Organizing reflection 16

This is a post in my series on organizing ”between and beyond.” Other posts are here. The purpose of this post is to reflect on subjects occupying my mind. I make no claim to fully believe what I write. Neither do I pretend that others have not already thought or written about the same subject. More often than not, I take up, combine, and add to already existing thoughts and ideas.

What is on my mind?
Today’s reflection is based on Harrison Owen’s mail to the World wide Open Space Technology email list (OSList) yesterday.

Harrison Owen is one of my favorite authors. (Here is my review of his book The Spirit of Leadership. I also write about his book Wave Rider in this retrospective.)

The following is an excerpt from Tales from Open Space. The text is written by Loyd Kepferle and Karen Main. They write (my formatting and emphasis in bold):

One might assume that an organization doing business in an open space mode would accomplish little. That does not seem to be the reality, for Open Space frames the total operation, and internally there is an appropriate alternation between open exploration of new opportunities and pre-determined, structured responses to known situations.  …

The main idea … is that “People who care most passionately about a problem or opportunity have the RIGHT and the RESPONSIBILITY to do something about it“. This basic idea supersedes all notions of a hierarchical organizational structure …

There are only five constraints on this model of personal empowerment:
1. When a problem or opportunity is to be discussed, there must be wide notification of the meeting time and place so anyone who is interested can attend.
2. Proposed solutions/ideas must be broadcast widely …
3. Proposed solutions cannot be hurtful to anyone else.
4. Proposed solutions should channel our limited resources in such a way as to have maximum impact on achieving our goal.
5. Accomplishing the work for which we were hired takes precedence over our group work. However, if the RIGHT people (those who really care) are involved in any topic, they will find a way to make sure their work is completed and the work of the group is brought to a successful conclusion.

There are NO CONSTRAINTS on the following:
1. Who can call a meeting.
2. The type of problem or opportunity that is being addressed.
3. The availability of time to have a meeting.
4. Who may attend a meeting.
5. The availability of information necessary for a group to work.

Open Space assumes a consensual process will be observed by the ad hoc groups that form and that all ideas will be considered respectfully by the people in the group.  … The ad hoc group may choose to modify its plans based on feedback.

While we believe this is a good way to develop a truly successful organization, it is an approach to organizational behavior which is fraught with insecurity which, in the short run, may produce fear, anger and frustration. It will take a long time for those of us who have lived in hierarchical and paternalistic organizations to believe we are really empowered.

We … recognize this philosophy is somewhat revolutionary and will be uncomfortable for all of us some of the time. But we also believe people do their best when they are empowered to control the conditions that affect them. We also think that solutions which are imposed on people rather than generated by the people who are affected are doomed to failure.1

In short, open space enables generative organizing. Generative organizing requires open space. The generative organizing ceases as soon as the space closes.

1 This is a story about the use of Open Space at The University of Kentucky Center for Rural Health by Loyd Kepferle and Karen Main. See Harrison Owen (Editor), Tales from Open Space (Abbott Publishing, 1995), Chapter VI, pp.39–43. This book (and many other publications) can be downloaded for free from

Related posts:
Organizing in between and beyond posts

Published by Jan Höglund

Jan Höglund has over 35 years of experience in different roles as software developer, project manager, line manager, consultant, and researcher. He shares his reading, book reviews, and learning on his personal blog.

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