Self-organizing systems

Harrison Owen owen at
Sun Aug 22 05:39:16 PDT 1999

At 11:10 AM 8/20/1999 -0400, you wrote:
>I noticed that my previous message got cut off.  Spirit at work maybe?
>Anyway I have attached the rest of the message.
>>>I need to think more on the notion of self-organizing systems and how I
>would define them before I can contribute significantly.  What my experience
>tells me is that people at this point in evolution do need a framework
>around which to organize.  It starts with purpose, leadership and vision and
>is bounded by the  givens or rules within which people organize.  Open space
>gives people the appropriate structure and minimal rules that enable them to
>achieve amazing things with minimal intervention by others.  Leadership is
>present in everyone in the meeting, but leadership gets the ball rolling
>too.  Is this a self-organizing system?  Would people self-organize without
>the givens, purpose etc. I have seen miserable failures where people have
>been expected to "self-organize"  but have either not enough information to
>move ahead or there is too much control exerted.  Are there degrees of
>self-organizing systems? How is this different from self-directed?  The
>synonyms for self as a modifier are: of one's self, by one's self, by one's
>own effort, alone or individual.  Perhaps self is not the right word,
>because it is inherently the whole that works together. Is the self the
>system? I will read other responses with interest.
        The critical thing about self-organizing systems (and also Open Space, I
think) is that there is very little to be done, and a lot of being
required. The "being" in this case has to do with the quality of the
environment, the system and the inter-action between the two. When this
quality (pre-conditions) is right -- organization (self-organization)
occurs. When it ain't right -- it doesn't make any difference how hard
anybody tries -- somehow the act never gets together. Stuart Kauffman, when
talking about biological systems tells us that there are a small number of
essential preconditions. 1) a safe nutrient environment. 2) High levels of
diversity, and potential complexity. 3) A search for fitness (I would say
something like -- drive to become better) 4) Sparse prior connections. 5)
It is all at the edge of chaos. Given these conditions, the system just
snaps together.
        You may notice a certain similarity between what Kauffman said,  and what
I have said over the years in terms of when to use Open Space -- in any
critical situation characterized by high levels of diversity in terms of
the participants, high levels of complexity in terms of the issues, lots of
potential or actual conflict, with a decision tome of yesterday. There is
no  historical connection, for I had been saying what I said years before I
ever knew of Kauffman. So you can imaging my surprise and pleasure when I
read his work. It was not about "proving" Open Space -- which hardly
requires any proof. But it certainly was a giant Ahaaa for me. Suddenly the
most pestiferous question that I always had about Open Space (Why does it
work anyhow?) had a clear and elegant answer. Open Space worked because the
initial conditions were established in which self-organization takes place.
At some level I guess I had always known this -- for self-organizing
systems have fascinated me since folks first started talking about the in
the late 70's... But there it was in a nice neat package.  I love it.
        Anyhow if anybody wants more on all this -- the literature in now getting
pretty huge. And you might also be interested in several papers that I have
written that appeared in The ODN Practitioner, and also the Journal of the
World Business Academy. Both of these are on my website (see below) in the
section marked "Papers." And, if I can ever get through the agony of  the
final edit -- My whole story on the subject will appear in my next book had
a working title, "Organization for a New Millennium: Self-Organization at
Work." But I rather like my new title -- "Spirit in Organizations --
Opening Space for Inspired Performance."


Harrison Owen
7808 River Falls Drive
Potomac, MD  20854

Summer address:
189 Beaucaire Ave.
RR Box 4248
Camden, ME

Phone 301-469-9269
Fax 301-983-9314
Maine Phone 207-763-3261

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