Open Space – 2013 and Beyond

Be in no doubt, Open Space Technology is a thing. (See footnote).  Harrison Owen specifically called (and continues to call) it a “technology”. It was a new technology designed to replace a tired old one. It was also called a technology at a time when, in management and organisational circles, facilitation methods and approaches were being called “technologies”; also “tools” and “”techniques” – more so in the United States than in the counties and cities of the United Kingdom. This particular technology was a way of conferencing and getting things done that was way better than over-fussy and over- formalised older “technologies”.

It was a neat cultural reaction to a future being painted as robotic, with society’s problems being solved by things of steel, microchip and plastic. By embodying “softer” processes as “technologies” we had a viable alternative to plugging things into our nerve endings and veins. We could deploy alternative ways of doing things, ways of seeing the world, ways of behaving. If these could be presented simply, and if they could have a kind of enduring repeatability in different situations, then they would be viable alternatives to machines and “stuff”-based innovation. A potent and softer technology to allow us to ride the waves of change. Oh, and of course, it was a wonderful and simple alternative to over-structured, facilitator-heavy meeting process to boot!

Open Space Technology is, therefore, presented as a fairly simple, resilient, and, most importantly, transferable and repeatable THING. It is something you sort of “switch on” and, to quote Harrison, it just about “always works”.

This particular thing is a “technology” so applicable, timeless and repeatable, because it operates according to natural law. It is an expression, in process, of self-organisation.

Open Space Technology isn’t self-organisation as much as self-organisation is Open Space.

Now, there’s been a fair amount of discussion in recent years as to what self-organisation is, and Harrison Owen himself has dived into that exciting pool of thinking and dialogue-ing. I think we are very much at the beginning of understanding what self-organisation is. It certainly begs the question “what is the self in self-organisation?”. There are a range of different answers to this and, not surprisingly, they sit on that old cherry of a line that runs from material science to religion and faith. Open Space as a field has always attracted people who see it as an embodiment of natural science in social action through a practical proof and expression of the truth of self-organisation as an underlying natural law. It has also attracted its fair share of spiritual faithfuls who see it as a magical process for making spiritual potential real in the physical world. It has given birth to articles about biological self-organisation in human social systems, alongside articles about the power of “holding the space”, walking anticlockwise, and the gonging of Tibetan Bells. And also a fair number of people who see Open Space as uniting science and spirituality in a meeting process that proves both can sit alongside each other without too much conflict.

Harrison Owen himself, when it suits him, expounds thousands of words on Open Space, how to do it, on self-organization, on wave-riding and so on. When others do the same, especially where attempts are made to elaborate the field, explore it, innovative or develop it, he often suggests that such thinking is a bit of a pointless exercise, and suggests we just go and “open some space”. It’s a charming, grandfatherly way to be, and I don’t mind it at all.

As 2013 dawns, I’m convinced that Self-Organisation is Open Space. But I don’t buy the definition that seems to be emerging that the “self” in self-organisation doesn’t refer to individual human selves. It most certainly does. When we contemplate the world (or even universal) process, it is too easy to forget that we are contemplating ourselves as part of that world process. We don’t sit outside of the universe we are a part of. When I derive universal laws of nature, I am also deriving those as laws that flow through me. And yet there is also a process of observation by my self of my self that is then taking place. If I say, “this is true for the universe”, then I am also saying “this is true for me in the universe”. But I am also saying “My self is observing that this is true for me in the universe”. It’s the classic observer part of ourselves that observes our observing!

There’s me (“I”), there’s the universe – and there’s also me in the universe and the universe in me.

When we self-organise, we both organise as a collective self through community action (the collective circle) but we also observe into the circle from a standpoint that no one else in that circle can occupy. No one can be me. No one can refer to me as ‘I’ except for me! Of course there’s a danger that such an ego or self-focused view can turn into egotism, where the self is self-viewed as more important than any other self-views. But there’s also an opportunity to live what Rudolf Steiner described as a community life where, in the mirror of each human, the community finds its reflection and where, in the community, the virtues of each one is living.

Self-organisation occurs when the self organises. In community it is a dual process of the self (the individual) observing into the circle from their unique standpoint and where, he or she, also imagines and reaches beyond that singular point, into the circle, a collective space, a community endeavour, where individual selves are also cells connecting into a large self-organising being.

This happens sometimes so brilliantly in an improvisation troupe. We see moments of individual genius but also a contribution of each self to a bigger self – the group, and when this joins up and there is flowing collaboration, a synergy arises and the group performance is even greater, never quite explainable in terms of any individual performances.

Yes, yes! The whole can be greater than the sum of the parts when the individual offers their self-part to become part of the community, allowing it to self-organise, beyond their own individual ego. We freely flow into the community, and no one knows or cares who, at that moment is blowing the wind. Equally, we step out of that circle and sing our own tune – the community self-organises, and sometimes we individually self-organise.

Situations change, needs in communities and organisations change. Sometimes the lone voice is the only voice that needs to be heard. Sometimes the lone voice needs to quieten and listen to the circle. Sometimes a wonderful mess needs to ensue, a chaos for a while, sometimes it all needs to be neat.

Open Space Technology brings lots of individual selves together and – in a way born of natural genius – creates a market place for selves to address themselves to a community need, and also for a community need to manifest in individual, group and even whole circle endeavour. Open Space is a wonderful bridge between individual and collective self. When it is truly flowing self-organisation is both individual and whole. The dynamic is musical, and often akin to dance – as dance that can been seen both on the stage and under a microscope, or even out in the starry heavens.

But sometimes the technology needs adapting. For a very good and important reason that, ironically, lies deep at the heart of self-organisation itself. This is because, although nature itself reveals its laws as timeless, one little experiment in nature appears to elude that repeating consistency. To quote Steiner again, we will only really begin to understand the human self when we realise that each human being is a unique species of one. Each of us is a new universe, a new emergent day, every single second. There is no technology that can fully hold the space for our emerging selves. Self-organisation then needs to flex, flow and emerge with our own emerging mystery. For Open Space to embody a warm, loving truth, it has to expose itself to … open space. Open Space cannot sit outside of the emergent mystery of uniqueness. It may prove itself for a while as fairly resilient. But then it becomes dogmatic, rusty, nostalgic and even a bit sad. Self-organising open space technology has to be able include re-organising its-self!

What are you scared of?



Having seen one of the replies to this post which is taking this opening line literally, I’d like to humbly point out I’m being ironic. For a definition of irony see here.

Visit my Open Space Realm

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Artur Silva says:

    My comment is a quotation from your own post: “No one can be me. No one can refer me me as I expect for me! Of course there’s a danger that such an ego or self-focused view can turn into egotism, where the self is self-viewed as more important than any other self-views.”

  2. And my reply is also quoted from the same post:

    “in the mirror of each human, the community finds its reflection and where, in the community, the virtues of each one is living.”

  3. Very nice Paul…your ontology recapitulates my own experience with Open Space, and perhaps yours too? If I reflect over the past 20 years about my engagement and use of OST I can find that I walked the path you are discussing here.

    Nowadays, I’m in a much more creative mode with Open Space Technology. Harrison has often quoted me over the years as saying that Open Space are just the training wheels for something else, or as he has called it “a half=way technology.” I think he sees himself as a guardian of that stepping stone but has never made an attempt to move beyond it. He hasn’t needed to, and the community hasn’t needed him to. But many of us have stretched and expanded and added to and played with OST and I think it has made us better workers with groups of people. And I think it has informed the process itself. Look at the difference between v 1 and v 3 of the User’s Guide and you’ll see the evolution.

    It’s tempting to get hung up on those who discuss the minutae of the process, but it’s like taking issue with musicians who are discussing practicing their scales and talking about it on a list that is devoted to scales practice. You could say “for God’s sake, there’s more to music than that.” Most will say “of course there is, but I need to discuss scales here” and others will say “Really?” The second group are likely beginners, following the course to get good technique underneath them.

    I thin the main point though is that self-organization is a phenomenon that represents a deep source of creativity for group work. It informs Open Space and many other ways of working and the really inspires the student of development of evolution to create and be a part of processes that bring quality to human beings.

  4. Received from Jack Martin Leith:

    Just to set the record straight, Harrison Owen called the methodology Open Space when he conceived it in 1985.

    Here’s the story of how it became Open Space Technology (in 1989), told to me by Harrison in a private email:

    ‘As it happened, one of your compatriots, Ronnie Lessem, had written a book called, “Principles of Global Management.” The book featured the work of four characters including Peter Drucker and yours truly. My work was the last section with the awesome title, “Metaphysical Management.” My Indian colleague*, in introducing me to a business press gathering in Bombay, ended by saying that Harrison Owen is the inventor of Open Space Technology (he added “technology”) and practitioner of Metaphysical Management. He then turned to me and said – Harrison, please explain what all this means. The next morning there were a series of stories – all a little weird – with Open Space Technology prominent in the title. And it stuck.’

    * V S Malesh (at that time, vice president for human resources with the Taj Hotel Group)


    Jack Martin Leith

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