Care and Feeding

Harrison Owen hhowen at
Thu Jun 17 06:32:40 PDT 2004

Some little time back I tossed out the notion that Open Space was in fact a
halfway technology - that as good as it is, it (OS) only gets us part of the
way down the road. The discussion was spirited (what else on this LIST?),
but somehow I felt frustrated. I was doubly frustrated because I wasn't
totally clear where we "should" have gone. And of course, it is terribly
hard to recognize arrival if you have no idea where you are going. I cannot
say that my clouds of confusion have cleared away, but it does seem that
there may be light at the end of the tunnel - just to mix and mangle
metaphors. I think it is all about "Care and Feeding."  In fact, I think it
might be useful to write a sequel to "Open Space Technology: A User's Guide"
with the odd title, "The Care and Feeding of Self Organizing Systems."
Whether this turns into a book remains to be seen - and since I have sworn
off writing books, somebody else may have to do it, but here is the idea . .

All organizations are self organizing, and when they get in trouble, it is
usually because somebody tried to organize them. Exceptions would be
environmental disruptions over which nobody (and certainly not the
"organizers") has any possible control - for example, the world economy has
severe indigestion. The core problem is that the proposed organization
design is inappropriate to the situation. In a word, it looks great on
paper, but simply doesn't work. The alternative is to allow, enable,
encourage, the organization to do what only it can do for itself -
self-organize. Which brings us to: The Care and Feeding of Self-Organizing
Systems. At this point, our global experience with Open Space can be a very
useful guide. This is not so much about doing an Open Space Event, but
rather the application of the principles and experience to the life of
everyday organizations. Nor is this about creating an Open Space
Organization. I think we are already there, it is just that we have not read
THE OWNER'S MANUAL. Of course, the manual has yet to be written - and that
is the task at hand.

I suggest moving from both ends of the stick towards the middle. If we were
to reach the middle, we might actually have something. First, we might look
at those situations where, despite best efforts to do things properly,
everything got messed up, but it all worked out fine. The British would call
this Muddling through. I would call it the triumph of the self-organizing
system. An example of this would be the 3M experience with Post-Its. The
thought is that by looking closely at situations like that we might catch
the Self-Organizing system working under cover. 

Secondly, we might look at situations where the principles/experience of
Open Space had been applied (perhaps unconsciously) and describe the results
- good, bad, and indifferent. Everybody will have their own list, and mine
goes something like: Start with invitation, invited people to join a circle
bringing both their passion and responsibility - and once there -- follow
the 4 Principles and observe the Law. And of course, Be prepared to be

Rather than debating all of this abstractly, let's start with some stories.
I have a few, and I am sure you have many more. And if you have some, please
share. Who knows what we might discover.



Harrison Owen
7808 River Falls Drive
Potomac, Maryland   20845
Phone 301-365-2093

Open Space Training <>

Open Space Institute
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