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Opening Space for

Emerging Order

Harrison Owen

Open Space Intro by Harrison Owen from Harrison Owen on Vimeo.


Open Space Technology, as a definable approach to organizing meetings has been in existence for somewhat more than a dozen years. Truthfully, I suspect it has been around as long as Homo sapiens has gathered for one purpose or another, from the days of the campfire circle onward. It is only that our modern wisdom has obfuscated what we already knew and have experienced from the beginning. But that is getting somewhat ahead of our story.

In 1985, eighty-five brave souls, or there abouts, gathered in Monterey for The Third Annual International Symposium on Organization Transformation. The first two iterations of this continuing international event (we are now at OT16) were organized in a most traditional manner. Papers, panels, and all the rest. But the consensus of participants was, that despite monumental planning effort extending over a long time, the real excitement came in the coffee breaks. Which of course weren’t planned at all. And so the Third International Symposium was going to be different.

And different it was. At the point of arrival, the participants knew only when things would start, when it would conclude, and generally what the theme might be. There was no agenda, no planning committee, no management committee, and the only facilitator in evidence essentially disappeared after several hours. Just 85 people sitting in a circle. Much to the amazement of everybody, 2½ hours later we had a three day agenda totally planned out including multiple workshops, all with conveners, times, places and participants.

Observably, the operative mechanism was simplicity itself. As each person determined that they had some area of exploration they would like to pursue, they would write a brief description on a small placard, announce their topic to the assembled group, post the placard on the wall and sit down. When no further topics were posted, the original proposers determined the time and place for meeting, and anybody interested in a particular topic signed up. That was it.

For several years following, the annual symposium was conducted in a similar fashion. The only real difference was that more people came and it took less time to get organized. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world that 150 (or more) executives and consultants should sit in a circle and organize a multi-session, three day meeting in less than an hour, with not a single argument. If anybody gave it a thought, which I doubt, this miraculous occurrence was probably attributed to the outstanding nature of the assembled group.

And then, in 1989, Open Space escaped. Within a period of less than a month, Open Space was utilized with two vastly different groups in widely separated areas. Polymer Chemists from Dupont wrestled with the future of Dacron in the USA, followed immediately by a group of scholars and executives in India considering the issue of Learning in Organizations. It both cases, everybody sat in a circle, identified what had heart and meaning for them, and collectively organized a multi-session gathering in less than an hour. Something rather strange was taking place.

In subsequent years, the space has continued to open. At this point, the experience described above has been replicated literally thousands of times on all continents with groups ranging in size from 5 to over 1000. Participants have come from Fortune 500's, third world villages, religious communities, governmental agencies, and whole towns. They have been rich, poor, educated and not, labor and management, politicians and people... and all of the above. And in each case that I know of Open Space appeared to do the job.

"Doing the Job" begs for further specificity. In the case of Open Space, it means (at the very least) that diverse, often conflicted groups up to 1000 people, manage hugely complex issues in minimal amounts of time, with no advance agenda preparation, and little, to no, overt facilitation. Typically by the conclusion of a gathering, the following promises have been kept: 1) Every issue of concern to anybody had been laid upon the table. 2) All issues were discussed to the extent that anybody cared to do that. 3) A full written record of all discussions existed and was in the hands of all participants. 4) All issues were ranked in priority order. 5) Critical "focal issues" had been isolated and Next Step actions identified for their resolution.

Also to be included under the heading of, "doing the job" are a range of manifest behaviors evidenced by the participant group. In a typical Open Space, self-managed work groups are the general mode of operations, distributed leadership the norm, and diversity is perceived as a rich resource to be cherished, as opposed to a problem to be managed. It is also usually noted that participants treat each other with respect, that conflict inevitably seems to yield deeper outcomes, and high energy --often experienced as playful, is the marked characteristic of the occasion.

It is reasonable to ask, what on earth is going on. The mere thought of inviting 500 relative strangers, united by little more than their conflict around a particular issue to join together for a three day gathering, without a shred of agenda preparation, a small army of facilitators...should be sufficient to raise eyebrows. The suggestion that something productive might occur obviously contravenes most of what we have taught and/or learned about meeting management and the care and feeding of hostile groups, and definitely qualifies as outrageous. And yet productive outcomes from unlikely quarters has been the continuing experience of groups gathered in Open Space all over the planet. The outrageous is now common place. Somehow incipient (or actual chaos) is productive of order. Regularly.

What’s the secret? Some have suggested that the Four Principles and One Law which guide behavior in Open space provide the clues. The principles are: 1)Whoever comes is the right people, which reminds people in the small groups that getting something done is not a matter of having 100,000 people and the chairman of the board. The fundamental requirement is people who care to do something. And by showing up, that essential care is demonstrated. 2) Whatever happens is the only thing that could have, keeps people focused on the here and now, and eliminates all of the could-have-beens, should-have-beens or might-have-beens. What is is the only thing there is at the moment. 3)Whenever it starts is the right time alerts people to the fact that inspired performance and genuine creativity rarely, if ever, pay attention to the clock. They happen (or not) when they happen. 4) Lastly When it’s over it’s over. In a word, don’t waste time. Do what you have to do, and when its done, move on to something more useful.

The Law is the so called Law of Two Feet, which states simply, if at any time you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing – use you two feet and move to some place more to you liking. Such a place might be another group, or even outside into the sunshine. No matter what, don’t sit there feeling miserable. The law, as stated, may sound like rank hedonism, but even hedonism has its place, reminding us that unhappy people are unlikely to be productive people.

Actually the Law of Two Feet goes rather beyond hedonistic pandering to personal desires. One of the most profound impacts of the law is to make it exquisitely clear precisely who is responsible for the quality of a participant’s learning. If any situation is not learning rich, it is incumbent upon the individual participant to make it so. There is no point in blaming the conference committee, for none exists. Responsibility resides with the individual.

One of the more surprising gifts of the Law of Two Feet is the apparent contribution to conflict resolution. I say "apparent" because I have no direct evidence connecting the Law to the resolution of conflict, but it is true that intensely conflicted groups of people find effective and amicable solutions in Open Space without benefit of formal conflict resolution procedure, or even any intermediary facilitators. Apparently they do it all by themselves. By way of example consider 100+ Zulus, Haussa, Afrikaners, and Brits struggling to gain an understanding of each other as they worked to creat the New South Africa. Or how about 225 federal bureaucrats, state and local bureaucrats, and Native Americans gathered to work out approaches to building roads on tribal lands. Sounds like Wounded Knee all over again, but in fact no blood was shed and the task was accomplished. So what is going on?

Truthfully, I don’t know, however I suspect it is the Law of Two Feet at work. Observably, participants intensely engage up to the point that they can’t stand it any more, and then exercise the Law of Two Feet. They will walk away, cool off, and come back for more. Apparently the common concern to achieve resolution keeps people together, and the law allows them to separate when things become too hot to handle.

Coming back to the original question: Why does Open Space work? – I don’t think it has much to do with the Four principles or The Law of Two Feet. In fact, The Principles and The Law appear to function more descriptively than prescriptively. In other words, and as strange as it may sound, both the principles and the law simply acknowledge what people are going to do anyhow. If there is any substantive contribution derived from either principles or law, it is merely to eliminate all the guilt. After all, people are going to exercise the law of two feet, mentally if not physically, but now they do not have to feel badly about it. By the same token, meetings will start when they start, regardless of what the clock says – so why feel badly about it. Just get on with the business. Truthfully, the elimination of major pieces of guilt and blame can go a long way towards the enhancement of group function. But not far enough to explain the quantum jumps in productivity typically experienced in Open Space. Something else is going on.

That "something else" is, I believe, self-organization. Ever since Meg Wheatley published Leadership and the New Science, excitement around self organization and complexity has been building. One of the oddest manifestations of this emergent interest is the number of people who have apparently dedicated themselves to the organization of self-organization. I think there is something wrong with this picture. Either there is such a thing as self organization in which case, why bother. Or there isn’t – and why bother.

I have a growing, perhaps nagging, suspicion that there is no such thing as a non-self-organizing system, at least in the natural world, which would include us. Should this be true, then much of what we are currently doing under the heading of "getting organized" is rather a waste of time, and the potential implications are fairly mind-boggling. Regardless of the accuracy of my nagging suspicion, I feel quite confident that the phenomenon of self-organization lies at the heart of Open Space.

One of the more significant players in the growing field of self-organizing systems, also known as Complex Adaptive Systems, is Stuart Kaufmann. Kaufmann is a member of the Santa Fe Institute and a biologist by training and profession. He has set for himself the modest task of figuring how life may have emerged from a rich stew of molecules, way back when. The details are contained in his 1995 book, At Home in the Universe (Oxford). Admittedly, he is a biologist, working with biological systems, and therefore somewhat removed from the realm of human systems. I am by no means sufficiently expert to judge the validity of his findings, although his colleagues seem to take him quite seriously. In any event, scattered amongst some very esoteric biology and interesting mathematics are what I take to be Kaufmann’s understanding of the essential pre-conditions for self-organization. Nowhere does he state them exactly as I will, but I do think I have the flavor.

The essential preconditions are: 1) A relatively safe nutrient environment. 2) High levels of diversity and complexity in terms of the elements to be self-organized. 3) Living at the edge of chaos, in a word nothing will happen if everything is sitting like a lump.4) An inner drive towards improvement, hence if you are an atom it would be useful to get together with another atom to become a molecule. 5) Sparsity of connections This one is a little hard to visualize and was a real surprise to me. Kaufmann is suggesting that self-organization will only occur if there are few prior connections between the elements, indeed he says no more than two. In retrospect, it seems to make sense. If everything is hardwired in advance how could it self organize?

Kaufmann’s preconditions for self organization in no way prove that Open Space works. But there is no need for that as people all over the world, in thousands of situations, know that it works. Indeed the fact that it works seems to be the problem, eliciting the natural question, why? It is in answer to that question that I find Kaufmann’s observations most intriguing.

The intrigue derives in part from the similarity of what Kaufmann is saying and what I have said for almost a dozen years when asked what are the appropriate conditions for using Open Space. My answer has been: Open Space is appropriate in any situation where there is a real business issue to be solved marked by High levels of complexity, in terms of the issues to be resolved, High levels of Diversity in terms of the people needed to solve it, High levels of conflict (potential or actual), and there is a Decision time of yesterday. Given these conditions, Open space is not only appropriate, but always seems to work.

Without going through a point by point comparison, I would like to believe that Kaufmann and I are looking at pretty much the same phenomenon, albeit in very different realms. And of course, that phenomenon is the process of self-organization. The one thing I missed, but Kaufmann saw, is the necessity for sparsity of connections. I had noticed, however, that groups with a long standing history of association took to Open Space at a marginally slower rate than groups only recently come together. I suspect that the difference may be traced to the sparsity of prior connection.

So if Kaufmann and I are looking at the same elephant, where do we go from here? The answer, I think, lies in a curious phrase which appears mantra-like throughout Kaufmann’s work: "Order for Free." Given the reality of self-organization, the presence of order is no mystery, nor the product of great struggle, it is only what one might expect. In short, order is for free!

Switching from the world of biological systems to the very different world of corporations and other human systems, supposing that order is for free there too? If true, this would mean that most, perhaps all of our current activities dedicated to system design, re-design and the like, were suspect, and quite possibly unneeded. Talk about paradigm shift and turning the world on its head!

Now back to Open Space. If it turns out that the global experience of thousands of people in an open space environment is something other than a massive aberration, it would seem that self-organization in the realm of human systems was an every day occurrence. It is in this light that I choose to view the significance of Open Space Technology. It is not about having better meetings, although that certainly takes place. It is about experiencing the mystery and power of self-organization to the end that we might learn to be at home in this rather strange, possibly new, universe (to borrow the title of Kaufmann’s book).

And we have a lot to learn. But our learnings will not be of the sort we have experienced in the past. No longer will it be necessary to learn the fundamentals of self-managed work groups, empowered and distributed leadership, community building, and appreciation of diversity as a resource and not as a problem to be managed. All of these things apparently happen as natural acts in an Open Space environment. We might of course, learn to do them better, but when the essential conditions of self-organizations are met, all of the above just seems to happen, almost in spite of ourselves.

And there is a further learning, all about control. We have been taught forever it seems, that the essence of management is control, and if you are out of control, you are out of a job. Not terribly long ago, the function of management was described as making the plan, managing to the plan, and meeting the plan. All of that adds up to control. It now turns out that we can make any plan we want to, but managing to that plan is an act of frustration, and meeting that (original) plan is not only impossible, but probably inadvisable. Worst of all (perhaps best of all) it turns out that the systems we are supposed to control, to say nothing of the environment in which they exist, are so horribly complex as to defy comprehension. And what you can’t comprehend is very difficult to control.

The lesson from Open Space is a simple one. The only way to bring an Open Space gathering to its knees is to attempt to control it. It may, therefore, turn out that the one thing we always wanted (control) is not only unavailable, but unnecessary. After all, if order is for free we could afford being out of control and love it. Emergent order appears in Open Space when the conditions for self organization are met. Perhaps we can now relax, and stop working so hard.



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These papers were produced over the years by Harrison Owen and published in many places. Most are no longer available

Brief History A brief history of Open Space

The Business of Business is Learning An occasional paper done in 1989 suggesting that the real business of business is learning to do the business better. This paper became the basis for several Open Space conference in India and in the United States.

A Brief User's Guide The original Guide to Open Space. Not much here, but it was all we had until the arrival of Open Space Technology: A User's Guide (Barrett-Koehler, 1997)

Learning as Transformation First published in In Context suggests that genuine learning is transformational, and that Transformation is learning.

Spirit Shows Up Originally intended as a chapter in a book edited by Peter Vaill, but the book never happened. The subject is Spirit and its appearance in Open Space.

Emergent Order First published in the OD Practitioner it is suggested that the remarkable things that happen in Open Space have nothing to do with the magic of Open Space, but rather the prior reality of self-organizing systems.

Mythos This is the original first chapter of the book, Spirit: Transformation and Development in Organizations, published by ABBOTT PUBLISHING in 1987. It is out of print.

Future of Hampton Roads A case study from Spirit: Transformation and Development.

Eastern Virginia Medical Authority A case study from Spirit: Transformation and Development.

The Internal Revenue Service A case study from Spirit: Transformation and Development.

Mythic Transformation  An interview with Harrison Owen which appeared in In Context.

Resolution An article by Harrison Owen published in The Journal for Quality and Participation

Opening Space for Peace A brief report regarding a gathering of 50 Palestinians and Israelis in Rome, searching for Peace.

Opening Space for The Question Some thoughts about Knowledge Management as seen through the eyes of Open Space.

What We Have Learned   This year, 2005, Open Space Technology will be 20 years old. Over the course of this period, thousands of people all over the world have opened space for millions of their fellow humans. And in the process we have all learned a tremendous amount about Open Space, about the way it works, and why it does, about ourselves. Participants on OSLIST share their learning with anybody who cares.

Turtles I Conference A small group of brave souls took the leap. What if there were no such thing as a non-self-organizing system? In fact -- it was and is self-organizing all the way down, up and sideways. What would life be like in such organizations? Read the conference proceedings and find out. And if you are intrigued be prepared for Turtles II, currently scheduled for April 1, 2006.

Opening Space in Eastern Europe Joe Topher and his colleagues tell a wonderful story of OST training in Eastern Europe -- and what happened 8 years later. the article appeared in the newsletter of the International Association of Facilitators.

Everything is Moving  This paper began as a piece of whimsey, but as often occurs in such situations the whimsey turned serious. The basic thought is that we live in an energetic cosmos. From the moment of the Big Bang until now we and all that surrounds us is a vast flowing field of energy. Not exactly a revolutionary idea, but one that presents real difficulties for those of us (which is most of us) who choose to view our world as consisting of static clumps and things -- such as our organizations, businesses, and social institutions. We think we can hold them still -- which is an illusion which gets us in a lot of difficulties and causes no small amount of pain. But how to escape our illusion? I think Open Space can help.

New York Training Program   Karen Davis, Ralph Copleman and Harrison Owen offer their annual training program in New York. Always deep and fun filled. You are invited.

TWG / Organization Transformation    The "birthplace" of Open Space was the 3rd International Symposium on Organization Transformation which occured in Monterey California in 1983. It was an exciting time to say the least with new people, new thinking, and endless possibilities. We never had an organization, it was more like an energy field which quickly circled the world enfolding like minded folks who chose to share their learning. The Internet did exist, but in very primative form, and vehicles like Facebook were far in the future. What we had was a good old Newsletter called TWG. If you want to catch something of the Spirit take a look at this small selection of early editions.

August Morning    A short note to myself, and anybody else who mighht care, about future possibilities emerging from our 25 year learning experience with Open Space Technology, understood as a marvelous natural experiment 


The Power of Spirit: How Organizations Transform  (Berrett-Koehler) This book is about Spirit and the ways in which Spirit forms and transforms in organizations. In the face of organizational dysfunction and a massive outbreak of Soul Pollution (stress and burnout), the message of this book is clear. Things do not have to be this bad. Profits may be soaring, and so should the human Spirit, and it can – provided we learn to appreciate and care for Spirit's new manifestation in a transforming world.

Open Space Technology: A User's Guide (3rd Edition, Berrett-Koehler). This 3rd edition contains very useful new material explaining how to work with the client before an Open Space and a deeper introduction to fine art of doing nothing, which we call Holding Space. Also included are the specifics about time, place, logistics, invitation and follow-up. Special attention is devoted to the preparation of the facilitator and when not to use OST.

Expanding Our Now (Berrett-Koehler,) What is Open Space Technology, and why does it work, particularly when it apparently violates all the rules of meeting and organizational management? The global experience to date is described and the search initiated for the new rules by which Open Space operates. It seems to have more than a little to do with self-organizing systems and ancient mythology.

The Practice of Peace (Human Systems Dynamics Institute) The Practice of Peace is the distillation of almost 20 years experience in Open Space. Strange as it may seem, when space is opened Peace, at a remarkable level, seems to break out.. Apparently it happens all by itself. Definitely good news in a less than peaceful world. (Available from the Open Space Institutes of the world or contact <> Also available from Human Systems Dynamics Institute

Wave Rider: Leadership for High Performance in a Self Organizing World (Berrett Koehler, Fall 2008) This book is based on the possibly outrageous premise that there is no such thing as a non-self organizing system, albeit there are some mildly deluded people who think they did the organizing and remain in control. In a totally self organizing world the role of Leadership takes a new, not to say revolutionary turn. Gone is the possibility of rigid control and effective leaders will be those who learn to appreciate and ride the cascading waves of self-organization. Utilizing the 20 years' experience with Open Space Technology combined with the findings of contemporary Complexity Science, the fine art of wave riding is described. 

Previously Published books by Harrison Owen 

The following books were published by Abbot Publishing and are now all out of print. However, they are available here as PDF files. Please feel free to download the full original versions.

Spirit: Transformation and Development in Organizations (Abbott, 1987) This is Harrison Owen's first book which charted some new directions in what has become known as Organization Transformation. At the time of publication it was viewed somewhat askance, a viewpoint strengthened by an early review in the Utne Reader, which termed the book a "cult classic." Today, with the growing interest in Spirit and Consciousness in organizations, it will seem closer to the mainstream, but still pushing at the edges. There is nothing about Open Space Technology in the book, but more than a passing mention of the Open Space in our lives. Click for your copy.

Riding the Tiger: Doing Business in a Transforming World (Abbott, 1991) This book bridges the gap between the thoughts relating to Spirit and Consciousness offered in Spirit and the world of Open Space Technology. As a special bonus, the original "User's Guide" appears at the end of the book. For a number of years this brief version was all that existed, eventually replaced by Open Space Technology: A User's Guide (Berrett-Koehler, 1997). It is said that some people actually bought the book just for the Brief User's Guide. Click for your copy

Tales From Open Space (Owen, Editor) In this book, journalists, practitioners, and just plain folks share their experiences with Open Space Technology, and reflect upon the outcomes. If you want case studies, here they are. Click for your Copy

Other Helpfun Books

Leading Consciously (Debashis Chatterjee/ Butterwork-Heinmann, 1998) The application of the wisdom of India to the Function of Leadership. Brilliant!

Leadership and The New Science (Meg Wheatley/ Berrett-Koehler, 1993) Chaos and complexity theory applied to the understanding of leadership in organizations. 

The Change Handbook: Group Methods for shaping the future (Peggy Holman and Tom Devin, editors /Berrett-Koehler 1999) A compendium of all the "whole system interventions" written by the people who created them with introductory comments and analysis by Peg and Tom.. Pricey, but useful for those who want to see the forest and the trees.

Chaos: Making A New Science ( Gleick, James / Penguin Books, 1987) A great "read" by a good historian of science. A great introduction to chaos/complexity theory and those who created it.

Frontiers of Complexity: The Search for Order in a Chaotic World (Coveney, Peter and Highfield, Roger / Fawcett Columbine, 1995) An updated report from the wonderful world of complexity and chaos.

Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World (Kelly, Kevin / Addison Wesley, 1995) The executive editor of Wired Magazine shares his insights into the world that is coming to be. Believe me Toto, this is not Kansas.

The Selfish Gene (Dawkins, Richard / Oxford New York, 1989) A radical way of viewing the process of evolution which may be uncomfortable, but definitely thought provoking.

At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and complexity (Kauffman, Stuart / Oxford University Press, 1995) A theoretical biologist, once from The Santa Fe institute, shares his thoughts about self-organization in the biological world. In so far as we, as human beings, cannot escape out biology, the laws of self-organization would apply to us as well. At least that is one possible interpretation of the Open Space experience.

A Brief History of Everything (Wilber, Ken / Shambala, 1996) A wonderful introduction to the profound thought and observations of Ken Wilber. And also a broad theoretical framework from which to understand the experience of Open Space. Is Ken right? Who knows.

A Theory of Everything (Wilber, Ken /Shambala, 2000) Ken Wilber, one more time, but now with very direct applications to business, science and politics. Very useful think as we explore the world of Open Space -- and our position in that world. Waren Bennis says, "This is the book I have been longing for." That may be a little much. But it is super-good.

The Fourfold Way: Walking the Paths of the Warrior, Teacher, Healer, and Visionary (Arrien, Angeles / Harper Collins, 1993) A powerful preparation for Open Space and the Open Space of our lives by a woman who has been there.  

The Bhagavadgita: A Walkthrough for Westerners (Hawley, Jack / New World Library, 2001)  A classic in modern dress -- and perhaps the original guide to Open Space -- at least the open space of our lives. 

Meditations on Everything Under the Sun: The Dance of Imagination, Intuition, and Mindfulness  (Adair, Margo / New Society Publishers, 2001)A Joy of Cooking for the psyche, this includes a dozens of guided meditation scripts designed to support reflection, collaboration and vision building in organizations. It opens space inside thus increasing our ability to bring spirit into our work. “Meditating, accessing intuition, and active imagining are practices that unify internal experiences with outer action and service… You can use its meditations in your personal, professional, and creative life, regardless of your current spiritual practices or personal beliefs.” —from the foreword by Angeles Arrien

Learning in Open Space* (30 min. video / $65) Produced by 5 time Emmy Award winner Anne Stadler, this video introduces you to the Open Space experience.

USWEST VIDEO (17 min) Produced by USWEST, this video documents a live situation where real people struggle with major issues and emerge with positive concrete results. This video may be purchased through the Open Space Institute and/or Peggy Holman

Growing Our Now* (Jones/Owen, NARADA-Antiquity $15.98 for CD) A three part guided imagry (spoken word and piano) for those who find this present moment too small for all the things that should and must be done. Open Space Facilitators may also find it useful as part of their personal preparation for opening space.


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