Harrison Owen, an independent consultant
and president of H.H. Owen and Co., is often credited with the
creation of Open Space Technology, an attribution he rejects.
In his view, Open Space has always existed and he was just fortunate
enough to stumble upon it.
My own experience with Harrison has been
an exhilarating, and occassionally maddening, cocktail of awesome
acceptance and deep challenge. The Eastern notion of "When
the student is ready, the teacher will appear," comes to
mind -- and what teachers Harrison and Open Space have been!
Like any living thing or human system,
the story of Open Space Technology is always moving, expanding,
deepening -- evolving. What follows here is the story Harrison
was telling about Open Space in late 1998...
Open Space Technology, as a definable approach
to organizing meetings has been in existence for somewhat more
than a dozen years. Truthfully, I suspect it has been around
as long as Homo Sapiens has gathered for one purpose or another,
from the days of the campfire circle onward. It is only that
our modern wisdom has obfuscated what we already knew and have
experienced from the beginning. But that is getting somewhat
ahead of our story.
In 1985, eighty-five brave souls, or there
abouts, gathered in Monterey for The Third Annual International
Symposium on Organization Transformation. The first two iterations
of this continuing international event (we are now at OT17, and
counting) were organized in a most traditional manner. Papers,
panels, and all the rest. But the consensus of participants was,
that despite monumental planning effort extending over a long
time, the real excitement came in the coffee breaks. Which of
course weren't planned at all. And so the Third International
Symposium was going to be different.
And different it was. At the point of arrival,
the participants knew only when things would start, when it would
conclude, and generally what the theme might be. There was no
agenda, no planning committee, no management committee, and the
only facilitator in evidence essentially disappeared after several
hours. Just 85 people sitting in a circle. Much to the amazement
of everybody, two hours later we had a three day agenda totally
planned out including multiple workshops, all with conveners,
times, places and participants.
Observably, the operative mechanism was simplicity
itself. As each person determined that they had some area of
exploration they would like to pursue, they would write a brief
description on a small placard, announce their topic to the assembled
group, post the placard on the wall and sit down. When no further
topics were posted, the original proposers determined the time
and place for meeting, and anybody interested in a particular
topic signed up. That was it.
For several years following, the annual symposium
was conducted in a similar fashion. The only real difference
was that more people came and it took less time to get organized.
It seemed like the most natural thing in the world that 150 (or
more) executives and consultants should sit in a circle and organize
a multi-session, three-day meeting in less than an hour, with
not a single argument. If anybody gave it a thought, which I
doubt, this miraculous occurrence was probably attributed to
the outstanding nature of the assembled group.
And then, in 1989, Open Space escaped. Within
a period of less than a month, Open Space was utilized with two
vastly different groups in widely separated areas. Polymer Chemists
from Dupont wrestled with the future of Dacron in the USA, followed
immediately by a group of scholars and executives in India considering
the issue of Learning in Organizations. It both cases, everybody
sat in a circle, identified what had heart and meaning for them,
and collectively organized a multi-session gathering in less
than an hour. Something rather strange was taking place.
In subsequent years, the space has continued
to open. At this point, the experience described above has been
replicated literally thousands of times on all continents with
groups ranging in size from 5 to over 1000. Participants have
come from Fortune 500's, third world villages, religious communities,
governmental agencies, and whole towns. They have been rich,
poor, educated and not, labor and management, politicians and
people... and all of the above. And in each case that I know
of, Open Space appeared to do the job.
"Doing the Job" begs for further
specificity. In the case of Open Space, it means (at the very
least) that diverse, often conflicted groups up to 1000 people,
manage hugely complex issues in minimal amounts of time, with
no advance agenda preparation, and little, to no, overt facilitation.
Typically by the conclusion of a gathering, the following promises
have been kept: 1) Every issue of concern to anybody had been
laid upon the table. 2) All issues were discussed to the extent
that anybody cared to do that. 3) A full written record of all
discussions existed and was in the hands of all participants.
4) All issues were ranked in priority order. 5) Critical "focal
issues" had been isolated and Next Step actions identified
for their resolution.
Also to be included under the heading of,
"doing the job" are a range of manifest behaviors evidenced
by the participant group. In a typical Open Space, self-managed
work groups are the general mode of operations, distributed leadership
the norm, and diversity is perceived as a rich resource to be
cherished, as opposed to a problem to be managed. It is also
usually noted that participants treat each other with respect,
that conflict inevitably seems to yield deeper outcomes, and
high energy -- often experienced as playful, is the marked characteristic
of the occasion.
It is reasonable to ask, what on earth is
going on. The mere thought of inviting 500 relative strangers,
united by little more than their conflict around a particular
issue to join together for a three day gathering, without a shred
of agenda preparation, a small army of facilitators...should
be sufficient to raise eyebrows. The suggestion that something
productive might occur obviously contravenes most of what we
have taught and/or learned about meeting management and the care
and feeding of hostile groups, and definitely qualifies as outrageous.
And yet productive outcomes from unlikely quarters has been the
continuing experience of groups gathered in Open Space all over
the planet. The outrageous is now common place. Somehow incipient
(or actual chaos) is productive of order. Regularly.
What's the secret? Some have suggested that
the Four Principles and One Law which guide behavior in Open
space provide the clues. The principles are: 1)Whoever comes
is the right people, which reminds people in the small groups
that getting something done is not a matter of having 100,000
people and the chairman of the board. The fundamental requirement
is people who care to do something. And by showing up, that essential
care is demonstrated. 2) Whatever happens is the only thing that
could have, keeps people focused on the here and now, and eliminates
all of the could-have-beens, should-have-beens or might-have-beens.
What is is the only thing there is at the moment. 3)Whenever
it starts is the right time alerts people to the fact that inspired
performance and genuine creativity rarely, if ever, pay attention
to the clock. They happen (or not) when they happen. 4) Lastly
When it's over it's over. In a word, don't waste time. Do what
you have to do, and when its done, move on to something more
The Law is the so called Law of Two Feet,
which states simply, if at any time you find yourself in any
situation where you are neither learning nor contributing - use
you two feet and move to some place more to you liking. Such
a place might be another group, or even outside into the sunshine.
No matter what, don't sit there feeling miserable. The law, as
stated, may sound like rank hedonism, but even hedonism has its
place, reminding us that unhappy people are unlikely to be productive
Actually the Law of Two Feet goes rather beyond
hedonistic pandering to personal desires. One of the most profound
impacts of the law is to make it exquisitely clear precisely
who is responsible for the quality of a participant's learning.
If any situation is not learning rich, it is incumbent upon the
individual participant to make it so. There is no point in blaming
the conference committee, for none exists. Responsibility resides
with the individual.
One of the more surprising gifts of the Law
of Two Feet is the apparent contribution to conflict resolution.
I say "apparent" because I have no direct evidence
connecting the Law to the resolution of conflict, but it is true
that intensely conflicted groups of people find effective and
amicable solutions in Open Space without benefit of formal conflict
resolution procedure, or even any intermediary facilitators.
Apparently they do it all by themselves. By way of example consider
100+ Zulus, Haussa, Afrikaners, and Brits struggling to gain
an understanding of each other as they worked to creat the New
South Africa. Or how about 225 federal bureaucrats, state and
local bureaucrats, and Native Americans gathered to work out
approaches to building roads on tribal lands. Sounds like Wounded
Knee all over again, but in fact no blood was shed and the task
was accomplished. So what is going on?
Truthfully, I don't know, however I suspect
it is the Law of Two Feet at work. Observably, participants intensely
engage up to the point that they can't stand it any more, and
then exercise the Law of Two Feet. They will walk away, cool
off, and come back for more. Apparently the common concern to
achieve resolution keeps people together, and the law allows
them to separate when things become too hot to handle.
Coming back to the original question: Why
does Open Space work? - I don't think it has much to do with
the Four principles or The Law of Two Feet. In fact, The Principles
and The Law appear to function more descriptively than prescriptively.
In other words, and as strange as it may sound, both the principles
and the law simply acknowledge what people are going to do anyhow.
If there is any substantive contribution derived from either
principles or law, it is merely to eliminate all the guilt. After
all, people are going to exercise the law of two feet, mentally
if not physically, but now they do not have to feel badly about
it. By the same token, meetings will start when they start, regardless
of what the clock says - so why feel badly about it. Just get
on with the business. Truthfully, the elimination of major pieces
of guilt and blame can go a long way towards the enhancement
of group function. But not far enough to explain the quantum
jumps in productivity typically experienced in Open Space. Something
else is going on.
That "something else" is, I believe,
self-organization. Ever since Meg Wheatley published Leadership
and the New Science, excitement around self organization and
complexity has been building. One of the oddest manifestations
of this emergent interest is the number of people who have apparently
dedicated themselves to the organization of self-organization.
I think there is something wrong with this picture. Either there
is such a thing as self organization in which case, why bother.
Or there isn't - and why bother.
I have a growing, perhaps nagging, suspicion
that there is no such thing as a non-self-organizing system,
at least in the natural world, which would include us. Should
this be true, then much of what we are currently doing under
the heading of "getting organized" is rather a waste
of time, and the potential implications are fairly mind-boggling.
Regardless of the accuracy of my nagging suspicion, I feel quite
confident that the phenomenon of self-organization lies at the
heart of Open Space.
One of the more significant players in the
growing field of self-organizing systems, also known as Complex
Adaptive Systems, is Stuart Kaufmann. Kaufmann is a member of
the Santa Fe Institute and a biologist by training and profession.
He has set for himself the modest task of figuring how life may
have emerged from a rich stew of molecules, way back when. The
details are contained in his 1995 book, At Home in the Universe
(Oxford). Admittedly, he is a biologist, working with biological
systems, and therefore somewhat removed from the realm of human
systems. I am by no means sufficiently expert to judge the validity
of his findings, although his colleagues seem to take him quite
seriously. In any event, scattered amongst some very esoteric
biology and interesting mathematics are what I take to be Kaufmann's
understanding of the essential pre-conditions for self-organization.
Nowhere does he state them exactly as I will, but I do think
I have the flavor.
The essential preconditions are: 1) A relatively
safe nutrient environment. 2) High levels of diversity and complexity
in terms of the elements to be self-organized. 3) Living at the
edge of chaos, in a word nothing will happen if everything is
sitting like a lump.4) An inner drive towards improvement, hence
if you are an atom it would be useful to get together with another
atom to become a molecule. 5) Sparsity of connections This one
is a little hard to visualize and was a real surprise to me.
Kaufmann is suggesting that self-organization will only occur
if there are few prior connections between the elements, indeed
he says no more than two. In retrospect, it seems to make sense.
If everything is hardwired in advance how could it self organize?
Kaufmann's preconditions for self organization
in no way prove that Open Space works. But there is no need for
that as people all over the world, in thousands of situations,
know that it works. Indeed the fact that it works seems to be
the problem, eliciting the natural question, why? It is in answer
to that question that I find Kaufmann's observations most intriguing.
The intrigue derives in part from the similarity
of what Kaufmann is saying and what I have said for almost a
dozen years when asked what are the appropriate conditions for
using Open Space. My answer has been: Open Space is appropriate
in any situation where there is a real business issue to be solved
marked by high levels of complexity, in terms of the issues to
be resolved, high levels of diversity in terms of the people
needed to solve it, high levels of conflict (potential or actual),
and there is a decision time of yesterday. Given these conditions,
Open Space is not only appropriate, but always seems to work.
Without going through a point by point comparison,
I would like to believe that Kaufmann and I are looking at pretty
much the same phenomenon, albeit in very different realms. And
of course, that phenomenon is the process of self-organization.
The one thing I missed, but Kaufmann saw, is the necessity for
sparsity of connections. I had noticed, however, that groups
with a long standing history of association took to Open Space
at a marginally slower rate than groups only recently come together.
I suspect that the difference may be traced to the sparsity of
So if Kaufmann and I are looking at the same
elephant, where do we go from here? The answer, I think, lies
in a curious phrase which appears mantra-like throughout Kaufmann's
work: "Order for Free." Given the reality of self-organization,
the presence of order is no mystery, nor the product of great
struggle, it is only what one might expect. In short, order is
Switching from the world of biological systems
to the very different world of corporations and other human systems,
supposing that order is for free there too? If true, this would
mean that most, perhaps all, of our current activities dedicated
to system design, re-design and the like, were suspect, and quite
possibly unneeded. Talk about paradigm shift and turning the
world on its head!
Now back to Open Space. If it turns out that
the global experience of thousands of people in an Open Space
environment is something other than a massive aberration, it
would seem that self-organization in the realm of human systems
was an every day occurrence. It is in this light that I choose
to view the significance of Open Space Technology. It is not
about having better meetings, although that certainly takes place.
It is about experiencing the mystery and power of self-organization
to the end that we might learn to be at home in this rather strange,
possibly new, universe (to borrow the title of Kaufmann's book).
And we have a lot to learn. But our learnings
will not be of the sort we have experienced in the past. No longer
will it be necessary to learn the fundamentals of self-managed
work groups, empowered and distributed leadership, community
building, and appreciation of diversity as a resource and not
as a problem to be managed. All of these things apparently happen
as natural acts in an Open Space environment. We might of course,
learn to do them better, but when the essential conditions of
self-organizations are met, all of the above just seems to happen,
almost in spite of ourselves.
And there is a further learning, all about
control. We have been taught forever it seems, that the essence
of management is control, and if you are out of control, you
are out of a job. Not terribly long ago, the function of management
was described as making the plan, managing to the plan, and meeting
the plan. All of that adds up to control. It now turns out that
we can make any plan we want to, but managing to that plan is
an act of frustration, and meeting that (original) plan is not
only impossible, but probably inadvisable. Worst of all (perhaps
best of all) it turns out that the systems we are supposed to
control, to say nothing of the environment in which they exist,
are so horribly complex as to defy comprehension. And what you
can't comprehend is very difficult to control.
The lesson from Open Space is a simple one.
The only way to bring an Open Space gathering to its knees is
to attempt to control it. It may, therefore, turn out that the
one thing we always wanted (control) is not only unavailable,
but unnecessary. After all, if order is for free we could afford
being out of control and love it. Emergent order appears in Open
Space when the conditions for self organization are met. Perhaps
we can now relax, and stop working so hard.
© Copyright 1998 by Harrison Owen.