Michael Herman
Opening Space for Business Agility


Discovering Patterns, Pattern Languages, and More

...and Making Connections to OpenSpaceTechnology

I first encountered PatternLanguage while surfing around to understand wiki. It was so new an idea and the conversations I found were so advanced, that I left those pages about PatternLanguage not even sure anymore that I even knew what the word "pattern" meant. I could feel that somewhere in my brain, something very old and simple and deep had been loosened from it moorings.

I let it go at the time, as I was really wanting to understand "wiki" just then, but now I've come back to Pattern. My experience today upon re-entering the topic, is one of being in a submarine, face buried in periscope, scanning, scanning, scanning... there is sky and birds and water and then... NOTHING BUT DARK PAINTED STEEL! ...or alternatively, ONE BIG EYE! In other words, there is something BIG up there, out there. My first thought is that it's this massive warship... and then it occurs to me that it must be quite a bit more alive and whole and helpful than that.

A VERY Brief History of Pattern Language

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, architect and professor Christopher Alexander and others started asking questions about architectural design, isolating patterns, surfacing some general agreement that seems to exist among humans about the shapes and sizes and other design attributes that align with and support a sense of wholeness, aliveness, and true self. Over time, their findings were distilled into PatternLanguage(s), sequential sorts of design recipes that would lead any design cook to create structures that would better support life, would embody more life.

This work was catalyzed by their noticing that in the years since WWII, a separation between the designers and the users of things (and inhabitants of buildings) has grown up, a specialization, a disconnection. I might go so far as to call it a dissection, that's had the same effect on our spaces and things as dissection has on frogs... the wholeness and aliveness is cut out. And now we have virtually no capacity for building 'life' into the things (large and small) that we make. In short, we are losing (or nearly lost?) our ability to create things that truly support aliveness.

A PatternLanguage provides a format (e.g. context, problem, solution, etc.) for design and discussion, but it has also some deeper features. "First, it has a moral component. Second, it has the aim of creating coherence, morphological coherence in the things which are made with it. And third, it is generative: it allows people to create coherence, morally sound objects, and encourages and enables this process because of its emphasis on the coherence of the created whole." This according to Alexander in his 1996 speech to OOPSLA computer conference, San Jose, CA.

This generative component is key, as the language directs a series of choices, but always those choices are made based on the results of previous choices and current local environment, so that all sorts of different results and products and buildings are possible, but all share the characteristic of supporting a kind of wholeness, coherence, life. Think of how genetic code supports the development of a being, or how the growing process of an oak tree moves from moment to moment, from acorn to old oak, at each point unfolding based on some basic rules and patterns, so that each step makes the tree more tree and more alive and more whole.

To summarize, a PatternLanguage includes...

  1. a Format that is a good way of exchanging fragmentary, atomic, ideas about making things, software, organizations
  2. a Moral capacity to produce a living structure
  3. the Generativity that is its capability of producing coherent wholes

The Nature of Order: Something Deeper Still

Then they distilled out of the many Pattern Langauges created, 15 deeper properties for wholeness and life. These FifteenProperties are the subject of Alexander's newest publications, a four volume series called TheNatureOfOrder.

In the process of discovering these FifteenProperties, they asked people questions like...

  1. Is your wholeness increasing in the presence of this object? ...or this one?
  2. Do you Feel more whole?
  3. Do you Feel more alive in the presence of this thing?
  4. Do you Feel that one is more of a picture of your own true self?

...and in tallying the ratings people gave, found empirical evidence of some deep human agreement about the geometric and other design patterns that better or best support wholeness, coherence, and aliveness. They found that, "The life that is actually in the thing is correlated in some peculiar fashion with the condition of wholeness in ourselves when we are in the presence of the thing... not merely a hunch, but a testable empirical result." (OOPSLA, 1996)

According to Alexander, these fifteen properties, "...allow us to be precise about the nature of living structure in just precisely such a way that it is connected not only to all mechanical function but also to the depths of human feeling." (OOPSLA, 1996)

"At the root of these FifteenProperties, there appears to be a recursive structure based on repeated appearances of a single type of entity -- the primitive element of all wholeness. These entities are what I call 'centers'. All wholeness is built from these centers, and centers are recursively defined in terms of other centers."

The Nature of Open Space: Life in Organization

I wonder how these "centers" are created and supported in the normal course of OpenSpaceTechnology meetings and events. The repetition is likely fully consistent with the notion of OST as "practice" and the potential for a circular sort of logic here seems equally likely to stymie the linear, spreadsheet mentality of most business organizations.

Alexander says, "...when one has this view [of the centers] of things, it becomes enormously easier to produce living structure in buildings. It has immediate and practical usefulness..." Sounds a lot like OpenSpaceTechnology, in terms of the ease and effectiveness.

"...If you start understanding everything in terms of these living centers, and you recognize the recursion that makes a center, living as it is, dependent on the other centers that it is made of and the other larger centers in which it is embedded, suddenly you begin to get a view of things which is almost by itself starts leading you towards the production of more successful and more living buildings."

The image here is that of nested, recursive circles, convening and reconvening in OpenSpaceTechnology. Am also reminded of my OpenSpaceTechnology/ExecutiveSummary that concludes that "OpenSpaceTechnology brings life back to organization and organization back to life."

Also, as this view catches on, seems equally likely to demand possibly 'radical' and certainly (in architectural terms) literal restructuring of currently existing spaces, buildings, things. This pressure on structure also seems in line with OpenSpaceTechnology's effect on organization.

Patterns, then, "are merely a few of the structural variants that appear within these centers under very, very particular conditions... certainly interesting and important, but they don't have the same depth or the same universal character as these [centers].

Wholeness and Centers

Jim Complien explains Wholeness and Centers like this:

In his earlier works ([APL] and [TTWoB?]) Alexander often refers to "the quality without a name" (abbreviated as QWAN). In The Nature of Order, Alexander has advanced his notion of this "quality" and now uses the term wholeness. Wholeness (and "life") emerges as a result of naturally occurring processes which are based on locii known as centers.

A "center" is "something we notice" as a structure; something which captures our eye as being "architecturally interesting". A center will draw our attention [cf. center of attention] from amidst its neighboring structures (which may also be centers in their own right) by differentiating itself from them via some kind of boundary (possibly a very fuzzy boundary). Examples of centers might be: a row of tiles on a ceiling or floor, a hallway, a pond in the countryside, and what we in the software patterns community think of as "patterns". Patterns are stereotypical centers.

According to Alexander, everything has "wholeness", but some things have more of it than others. All such things have noticeable centers, which are themselves made up recursively of other centers. The Nature of Order presents a unifying model of design for unfolding "wholeness" by a process of intensifying centers. A "good" center will reinforce the other centers around it. Existing centers may be augmented by adding adjacent centers, or by augmenting its adjacent centers, or the centers contained within it.

In OpenSpaceTechnology terms, the Patterns might be the individual meetings and themes, the centers things like marketplaces, invitation lists, bulletin board, invitation practice -- the structures that draw attention? Any one meeting, theme or invitation document would be interesting and important, but not as deep or universal as circle, marketplace or invitation practice. Or are the centers the various shapes of information that are posted on the bulletin board, the invitations and proceedings? It seems that the Centers in organization are often the horror stories, legendary problem customers, employees, managers, and other disasters. What Harrison Owen calls the organizational mythology. So maybe the Law of Two Feet and Practice of Invitation represents the introduction of one new Center in organization, reintroducing Responsibility and Choice? Perhaps it is the View from the edge of a large gathering Circle than is another Center, the View of the Whole? Also, they say that Centers can only be defined by other Centers, so OpenSpaceTechnology might be one center, defined by its practice parts, Centers. The invitation, facilitator, proceedings, circle, etc might be other Centers that define the event, the events/stories defining the practice, everything nesting and defining. Messy as life in the forest, no?

Clearly these are things are yet to be fully worked out here, but as I've trained people in the practice of Open Space around the world, I've often said it's not about making Action happen, and not even about raising Energy and motivating or inspiring people, but is very much about Inviting Attention. As we return Attention over and over again, to the issues and opportunities that really matter in organization, Energy naturally follows attention, and Action follows Energy. In this way, I've been teaching that we can run organizations on the skillful practice of Inviting Attention. To the extent that we are asking in those invitations for people to notice, preserve and enhance the wholeness inherent in "what's working," they naturally grow more of it.

Certainly the overwhelming majority of OpenSpaceTechnology participants around the world, in all kinds of organizations, working on all kinds of purposes, regularly report that the work feels more whole, they themselves feel more alive, and their organizations more coherent as a result of their working in Open Space. That doesn't mean they always feel "good" as life includes a good deal of uncertainty, pain, chaos and confusion. It does mean that they can see the whole of the issues, feel whatever life force their is (left) in the organization, and work to make themselves into a more coherent body. So yes, the work is still there to be done.

So How To Produce Wholeness?

My own answer to this is that we cannot produce wholeness. We can only notice that it already is and then invite more of it. This is the point of OpenSpaceTechnology/InvitingOrganization. The punchline there being that it can only be invited by people who "are" inviting. And what "is" inviting? I would say wholeness, aliveness, coherence, truth and the like.

This echoes what Harrison Owen told me some years ago, that we could not teach responsibility and productivity, but could only go in and ask "What's Working?" and then invite people to talk about how they might grow more of it.

It also meshes nicely with Alexander, "How the hell do you produce this living structure? What do you do to actually produce it? ...what are the rules? ...The answer is fascinating. It turns out that these living structures can only be produced by unfolding wholeness. That is, there is a condition in which you have space (emphasis mine) in a certain state. You operate on it through things that I have come to call "structure-preserving transformations," maintaining the whole at each step, but gradually introducing differentiations one after the other. And if these transformations are truly structure-preserving and structure-enhancing, then you will come out at the end with a living structure."

So the question of every OpenSpaceTechnology meeting is some variant on "what are the structure-preserving and structure-enhancing transformations necessary and possible NOW, given all of what is going on in our group and our larger worlds?" See, there is nothing there about solving problems, interestingly enough. It's all about fully integrating and preserving what has been done in the past and transcending and enhancing where we are now. Anything that is not working falls naturally by the wayside, simply unpreserved. Like trees dropping leaves but keeping branches.

Indeed, when you look around the world, you see that this structure-preserving and enhancing is exactly how all of nature unfolds and how almost none of architectural design and business management usually operates to produce the space and things and organizations we now live in.

Changing the Whole World

In his OOPSLA address, Alexander was suggesting that in order to repattern and revitalize every structure and product on the earth in the next generation, the next 25 years, there would have to be a deep shift in how we design and produce things. But how to effect this shift, when no one is in control of this global unfolding?

His answer to the computer architecture and software designers was that if their systems were more whole, more alive, more coherent in their own being and process and production, this would support the shift in all of the millions of groups that would be using their software to shape space and things and organizations.

"You know," he says, "the pattern language (the one for architecture) consists of these objects which are interesting and which you somehow try to put together. But it's possible to have processes or procedures which will go much further, actually generate living structure. Because the complexity of the situation in the world, and because of the way software is going, software that is designed to do this could very rapidly take the world by storm."

This reminds me that after studying a number of sorts of organization development intervention methods and approaches, I discovered OpenSpaceTechnology and likened all the earlier models to organizational "hardware," and quickly came to see OpenSpaceTechnology as organizational software, the operating system even, for the processing of all of our information, goods and services. I was struck by the depth, the generativity, the ease and aliveness of the whole practice. So I think there is some real potential in connecting OpenSpaceTechnology, software and information, and the preservation and enhancement of our life in organizations.

The Role of the Little Individual

Visionary designer and inventor, R. Buckminster (Bucky) Fuller used to talk about what we could do "as little individuals" to [preserve and enhance] human life on this planet that he called 'Spaceship Earth.' At age 31, Fuller found himself penniless (with a wife and small child to support) after he had lost all of his and a good deal of others' money in a failed business. Reflecting on his experiences, he discovered that he had been happy, effective and prosperous in direct relation to the number of people in whose interest he was working at any given moment.

Maximum happiness, effectivness and prosperity, he reasoned, could only be achieved by working for ALL people, everywhere. A true scientist, he made the rest of his life an explicitly documented, public experiment designed to test this hypothesis that one could do well for himself and his family, individually, by working always in the interest of the whole of human life. Many buddhists might say, working for the happiness and well-being of ALL beings, not just the human ones.

It seemed to work out quite well for Fuller and his family, and the buddhists and others I know who seem happiest and most alive do seem to be consistently working in the direction of what might be best for everyone.

What's more, it seems that ONLY we little individuals can actually do this critical work. My friend PennyScott? phoned from the BowenIsland/Vancouver? ferry last week to share this insight from John McKnight?, a leader in the development of Asset-Based Community Development...

"Service systems," he says, "can never be reformed so they will produce care. Care is the consenting commitment of citizens to one another. Care cannot be produced, privileged, managed, organized, administered or commodified. Care is the only thing a system cannot produce. Every institutional effort to replace the real thing is a counterfeit."

He goes on to say, "Care is, indeed, the manifestation of a community. The community is the site for the relationships of citizens. And it is at this site that the primary work of a caring society must occur. If that site is invaded, co-opted, overwhelmed, and dominated by service-producing institutions, then the work of the community will fail. And the failure is manifest in families collapsing, schools failing, violence spreading, medical systems spinning out of control, justice systems becoming overwhelmed, prisons burgeoning, and human services degenerating."

Alexander might say that Care, or Feeling, is the work of the Whole community, is indeed the Life of the community, and might suggest that every individual is a Center of that community.

Inviting Organization to Care

When management attempts to do thinking, caring, deciding, energizing, learning and other things FOR people that people can, in fact, do for themselves, the work of the organization eventually fails. On the other hand, when leaders invite passion and responsibility in Open Space, the work of the organization eventually flourishes. And so it becomes a question of time. If you're in it for the long haul, best to aim for eventual success!

Notice, too, that as systems degrade, the results show up as complexity of issues, real or potential conflict, increasing urgency and a real diversity of people and perspectives needed for resolution -- exactly the conditions wherein Open Space Technology works best! It doesn't cause the chaos, it merely acknowledges the truth of it -- and gives us room to deal with it peacefully and productively.

Having just posted an updated version of my own paper, InvitingOrganizationEmerges, I will hasten to add that while really open space and genuine care cannot ever be produced by a system, they always be invited by anyone of us who already really cares. This, it seems, is the real work of leadership today... to invite care. And the only way to invite it is to be it... and be "willing to be caught in the act."

As I say this, I am not unfamiliar with the dangers inherent in such a willingness. so i will add a plug here for an excellent shield. Peter Frost's new book Toxic Emotions at Work: How Compassionate Managers Handle Pain and Conflict is based on research done at two major business schools and is published by Harvard Business Press. It does an excellent job of laying out the current needs, real dangers and practical options for the Caring and Healing that does and must go on in the regular course of our work in organizations and communities.


OpenSpaceTechnology seems to be one Center for Caring and Healing, this Wholing process. Biologist Francisco Varela has said that, "If a living system is unhealthy [immature], the way to make it more healthy [mature] is to reconnect it with more of itself." This seems to be what is happening in OpenSpaceTechnology meetings and events, with regularity and real benefit.

I am struck by how many other Centers (if I am understanding the meaning of this properly) that are now becoming known and available.

Maybe you have seen other things that fit into these patterns that I am noticing here, this movement toward wholeness, aliveness, coherence. Seemingly against all odds, on scales small and spectacular, we seem to be getting it all together. And the more Wholeness we notice and create, the more Wholeness we can notice and create. In this way, we get more and more ripe all the time for designing and organizing from these deep, whole Centers that are essential for cultivating the living structures we so desperately need.


Well, yes, there should probably be some conclusions here, or should there? Jack Ricchiuto posted the following Osho quote in his weblog yesterday...

The real artist thinks certainly of totality, but never of perfection. He wants to be totally in it, that's all. When he dances, he wants to disappear into the dance.

Perhaps it's not the perfection or conclusion that will matter in the totality of this work, but it is all about being in the middle of the process, this unfolding wholeness, and the questions it raises. For me, these questions include:

It seems true enough to me that we really do live in Open Space, unfolding Wholeness, and living organizations that need regular and practical care and feeding, if they are to continue to support each of us in our own individual productivity and personal prosperity. If you know of individuals and organizations who are working directly on embodying wholeness, vitality, coherence and compassion in their organization, I would very much like to be talking with these people!

Links to Life in Organizations and Communities