Wednesday, July 1, 2009


A prescient spirit with the name of Suzanne, whom I have known briefly and hope will become a friend, wrote the following – expressing many of the questions I have had about (arising from) Open Space Technology. I responded to her note (below) with what I might now call – A Manifesto. that is to say a lot of the things I have been thinking and never quite dared to say in on place—so I have said it! Manifesto!

Suzanne --

How can we honor a client’s desired outcome which assumes predictability and control when Open Space invites something quite different? With my limited experience with Open Space (I’ve only done two as an unpaid volunteer) and a long corporate career, my gut tells me that the Open Space way of lighting up passion and responsibility in individuals and collectives will lead to results that far exceed what a client could initially expect. I know because all my life, I’ve seen how much gets accomplished when people are passionate about what they do. Open Space is all about that. Many clients want a clear-cut route to improved results, better service, higher quality, etc. This we cannot promise. Rather, OS is a journey, a new way of doing which means undoing what didn’t work, and seeing what we don’t’ want to see to create what we can’t know.

How can we effectively convey to a client the importance of gut feel and intuition, inviting them to an experience that they must “feel” and not just “think”? The dilemma is that you cannot know Open Space until you’ve done Open Space and not just once. How can you describe what get’s ignited in people when they get to choose (Law of Two Feet), feel Equal and live/work according to principles (4 OS principles) – something that makes so much sense but that is so different than what our current hierarchical world dictates?

Once people are activated in an Open Space way, I think it ignites a longing that is in each of us and the difficulty is that you just don’t want to go back to the old way. How then do we blend traditional and self-organizing?

I struggle with these questions and as I embark on this wild ride of OS, I imagine myself building trust at the beginning of my relationship with clients talking about the issues that they care about and that they know: their business. Hopefully by connecting and being honest, I will establish enough trust so that they will want to try this new way, knowing deep inside them that the old ways aren’t working any more. It’s about finding the courage of our voice and actions, doing this together in a supportive way.

My Response –

Suzanne – You have succinctly posed both the problem and possibilities of Open Space. On the one hand it (OS) violates virtually every principle and practice of the management of organizations. In addition it cannot provide the one thing that most managers/executives seemingly want – certainty and predictability. On the other hand it “works” – often at surprising and breathtaking levels, which itself becomes a problem if only because the results are so far beyond the “standard curve” as to appear outlandish, weird, and to be truthful – like a pure fabrication. Otherwise known as a lie! Nobody in their right mind should be caught in association with such an aberrant phenomenon. Definitely hazardous to your professional health, as it probably is some new cult or religious fantasy, replete with odd dogma and secret handshakes. At least some people seem to think so, and I wouldn’t blame them.

Given all of the above, it is totally remarkable that Open Space is still around to bother people. By all rights it should have been eliminated or at the very least contained. And in fact it is clear that efforts have been made in that regard. The first level of effort might be called The Silent Treatment. It has always been interesting to me that the academic world has essentially ignored Open Space. Virtually no articles, classes or discussion of a phenomenon that has been around for 25 years, with 100,000’s of iterations, appearing in 136 countries. But were you to go to most business schools, “it” never happened. Actually this is not all that surprising because if OS did happen, much of what takes place at the average business school would be open to radical question. This would not be good for employment, tenure, and the continuing collection of (very large) student fees.

A second level of effort is the Containment Strategy, which comes in two forms. First is “Doing a Little Bit of Open Space.” As Open Space gained some degree of popular interest, some thought to give it a try, but with severe limitations, lest it get out of control. This became known as doing a “little bit” of Open Space. In the worst of circumstances it was the same old meeting (closely controlled, highly facilitated, with detailed schedules, and list of guaranteed outcomes) – and with the magic words, “Open Space” whispered quietly at the start.

The second form of the Containment Strategy might be called The Tool-in-the-Box approach. Open Space is described as one more tool for the box – and in my more suspicious moments I rather think that some people would like to keep it in the box as much as possible. By defining OS as a tool it may be equated and compared with other such tools (presumably, Future Search, AI, etc) and used only in the appropriate situations. There is some logic to this strategy for at first glance, OS certainly does look like a tool. But with a little closer inspection the oddity of Open Space as a tool begins to peep through.

In the first place Open Space is ridiculously simple. Sit in a circle, create a bulletin board, open and market place, and go to work. No self respecting group method (large or small) could possibly be that simple! And it gets worse. It is not entirely clear how or why it works. In fact it seems to work pretty much all by itself and the less the facilitator does, the better it works. Obviously this is a tool best left in the box. It is unreliable (un-predictable results), can be “done” by virtually anybody, and has a mind of its own. What sort of irresponsible consultant could possibly choose such a tool – let alone recommend it to a client?

Now we come down to the really sticky wicket. There are some strange people, myself for one, who have come to an understanding that the resolution of the mystery of Open Space (Why it works?) comes from the world of self organizing systems. In short, Open Space works because self-organization works. Or put another way – Open Space is self-organization at work. This sounds like a nice, safe, theoretical premise. But maybe not! Should it turn out that self-organization is a (or the) fundamental mechanism in the ongoing evolution of the cosmos – the whole cosmos including all human systems (us) – then it is ALL open space and choice is not an option. To offer people a choice is to offer a false choice, and to the extent that this choice is offered in order to meet perceived client need to be in control (have predictability and certainty) – we are effectively enabling delusional behavior. We are also offering something we can’t deliver. And that, of course raises certain ethical questions.

Now I am definitely in trouble. But that is what happens when you mess around with Open Space. Welcome Aboard Suzanne!


Monday, June 22, 2009

Agency and Self Organization

Somewhere along the line the idea crept in that a self-organizing world severely limited, if not eliminated, human initiative. With thoughts such as these it is not surprising that many would find the notion of self-organization abhorrent, and definitely to be resisted. After all -- if true we would be reduced to the level of zombies whose fate and future lay totally out of our hands.

I believe the truth of the matter to be radically different. And the basis of my belief is our common experience in the 1000’s of Open Spaces we have enjoyed. I take it as a given that the essence of Open Space is the primal power of self organization – no news there. J Every time we open space the forces of self organization are invited to be fully present. Of course, those forces are there all the time, but we do seem to make best effort to keep them under control. J J

Now ask yourself – what is the common experience in Open Space for both First Timers and Old Hands? I don’t think you would describe it as restrictive, dis-empowering, or imprisoning! Indeed – quite the opposite. I grant you some folks get a little carried away, but I have heard it said that the experience was one of radical freedom and intense creativity. I remember one total skeptic saying, as the event came to a conclusion, that never before had he experienced such respect and acceptance in a group – and never before had his feeling of personal power and contribution been as great. Such feelings might be mistaken as the outpouring of rampant individualism. Something that Anne Rand might be proud of. But that is hardly the case for these same people and others as well speak of a deep sense of community, being in the presence of brothers and sisters who only hours before were total strangers – of Coming Home.

I have often heard another remark which is rather bitter/sweet: “This has been so wonderful – too bad we have to go back to reality.” Or it is said that it is time to go back to the “real world.” Sad statements for sure, and were it to turn out that the experience in Open Space WAS reality – those statements are tragic. I am quite aware that life is filled with a full measure of chaos, confusion and conflict. Indeed all three are essential for life, and all three predictably show up in the course of any juicy Open Space. But the difference is that in Open Space the flow of emergent events is honored thereby allowing them to reach their natural resolution. Nobody attempts to coral them into submission. The Law of Two Feet applies.

At the end of the day Open Space Technology is not about having great meetings. Nor is it simply another tool in the facilitators’ tool box, although both are doubtless true. For me the true equity I find in OST is the ongoing natural experiment and learning experience of living intentionally in a self-organizing world. Perhaps it is for this reason that I find the enhancement of the facilitator’s role and tools to be less than interesting – unless that enhancement involved the reduction of that role to the point of total invisability

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Spring is Sweet

It is Spring
time in

It has been a long winter. Not a bad winter, but surely some twists and turns that seemed a little strange at the time. Starting in the Fall I found myself in the clutches of what I was told was Double Pneumonia. Never having been seriously sick in my life, I wasn't quite sure what to expect, and truth to tell it wasn't all that bad even though folks told me later that nobody was entirely sure that I was going to pull through. At the time it seemed pretty easy, and if Dying time was near, that was OK by me.

One great thing happened in the midst of all that drama -- Obama. I was a little out of my head, but I clearly remember that he got elected. I was overjoyed and told my night nurse that I wanted to kiss her. I just wanted to celebrate, but she wasn't sure.

Then we had three months of agony while we got rid of George. For the first time in 8 years, I really felt sorry for him. He seemed to be just clueless about everything -- but finally he was packed off to Dallas. I guess they like him down there.

The good news, of course is that we now actually have a president. This is very fortunate as no sooner had Obama taken the oath and the bottom seemed to fall out of just about everything financial. A lot of money just went POOF!

I guess I didn't realize how much until one day I figured some numbers. I had lost 4 times as much money in the preceeding 6 months as I had made in the first 20 years of my professional life. Now to be fair , I wasn't working for Wall Street in those days. Never have. But things really did get scary. In the midst of it all I found myself being ever so thankful that we did not have McCain and Pallin leading us. That would have been unendingly scary!

Anyhow it is Spring and Thank God for that. I am ready, and here in Washington Spring is a total wonder. I live about 10 miles from the city, very close to the Potomac River and the marvelous park that bounds it for almost 150 miles. Washington is a major metropolitan area -- and I live next to the wilderness. What a treat. Spring is breath taking!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Is God a Workaholic?

To listen to some folks, God clearly was made in the image of the American Workaholic (Workaholic americansus). A real busy body with not a moment for silent stillness. For openers, there is all that creation business. Just think of it – every single creature and critter made by the Almighty in only a few days. And that is just here on Earth. You also have to add in all the stars and planets, including those we can’t see and don’t know about. They probably have creatures and critters too. It is exhausting just thinking about it. And it only gets worse.

According to the story, once God got the show on the road he has been tending to all the details every day, ever since. A Micro-manager for sure -- and a real back breaker!

God alone knows how many ants, aphids, aardvarks, armadillos – to say nothing of bears, bees, bottle flies, and booby birds there are. And each one of them, along with everything else, is treated to the Divine Attention. And of course, we expect our share too. After all God is on our side, or so it says in a lot of places.

Here is where the cookie definitely crumbles. At the moment, there are something like 6.5 billion of us on earth. In the course of any given day each one may find him or her self at odds with their fellows over some issue, significant or trivial. This may be a matter of individual effort or group activity, of short duration or something like the 100 Years War. Adding all of this together and you come out with an astounding number of "sides" – and poor old God has got to be on each of them!

I understand that God is infinite, so presumably he might pull all of this off, were he of a mind to do so. But why on earth would any sensible being want to do such a thing? Along with infinitude, surely God has some sense. Putting yourself in the shoes of God is doubtless a dangerous thing, but if it were me, I would strongly think about retirement, or at the very least, a substantial reduction in duties.

Come to think of it, God might be ahead of us. Maybe he bailed out when we weren’t looking? If so, this could be the genesis of the God is Dead Story. It could also be the source of Santa Claus.

It does sort of fit. Jolly old man with long white flowing beard. . . . God in retirement, or on limited duty – so to speak.

Sounds very much like how a lot of people talk about God. There he is hiding out in an undisclosed location somewhere to the North with just enough to keep him out of trouble, working with his elves on all those presents. But he has definitely cut his duties, eliminating the 24X7 attention to critters large and small. In fact he has got it down to one day, and then only at night when everybody is asleep. Not too shabby with plenty of time to enjoy the silence of eternity, maybe with a good pipe in hand.

Of course it could be that we have had it all wrong from the very beginning. There is another story making the rounds.

Way back yonder when he clapped his hands (The Big Bang), God also established some very simple principles. From that point on – everything has just rolled out, a continuing flow of chaos changing to order, weaving the splendid fabric we call The Creation. No sweat, no strain, and not a micro-manager in sight. Pure simple elegance with an eternity of enjoyment and even time for a nap. Now that is my kind of God.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Curtis is our cat, although doubtless he would reverse the relationship. Speaking of ownership when it comes to cats is dubious at best, verging on foolhardy and Curtis suffers fools hardly at all. Should there be a moment of doubt on this matter, it is quickly laid to rest when he manifests in some unlikely situation. For example, I can stand at the door calling his name, inviting him for food or to save him from the ravages of fierce wild beasts. I call and I call, answered by nothing but the sound of my own voice echoing from the neighbor’s house. Until I drop my eyes to notice that Curtis has all the while been standing between my feet enjoying the evening and wondering at the foolish display.

Curtis is a grey stripped cat, born in Maine. Although he came from the pound as a kitten he always seemed quite feral, and definitely capable of taking care of himself. One morning I heard a fox bark, and went to the door expecting the worst, but Curtis was very much in charge. The fox was lying on the ground, his forepaws stretched out in the submissive position with Curtis ready to spring. Only the tip of his tail twitched as he waited in silence. I held my breath for as long as I could until my suppressed anxiety exploded in a loud bellow. The fox went straight up in the air, turning 180 degrees before hitting the ground and raced for the woods with Curtis in hot pursuit. I guess I blew it,. but it did occur to me that while Curtis may well have cowed the fox it would hardly be a fair fight if Curtis attacked. Curtis however, hardly saw it that way. When the fox disappeared, Curtis turned and slowly walked back to the house, tail straight up like a bottle brush. Conquering hero for sure.

Curtis’s namesake was one Cyrus Curtis, a Philadelphia publisher of some note who was actually born in Maine and returned every summer to the town of Camden aboard his 200 foot steam yacht. His largess is well remembered some 100 years later, as it should be. There is The Curtis Library, Curtis Island, The Curtis Village Square, and the Curtis Amphitheater. The tradition is continued with Curtis the Cat. The relationship between our Curtis and Cyrus may be tenuous, but it seemed compelling to us. Curtis was a Camden cat, and what could be more Camden than Curtis? We also had some hope that Curtis might take to the sea as Cyrus had before him.

Our hopes for Curtis’s nautical future were realized early and almost came to a sad and soggy end. It is our pleasure to cruise the coast of Maine and on a delightful warm sunny day we took off in our boat with Curtis for his inaugural cruise. We arrived before supper time at a deserted island with a large sandy beach, a rarity in Maine which is known for its rocks. The tide was out exposing a broad expanse of sandy flats, a perfect place for a young cat’s grand adventure. We were not disappointed as Curtis wandered the beach chasing seagull feathers, attacking clam squirts and tasting the local abundance of unmentionable things. However, when it came time to return to our boat, Curtis was wound up like a spring. We got him into the tender with some difficulty, and when we reached the boat he literally shot on board, racing to the top of the cabin, around the decks, in and out of portholes. He slowed briefly for supper, but after some food and with the approach of the night his manic behavior reached new heights.

Evening on the coast of Maine is always beautiful and definitely chilly. And with the evening chill comes the dew, rendering our decks wet and very slippery. We desperately attempted to confine Curtis to the cabin, but to no avail as round and round he went at top speed. Even though he was sure footed as a cat (what else) a soggy ending seemed inevitable and was shortly realized with a heart rending yowl and splash. Curtis was in the water, and the sun had set. We could see not a thing.

My wife, Ethelyn, stood at the gunnel screaming, Curtis, Curtis, and I feared that in a moment I would have both of them in the water. I thought to pull anchor and go after him, but quickly realized that there was not time, and besides I couldn’t see the cat. In desperation I grabbed a search light and started to comb the waters with little hope of any success. For the longest time, or at least it seemed that way, Ethelyn cried out and I tried to make myself useful with the search light – when suddenly I could see two small ears and a pink flea collar reflecting the light. Unfortunately they were headed towards England.

Ethelyn screamed louder and louder – and one of the ears turned our way, followed by the second. And then a small pink nose and two eyes framed by little splashes created by frantic swimming. Curtis was coming back! But he headed towards the bow of the boat from which we couldn’t possibly reach him. Eventually he slid along the side back to the stern where Ethelyn made a frantic grab for the soggy little body – there is nothing more miserable than a totally wet chilly cat. Even when we bundled him in a towel and snuggled him between us in the bunk for the night he continued to vent his displeasure. You would have thought that it was all our fault, that we had thrown him in the water!

Curtis is now seven years old, having advanced through multiple adventures. We are much older, greyer and wiser – at least to the degree that we understand that Curtis is not our cat. We have been graced with his decision to reside with us.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Job's Problem

Job had a problem. He did everything right, and it came out all wrong. Not Fair! And from his day to ours that problem has bothered a lot of people. Especially those sorts of people who have imagined a kind, just, loving God. What kind of God could do all that nasty stuff to poor old Job? The clear answer is – Not a very nice one (God). Or perhaps there is no God? Or?

As long as the problem of Job is restricted to the theological world, it is surely an intellectual brain buster, but hardly of existential concern. But Job’s problem keeps showing up – often by another name: Suffering Innocents. Millions of people rendered homeless, helpless, murdered, maimed, and martyred. Man’s inhumanity to man is impressive – and if there is any moral quid pro quo, it is hard to see. Doubtless some of this suffering multitude did something that might have justified the violent retribution, but the scales of justice appear badly tilted, if not off the balance point. And if God is on their side, they might better be thinking about some new ally.

As nasty as human beings are to one another, and they can definitely be nasty – humans are mere pikers compared to Mother Nature. Any good plague, be that Bubonic, AIDS or Flu, cuts a swath through the human population that Man’s current efforts simply can’t match. Perhaps someday if too many people push the nuclear buttons, we might be in the running, but not yet.

If we shift our attention to what might be called "natural disasters," the scale of devastation becomes massive. A run of the mill tsunami will surely get your attention, but that is nothing compared to the handiwork of an aberrant asteroid.

Fortunately it doesn’t happen all that often, but some 65 million years ago such a cosmic wanderer dropped into what is now the Gulf of Mexico, creating a humongous hole and throwing an enormous amount of ash and stuff into the air, blocking light from the sun and effectively putting the Big Chill on the poor dinosaurs. Gone! Wiped off the face of the earth! I ask you, what did they ever do to deserve such a fate? And Job thought he had a problem!

The truth of the matter is that the Cosmos we live in is a bumpy place, and has been from the very beginning. It is not for nothing that the Grand Opening was called The Big Bang, and it has been rocking and rolling ever since. There is another truth: We are not the center of the cosmos. No matter how much we might hope or think otherwise – we are a very lately arrived side show to the central drama, whatever that might be. No doubt we have our opinions about how things ought to work, and should the Master of the Universe have consulted us early on we might have suggested some alternatives. But that did not happen. In one of the most marvelous lines from the Book of Job, the Lord lays it out. "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" Answer: Not present.

A bumpy cosmos indeed, replete with massively destructive collisions, implosions and explosions -- all wrapped in the mystery of Dark Matter, Black Holes and Chaos. However, this same cosmos is equally replete with the crystalline beauty and silent majesty of sidereal order – galaxies spinning to their own deep rhythm in a dance of infinite grandeur mirrored and paralleled by the micro world of Neutrinos and Quarks. Or is it of Strings that vibrate and sing the song of the cosmic dance? Light and dark, order and chaos, creation and destruction – shifting and blending in the ongoing kaleidoscopic symphony of the universe. Truly a dance of cosmic proportions, and we are invited. But rarely do we call the tune or choose our partners. And there’s the rub.

To some it may seem that we are simply cast about like so much cosmic flotsam and jetsam – and on a day when the partner of the moment is dark chaos that is surely the experience. But partners change and the dance moves on – light creative order enters our experience. How wonderful it might be to hold that moment for ever. . .

The ecstasy is not in the moment,
But in its passage.

To hold the moment is to destroy it –
The ending of the dance.

I think we are all dancers who live fully when we dance. There is no abstract right, wrong or perfect way to dance, for each dance is perfectly what it is. It is not about "shoulds," "musts," or "oughts," but only the dance in this, and every, present moment. We are called to the dance and in the dance we experience ourselves as a loving whole – at one with ourselves and all that surrounds us.

Loving whole – or one might say, loving God.
Or even, God’s Love.

Then again we could just sit this one out.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Dying Every Day -- and Loving it!

For all of the disagreements in the world there would seem to be one point of total unanimity; Death is not cool. Regardless of culture, color, class, career, or coiffeur everybody is agreed that Death is never a welcome visitor. Indeed, no small amount of time is devoted to pretending that death does not exist. In the United States, for example, few people actually die. They pass on, go to the other side, take the big trip – but dying is not part of the equation. And when pretense outlives its usefulness and death shows up, despite all of our best efforts – this appearance comes as a surprise, something we might never have anticipated. Definitely shocking!

How odd! Of all the happenings in life, only one is absolutely certain. From the moment of our birth – it is 100% definite: We will die. So where is the surprise? How come the shock? I rather suspect that the shock we experience is a self inflicted wound. I know that might sound strange or sick, but consider the following. We make every effort to push the reality of death into the farthest corners of our experience. But the truth of the matter is that death is not something that occurs only once in our lifetime, to be forestalled for as long as possible – it is in fact the constant partner of life and indeed an essential element of being alive – with the emphasis on being. No death / No life / No Being – or certainly no Human Being.

Being human is a journey not a destination. We experience the beginning as an entry out of the womb and into the world. The journey continues in and out of childhood, adolescence, adulthood – early, middle and late. Being human is a continuing secession of beginnings and endings. Stopping along the way is not generally recommended – and if we never had the endings, we would never know the beginnings. Duh! And death is just another word for ending.

Some might say that death is a special form of ending – like the last, biggest and best. Terminal, so to speak. But the truth of the matter is that all endings are terminal. That is what it means to end! And ending happens all the time. For example our human journey is marked by many choices. And every choice marks the beginning of something and the ending of something else. I choose to go to Chicago – and thereby I close the possibilities (end) of going to New York. I am just as dead to the possibilities of New York in that moment of time had a truck run over me. Ended!

If we look honestly and closely at this thing we call being human it is actually a continuing dance of life and death. At the cellular level, the physiologists tell us that all our cells are replaced (end, die) every 7 years. That of course is just an educated guess and some hardy cells might make it for eight years – but sooner or later they all die, only to be replaced by new cells. And the point is simply this – were we to eliminate the death, we would do the same to life. Life and death are the essential steps in the dance of being human at the cellular level.

I rather think that Death has a bad rap. It may well be impossible to redeem the word, but if we make a translation so as to retain the sense and eliminate the baggage, perhaps you will agree. Words like ending, closure, termination, completion come to mind. Who amongst us has not breathed a sigh of relief at a point of completion? Even with experiences that were totally pleasant there comes a moment when you just have to put it down. It’s over. And should we be invited to revisit that experience it is not unlikely that we will say, "Been there, done that!" Chapter closed. New one opening. Journey continues.

But what about that final ending – the one where the next chapter is far from obvious? That could be a problem, I suppose, if we chose to make it one. Some people seek resolution through belief in the resurrection, whatever that might mean. For myself, I am happy to be surprised. At the very least I anticipate the solid comfort of a truly deep sleep at the end of a day full of endings and new beginnings. And if there is more. . .

That’s what being fully human is all about.
Dying every day – and loving it!