the Organizational-Activity Game (OAG) or igra (translated from Russian into English as game), the purpose of the effort was (1) to examine individual and collective thinking activity, (2) to provide participants with an opportunity for thinking more clearly and expressing what is on their minds, and (3) to transform the thoughts of individuals concerning pressing issues or problems in an organization or society into collective thinking activity.

The work on collaborative planning and problem solving in Russia has many parallels to philosophical and theoretical work which underlies collaborative learning recently proposed for planning and problem solving in complex organizations by the Director of MITs Systems Thinking and Organizational Learning Program, Professor Peter M. Singe (1990), and applied to the resolution of environmental problems by Walker and Daniels (1994) and the resolution of community problems by Strauss (1993), also see Himmelman (1994). Additionally, given the growing interest in America in making Democracy work through dialogue and the enhancement of public understanding of complex societal issues (see for example, Yankelovich, 1991), we believe that similar work in Russia should be shared with scholars and practitioners working in the area of collaborative planning and problem solving in the West. In this paper we will present a brief history of the OAG; the principles underlying it, design features and techniques; an introduction to leaders in the field, and a brief discussion of applications of the OAG. Reflections on implications of the method for improving the way Westerners conceptualize collaborative planning and problem solving are also presented.

Research Methods

The research upon which this paper is based used a multiple methods strategy. The American author of the paper collected information while serving as a participant-observer in two organizational-activities games and through an extended period of joint research with Russian specialists in the field. The Russian authors of the paper all had first-hand experiences with the development and application of the OAG in Russia. The first of the two Russian authors is one of the leaders in the practice of conducting OAGs, while the second is a student of the method.

The American author was first introduced to the OAG when a Russian specialist in the method, Dr. Sergei V. Popov of Moscow, who is president of the Inter-regional Methodological Association in Russia, was a guest in his home. Dr. Popov, a mathematical oceanographer by training, was part of a team of Russian professionals in regional and city planning who attended the Goodwill Games held in Seattle, Washington, in the summer of 1990. As part of their program in America, part of the group came to Washington State University (WSU)[2]. During their trip the group examined public issues related to regional planning and environmental concerns with the assistance of WSU faculty. Through intensive conversations with Dr. Popov and more brief discussions with the planners, the American author became curious about what seemed like a Russian version of collaborative planning and problem solving.

In the fall of 1991, a second and related group of Russians again came to the United States and to Washington State University. This time they had two additional specialists in the OAG with them, Mr. Rifat Shaikhutdinov of St. Petersburg, who is now chair of the new Department of Conflictology at St. Petersburg University and Mr. Timothy Sergeisev of Moscow, who is also affiliated with the new Department of Conflictology at St. Petersburg State University. The two specialists conducted a demonstration OAG at Washington State University. The American author was a participant in the demonstration, and Mr. Shaikhutdinov and Mr. Sergeisev stayed in his home. Intensive conversations with these individuals during meals and following the demonstration OAG provided insights into the purpose, structure, and history of the organizational activity game.

During the 1993-94 academic year, the American author went to St. Petersburg, Russia, where he taught courses in conflict resolution at a university and conducted research on the organizational activity game, while serving as a Senior Fulbright Scholar. The Russian authors of the paper were keenly interested in developing information about the organizational activity game that could be communicated to counterparts in the West, and they therefore joined the American author in a program of observation and documentation. The observations included key informant interviews with professionals in the field while attending a special congress of academics and practitioners working with the OAG, and focus group interview with selected specialists in the field, which was also conducted at the congress.

Another part of the methodology was jointly teaching both U.S. and Russian methods of collaborative planning and problem solving during the second university course taught by the American author. The Russian authors and several of their colleagues taught the OAG method to the students, while the American author taught Western methods of collaborative planning and problem solving. By trying to understand the similarities and differences between U.S. and Russian methods, the American author was able to develop an understanding of the OAG, while all of the participants were better able to document the OAG.

The final step planned for the research process was to attend at least one organizational activity game conducted in Russia or one of the former Soviet Republics. Unfortunately, due to the stress of economic conditions in these countries and the rapid structural changes occurring within the government and all aspects of organized life, all of the OAGs that had been scheduled for the Spring and Summer of 1994 were canceled. This precluded further participation by the authors in any additional OAGs.

Lastly, the authors were informed about the method through a review of related research and information about the OAG published in English. Fortunately for the American author, an American scholar (a professor of geography at the University of Washington, Dr. Craig ZumBrunnen) had participated in an OAG in Russia in the fall of 1989. Professor ZumBrunnen had written an article about the experience that was presented to the group of Russians at a special University of Washington-sponsored conference on planned change held in conjunction with the Seattle based Goodwill Games in 1990. When the Russians visited WSU following the Games, they circulated ZumBrunnens paper. This paper was subsequently published in Russian in the journal Kentavr (ZumBrunnen, 1993). The ZumBrunnen article provided the first description of the method prepared by an American, and corroborated many of the observations made by the American author of this paper.

A second paper written in English about the OAG was authored by two Russian leaders in the field, G.E. Shchedrovitskii and S.P. KotelNikov (1988). This article provided a concise overview of the method and discussed its history as well as different types of applications. Several parts of this paper are based upon information provided by Shchedrovitskii and KotelNikov (op. cit.). Reviewing descriptions of the OAG written in English served to clarify misunderstandings by the American author, and provided additional insights into the method.

Historical Perspective

The history of the organizational activity game goes back to 1953 when a group of Soviet philosophers, mostly at Moscow State University, began to question the relevancy of their discipline. This was a period when Nikita Krushchev was the general secretary of the Communist Party and, although Soviet Society was still under the grip of totalitarian control, the quiet revolution of the mind noted by Ruble (op. cit., 1993) was Just beginning. The group of philosophers began meeting to confront two questions: Do we need philosophy if it does not help solve human problems? and What will Soviet philosophy do in the future? In the European tradition of people organizing into circles based upon intellectual or artistic interest held in common, the group formed a circle, with Professor Dr. G.P. Shchedrovitskii as its leader.[3] Inspired by Marxs statement, The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it, and his methods of analysis, the group called itself the Moscow Methodological Circle (MMC). This group and their followers and students referred to themselves as methodologists.

Members of the MMC were well educated in the European tradition of philosophy, including the work of Hegel, Kant, the early Greek philosophers, and Marx. They were particularly influenced by Hegels theory of reflection (see Houglate, 1995; Behler, 1990: 82; and Loewenber, G., 1965:50-54) and the Marxist theory of activity (Shchedrovitskii and KotelNikov, op. cit.). According to Shchedrovitskii and KotelNikov (op. cit.), from 1952-1960 the methodologists worked on epistemological issues in the theory of thought. Secondly, from 1961 through 1971 they worked on developing a general theory of activity. Thirdly, from 1971 on they worked on what was called a systemic thinking activity approach and the development of the general structure of methodology. The OAG was developed as a special applied form of their work on the organization of collective thinking and thinking activity.

An important theoretical foundation in the development of the organizational activity game was the work of the methodologists on general systems theory, the theory of cognition, and related topics. Some of this early work was translated by an American scholar noted for his work on systems theory, Professor Anatol Rapoport, and published in the journal General Svstems (Shchedrovitskii, 1977). Additionally, the methodologists were influenced by the sociometry of J.L. Moreno (Moreno, 1950 and 1951; see also Northway, 1952). The work of Moreno provided many of the scientific methods used by the methodologists, and influenced their use of symbolism to represent social activity within a system being addressed in an organizational activity game as well as the relationships which developed among participants within the game.

Another important foundational component to the research of the methodologists was their involvement as leaders in the practice of conducting multi-disciplinary seminars at many universities in the former Soviet Union[4]. Shchedrovitskii and KotelNikov (op. cit.) refer to these discussions as multi-disciplinary methodological seminars and note that they began in 1955 and became widespread in the early 1 960s. The multi-disciplinary seminars were comprised of faculty specialists in the university who would meet quite regularly for several hours at a time to address problems in Soviet society and their resolution, such as ecological problems and industrial production problems, from the different disciplinary perspectives represented in the seminar. An effort was made to assemble the broadest possible group, which included physicists, biologists, engineers, philosophers, chemists, etc. The seminars were generally led by the methodologists, who were by in large affiliated with G.P. Shchedrovitskii and the MMC. The seminars gave the methodologists insights to the problems of individual and group reflection, and the problems of developing mutual relations among participants and collective thinking in groups as the members struggled to address issues from multiple perspectives. The methodologists also gained insight into the relationships between participants and the organizers and leaders of the seminars.

The multidisciplinary seminars were extremely enlightening for everyone involved. They were a totally new and liberating phenomenon in Soviet society. They also helped the methodologists as well as the participants better understand the organization of multi-subject thinking, and how to coordinate knowledge from different subjects into a unified configuration.

The university-based seminars provided a positive experience that was compelling for testing in settings outside of an academic setting. According to Shchedrovitskii and KotelNikov (op. cit.) the period 1976 through July of 1979 was a transitional period in the development of the OAG. Here the methodologists began to apply the tactics used in what they called intellectual-methodological games conducted in university settings to practical learning games that were carried on outside of the university among athletes of the voluntary athletics associations of trade unions (op. cit:, 61). This gave them insight into the difficulties of training people to undertake tasks requiring a high level of skill and understanding. It also provided an opportunity to leap from academia to application in the real world of problems in society.

At this point it should again be stressed that significant economic and social changes were occurring in the former Soviet Union, which included an increase in the quantity and quality of education for the Soviet population as a whole as well as a greater differentiation of the Soviet work force (Ruble, op. cit.: 342-245). There was also a growing awareness among Communist Party leaders that there were significant lags in the productivity of the command economy and the need for substantial improvements. In this setting, the methodologists decided to apply their work to the resolution of practical problems in society. The first opportunity was in July of 1979, when they embarked upon responding to a proposal for developing a range of consumer goods for the Ural region. This situation gave them an ideal opportunity for designing and testing a new, complex and systemic organizationalformror team thinking activity aimed at dealing with a complex economic problem (Shchedrovitskii and KotelNikov, op. cit.: 62). The methodologists could now create an organizational activity game in an actual setting involving participants who were faced with a need to take action on real problems in society.

It should also be noted that during this period business games were becoming  very popular in the former Soviet Union. Although the approach used in what has been calledShchedrovitskiis Game was quite different than the approach used in business games, the popularity of business games provided further legitimacy for applications of what was by an large an intellectual and theoretical activity to real world situations focusing on the improvement of productivity. For more information on the development of business games in Russia under the leadership of Mary M. Birshstein, see Gagnon (1987).

Shchedrovitskii and KotelNikov actually refer to the period before the game held in the Ural region as the pre-history of the organizational activity game, with the period that followed providing the methodologists with the challenge of consciously creating a new organizational form of thinking activity (op. cit., 63). It was during this period that the methodologists developed the principles, design features, and techniques for conducting the organizational activity game.

Principles, Design Features and Techniques as Developed for the Ural Region and Subsequent OAGs

Out of a problem situation in which a client, in this case a government official who is responsible for production of the command economy in the Ural region, was faced with a complicated situation of not knowing exactly how to best achieve the target set forth in the production plan, the methodologists developed their game strategy. The situati

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