A Response

There’s a rather lengthy discussion going on at the OSList about my (apparently and possibly) “Passive-aggressive” post on The Re-Imprisonment of Open Space. It’s even got Harrison Owen himself climbing out of his nap chair and writing longer replies than have been seen from him in many a year.

Currently they are engaged in a debate about getting rid of the “W” in WOSonOS and simply being OSonOS.

And I’ve been invited to “join in”. Well, I’m not critiquing WOSonOS, OSonOS or AnyotherOSonOS (I had a very good time there, very useful and full of inspirations) I shared some sincere reflections of WOSonOS as a practitioner, as an example of some trends in the Open Space world I have personally experienced. My original posts on this quickly broadened to a viewpoint on the wider practice of Open Space as it seems to be developing over time.

A few other quotes from the discussion…

“Ouch” Phelim McDermott

“seems like a veiled passive aggressive attack” Phelim McDermott

“Paul’s tone is a bit jarring and his argument isn’t helped by making a lot of generalized statements” Chris Corrigan

“I wonder what the intention behind the communication is?” Phelim McDermott

“My first impression is that Paul is unnecessarily harsh and inconsiderate in his writings.” Koos de Heer

“My response to these posts is that Paul is right in substance” Chris Corrigan

“I agreed with much of the substance and was glad somebody was saying it.” Michael Herman

“I can appreciate how somebody newer to the mix might feel frustrated having made an investment to join and then come to the conclusion that we’re as deep in our habits and rituals as any other exclusive organization. More frustrating because we always seem to say otherwise.” Michael Herman

“I’m not trying to put words in Paul’s mouth or speak for him… I’m just saying that it’s possible that the way we invite and welcome and include people in wosonos conversations, including the ones about where the next event(s) might be held, might be ripe for review. As we go along, and get deeper in our own community practice and accumulate artifacts and habits, we start to look a lot like a traditional organization — in the sense that we have an interest in stability, continuation, dependability, and such — even as we are supposedly all about emergence and making it up as we go. ” Michael Herman

“several years ago I invited anybody who cared to come to join me for what I called “OSONOS-by-the-Sea” in Camden Maine where I spend my summers. Total organizing time might have been 3-4 hours. I simply called up some friends at a local church (Space/Date), grabbed the URL from the Chamber of Commerce (accommodations and food) – put it all together on a single webpage – and posted a note on OSLIST. Conference fee was $25 (half of which I eventually sent to Lisa/Access Queen) and I did say that space was limited to 50 (size of the church). I did the same thing a year later, but raised the size limit to 75, which the church could accommodate. In both cases we had a full registration in a few weeks. As for onsite arrangements, I did nothing more than to make sure that we had plenty of flip chart paper, magic markers, masking tape and post-its – all of which were stacked in the center of the room. Upon arrival, everybody pitched in (surprise!) and in short order we had the essential signs, bees, bumble bees, etc. We even had a well organized “Documentation Center.” From there on out it was business as usual: Sit in a Circle, create a bulletin board, open and market place, and go to work. We did, and it was a blast.” Harrison Owen

“Actually the problems arise when you place yourself in the “Do-For” mode. I just offer the information and invite them to Do-For themselves. Or maybe to reach out to other participants? – Chain email (reply all) sort of thing. Next thing you know space is open way before anybody comes to town. Take responsibility for yourself to start, then reach out to help your fellows. That’s how community emerges, I think. Each one help one. It ain’t all me folks.” Harrison Owen

“It also helps to remember that it isn’t about you. When it is really good, nobody even notices you.” Harrison Owen

So, there’s my digest of the thousands of words being shared on the OSList. The sheer number of posts suggests a discussion might be ripe! These are wise people, opening beautiful, vibrant and important spaces around the world. These are people committed to helping humanity to better places. These are people who love emergence and, in some cases, have been so committed to self-organisation and reducing structure over a number of years that they, and some of those they now train, are accidentally or unwittingly overstructuring that commitment.

One quote also correctly points out that, as I am not there, my original posts are over and done with for their discussions. Phew.

So, here, rather than there, is a patchwork response.

Firstly, I’m not sure many people in that OSList discussion have read the posts fully. One person refers to them as the “WOSonNos posts”, which has then led to me being turned into a straw man. The posts are barely about WOSonOS – they are about Open Space and Emergence and Self-Organisation. Here they are, if you want to read them:


and here:


And here are one or two quotes from those just to show I was writing about an event I valued highly:

“There was much warmth in this vast gathering space. There was much good intention; a sense of welcome, and gladness this event was taking place again. And the people here were certainly more emergent and creative than most people I tend to meet. There was love of Open Space and an authentic celebration of its escape. I have no doubt the team that put this Open Space together have the highest skill in Open Space facilitation, know how to create a successful large group event, and are working for a better world.”

and, later…

“If this seems to be unduly harsh criticism, it isn’t intended to be aimed at the facilitator. We are a community, and this article is about my perception of some general trends across our field or work. WOSonOS is a focal point for that community of practice and is the one event of peers I attended this year. The facilitator spoke with warmth, humour, sensitivity, and eloquence, and is part of an incredible Open Space initiative in theatre that is helping to transform the way the theatre world (and other spheres of life) thinks about meeting and organisation and I hold their work in the highest regard). The critique is born of a genuine wish for Open Space to develop over the flow of time.”


Open Space is much broader and wider than WOSonOS. There are thousands of people who open spaces each day. This web site has connection to many, many people who are barely aware of WOSonOS, have never been trained, are not on “ze list” and do it their own way and, do you know what, each one, to use an Owenism, is perfect.

My most recent Open Space for 100 people involved no mention of the principles and didn’t describe the Two Feet as a law. And do you know what? That space opened beautifully and didn’t want to close at the end of the day. And, Lisa! Lisa! And all you three-day trainers out there – it really WAS an example of Open Space Technology in action! And it could be trained in ten minutes! There is no one manual for Open Space, even if there is for one of its narrower incarnations, “classic” Open Space Technology.

The dialogue I’ve been reading on the OSList reads more like a dialogue of control than one of emergence (although I have to admit what I’ve just said is hokum because I FEEL their emergent spirits in my bones.)

The OSList and WOSonOS is one part of the realm of Open Space. What is the “basic guide” – some Qu-uran or Bible of facilitation, some final revelation, released by Harrison Owen? Of course it isn’t. Open Spaces flow, and that includes flowing away from their starting point. It would seem I am not allowed to love WOSonOS enough to critique it because, as Lisa Heft says – why not just celebrate it all? I believe the deepest celebration is to embrace fully, and too much light is Lucifer. Softer, changing glows and gentle, teasing shadows, these warm us on cold winter nights. The occasional shadows of questioning and doubt are part of Light’s Dance.

Listen, another fifty spaces just opened right in my own city – around dinner tables, in a trustee meeting, even on a park bench. Open Space is a daily revealing mystery (even Harrison grapples with the rest of us to quite get it), and, guess what? Open Space Technology is proving remarkably and archetypally replicable. It’s a good recipe, but not the only one, and thank god, not only for cooking, but also cuisine! Open Space isn’t a recipe. It’s a form of social cuisine !

I love Open Space. I’ve enjoyed it for over twenty years and still do. I spent this morning with friends at an outdoor cafe in emergent, self-organising conversation in the gorgeous Brighton fog! Open Space. Real Open Space. It keeps telling me to do it differently. Even deep down, it says: “Don’t fix me in stone!” As soon as I step into a room, my plans bow and give way to whatever the space needs to open. So often its pretty close to the old fella’s model. More and more these days, it varies itself. Emergence seems to be singing louder these days.

I went to WOSonOS. I had an experience in what often claims to be the beating heart of OST practice. So I expected a lot of … open space. I embraced the event, enjoyed it, valued the people and offered three sessions to explore what was emerging for me. Then, afterwards, I did something apparently forbidden in the tenets of the cultists of OS…

I reflected. Rather deeply in fact.

Reflection you see – it comes AFTER an event often, and its a basic human right. I looked back over my two hundred pounds and three days. I found much to celebrate, and much learning. And I also found a bit of critique emerging. Critique that I felt the need to voice, here in my journal online. Read the other articles here – you might find something of value! There’s grump here, there’s gold.

I reflected and I told a few people via Facebook and Linkedin about the reflections, as I’d been asked to let them know – by people who were at WOSonOS and many who weren’t but are as much open spacers as anyone who attended. WOSonOS created some significant convergence for me and what I wrote was barely about that event really, it was about the role of OS in the world and about real self-organisation.

I wrote it here. In my home. On my web site, that people freely visit OR NOT with their free two feet.

What is going on at the OSList is, I hope, valuable and might even shake up the community a bit. A good shake up never harmed anyone, especially if it is emergent and needed. OST might need a review. And not just a review of whether there should be a W in WOSonOS. But actually, whether in all cases there needs to be a neat circle, or even a butterfly.

But the OSList and WOSonOS are about as much the whole Open Space world on Planet Earth as the Olympics embody the whole world of sport on Planet Earth, or even the world of Human Striving.

Open Space is changing. Spaces are opening each day in all kinds of different and wonderful ways. Opening them the good old OST way is usually best done with minimal fuss, minimal do-for-ing and with a facilitator who knows when to disappear. Generations Y and even Z have new and refreshing takes on our emerging times. Open up to them. Potential sounds differently out of the silence. Ironically, if Harrison Owen had really viewed the first conferences he was involved in (before OS) as the only things that could have happened AND not taken the time to reflect back and learn from them, he might never have been the one who let OS escape when it did.

I experienced some over-organisation at WOSonOS2012 and I do not believe this can be laid even a bit at the door of the organisers of that conference. Nor at the feet of the skilled and respected facilitator. It was what it was because current OS dogma is what it is, and often embodied in OS bibles and training courses, as if it is unchanging, unquestionable truth. At WOSonOS, however, that experience was my own, and I wrote about it. And what I really wrote about was not WOSonOS2012 but the too unchanging (training and structure-addicted) parts of the community that needs some deeper and more beautiful conversations and deep listening about how self-organisation could heal a world in pain, simply by opening spaces in the different ways; they need to be opened differently, with loving, humble and emergent flexibility in different situations. Then, and only then will Open Space truly be born.

Go on, set her free, once again.


Visit the Open Space Realm.

5 thoughts on “A Response

  1. Paul I appreciate your provocative contributions, and you quoted the essences of my response to you. This last paragraph in this post though is getting at why I found it hard to engage: “And what I really wrote about was not WOSonOS2012 but the too unchanging (training and structure-addicted) community that needs some deeper and more beautiful conversations and deep listening about how self-organisation could heal a world in pain, simply by opening spaces in the different ways; they need to be opened differently, with loving, humble and emergent flexibility in different situations.”

    If you had just said “the too unchanging *parts* of the community…” I could have agreed with you. But you tar us all with that statement, and I think that’s why people are a little prickly about it.

    Many of us who are long time Open Space Technology practitioners have long ago taken what we learned into other realms of exploration, including things like Genuine Contact and Spirited Work and Art of Hosting and Agile and Occupy Wall Street and myriad other communities of practice that are doing exactly what you are saying with respect to opening spaces in all kinds of different ways…and we still return to contribute to the OSLIST on matters about OST itself.

    And yes, there are probably people in the OS community who have fixed ideas about things. Harrison isn’t one of those people, and neither am I…he often quotes me as saying that Open Space is simply training wheels for something else, a sentiment I think he also embraces. From the beginning he encouraged practitioners to reflect on the experience, and to think about what it says about their organizations and communities and leadership. His whole medicine wheel idea was a tool designed to enable that reflection. Some of the results of those reflections have included books like The Inviting Organization The OST User’s NON-Guide, The Tao of Holding Space and Engaging Emergence (along with the backbone of the inquiry in The Change Handbook and the Nexus for Change) and other things like The Flow Game and The Group Works Deck which have taken their inspiration from the patterns of Open Space and that reflection process. And that’s not even to mention the academic papers and other forms of analysis and reflection about what OST really is and how it works.

    (and he is not “sitting in a nap chair”, and he spits out 1000 word plus missives to the list all the time…just to set the record straight.)

    No one needs to set her free. She was born free. She resists control beautifully.

    Your thoughts and reflections are awesome…keep them coming. And I invite you to just pay attention a little to the generalizing statements in your reflections. Those tend to close the space, I think.


    PS…we really did miss your voice in that conversation. It really was ripe for discussion and you could have added something I think. Next time, consider joining in there to enrich and enliven.

  2. Thanks for some potent and important reflections Chris. Potent enough for me to amend the post to be more accurate (“Parts” added!). Regarding the nap chair – I was making a reference to Harrison Owen himself, who talked at WOSONOS about enjoying naps more these days, valuing them, and encouraging us to do the same – a nap can sometimes be better than yet another plan! Out of the nap come the greatest insights!

    The generalising statements arise from 1. My temperament and 2. Over 20 years working with self-organisation, facilitation, Open Space and the belief (I come from Essex) that generalisation allows us to turn the volume down and find a truthful level (through feedback) more easily than trying to twiddle it up from the barely audible specific.

  3. Oh Essex! I spent some years in Hertfordshire as a kid. We always did think of you lot as brash! Contrast to the more discerning nature of Herts villagers, who spend endless days wondering just which part of the hamlet has become most like London in recent years…;-)

    Carry on!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s