The unsayable must be said—overcoming the tyranny of the open secret

Posted on by Brandon Klein


Proper context for the application of any solution can only be accomplished when the real underlying issues, and critical success factors are uncovered. Often these are widely known, but never spoken. Until they are able to be put on the table, any plan, solution, or work will not be fully effective.


Implicit knowledge, ideas, and assumptions sway the minds of participants and skew results – causing outcomes less likely to be implemented. The “open secret” or “elephant in the corner” casts a shadow over the session in proportion to its perceived significance. A solution that is missing critical assumptions is potentially fatally flawed.


The environment, the design, the process and the attitude of the facilitator and all knowledge workers must continually drive the participants toward gaining the ability to say the un-sayable. Develop modeling language, create new vantage points to allow discussion, and be ready to change the Session design if necessary to insure disclosure prior to moving to the ACT phase.


The un-sayable must be said for the said to be done, for true resolution to occur—tyranny of the open secret.

The un-sayable must be said for real progress to occur. Create a safe way for politically difficult or dangerous assumptions to be made explicit. Once on the table, they can be addressed or designed around.


· Take-A-Panel “sacred cows” questions

· Metaphors

· Legends

· Authors

· Synthesis conversations

· Sponsor comments

People will find ways to say things that need to be said. It makes people FEEL that, ‘At last, it is out!’ They need a safe or politically acceptable way to say things that are impossible to say any other way. That is what is so important about activities like Legends or Authors. ‘It is not me saying these things, it is the material I read.’

Allow participants to surface difficult things with humor, another voice, the facilitators’ comments, or “charged “ events like synthesis conversations. Failure to get that open secret out produces a potentially fatally flawed solution. The synthesis conversation is pretty much your last opportunity to get that secret out. (That is the time for a key synthesis conversation question: “What is not being said here?”)

Assume the open secret exists! Or “We don’t want to talk about THAT stuff.” “We’re not here to challenge the strategy itself, just to sort out how to implement it.” The more strongly you are assured it does not exist, the more likely it does. Sometimes the open secret is that there are higher level issues to the problem that must be addressed before progress can occur, and the organization has not addressed it. The toughest thing about the open secret is early in the process, when you are talking with the sponsors about the design. They say there are things they don’t want to talk about when in fact that is exactly what they need to talk about. Not until you have the experience of the whole system do you understand the importance of the open secret. It may come out as a roadblock even if the sponsors don’t want it to.