doing self-organization

Rich Foss richfoss at
Sat May 26 19:34:08 PDT 2007

Harrison, et. al.,

As I've been reading this thread it reminded me of an event last week. My
daughter is bringing together an array of service providers and
governmental units in Jacksonville, FL to create a process for meeting the
needs of older adults with severe mental illness. She had never been to an
open space event but when I described it to her she thought it would help
her move the process along.

Last week I opened space for her and 40 other folks in Jacksonville. After I
opened space she posted a topic a long with numerous other folks. She was
ready to move to another room to begin her conversation and yet there were a
lot of people still milling around in the marketplace. A very well organized
young woman, she looked around at the chaos, and said a bit nervously,
"Should I do something?"

"You just go ahead and start your meeting," I said. She left with a few
others to meet in a nearby conference room.

As I watched folks milling around I kept thinking, "Self-organization,
self-organization." Sure enough, ten minutes later no one was milling
around, everyone was deeply engrossed in one of the conversations.

This was only the 6th time I've opened space and I was glad to be able to
think to myself as I watched folks mill around:  "Self-organization,
self-organization." And, later, I was delighted to be able to describe to my
daughter the magic of self-organization.

Rich Foss
Evergreen Leaders
     Helping nonprofits thrive.
19235 Plow Creek
Tiskilwa, IL 61368, Voice & Fax: 815-646-6600
web site:
7 paths blog:
Rich's personal blog:
----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Harrison Owen" <hhowen at>
Sent: Saturday, May 26, 2007 9:20 AM
Subject: Re: doing self-organization

Pat wrote: "Kaufmann would say that what drives the system's evolution is
the search for fitness.  I am just bold or arrogant enough to disagree with
him here.  I think what drives a system is relationship."

Stuart Kauffmann is a biologist who has written extensively on
self-organization in biological systems. His work has been extraordinarily
helpful to me (HO) as I have attempted to understand the fundamental process
of self organization, particularly as that relates to OST. For more, see his
book, "At Home in the Universe" (Oxford 1995). If you are interested in a
short version of my take on all this see

Pat, I am not sure that Kauffmann would disagree with you regarding the
centrality of relationship, and I certainly would not (disagree). But
perhaps it is not an either/or (either relationship or fitness), but rather
a both/and. I would put it as follows: Our search for fitness drives us into
(new) relationships, and simultaneously our (new) relationships enhance our
fitness. At least that may be the case -- but as you point out, some
relationships can be toxic.

I see this fundamental dynamic at work in every Open Space gathering.
Presumably we hold an Open Space for a reason -- to solve a problem, to
create something new. As we have discovered, just "doing" an Open Space is
Blah, Blah, Boring -- unless there is a real issue of common concern,
something we are really looking for, passionate about. In other words, we
are searching for a better way to fit with ourselves and our environment
(search for fitness).

When the invitation is extended it should go to all those who care, or even
might care, about that issue of common concern. It is quite likely that the
people who come will care in multiple different ways, and this diversity of
interests represents a rich resource. In fact, if everybody cared in exactly
the same way, the likelihood of innovation is reduced to zero, and there
would be little reason to have the meeting!

But all of this is just potential. Things start to really happen when the
different interests, what I have elsewhere called "Nexus of Caring," are
named (issues are posted). This creates focal points for organization, the
starting place for relationships. Some people who come to a group will stay
(form a relationship) others will go (Law of Two Feet). If those who stay
find a fitness (relatedness) in their common concerns, that relatedness will
lead to robust solutions, new ideas, a "successful" group. On the other
hand, if that relatedness/fitness is fragmentary or non existent, the group
will disband and find better things to do. In short the search for
fitness/relatedness will continue.

It seems to me that the Nexus of Caring is analogous to (the same as?) the
Strange Attractors of complexity theory. For human groups, organization
happens when people care about the same thing (align themselves around a
common Nexus of Caring). This can happen very, very fast, and nobody needs
to line the folks up and issue orders! Which is why it is called:
self-organization :-)!

What separates an Open Space from the "Standard Meeting" is that we provide
a quick way to identify Nexus of Caring, and there is no limit imposed. It
is called Posting Issues. What happens in the Standard Meeting is that
everything is pre-packaged, and choice is limited to what the package holds.
This grossly narrows the field of opportunity in which potential new
relationships can be found -- new ways of fitting. Unless the organizing
committee of the Standard Meeting is incredibly prescient and/or damned
lucky they will badly miss the boat. Of course the process of
self-organization continues -- everything is self-organizing -- but the
center of activity simply moves to the Coffee Breaks. :-)

What we do as facilitators in Open Space is to establish the essential
pre-conditions for self-organization, and optimize their effect. Everything
else pretty well takes care of itself. There is knowledge and skill involved
in all this, and I suppose you could call it "work." Or something.


Harrison Owen
7808 River Falls Drive
Potomac, Maryland 20854
Phone 301-365-2093
Skype hhowen
Open Space Training
Open Space Institute
Personal website
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-----Original Message-----
From: OSLIST [mailto:OSLIST at LISTSERV.BOISESTATE.EDU] On Behalf Of Pat Black
Sent: Friday, May 25, 2007 7:12 PM
Subject: doing self-organization

Thank you Harrison for the challengeing discussion.  Part of what I
love about it is that at the end these divergent paths will deliver us
to embracing the same process.  We are dancing around the same spiral
observing different aspects of it.  And I am thank for all
opportunities to find partners in the dance

I think what is the primary element in play in self organizing systems
is driven by relationships. In any given moment their are gizzillions
of possibilities for relationships.  That is particularly true when
the system is simpler.  As the system becomes more complex their are
fewer open receptors available to relationship.  Open receptors remain
at the edges of the system.  Kaufmann would say that what drives the
sytem's evolution is for fitness.  I am just bold or arrogant enough
to disagree with him here.  I think what drives a system is
relationship.  Any relationship will do.  Simple physical and
biological systems are not too picky.  They just want to have all
their dance card  filled and something with the right charge and size
could be enough to decide it.  Now the truth is those relationship
slots can be filled with something that leads to death in a biological
entity while also creating a new entity that has life supported by a
totally different element.  Take the difference between bacteria that
is sustained by oxygen and those sustained by sulphur.  This is
evolution and it is not a single line path.  What may not be a
sustainable or productive relationship in this enviromental moment can
take off and become a dominant species with a slight transformation to
the environment.
> Pat -- I think what I have been learning is that while a self-organizing
> system works (by definition) all by itself, and for sure we neither
> nor invented it, we still have a role to play which can be critical to the
> ongoing function of the system. How you understand that role (whether it
> "work" or a privilege) is obviously a matter of personal perception. But
> there is a role either in the narrow confines of an OS event, or in the
> larger realm of any or all of our self-organizing systems. In a previous
> note I listed what I believe to be the Eight Essentials: 1) Do your Home
> work, 2) Issue an Invitation, 3) Come to the Circle, 4) Welcome Passion
> Responsibility, 5) Remember the Four Principles, 6) Observe The Law, 7)
> Grief Working, and 8) Formalize the System.
> If we did none of the above, it is quite likely that the system would
> perform at some level. Even if we make what I take to be an egregious
> and attempt to substitute our understanding of structure and controls for
> the emergent structure and control which the system has manifested, the
> probability is that the system will continue, which is a testimony to the
> natural endurance of a self-organizing system. And parenthetically, I
> argue that we can thank this natural endurance for the continued existence
> of our systems (organizations, companies, countries) in spite of our
> malfeasance.

I think Harrison that the system will organize itself at the same
level that it always has.  It willlook for opportunities to build
relationships where ever possible and those relationships take us down
a path.  That path may lead to death or a new species or even a dead
end but the organizing I belief will go on with or without our
intention.  The closest metaphor that I can use to describe a self
organizing system is a jazz ensemble.  Everyone in the ensemble has an
identity and in the expression of their identity a composition
emerges.  The composition is never the same.  Like a jazz ensemble
self organizing systems are improvisational.  I just took my 10 month
old granddaughter to a jazz performance and sat her down at the edge
of the stage that the musicians were on.  In no time she was singing,
pounding and sounding and making sounds blowing air over her tongue
that were perfectly in rhythm and mostly in pitch with what the
muscians were doing.  I can tell you with certainty that she was not
doing any thinking about the experience and that she has a very
limited sound repetoire.  She was just present and added her identity
to the relationship.  It was such an inspiring experience the
musicians brought her up for a bow. She transformed the ensemble with
her presense.

> Having said all of that, I still think there is much to be done, and many
> skills to perfect -- most of which is not covered in the standard MBA
> program :-)

I don't know anything about MBA programs or really much about
corporate bodies or goverment bodies in any kind of experiential way.
I don't know what their capacities for relationship forming is.  I
will say that as an outsider I have experienced their systems as
closed.  That is not to say that I think they are closed but that what
ever makes relationship opprtunities possible is not obvious to me.

Having said all of this I totally agree with you that there is work to
be done.  I work very hard but my focus is on myself.  I work on being
more open and having more space available by noticing when I feel
closed and uncovering the relationships that associate with the
closing.  I do think the business of invitation is work and a journey.
 It is the discovery of language that orients the participants to
discover possiblity along a path which is at the point of crafting
invitation invisible.

For me the work of remaining open and richly diverse inside myself is
difficult but required because it creates more possibilities for
connection.  It requires a presence and mindfulness that is
challenging and frankly exhausting.  I have always understood the need
for naps.  But I also think what makes this work is not the self
organizing sytem.  To my mind what makes this difficult is a cognitive
propensity to recognize patterns, to aggregate sensory information, to
tag, to predict and to abstract.  It is a kind of headyness that I
find delightful and exciting and satisfying but I think it leads to
judgement rather than description or plain response.  The challenge
for me is to be the dance in the spiral and not the recorder of the
dance happening in the spiral.

In my understanding of self organizing systems they operate as the
dance not the dancers who make up the ensemble.  So  although I
believe we are looking at the same soup and we see all the same
elements swimming and interacting in the matrix our viewpoints are
from different perspectives.

> Take for example the business of invitation. And here I am thinking not
> of the invitation for an Open Space Event, but the larger invitations to
> those who might care to join us in the creation or renewal of a major
> project or business venture. A truly inviting invitation must be clear,
> focused, attractive, and with sufficient specificity to get the "guests"
> the right place, time, and state of mind -- while still remaining open
> enough to encourage high levels of creativity and innovation. I suppose
> some people can do all of this just naturally, but I think we all can do
> better with thought and practice. Might I say "work?"
> And of course, an effective invitation is not simply a matter of words on
> piece of paper. The personhood of the "inviter" is also important. At some
> deeper level I think we must be the invitation we seek to make. To make
> point obvious just think of what happens when the "words" say "Please
> but the body language says something quite different.
> Harrison
> Harrison Owen
> 7808 River Falls Drive
> Potomac, Maryland 20854
> Phone 301-365-2093
> Skype hhowen
> Open Space Training
> Open Space Institute
> Personal website
> OSLIST: To subscribe, unsubscribe, change your options, view the
> archivesVisit:

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