Self-organizing systems

Birgitt Bolton birgitt at
Sun Aug 22 12:57:55 PDT 1999

Having just cautioned that people might have a struggle if we mention Spirit
on the website, and I don't disagree with that, I am sure your usual sense
of humour has kicked in here when you say that the new title of your coming
book has shifted from "Organization for a New Millennium: Self-Organization
Work." to -- "Spirit in Organizations --
Opening Space for Inspired Performance." I am still lobbying you to simply
call it the Open Space Organization. This is simpler. Then people who really
are passionate about the current concepts of self organization can get
excited when they get to that part, and others who get excited about Spirit
can get excited about that part, and those who know that the two are really
about the same thing can also get fulfilled. You have tackled a hard subject
and done an excellent job, final edit not withstanding. I just think your
book is really about the Open Space Organization and none of us really knows
why it works. I think we can say that we observe self organizing within the
context of the Open Space event. I think we can say that there are moments
of self organizing within the Open Space Organization. I think too that we
have seen inspired performance. I am not sure that inspired performance and
the self organizing system are one and the same. Although both and are
elements of some bigger unknown mystery. Of life.  How's that for lobbying

Warmest regards,

Birgitt Bolton of Dalar Associates
55 Ravina Cres., Ancaster, Ontario, Canada
 L9G 2E8
phone: 905-648-5775  fax: 905-648-2262

-----Original Message-----
Harrison Owen
Sent: Sunday, August 22, 1999 8:39 AM
Subject: Re: Self-organizing systems

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
>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
>is bounded by the  givens or rules within which people organize.  Open
>gives people the appropriate structure and minimal rules that enable them
>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
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
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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