The Organizational-Activity Game as a Method of Collaborative Planning and Problem Solving in the Former Soviet Union[1]


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 980s—a 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 MIT’s 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 ZumBrunnen’s 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. Kotel’Nikov (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 Kotel’Nikov (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 Marx’s 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 Hegel’s theory of reflection (see Houglate, 1995; Behler, 1990: 82; and Loewenber, G., 1965:50-54) and the Marxist theory of activity (Shchedrovitskii and Kotel’Nikov, op. cit.). According to Shchedrovitskii and Kotel’Nikov (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 Kotel’Nikov (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 Kotel’Nikov (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 Kotel’Nikov, 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 called”Shchedrovitskii’s 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 Kotel’Nikov 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 situation of unknowns created the need for formulating a plan for accomplishing the needed task. Given the prior experience in addressing problems in an academic setting, which were confronted by a wide range of professionals, the methodologist developed the principle of multi-professional and multi-disciplinary perspectives for developing the plan. They also believed that the approach should be comprehensive and systemic.

As the methodologists were developing the Ural region game, which took 25 days of preparation and 11 working session of approximately 4 hours each, they discussed such things as the requirements for their work to include systemic designing, the need for forecasting and technical investigation, and most importantly, “the process of genesis and development of a new type of thinking activity” (op. cit.: 67-68). Another important aspect of the Game was the principle of reflection and the development of new world views on the part of Game participants. Given the restrictions on individual thinking activity and the repression during Soviet times, the development of opportunities for self-determination of the participants with regard to the situation and other participants became a central organizing principle and feature of the OAG.

The classical organizational activity game generally lasted from 5 to 9 days. They were conducted in a retreat setting. In this paper we will draw upon Shchedrovitskii’s and Kotel’Nikov’s (op. cit.: 1988) description ofthe original OAG. This description is corroborated by another description of an organizational activity game provided by an American who was noted earlier in the paper (ZumBrunnen, 1993). The second description was of an OAG conducted from November 25 - December 2, 1988, almost 10 years after the first OAG. The theme for this game was “Analysis of the perspective development of the Orenburg Region under the conditions of self-management and self-financing.” There were over 160 participants in the Orenburg OAG, including Communist party members, elected and appointed officials, planners, experts in regional development and ecological issues, plant managers, some workers, active members of the “Green Movement,” and others.

Prior to beginning an OAG, the stage was set by the individual or individuals who requested the game. In case of the Ural region game, it was individuals with responsibilities for the production of consumer goods. There was also an investigation of the situation and the preparation for the game by three types of individuals: the game leader, usually a methodologist; leaders of working groups who were referred to as a “game technicians”; and the leader of the investigations about the situation to be addressed in the game. The investigations of the situation being addressed in the game were generally carried out by a team of methodologists, game technicians, and other specialists, as needed.

Figure 1, which was adapted from Shchedrovitskii and Kotel’Nikov’s description of the process of organizing for the Ural region game (op. cit.: 68), provides an illustration of one of many schemas used to help illustrate the findings about the situation being addressed in the game. The schemas were also used as a stimulus and guide to assist with reflection and the development of individual and collective thinking activity during any planning session, including those held by the methodologists when preparing for the game and those held during the game. The basic structure of Figure 1 -- the Y with three quadrants which refers to the past, current and future situations or systems of thinking activity is referred to as the “development schema.” In the illustration provided by Shchedrovitskii and Kotel’Nikov, they used the development schema to help depict the organizational and technical structure of organizational activity games. This schema was most likely used when planning the Ural Region game. In other applications the development schema is used to help participants reflect on their own situation and thinking, as stimulus and guide for self determination, or it can be used to help with the development of collective thinking activity. The development schema is extensively used in OAGs focused on collaborative planning and problem solving.


Figure 1. The development schema applied to planning for the OAG conducted in 1979 in the Ural Region of the former Soviet Union (adapted from Shchedrovitskii and Kotel’Nikov, op. cit.)

A typical OAG is divided into several phases, which are not intended to be linear in order. Each of the phases can be recycled as new insights and perspectives are gained throughout the game. In the first or introductory phase of the game, the goals and objectives or the theme of the game and principle problems to be addressed are presented as well as the organization of the work or protocols. This presentation is generally made by a methodologist, who is the leader of the game. Protocol information will include the agenda for the day, how the larger group will be divided into work teams. that there will be analysis sessions and reflections within work teams, and that reports will be prepared within the work teams and presented to the entire group. How individuals can get their own presentations on the agenda, when meals and other breaks will be held, and the expectations for evening sessions are presented as well. The methodologist may also present findings about the situation being addressed in the game. The tone for an intensive work activity is set.

In the Ural region OAG, the first phase took two days. This extensive amount of time was required to help participants understand the situation and organize working groups that would analyze specific aspects of the situation. The teams would include persons responsible for specific aspects of production. Teams comprised of experts with an important perspective on the situation being addressed in the game were also assembled.

In the second phase, which is referred to as self-determination, participants in working groups analyze the plan and program for the game; the goals, objectives, game theme, and situation; and their own relationship to other participants in the game. Reflection on personal and group perceptions of reality occurs throughout the game. At the initial phase, the process is referred to as “reflective analysis of the situation in the game.” One day was devoted to the second phase in the Ural region game.

In the third phase, which is referred to as problematization, the participants continue working groups and seek to define the problems being addressed and develop new understanding and world views through thought communication and further reflection. This phase includes presentations from different professional and operational personnel, as well as experts. With the assistance of the methodologist and game technicians, one of whom is responsible for simulating and guiding the thinking of each working group, the participants “decompose the rigid structures of professional thinking activity into their component parts: intellectual implementation, reflection, thought communication, understanding, and pure thinking” (op cit.: 69). To put it simply, the process helps the participants better understand their own perspectives and biases, etc., and the perspectives and biases, etc., of others and thereby develop new personal and group world views. In the Ural region game this phase took two days to complete.

Figure 2, which was adapted from Shchedrovitskii and Kotel’Nikov (op. cit.: 77); is a basic schema for depicting thinking activity and the changes in individual and collective thinking activity as well as changes in relationships among participants, that can occur throughout an OAG. The configuration at time one (t,) in the schema shows an initial level of thinking activity and relationships among members of two different teams. It is assumed in the diagram that there are more than two teams in the game. In time two, as a result of the game process which includes reflection sessions and reports from the different teams (both operational personnel and special expertise team reports) and presentations by the methodologists, it can be seen that members of the initial teams are beginning to self-determine, that is, they are beginning to more critically think and act on those thoughts. Participants are also beginning to think differently about the situation being addressed; new relationships are developing among team members; and people from another team, such as a new leader, resource person or individual with special expertise, are influencing the thinking activity of the team members. The double arrow at time two (t2) depicts the influence of the team reports, to include the reports of persons with special expertise such as a biologist or economist, and the presentations of the methodologists, on the thinking activity of OAG participants and the collective thinking activity of the teams and the group as a whole. In time N (tN), Figure 2 depicts a new form of thinking activity and resulting organized actions on the part of participants, the teams, and the group as a whole.


Figure 2. A basic schema for depicting changes in thinking activity and participant relationships during an OAG (adapted from Shchedrovitskii and Kotel’Nikov, op. cit.:77)

To stimulate reflection on the part of the participants, team members, and the group as a whole, the game leaders used confrontational techniques. The first form of confrontation was an explicit presentation about the findings of the methodologists concerning the situation. This may include frank information about inadequate levels of productivity within work units or problems of leadership. Another form of confrontation was criticism of individual presentations and team reports. ZumBrunnen, when reporting on the confrontational techniques used by the game leaders (op. cit., 1993), quotes the person responsible for the Orenburg Region game saying to participants “ two days you will want to kill me because I will try to force you to remove the mask you hide behind in your everyday life.” The challenges and criticisms of the methodologist would be presented during the report sessions and particularly during presentations to the group that were made just before the late night break for sleep and possible personal retlectlon m beu.

Another form of confrontation that was used to stimulate personal and team reflection was the use of questioning techniques by game technicians during the meetings of the working groups or teams. Fundamental questions about the purpose of individuals or the team as a whole, such as “Why does this unit exist in the first place?” or “Is your particular job or specialty area really necessary?” were raised. These questions would help the participants reflect on their perceptions of reality and possibly help them think differently about specific situations.

The typical day in the regime of the game could include breakfast from 0830-1000 hours, from 1000-1100 hours a thematic presentation on the issues or conditions being addressed, and from 1100- 1300 hours work in groups, which could include reflective analysis on the situation of the game and the preparation of reports on the theme of the day. From 1300- 1400 hours lunch. 1400- 1700 hours a plenary session with group reports on the theme of the dav and a general discussion. 1700-1730 hours a break. 1730-1900 hours a third plenary session could be held, to include speeches by experts on the subjects being addressed, as well as methodological perspectives. 1900-2000 hours dinner. 2000-2200 hours consultations with experts, or methodological specialists (this is an optional dimension). From 2200-2400 hours reflections of the methodologists, or possibly one of the game technicians. 2400 adjourn for the day. Needless to say, the daily regime was extremely intense and exhausting.

Shchedrovitskii and Kotel’Nikov (op. cit.: 69) refer to the fourth phase of the game as a buffer or a reserve day, during which the participants were provided with a rest period. In the

case of the Ural region game, the rest lasted for half a day. The other half day of the buffer period was devoted to a collective theoretical discussion of the working theme of the game in the light of the situation that had evolved during the game.

The fifth phase of the game is referred to as action planning. In the working groups intensive work is undertaken on designing and drafting a program to address the theme of the game. These were based upon the new forms of understanding as well as new world views and collective thinking activity that had emerged during the game process. In the Ural region game two days were devoted to further analysis of the situation being addressed and the development of action plans.

The sixth phase of the game was essentially an evaluation phase. Here the participants reflectively analyzed the course of the game, to include its “weak and strong aspects, failures and successes, interrelationships among participants, organizational forms of communication, forms of thinking and thinking activity were analyzed.” Shchedrovitskii and Kotel’Nikov (op. cit.: p. 70).

Shchedrovitskii and Kotel’Nikov (op. cit.: 70) report that the results of the Ural region game impressed all the participants, including the game leaders. In just nine days of work they all moved far beyond their boldest expectations. To quote “we had developed symbolic forms for recording R and D programs; we had defined their content, worked out new means, methods and techniques for programming thinking activity, including new means, methods, and forms for recording general characteristics of collective thinking activity; recreated and refined new means of itemizing and made considerable progress in developing theoretical notions of systemic thinking activities methodology, etc. Most important, we had demonstrated by concrete example of practical organization of collective thinking activity, that it was possible to create forms of organization for joint work and interprofessional thinking that would necessarily lead to a fusion and development of original forms of thinking activity and to the generation of new symbolic forms, means, methods and techniques of mutual understanding and thinking and compel if not all, at least many of the participants of the collective work to develop themselves.” Shchedrovitskii and Kotel’Nikov (op. cit.: 70).

Characteristically of most OAGs, on the last day of the game there was an atmosphere charged with emotion. In the case of the Ural region game, Shchedrovitskii and Kotel’Nikov (op. cit.: 70) report that all of the participants, including the leaders of the game, “were literally ‘on a high’; and none of them, despite the tremendous tension and numerous stress situations in the course of the game, wanted to halt the overall work.” This successful experience led to successive work in the development of the organizational activity game.

On the train trip home from Sverdlovsk (the major city in the Urals Region, which is now Yekaterinberg) to Moscow—a two day ride, Shchedrovitskii and Kotel’Nikov (op. cit.: 71) report that the leaders of the game held a detailed reflection and discussion of the principle methodological results of the game. Shortly after returning home, they held a series of discussions about the work, their experience and their accomplishments during a series of meetings of the “Committee on the Psychology of Thinking and Logic”—a committee of the All­union Society of Psychologists—in Moscow. They also held meetings with a team from the Research Institute of General and Pedagological Psychology of the USSR Academy of Pedagological Sciences, and the Moscow section of the State Institute of Physical Culture. The topic for discussion during these meetings was “An analysis of practical procedures for resolving complex problems and tasks on the teamwork basis when the information at hand is incomplete.” Shchedrovitskii and Kotel’Nikov further report that subsequent to these meetings 20 “big” organizational activity games were conducted.

In the article by Shchedrovitskii and Kotel’Nikov (op. cit) they begin to develop a typology of organizational activity games based upon four characteristics: 1 ) the goal of theclient; 2) the goal of the organizer; 3) the structure of the organizational plan and program of thegame; and 4) the results, products and consequences of the game. The typology produced nine types of games, including those addressing: the solution of industrial organizational problems; the solution of fundamental scientific problems; programming for the development and implementation of radical innovations; the programming of comprehensive searches; the development and study of new forms of instruction and education in institutions of higher learning; the general education and advanced training of cadres of persons responsible for bureaucratic activity in cities or educational institutions; the comparative analysis and study of different types of thinking activities; the study of structures, processes and mechanisms of thinking activities; and the study of the interactions and interrelations of individuals and groups in institutional and club structures. This wide range of OAG applications reflects the ambitious work and broad vision of Professor G.P. Shchedrovitskii and his associates.

During the 1 980s productivity in the former Soviet Union was continuing on a path of rapid decline, and Communist Party leaders as well as plant managers and leaders of educational institutions and other sectors of society were eager to improve production and organizational functioning. With the support of the Communist Party, organizational activity garnes flourished throughout the former Soviet Union.


Leaders and Institutional Support

During the work of G.P. Shchedrovitskii his son Pyotr became involved as a methodologist and a leader of organizational activity games. He continues to give leadership to the work after the death of his father in the fall of 1993. The methodologists and game technicians have organized into what they call the Methodological Association with its leader being Pyotr Shchedrovitskii. Additionally, several individuals and institutions continue to give leadership to the further development of methodology and the OAG practice. These include work at the Khar’kov Research Institute for Public Works under the leadership of Yu. L. Vorob’ev and his colleagues; work at the Khar’kov Civil Engineering Institute under the leadership of A.P. Buryak and Yu. M. Mikheev; work at the Gor’kii Civil Engineering Institute under the leadership of K. Ya. Bazina; work at the Kiev State Institute for Physical Culture, by Yu. N. Tepper; and work at the Kiev Research Institute under the leadership of V.L. Avksenttev and A.P. Zinchenko. In St. Petersburg the work is being furthered by R.G. Shaikhutdinov and his associates at the Department of Conflictology, St. Petersburg State University. In Moscow, P. Shchedrovitskii, as noted above to be the son of G.P. Shchedrovitskii, and S.V. Popov are giving leadership to this area. Additionally, a journal entitled Kentavr is being published in Moscow to report on methodological issues which particularly address the organizational activity game and work associated with OAGs.


Current Developments

To gain insight into current developments and the future of the OAG, we interviewed selected key leaders in the field and conducted a focus group interview with an expanded group, which included the key informants and other persons who were considered to be specialists in the field. As noted above, the interviews were conducted during a congress of methodologists held in Moscow in March of 1994.

With the exception of one person, who felt that the current changes in the former Soviet Union created a situation in which the OAG was no longer needed, all of the respondents expressed that the OAG was an important and greatly needed method of collaborative planning and problem solving. Although the leaders of the field expressed concern that the absence of the command economy and other totalitarian structures, compounded by a rapidly declining economy, was leading to a situation whereby people were finding it difficult to participate in an OAG lasting up to nine days at a distant retreat setting, they were optimistic about the future of the OAG. They felt that the problems were temporary and that modified approaches, such as a series of two- to three-day sessions conducted over an extended but specified period of time, could accomplish the same purposes as the classical OAG.

Unfortunately, when attempting to arrange to attend one of the OAGs that had been scheduled for the spring or summer of 1994, we found that all of the games we had identified were cancelled. While this may be a temporary problem given the substantial economic, political and social changes occurring in the former Soviet republics, the finding leaves us with reason for concern. We believe that the OAG holds great promise as a means of collaborative planning and problem solving and hope that the present hiatus is short-lived.


Reflections and Implications

To reflect on the OAG and its implications for applied sociology and related practice, e.g., community development, collaborative planning and problem solving, and conflict resolution, we would like to draw upon the work of Yankelovich (1991), which pertains to the development of thinking activity concerning public judgement and related action relative to important issues in society. The work of Yankelovich is particularly relevant because it draws upon the earlier work of Habermas (1974, 1984, and 1987), which extends the thought and analysis of Hegel, Kant, Marx and other important European philosophers that also underlies the thinking and analysis of the Russian scholars who developed the OAG. Additionally, Habermas was concerned with the development of civil society, which is based upon open communication and critical thinking; a motivating ideal for the philosophers who were very much involved in the “revolution of the mind” going on in the former Soviet Union in the 20-30 year period preceding perestroika (Ruble, op. cit.).

Yankelovich concisely presents three categories of knowledge originally proposed by Habermas in his 1968 work entitled Knowledge and Human Interests. The first form is empirical knowledge, as derived from the natural sciences. This is the form of factual knowledge which is often considered as the only legitimate form of objective information used by technocrats and government officials in the public policy development process.

The second category is referred to as knowledge derived through “intersubjective understanding.” This pertains to knowledge concerning people’s motives, character, values, beliefs and world views. It is associated with knowledge derived from social and human sciences such as psychology, sociology, history and economics. Although this form of knowledge can also be collected and verified using objective scientific methods, the development of “intersubjective understanding,” often requires intense forms of dialogue and interpersonal communication.

The third type of knowledge identified by Habermas is that which has an emancipatory purpose. It helps people become free, mentally from “false forms of consciousness, ideology, prejudice, and mental coercion.” Yankelovich notes that this form of knowledge builds upon the Frankfurt school’s concept of critical theory (1991; 214) which has had an important influence upon the development of sociology as a discipline throughout the world, and also had an influence upon the thinking of the Russian philosophers who developed the OAG.

Based upon the principle of multiple forms of knowledge, the developers of the OAG recognized the importance of blending knowledge derived from the natural sciences with knowledge derived from the human and social sciences in any effort focused on developing collective thinking about the resolution of complex problems in organizations and society. For the Russian philosophers who developed the OAG, this was a critical lesson learned during the intellectual, multi-disciplinary seminars which addressed important societal issues within university settings. When the Russian “methodologists” applied their work to the world of actual problem solving, which also involved specialists faced with problems and the need for their resolution, such as plant managers, findings about the importance of developing intersubjective understanding among people with different perspectives about a situation were further collaborated. By combining what is traditionally thought of as “objective knowledge” (knowledge derived from natural sciences) with subjective forms of knowledge (knowledge pertaining to values, attitudes, and beliefs) the Russians had been attempting to address the problems of objectivism in public policy development which concern Western scholars as well (see Yankelovich, op. cit., Chap. l S; and Cotgrove, 1981). Given the wide range of participants involved in OAGs addressing planning and environmental issues, such as representatives of the “Green Movement,” it appears that the approach also sought to address the problem of government bureaucracies distorting communication through processes of inforrnation control, another significant concern of Habermas (op. cit., 1984).

The question of developing emancipatory knowledge is an interesting one in the OAG. Here the methodologists drew upon Hegel’s theory of reflection to develop techniques designed to help participants critically develop their own perceptions of reality in the light of perceptions of others and changes in perceptions that were occurring within the group as a whole. They also drew upon the principle of self-determination in an effort to free the thinking of the individual from the constraints of totalitarian control throughout all aspects of life in the former Soviet Union.

If the three forms of knowledge proposed by Habermas actually developed during an OAG, it is not surprising that the participants and leaders developed feelings of elation on the last day of a collaborative problem solving and planning activity. This was a phenomenon noted by Shchedrovitskii and Kotel’Nikov (op. cit.; 70), and generally observed at the end of many of the OAGs which were held throughout the former Soviet Union.

The principles underlying the OAG show great promise for generating applications to collaborative planning and problem solving that can further democratic processes of decision making and policy development, if the process truly becomes open to all persons with a stake in the issues being addressed. Now that Russia and former Soviet republics are more open to new forms of thought and ideology, it will be important to insure that a careful analysis of all stakeholders and stakeholder groups is undertaken in the OAG preparation process and that all persons and groups with an interest in the problems and issues being addressed are invited to participate.

The work of the methodologists on thinking activity is also related to the work of American scholars who are concerned about the role of reflection in the process of transformative learning among adults (see, for example, Meziro and Associates, 1991). Given the problems of resolving conflicts and developing consensus when disputes center around differences in values and beliefs, the collective insight of scientists from former Soviet Union republics and the West doing research on the trasnformation of individual and collective thinking activity has great promise for enhancing the work of practitioners in the fields of community development, collaborative planning and problem solving, and conflict management. The combined effort has promise for enhancing the consciousness changing dialogue of the type envisioned by Bohm and Edwards (1991), see also Bohm (1994), that is needed for developing the means of resolving complex global environmental, political, demographic and socioeconomic problems.

At this point a note of concern is in order. Earlier we reported on the confrontational approach used in conducting an OAG by Professor G.P. Shchedrovitskii and many of his associates. Although confrontation that helps people critically examine the data, beliefs, values, and assumptions underlying their views and positions concerning issues can be extremely helpful for the development of individual and collective thinking activity, harsh and demeaning criticism can have negative effects on individuals and groups. Concerns have been raised that the authoritarian and highly critical style of Professor Shchedrovitskii and many of his associates when confronting individuals and teams during and after their presentations had detrimental effects on the confidence and self-concepts of many good people who were OAG participants. This style was experienced by the American author during the focus group interview of selected methodologists and game technicians, when one of the key OAG leaders raised questions about the purpose and ethics of the American. One of several questions fired at the American was, “Are you trying to pirate a method developed in the former Soviet Union for your own personal gain?” Other participants then joined in on the attack[5]. After the interview, Russian colleagues of the American came to him and pointed out that he had just experienced the brunt of confrontational techniques characteristically used by methodologists and game technicians during the OAG. While we believe that confrontation and conflict can have very positive effects on individual and collective thinking activity, we wish to note the potential for negative consequences of the technique as traditionally practiced, and urge that modifications be considered that respect the dignity and integrity of the participants. Additionally, we believe it would be wise to use practices that are more consistent with democratic processes of decision making in groups, organizations, and society.

Lastly, in reflective mode, we wish to note that the process used by the scientists who developed the OAG, with its grounding in theory, principles and extensive testing in real-world settings, is of great importance to furthering the development of any field that seeks to engage multiple stakeholders in the resolution of complex organizational and societal problems. It is clear that the early work on citizen involvement in public policy development in America, much of which was a forerunner to current efforts in collaborative planning and problem solving, was lacking in theory and principles (see Howell, et al., 1987; 2-3). These early deficiencies are now being addressed through the development of principles based upon theory and the lessons learned through experience that can undergird practice in the fields of collaborative planning and problem solving, conflict resolution, and community and organizational development (See Howell, et al., op. cit., Chapters 2-4; Deutsch, 1994; Fisher, 1994; and also note Canadian Round Tables, 1993). Hopefully, this paper will be just the beginning of cross-national dialogue among scientists and practitioners with an interest in collaborative planning and problem solving. We believe that such dialogue can lead to a better understanding of processes that will result in mutual understanding and collective thinking activity in the interest of improving democratic processes addressing the resolution of complex organizational and societal problems of importance to the well-being of everyone.



In this paper we described a method of collaborative planning and problem solving uniquely developed in the former Soviet Union. Known as the Organizational Activity Game (OAG), we conclude that the method has substantial potential for engaging multiple stakeholders and persons with relevant expertise in collaborative processes focused on planning for the resolution of complex organizational and societal problems. However, while we believe that the thinking activity within individuals and groups engaged in a collaborative process like an OAG can be sharpened and effectively transformed as a result of being confronted with new information and challenges to underlying values, perspectives, and beliefs, we conclude that the harsh, and at times demeaning, criticism—a practice that was used by OAG practitioners to stimulate reflection—could be detrimental to the effective functioning of participants and teams as well as the group as a whole. The practice of confrontation should be done in a way that encourages critical and transformative thinking, while fostering the development of self-esteem arnoung participants and democratic communication within the group.

Our review of related Western literature also leads us to the conclusion that the research on collaborative learning and thinking activity conducted in America is based, in part, upon the same philosophical and theoretical work—the work of Hegel, Kant, Marx and other European philosophers—that underlies the Organizational Activity Game. We believe that the convergence of thought in the area of collaborative planning and problem solving is important, and wish to encourage the development of cross-national communication about related theory and methods as well as further testing and corroborative research. We believe that joint efforts among scholars and practitioners can lead to the enhancement of fields that will foster the development of peace and improve the quality of life and the environment throughout the world.



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2.      Bohm, David. 1994. “On Dialogue,” Kettering Review (Summer): 35-39.

3.      Canadian Round Tables. 1993. “Building Consensus for a Sustainable Future: Guiding Principles.” Ottowa, ON: National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy.

4.      Deutsch, Morton. 1994. “Constructive Conflict Resolution: Principles, Training and Research,” Journal of Social Issues 50(1): 13-32.

5.      Fisher, Ronald J. 1994. “Generic Principles for Resolving Inter-Group Conflict,” Journal of Social Issues 50(1): 47-66.

6.      Gagnon, John H. 1987. “Mary M. Birshtein: The Mother of Soviet Simulation Gaming,” Simulation and Games 18(1): 3-12.

7.      Habermas, Jurgen. 1971. “Appendix,” pp. 301-17 in Knowledge and Human Interests, translated by Jeremy J. Shapiro. Boston: Beacon Press.

8.      Habermas, Jurgen. 1984. The Theorv of Communicative Action, translated by T. McCarthy. Vol. I, Reason and Rationalization of Societv. Boston: Beacon Press.

9.      Habermas, Jurgen. 1987. The Theorv of Communicative Action, translated by T. McCarthy. Vol. 2, Lifeworld and Svstems: A Critique of Functionalist Reason. Boston: Beacon Press.

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12. Howell, Robert E., Marvin E. Olsen and Darrell Olsen. 1987. Designing a Citizen Involvement Program: A Guidebook for Involving Citizens in the Resolution of Environmental Issues. Western Regional Extension Publication, WREP #105, Corvallis, OR: Western Rural Development Center.

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15. Moreno, J.L. 1950. “Sociometry and Marxism,” in Sociometry in France and the United States. a Symposium. Georges Gurvitch (ed). Beacon, NY: Beacon House Publishers.

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[1]) Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Rural Sociological Society, August 17-20, 1995, Washington, D.C. Robert E. Howell is an Extension Sociologist with the Department of Rural Sociology, Washington State University; and Irena G. Postelanko and Dmitri M. Rabkine are associated with the Department of Conflictology, St. Petersburg State University, St. Petersburg, Russia. Financial support for conducting the research was provided by the U.S. Information Agency and the Council for International Exchange of Scholars while the senior author was serving as a Senior Fulbright Scholar in St. Petersburg, Russia. The authors are grateful for this assistance and the assistance of Rifat G. Shaikhutdinov and Timothy Sergeisev, and Dr. Feodor O. Alexandrov, all of whom are with the Department of Conflictology at St. Petersburg State University, for their insights into the organizational activity game and help in setting up key informant interviews and the focus group interview upon which part of the research for the paper is based.


[2]) Special recognition is given to Mr. William F. Lincoln, President, National Center Associates, Inc., of Tacoma, Washington for his initiative in connecting the Russians to Washington State University. Without his initial assistance, both financial and logistical, and continued moral and intellectual support, the research in this paper would not have been possible.

[3]) The importance of Dr. Shchedrovitskii's outstanding intellectual leadership and drive during the creation of the organizational activity game is clearly central to its development. Unfortunately, during the fall of 1993 when the American author of this paper was working in Russia, Professor Shchedrovitskii died. His funeral was attended by many hundreds of friends, associates and students. The congress of methodologists held in March of 1994 in Moscow was dedicated to the life and work of Shchedrovitskii as he influenced the development of methodology in the former Soviet Union and the organizational activity game.

[4]) The American author wishes to express his gratitude to Dr. Yevgenia S. Barzogova, chair of the Sociology Department at Urals State University, Yekaterinburg, Russia, for her insight into this part of the history of the organizational activity game, as well as her understanding of the OAG and frankness about its strengths and shortcomings as a method of collaborative planning and problem solving. Dr. Barzogova was a participant in the multi­disciplinary seminars, and she participated in the first organizational activity game which was held in 1979 in the Ural Region of the former Soviet Union. She also informed the American author about the influence of the work of American sociologist J.L. Moreno on the thinking of the philosophers who developed the OAG. During the spring of 1995 Dr. Barozgova was a visiting scholar at Washington State University with financial assistance from the American Council of Teachers of Russian.

[5]) Fortunately, the American was able to maintain his professional demeanor during the confrontation and complete the interview process.



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