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Harrison Owen Interview: Inviting Flow and Self Organization

To some, Open Space Technology is a method for organizing meetings or facilitating groups. However, to the vast community of Open Space practitioners, Open Space is a way of life. It’s a philosophical perspective about how the world works, how humans organize, and a method for making visible some of the invisible laws of life and nature. We interviewed Harrison Owen, the founder of Open Space to learn his views on self-organization, structure, invitation and even grief.


 Harrison never expected to find himself in this place of organizational development. He started as an Anglican priest and thought he was going to live his life as an Old Testament scholar. Then the Civil Rights movement came along and he found himself on the streets organizing. His life shifted. His degree no longer felt desirable. He found himself spending time in Africa, working with the NIH, and in various other positions. The constant throughout this life journey, however, has been an ongoing passion for the human process or phenomena of transformation. Seventy-eight years into this life journey, Harrison says, “Open Space - that’s a funny interlude that turned out to be quite significant.”

 “My hope would be to somehow make human life more human.” 
 ~Harrison Owen
 


Even though the invention of Open Space is attributed to you, you’ve been pretty firm in your stance that you didn’t invent it. Could you explain what you mean by this? 

The concept behind Open Space is self-organizing and it’s been going on for roughly 13.7 billion years. The process works and I didn’t create it. I didn’t discover anything. I was desperate. I needed to run a meeting and I didn’t know how. I had a whole mess of folks coming. So… two martinis and I was there.

 So as long as people try to understand Open Space as some group process that somebody called Harrison Owen invented, then they’re going to try to invent ways to make it better or different or whatever. The actual truth of the matter is that Harrison Owen didn’t invent it, he has no claim on it and it runs totally by itself. That’s why they call it self-organization. Organizing a self-organizing system is not only an oxymoron, it’s stupid.

It’s kind of a shot in the head to admit that what you think is a special group process is actually the way things are all the time. You just pretend something differently. You think you’re actually in charge and you’ve done this. Well, I’m sorry you didn’t.

What was your rationale for not trade marking Open Space? 

One, I’m lazy and two, if I were to do such a stupid thing, I would spend my whole life defending a trade mark or whatever and I really had some other things I wanted to do. That’s the practical reason. The real reason is, it occurred to me from the very beginning that trying to trade mark or patent open space is kinda like trying to patent breathing. We all do it. It was clear to me that some of us may be able to do it better than others, but fundamentally it’s a birthright of every human on this planet. So the notion of trying to patent, trademark or in any way restrict what is clearly a human birthright didn’t make any sense to me.

What is the role of structures when it comes to getting things done and encouraging self-organization?

You’re talking to the wrong guy when you’re talking about structure. The most productive work groups that I’ve ever seen have virtually no prescribed structure. They may say they do and they may say they follow the plans, but the truth of the matter is that once they’re in the game, whatever that game is, they’re inventing it as they go and responding to whatever. And that comes from generals, football players, managers, Nobel Laureates, etc.

Anybody who ever thinks they ever follow the plan is full of bullshit. 

This is going to sound totally heretical, but think about it, structure is very simply a figment of our imagination. Everything from the fiscal world to environmental groups is an ongoing process. It’s all energy, it’s all flow. And what we do is we take a snapshot and we say, “This is the way it is.” Well that’s the way it was 25 milliseconds ago. But the truth of the matter is, it’s always in flow. So in a way, structure is kind of a crutch to allow us to think we have some control and understanding of the environment we’re in. There is no such thing. You could look at a mountain and say, “Well there’s a structure for you”, but all you have to do is to increase the time span a little bit and then you’ll understand that all it is is a bunch of mooshing [sic] around electrons and sooner or later it’s going to go back to where it came from.

What is the power of invitation?

Invitation is what makes life rich. With an invitation, you make it clear that you respect people as human beings. When people are invited, they’re respected. And that’s true if you’re talking about a start-up, a major corporation, or your birthday party. If somebody says, “You will get your ass over here and do such-and-such”, I know immediately my life is impoverished. But if someone says to me, “Harrison, we’d really love to have you and come and be yourself and do what you can”, then I’m all on board.

For me, Open Space is simply life. When I’m invited, I’m there. When I’m commanded, I don’t show up. And I don’t think I’m different than any of the other 7 ½ billion or so people on the planet. Any time there’s ever been a group we’ve worked with that have responded to an invitation that they could accept or turn down (and that’s what a real invitation is, you can accept it or let it go) and came because they cared to come, great things happened. That’s not just Open Space. That’s Tahrir Square. That’s Tiananmen Square. That’s Arab Spring. That’s the American Revolution. That’s every time people around this planet have responded passionately to something they seriously cared about and took responsibility for it.

When it comes to people taking responsibility for what they are really passionate about and being a part of transformation and change, grief can sometimes be a part of the process. Can you talk about the importance of grief and grieving? 

The one important course that should be taught in all business schools is being there through grief work. I mean the one thing that is an absolute constant phenomenon of our existence is that things end. A lot of people think, “Well, isn’t that terrible?” I think, no, it’s wonderful. The truly wonderful thing about existence is that stuff shows up, it has its day and then it passes on. That said, what happens when it passes on is painful to the passer-on-er.

Grief work is not an individual thing. I believe it’s a collective, organizational thing. It is a process and we all go though it and we can help people through it. I think that’s something worthwhile doing, verses sitting in meetings which I think is a waste of time.

What are your hopes for the future of Open Space? 

I hope it will disappear quickly. Not the essence of opening space - I think that should be around forever, that’s respect, that’s invitation. But I should hope that sooner or later people will understand that having this funny special process that someone even tried to authenticate or certify their capacity to facilitate… this is idiocy. Open space is what is. You don’t go in and out of open space. You can run from it. You can create your own closed space. You can pretend that nobody cares or is responsible. But you can't change open space. It’s just self-organizing life. If we get rid of the notion that we have this process that we have to facilitate, we might actually get on with the business of living.

What do you think about the fact that processes like Open Space are becoming more known and accepted? 

For whatever it’s worth, I find myself feeling that we are right on the edge of a serious transformational movement. Truth of the matter is nobody transforms anything. Transformation means dying to one way so something else can happen. And I think we’re in the midst of this. I see Open Space as a sign and not a cause, indicating that, at least in the western hemisphere, we’re getting to the point that the notion of us being in charge and doing things the way the management books say we should, is finally breaking through as bullshit. It’s finally becoming clear enough to enough people that the process of control, control, control has reached the end of effectiveness. And simultaneously people who are not only talking this way, but also acting this way are showing up. The issue is - how do we do it well? I think the next serious discussion is – given that we ARE a self-organizing system, now what? We can accept that we aren’t going to game it, we aren’t going to organize a self-organizing system, but we seriously can learn to flow with it. Every sailor does it, every skier, and every surfer. That doesn’t mean there’s no skill or nothing we can to do to optimize performance. But if you think you can control the wave, you best stay on the beach. Experience more of Harrison in his TEDxNavesink Talk and join the Open Space Listserv to connect with Harrison and others who practice Open Space Technology. 
 
 A clip from the interview

About Mycelium
This interview was conducted by Ashley Cooper and Matthew Abrams at Mycelium. The Mycelium School weaves a living network of people committed to activating their fullest potential and creating actionable solutions to the challenges and opportunities of our times. Mycelium is an education experiment for people of all ages who are dedicated to learning, value relationships and are doing everything they can to bring their visions to life. The Mycelium Learning Journeyis a 12-week program that supports participants to accelerate learning, connect to a network of doers and reach their potential with greater efficacy. The Learning Journey can be completed virtually or locally in Asheville, NC.  
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