We walked together through the forest, following a rain-muddied trail that in most other offices would cut an arrow-straight path through so many Herman-Miller cubicles. Like any other office tour, we spoke of projects and practices, but also of pitchback spruces and fiddlehead ferns.
"Can you imagine what it would look like, what would happen, if all of this growth, all of this energy, could be channelled into a single organism, a single body?" he asked, waving a hand to invite my gaze to take in the enormity of his vision: cedars, spruces and pines, ferns, grasses and vines, bugs and slugs, birds and deer.
I looked around and wondered, imagined, appreciated. I felt the crunch of the forest under my feet, the solid ground of Bowen Island, a quiet, rocky gem in the sea, just off the coast of Vancouver, BC, Canada. I looked back at my friend, eyes beaming with the light of this forest, the life of his forest, the main conference room of Chris Corrigan's office.
"If this place were aligned in one plant, it would reach to the stars. It would be a star! And of course, that's where all this energy came from in the first place. All around us, the energy of stars on slow-burn, time-release."
"How does a forest change a mind?" he asked.
"It doesn't," I replied. "Only I change my mind. But, yes, the forest invites a certain shape of mind. There is a certain kind of mind that I make when I enter the forest. Expansive, attentive, more fluid, more powerful, more ready to deal with whatever surprises might pop out of this space."
In my office, I can do almost all of my work with my eyes, and a few keystrokes. In the kitchen, I stand chopping and stirring, almost everything within easy reach. But in the forest, I need my whole body awake. I need pelvis and feet to even get there. And once there, I'm obviously going to need them to get back. Action, steps, awareness in legs and feet, are necessarily implied and engaged by simply being in the forest. The vastness, energy and uncertainty of the forest invites me to meet it with a bigger mind, to wake up, pay attention, and be ready, as a whole body.
I pick my steps carefully around muddy patches of trail, feel the softness of the forest floor under feet with toes, muscles of legs and hips pressing into gravity, arms swinging, heart space balancing, spine twisting, head darting down and up, left and right, neck relaxing, eyes smiling in the flow of our conversation. I notice the same easy movement in my friend, letting his love of this forest be as real to me as my own connection to body. A space opens between us, distinct but not separate from the two of us. A third space, that is the two of us, and held by, surrounded and embraced by, the life of the forest.
We are talking about the leadership practice retreat we will open the next day, about our work with Open Space Technology and other approaches to organization, and our emerging vision of Inviting Leadership. This book is the product of these things, the gift of these things, and the connecting of these things with years of other experiences, one small body of work and a teeming forest of stories and methods, all appreciating, inviting, supporting and making good on the tremendous potential of people, organizations and communities.
bit more introduction to what is coming -- probably identifying the sections as the four practices.
You, of course, are part of the wider landscape of appreciating, invitating, supporting and making good. You bring your own wealth of successes, questions, practices and experiences. We welcome it all and invite you to let it move and connect with what's here. Let your own life and leadership be as real and important as what's written up in these pages -- and let what's written here be as real and true as your own lived experience. You'll be right on both counts, of course, and something new and good might just pop up as you bring the two together.
When Harrison Owen conceived of Open Space and ran the initial experiments in the 1980s he said that he hoped that Open Space would eventually become ubiquitous, that it would fade away and just become the way people do business. For a long time I thought that this meant Harrison hoped Open Space would become like brainstorming: used everywhere all the time without any thought to its origins or mechanics.
I’m now coming to realize that Open Space does indeed fade away, or at least fades into the background when my use of the process dissolves into practice. If anything, this long journey into articulating and understanding the four practices of Open Space has been an effort to understand what I’m learning about organizations, communities, leadership and passion in Open Space and applying that learning throughout my life and work.
Dissolving into practice. That is the essence of why this stuff matters. Some of the participants we had with us here on Bowen Island a couple of weeks ago reported coming to learn about the mechanics of Open Space and leaving with a deeper knowing of how space can be opened everywhere. That is what we are after: cultivating the practices of open space so that it can happen everywhere, at any time and in many different guises. For me, sometimes this takes the form of an Open Space Technology meeting, but there are something like 345 days a year when I am NOT in an Open Space meeting, and yet I’m still practicing.
Michael and I continue to look for ways to make this story accessible and practice-able as we deepen our exploration of these ideas. In the past we have talked about the four practices as Opening, Inviting, Holding and Grounding. This language still holds, and in fact a number of different words and concepts are useful, because these four words describe practice areas in which many distinct practices can be gathered.
After working through the fire of dozens of workshops and some fantastic late-night conversations, we have refined the ore a little more and we are now using the following descriptions:
underlying beliefs that will drive these things into practice...
(i'm imagining that we could make this first chapter title "stop!" because this is the feeling i think we're looking to tap into... people who are just fed up with how things are. i'm imagining that the sixth chapter could be called "let's go!" ...pulsation, obviously enough. and also, these are the two things it seems that i am always confusing people with... people who think i'm always saying no are stunned when i all of a sudden say, yes, let's go. and vice versa. anyway, these are the two things i find myself saying and feeling a lot in organization. stop and let's go.)
We're in a hotel meeting room in Beloit Wisconsin, looking out over the Beloit River. In the room 15 college students from the Beloit Leadership Institute are engaged in a simple exercise to help see the dynamic nature of self organizing systems. Each person is asked to secretly pick two others and to place themselves equidistant from those people. When the experiment begins, the students erupt into a constantly swirling system. There is no perfect end state. There is no stillness. Everyone negotiates their position in relation to the two people they have chosen, trying to form equilateral triangles with their mystery partners.
Finally one student speaks up. "Stop!" she shouts. "I can't handle this!"
The room breaks up into laughter and we stop to consider what is so troubling about the constant motion. It's the lack of stability that is driving her crazy. She is fighting an urge to stop everyone from moving.
I ask anyone if they would like to try to control the situation, or try to manage it. One smart economics major suggests that control lies with the variables and he suggests that we run the experiment again but this time we choose to connect to three other people. Perhaps instead, this would bring some stability; if we could be in relation to more parts in the system things might be more manageable.
Armed with that hypothesis, the experiment begins again and even more chaos and confusion reigns. Another student, a mathematics major, calls out. "Wait! It's impossible! We can't be equidistant to three other people!" No one listens to him, and the students keep trying to make it work. Gradually some of them realize that he might be right, but only after he has given up. In truth the only way to be equidistant to three other people is to be in the middle of a circle, with the others on the perimeter. The math major is frustrated. I ask him how it feels to be in possession of the truth when no one else is willing to believe him. He is almost angry. "If everyone had just listened to me, we would have avoided this chaos."
These are important lessons for the students, all of whom have been chosen to be here because they show unique leadership qualities. The systems exercise, originally conceived by Joanna Macy, challenges their assumptions about control, responsibility and accountability. I want to show them something about how cause and effect work in systems, so I have everyone stop again. There is a sigh of relief.
I pick one student. "Okay, you move to the other side of the room, and those who were in contact with him follow suit." The student moves. Three other people move with him and then another four people move with this second generation. I stop one of the four, to whom I am connected. "Hey! What are you doing, forcing me to move?" She shrugs. "Just doing my job." Laughter again.
All of us are following basic rules and all of us are "just doing our job" and none of us can figure out how to bring a bigger view to the system.
A month later, high on a hill top on Bowen Island, we run the experiment again, and this time the group chooses to see if they can make the chaos accomplish something. For the 12 in the room, the job will be to move a table from one of the room to the other. Two people are required to lift the table, and without knowing who they were connected to, the two swirl and bob down the room and eventually get the table to its target. It isn't simple and its not a straight path, but it works. Somehow, the group is able to keep its awareness of the system intact AND keep its eyes on an objective. But it wasn't a straight line.
Being a participant in this exercise is one thing, but being the rule setter is another altogether. Very light and simple rules create the container for complex behaviour, and although the parts of the system are self-organizing, no part of the system seems to be aware of the whole. It's too much just to stay equidistant from your chosen mystery partners.
We use this exercise to demonstrate the structural practices that support the open space world view: the power of simple rules, the difficulty of managing self-organization, the trick of activating agency. The exercise gives us a good sense of how to wrestle with the reality that the world is constantly in motion, and there is no time to rest before a change in the environment dictates that we must change too.
Now consider the workplace. A project director is fixed on her boss and her 10-year-old son. The guy in the cube across from her if focused on balancing his mortgage payment and his wife's failing health. His assistant is watching the division chief and the receptionist. A stock market ticker peaks out from behind the email window on the computer in the cube next to him. Maybe some are watching more than two guides, juggling multiple projects and clients, but . Some may be watching nothing but the clock, but even they seem to perk up and a bit when the boss walks through.
The same goes on in communities and public meetings, so many of us watching what happens in our block or backyard on the one hand and some group or leader or board on the other. My house and the zoning rules. My house and my neighbor's tree. Our school and the district budget. Our local programs and the Feds. We live in a world of polarities, split attention and allegiances, trying not to lose connection with any of the many things we care about.
In any one moment, everyone is watching and caring about a couple of somethings or someones. Everyone and everything keeps moving because everyone and everything keeps moving. That old cliche about change being the only constant. So what of that other old cliche, that says "the more things change, the more they stay the same?" Can it be that we are swirling, and stuck, all at once?
How often do we find ourselves caring about two dimensions, striving to balance two needs, choosing a path that is equidistant from two goals or guides? How often to we think or feel or even say "Stop! I can't handle this anymore!"? How often have we had insights and solutions that could not be heard by others? How often do we insist on straight-line achievement -- and how often is that how the world really works? How often, even when named "leader", do we feel in charge of what's happening? How often does it turn out that we really are in control?
How often does this happen at work? In meetings, on project teams, planning retreats, professional conferences? Does it ever happen in the PTA or school board meeting? How about the parish council or fundraising committee? Where else do we bump into complex webs, of unique (sometimes truly odd) humans beings, some of them moving gracefully and carefully, but some of them bound to crash and burn in conflict, all of them somewhere in the flow between swirling and stuck, none of them denying the urgency of the needs, yet all of them bringing, at best, some partial solution?
So what is a leader, any leader, or any other person who cares, to do? How often have you walked away from a meeting, shaking your head and muttering to a colleague, "There must be a better way." Or been puzzling over circumstances and thinking, "If only there was a way to get everyone together on this, all in one place at the same time, then we might actually solve this thing." How often have you found that even people in positions of apparent power, yourself or others, good people who care, and want to do the right thing, are lacking the information and/or support to take the steps they'd like or need to take?
In early 1980, Harrison Owen looked around at what was happening and not happening in the world, and proposed somehting he called Organization Transformation. Proposed it as much as a thing we were in as a thing that we should do. He wrote his observations up in paper and...
...history of open space
...what is method of open space is
...honors the reality of care without control, responsibility without escape
For years we've been surfing the edge of a space that's beyond command and control, often wondering who's in command and feeling quite out of control. In some business organizations, we've come as far as 'the learning organization' -- supposedly able to educate and re-educate itself -- but as often as not this shows up as preach and teach, plan and sell, ask then tell -- all watered-down versions of command and control.
The literal meaning of 'education,' however, is 'to draw out' -- which starts to sound a lot like invitation to me. And as command and control continue to slip away -- into the vast open space of global business, international politics, and worldwide uncertainty -- the bad news is that invitation may very well be all that we have left. The good news, however, is that it may be all that we need. The same can be said about Open Space Technology. What follows is a personal, professional, and practical story of the inviting organization -- and how it is emerging in Open Space.
For me, Open Space Technology is more than a facilitation technique; not just another trick in my bag. I came into it from a background in business finance (healthcare finance and leasing) and experiential education (wilderness/adventure with outward bound schools). As a facilitator of team learning and experiential teambuilding activities, I immediately saw Open Space as a way to make the 'real work' the teambuilding initiative. Forget the ropes, blindfolds, metaphorical framings, color-coded t-shirts and the coffee mugs emblazoned with gung-ho, all-together-now cliches. Open Space Tech was a simple, powerful way to walk into any size of group or organization, focus attention on the most important business issues, and invite everyone to learn and contribute as much as they could to their successful resolution. For me, it eclipsed the need for teambuilding altogether and made organization-building a practical, powerful reality.
About the same time I discovered Open Space Technology, I came to understand that I was most productive, most effective and most happy on those projects where clients had called to invite me into their work, rather than because I had called them and sold a project. Seeing this, I resolved to make invitation the central focus of my personal and professional practice. I practiced listening for invitations -- from the little intuitive pulls we all get to the more explicit "why don't you come to Philadelphia with me... we could co-present at this conference there!" It quickly became clear that invitations come to those who also invite, so I practiced this as well. Open Space Technology was essential in this practice, as it allowed me to invite everyone (literally) in my personal and professional circles into conversation and action on the issues and questions most important to me. even when we didn't have enough time in these gatherings to do formal action planning, it was clear that everyone present had been touched, moved, changed by our time together. How then, could they not act differently going forward?
Indeed, in these times of rapid, even swirling change -- with complexity, urgency, diversity and the potential for conflict already high (and still on the rise) -- making sense, making meaning, making conversation qualifies as real work and creates real value. Invitations raise the awareness, speak the truth, gather the resources needed to get real results. invitations communicate intention, even to those who won't or can't be present. invitations offer new language for describing the truth of what's happening. Invitations get people moving in the same direction, at the same time -- because those people WANT to move that way. In this way, invitations turn managers into leaders, and invitees into managers. If we see Open Space Tech as one way to practice the leadership art of invitation, is it any wonder that this technique has produced phenomenal results all over the world? When all else fails, it seems clear that everyone still works better and happier when they are invited into their work.
For me, the power of Open Space lies in its ability to invite invitation throughout an organization or community. It starts, simply enough, with one invitation extended by an individual or small group, to everyone and anyone they think will learn from and contribute to breakthrough progress on an important issue or set of issues. This invitation touches everyone who receives it and begins to inform their work. Those who choose to accept the invitation and attend the meeting are invited to post their own invitations to breakout sessions. This gives the original invitation a new level of detail and sets up the next conversations. After each breakout conversation, the participants document their conclusions and next intentions. The issues raised in these proceedings are clustered and prioritized, creating the next degree of detail, next set of invitations, and next round of working conversations. And in every conversation, participants automatically invite each other to see more, say more, and do more. Every round brings more people, more understanding, more alignment, and more action -- toward leadership and action everywhere.
An inviting story, for sure, but how do we DO it? The answer, it turns out, is deceptively simple. First, name your issue and say something about why you think it matters. Second, make a list of "guests" which includes everyone you need to REALLY deal with the situation at hand. Third, get a time, a space and some materials, including such technical items as an empty wall, chairs, markers, masking tape, and perhaps a few computers if you want to be fancy. Fourth, prepare for the care and feeding of the success story that you will create during this meeting. This might include plans to distribute proceedings copies, create a website, allocate funding, meet with senior managers, or hold followup meetings -- whatever it will take to keep this work moving forward. Summarize all of this in a crisp, clear and creative way and send it out -- and always, always, always -- be prepared to be surprised. Which is to say, try not to get your heart set on specific outcomes or solutions that are almost certain to be less than what the inspired creativity of your group will produce. Expect them to blow away expectations -- yours and theirs. This actually happens quite often in open space!
But, you say, breakthroughs happen all the time without Open Space Technology. And, yes, this is true. But if we look at what is really going on at the time of these breakthroughs, we find a lot of the the same basic conditions that we create naturally and intentionally with Open Space Technology. And at the heart of every breakthrough, large or small, we find people following their hearts, speaking their truth, opening to uncertain outcomes, and working with a spirit of learning, contribution and community. The energy of these people is inviting, without their trying or even noticing, the resources they need to make their breakthrough happen. It's only later on that they create policies, procedures and position papers to defend their gains and later still that their attention turns to strategic plans, whole system change and maximizing shareholder value. Eventually, however, comes burnout, turnover, restructuring, data overload, and a need to create something new in organization -- a need for an intentional return to the best of the old days, without sacrificing shareholder value -- a real need to pull it all, invite it all, together again.
This story is about people and organizations coming back together -- beyond learning, through open space, on our way to inspiration, along a path of invitation. After command-and-control, after preach and teach, after plan and sell, after ask then tell, we are discovering the simple power of "post-and-host" -- as in post strategic invitations and host strategic conversations. And in the open space beyond the learning organization, a new kind of organization is emerging -- the inviting organization, where inviting leadership literally calls us to the work we really want to do AND manages the work to be done, very literally, practically and effectively, by the issuing of open invitations. As we continue to shift from hierarchical monologue through planning dialogue to dynamic and diverse multilogue, everyone is invited to contribute and every voice matters.
In line with this emerging multilogue, this story is really a collection of stories. My intention is not to make them into MY story. Indeed, even the parts of this story that I have penned myself aren't really mine, as they merely echo and extend the work of so many others. My point, then, is that these stories, each one finished and whole in its own right, are OURS. My intention is to pull them into OUR conversation about who we are and where we're going next -- NOT to pull them into my story, or worse yet, my argument for how things should be.
My hope is that these stories -- old and new, science and religion, workplace and community, metaphor and checklist, each and all -- when taken together, will give us fresh insights and new languages for working together in the open space, the grand uncertainty, the creative chaos, the passion bounded by responsibility and the spirited universe that we all already know as life. This is the view that I come back to again and again, to help me appreciate where we've been as people and organizations, help me remember why I do the work I do, and help me understand how I can do my work in easier alignment with what is now emerging all around the world.
And now, even as all of this is starting to sink in and flow together for us, the organization of our world seems to be dissolving. We used to call it transition, as if it would all blow over. When it lingered on, we started calling it transformation and prepared ourselves for long-term consulting fees. Now, as we look back at where we've been, we can see that it's been evolution all along -- and we're beginning to see the real possibility of doing it more simply, more quickly and more intentionally.
This is the story of evolution at work -- the emergence of inviting organization and the possibility of inviting leadership. It's the integration of a dozen or so years of professional study and personal practice in organization -- crunching numbers, building teams, redesigning process, reading, relaxing and opening space. It's an analytical mapping of the old, deep stories recounted by anthropologist Angeles Arriens and philosopher Ken Wilber and the modern business stories developed by organization development pioneers Fred and Merrelyn Emery, Open Space Technology originator Harrison Owen, and the new economy gurus at Fast Company magazine. Taken together, it invites a satisfying look back, a hopeful look forward and a practical view of our present, as the inviting organization is emerging in open space.
We are surfing the edge of chaos, along crazy waves that curl back on themselves over and over again. Fittingly enough, then, this story of the inviting organiztion is itself one grand invitation. It's an invitation to explore, experiment, experience and encourage others to join us as it all comes back together -- as we all come back together -- in an open space beyond the learning organization, where inviting leaders and inviting organizations are moving faster and easier than ever. Inviting leaders and inviting organizations, doing what they are and being what they do. They are opening, inviting stories. And the being and the doing are one, and everywhere.
Once upon a time, in a forest at the other, far eastern, edge of Canada, I stepped off solid ground into a freefall that continues to this day.
"Pay attention," I thought, "...this might be your last human sensation." These were my first and only inner words as I found myself suddenly in mid-air, just beyond the edge of the trail, the edge of Canada, the edge of earth, and the end of life, for all I knew at the time, in the utter blackness of a starless night, in a place I'd never seen in daylight. I didn't know if I would fall 15 or 150 feet. "Pay attention" was all I could think, all I could do. This must be the beginning and the end of practice. Pay attention. The heart of who we are and what we do, no matter what.
For a long time, we taught the first of these four practices as "Opening Heart." Then one morning I stood in Chris' office as he worked with a client in a difficult spot. He came back over and over again to "...the positive core." Of course, we'd been teaching for years now that "core" was one way to sneak up on "heart" with people who might be put off by that word. So I recognized this practice, but in this more practical way.
Positive core. First practice. I scribbled it on my page in the upper left quadrant of a diagram we'd been refining for eight years. The whole of our "theory", our story, is ever in flux. Then I scribbled words for the other three practices, all of which included verbs: Inviting, Supporting, Making. I started fishing for the right first verb, the doing in the first practice.
What were we really doing to or with this "positive core"? Noticing? Yes, there was some sort of reflecting, toward recognizing. It could be very powerful merely to see the positive in difficult situations. And it was something we had to touch, and be touched by. There was also a feeding, strengthening, embracing and expanding dimension.
Chris started a story about the forest, seeds, land and seasons. All of which was true, and not quite enough to capture the essence of what I'd just seen him doing. I sat and rocked, bringing attention to the space of body we call heart, the center of body, chest, heart, lungs. What are we, what do we become, what is the experience of doing this practice -- not just of being in it, but being and embodying it?
As I brought more and more attention to heart, I noticed a vastness, a kindness, a radiating, and gratitude. Wonder compounded. Appreciating. Yes, that was it, appreciating. This first practice is all of that, seeing, recognizing, wondering, caring, embracing and thanking, leveraging the positive core in people, organizations, and communities. And yes, in that process, of feeding and strengthening that core, the heart of who we are, the precious sensation of being here, being human, and having what we need, for now.
There are two ways of knowing in the world, and in our work: the outer, measurable, objective way and the inner, interpreted, subjective way. This story is a balanced marriage of these two kinds of experience. My falling and thumping was objectively real, while the sensations and reflection that followed was deeply subjective, and also real. Chris' work on the phone was observable, but "appreciation" comes forth as the product of that plus some physical and mental interpretation.
That midnight falling, which I was lucky enough to eventually walk away from, sparked some months of active reflection. The map that follows was the immediate product of that time, each word and connection worked out carefully and tested in hundreds of conversations on at least four continents. An invitation followed the map. And then more writing about how to practice Open Space and other methods to support more and more movement and connection in life and work. Inviting Leadership is our discovery and offering, a larger pattern of appreciating, inviting, supporting, and making good in organizations and communities.
In this first part of our story, we start with the map itself, an appreciative view of evolution in organizations and communities. In later sections, we use it to look around in the world, to orient ourselves, and chart a course for effective practice. Finally, we consider what and how more and more good can come from our actively embodying these practices in an ordinary, everyday way.
...maybe bring in the other paying attention... various places we saw the quadrants show up, singapore, alaska, etc.
In 1999, the cover of Fast Company magazine, a leading voice of the so-called 'new economy,' proclaimed "How Digital Is Your Company?" as the next great strategic question. According to their story, business strategy used to be as simple as "What business are you in?" As organizations evolved, "What's your business model?" became the definitive question. Today, it's all about getting digital.
These questions matter, they said, because every time we get an evolutionary click from one question to the next, everything throughout the organization needs to evolve together, to answer it. Specifically, they said that organizations need to rethink the "four basics of business" which they named as (1) attracting talent, (2) segmenting and selling customers, (3) using speed, and (4) financing operations.
Their newest and greatest strategic question, "How digital are you?" demands a rethinking of how we use information and technology to drive the flow of goods and services. In their story, however, they held up examples like McDonald?'s, Wal-Mart and Intel that were working this digital question 15 years ago. "How old is this story?" is the question that came to my mind -- followed closely by "If this is a 15-year-old strategic question, then what's the NEXT great strategic question? What are the next leading-edge organizations asking now?"
At the time this story came out, I was already deep into the work of mapping my own understanding of evolution in organization, with the overlapping stories of first-peoples anthropologist Angeles Arrien, Open Space Technology originator Harrison Owen, organization developers Fred Emery, Merrelyn Emery and Eric Trist, and philosopher Ken Wilber. If these wise people, and the map I was making from their stories, were to be of any use at all, they had better point me to the next great question.
My map was (and is) a four-quadrant, five-stage diagram of evolution in organization. Fast Company's four basics of business mapped quickly and easily into my four quadrants. Their three strategic questions fit perfectly with my first three stages of evolution. And when I looked into my own fourth stage, the next great strategic question, "How inviting is your organization?" was right there waiting for me, jumping up and down begging to be asked.
Since then, this evolutionary map has been invaluable in orienting myself to what is going on in all kinds of organizations. Along the way, I've shared it in conversation with clients and colleagues. It's been universally understood and appreciated, even by friends with no training in business or practice in organization. While the map may appear either overly simple or overwhelmingly complex at first glance, the story itself has been easily understood by those who've heard it over the phone and other places where the actual map never was drawn.
What follows here is my story of evolution at work. It begins with the story of the map, which pulls together the old stories of spirit and new stories of business and organization. Along the way, the inviting organization will emerge and will be linked to a number of other developments in organization. So it will live in the context of other real stuff, not just in the context of my little map. Finally, we bring Open Space Technology into the picture, noticing its easy alignment and ready support for the emergence of inviting at work.
As I look back, this story gives me a deeper appreciation for where we've been in organization and real satisfaction that nothing's been wasted. Looking ahead, I find a hopeful clarity and confidence that all of this swirling does indeed work out in the end. All of which helps me now, in the present, to rest a little easier, stand a little readier, and invite a little more evolution at work.
...introducing quadrants, levels... rewrite of essential frames of Inviting Org story...
This, then, is my own short story on Open Space Technology: It is the skillful and ongoing practice of invitation in organization. I say this not only because an open space event begins when the leader(s) of the organization issue a strategic invitation and open a strategic conversation, but also because of what can happen next, and next, and next... rippling through everything.
When the leader(s) of any organization notice (and dare to say) that the most important questions facing the organization are more complex, diverse and urgent than the current systems and structures can handle, that there is some conflict between what we have and what we want, Open Space Technology allows them to invite and engage anyone and everyone who has any concern or responsibility for resolving these questions. When that first invitation goes out, it naturally attracts all of those with real passion for the issues identified. This IS what any good invitation does: it raises issues, stirs passions, and links them to responsibility for showing up to work.
When the people gather on the day of the event, the facilitator walks into the open space in the center of the group (circle) and invites them again. This time the invitation is to identify the issues that they are most passionate about and for which they are willing to take some responsibility. Then any number of people jump out of their seats, grab markers and paper, and the next invitations go out. This time, however, the invitations come from all over the organization, from any of the participants in the room. These folks are inviting the rest of the group to their targeted breakout session to deal with the issue(s) that they see as most important.
When the conveners (hosts, if you will) of the breakout sessions capture the notes, ideas and next steps identified in their sessions, they can be distributed in a book or website with the same from all of the other sessions. These collected notes invite all participants, and anyone else with whom these notes and next steps are shared, to follow-through on the actions identified. Often, some of those next steps include convening other meetings in open space. In this way, the practice of invitation comes full-circle, and sets itself up as an ongoing practice in organization. When new leaders emerge in open space, new invitations spring forth, and new results tend to follow -- people and organizations growing together, by invitation.
In day-to-day organizational life, this identification of issues, assigning of responsibility, scheduling of meetings, discussion of options, and documentation of next steps all qualifies as "real work." In Open Space, however, so much of this real work happens so quickly and easily, that we often fail to notice how much real work is actually getting done. Indeed we often slip into measuring "real action" and "real work" in terms of pain and suffering rather than promise and progress. And, as ever, we'll get what we ask for.
We could theorize that this new, inviting organization goes beyond command-and-control, to a place and practice of post-and-host -- the posting of working invitations and hosting of working conversations. We could reason further that while there is much to achieve in organization, nobody wants to BE an achievement. And while people want to BE inspired, as soon as we put "inspire the troops" on our to-do list, we flatten spirit into just another doing. Invitation begins to resolve all of this -- because invitating is something we can DO as an ongoing practice and can aspire to BE as leaders and organizations.
In practice, however, we quickly discover that things tend to get done faster and easier by invitation. In short, working by invitation really works.
And looking back, we see that nothing has been wasted. We've called it management flavor-of-the-month. Well, pick your favorite flavor and you're sure to find it on the map of our evolution, sure to find it contributing to the infrastructure that supports the emergence of open invitation at work. We've seen the emergence of "people goals" and "culture objectives" that give attention to the softer side of organization. Flexible schedules, open-book management, large-group meetings of all kinds have created new options, movement and markets within organization. We've seen all kinds of experiential team-building work, supporting both the rise and the fall of traditional leadership in organization. In our systems, we've seen technology explode into e-commerce marketplaces and knowledge management systems let everyone talk to everyone, even across time through the use of archiving functions. In the area of diversity, we have evolved from boundaries and glass ceilings as a focus, to quotas (diversity by the numbers), and now to various kinds of diversity training that helps organizations find valuable diversification rather than dangerous deviance in difference. The inviting organization rests upon and fully embraces all of our work to date, every flavor-of-the-month has been distance made good.
Looking forward, with this clearer picture in hand, we can see how our journey can be that much more carefully directed and quickly actualized. We can see now how evolution calls us to balance our work in the four dimensions. Over-emphasizing finance or speed at the expense of clear cultural story and passionate, personal artistry can only throw our wheel out of balance. We can see ourselves rise and fall between the levels of evolution, not a steady, mechanical climb but a series of peak moments that we keep working and practicing to make ordinary, everyday, routine. We can see that what happens in Open Space meetings and events are such peak moments and that the practice of invitation -- doing AND being inviting -- makes more of them. And finally, we can see that in supporting this seeing, this story itself invites you to create it and reaches for the vision, the dream, that lies beyond.
As I shared this picture with Harrison Owen one evening, it occured to me that in the physicists' story, matter arises out of nothingness, the void. And in the mystic's story, spirit returns us into it. When I added that blackness in the center AND at the edges, it immediately followed that I should fold the four blackended corners into the blackened center, so the whole thing becomes a sort of doughnut. In this way, our seasonal evolution through the four quadrants becomes a spinning around the empty hole of that doughnut. And our evolution through the levels becomes a turning of that doughnut through the hole of that doughnut. This realization gave me pause, a quiet little moment of personal "oh, wow!" Then into that silence, Harrison told me for years he'd had recurring dreams of such a doughnut, mysteriously spinning in space, around and through it's own hole...and that some years later a physicist friend of his explained that physicists call the doughnut a "torus" and know it as the shape of every energy field in Universe.
So we just might be onto something that's quite a bit bigger than we expected. I find it reassuring to rest inside of a story that goes so far and can still inform my day-to-day work in organization. In a recent Open Space conference on management renewal, inside of a giant pharmaceutical corporation, a number of managers noticed that once the event got underway, I didn't seem to do very much at all. The usual comment as they approached was something like, "Boy, I wish I had YOUR job." And my usual response was to notice aloud that when we get our most important issues and projects posted on the wall, with a space and time for each one, the people get moving, the work gets done and management gets a whole lot easier.
These kinds of Open Space events are inviting this kind of simple, powerful, productive ease -- in more and more major corporations, schools, churches and community organizations around the world. I find it incredibly hopeful that so many of these stories are emerging in Open Space and in the world. More and more, it seems that as we get better at bringing people together at work, it gets easier to get the job done. It gets easier to breathe, easier to sleep, easier to let go... and easier to do the most amazing things, at work.
If we look around our world and our organizations, we see bits and pieces of this grand story everywhere. For me, it's comforting to know that there is some deep order underlying all of this day-to-day, project-to-project chaos. Now, if all of this mapping leaves you a bit blurry, give your head a good shake and get back out into the territory -- your "real" world -- but rest assured that your territory is all evolving in a big Open Space! And note that Open Space Technology is not only a nice "unstructured" way to "get things started." It's actually a highly evolved way of being in organization and getting things done. Which means that our work is to new structures that support it's ongoing practice, rather than simply piling more old hierarchical structures on top of it. In short, our job is to grow more of what's already working.
For example, when Harrison Owen convened his first symposium on Organization Transformation, the participants all told him the best part of it all was the coffee breaks. So the next time around, he intentionally invited his participants to nothing more than one big coffee break -- and Open Space Technology was born. Intentional evolution, too, is all about seeing what's best in what we're already doing and working toward, naming it in a simple invitation, and opening the space for our colleagues, customers, suppliers, neighbors and friends, to work together, to create more and more of it.
This is how I've come to understand and pursue what's best in organization: passion, vision, movement, effectiveness. This is the best I can do for now and I'm happy with how it's taken shape. At the same time, however, I know that this story -- and every other invitation, plan and map -- is flat.
In every moment here, I choose but one word, where in fact, it would take many to tell the whole truth. I've tried to not write this story for more than a year, but I find that it won't go away, won't leave me in peace. Even so, every time I sit to write, I come face-to-face with the unfathomable odds against my getting it right -- getting it squeezed into the words that will allow you to understand what I'm understanding, in a way that you can use it in your life.
Fact is, there are plenty of days when I can't even explain it to myself in the words I need, to know just what to do, at just the moment that I need to do it. Sometimes it happens anyway. I'd like to think it's a result of all the 'practicing' I do, in my mind, in those moments right after I should or could have done something very right. Perhaps the catch is that the moment of doing doesn't really need to be separate from the moment of seeing? But to not pull them apart is an awesome challenge, and who knows what might happen if my trust, my patience, my wisdom and compassion actually succeeded in leaving them together!
So, this is a story that I could not not write -- a call I could not refuse -- and yet, one that I know is seeking a level of clarity and certainty that this written world just doesn't allow us humans; seeking a power that can only come when I sit with you and really listen to your story -- as you help me know it and then I tell you mine -- the two of us working together to find the words that lead us to us.
And when it really works, writing this story of ours feels like a slow version of stepping up onto the top of a mountain, breathing the light of a sunrise, or inviting the smile of a little kid -- and saying "wow!" to nobody but myself -- before I can even really think it. It's a time of not doing anything and unavoidably doing something. It's about being powerfully connected to the whole and hopelessly alone in the details of my own understanding of it all; being driven to write even as I see what we really need is conversation you and me, us and them, more and more... about the things we care about most, are afraid we won't get or can't have, and yet must pursue.
And all shall be well, as we post invitations and host conversations, marrying the personal and the strategic. It really does work! NOT because of our planning and efforting -- but because the world really is waiting for us, really is calling for us, to invite it into these conversations. The world is ever ready to create more of what works, more of what is best for all of us.
And when we answer this call for simplicity, (costing not less than everything), we become inviting leaders inviting leadership. Evolution is now and open space. And the invitation and the organization are one. Please join us...
THIS IS AN OLDER VERSION... WE NEED TO PULL THE NEW ONE FROM THE LATEST VERSION OF WHAT WAS COMPILED INTO THAT WORD DOCUMENT.
On January 16 2002 I was sitting in the banquet room of a golf club in suburban Greater Vancouver watching 40 people struggle through an Open Space meeting that none of them seemed to want to have. The participants, most of them senior managers, were from a regional health authority and they were in the middle of a period of brutal funding cuts and leadership change at the top of the organization. The anxiety arising from the uncertainty was palpable. The grief in the room was raw and present.
I had been invited to host an Open Space gathering that was intended to introduce these senior managers to Open Space as part of a larger organizational learning program, and provide them with time and space to deal with their personal reactions to the issues of change. My notes from the day recollect an atmosphere of loss and despair and several people were worried that their sense of powerlessness in the face of the budget and service reductions would lead to a choice to leave their work.
As the day progressed and the reality of the grief became more apparent, I sat trying to consider how I would end the day. I felt like I could offer very little to this group, except to invite them to inquire as to how they organized themselves during the day in Open Space and see if they noticed something different. In searching for ideas and inspiration I found, on my hard drive, a copy of The Inviting Organization Emerges. Since I had been establishing a connection with Michael over the previous four months, I had downloaded the book but hadn't yet read it. In a desperate search to help me prepare some final remarks I opened the file and started reading.
The map immediately spoke to me, and the entire book immediately spoke to the situation I had found myself in. We were in an Open Space but there was no invitation in the organization anywhere, there was no support for the work that might get started on the day and action was such a distant possibility that very few people had expectations that anything could work. The day had been half conceived as a learning day, half designed to talk about powerful issues, but there wasn't enough juice in either of those invitations to ground anything effectively.
But in these quadrants, and in this mysterious play of interiors and exteriors, and individuals and collectives, there was something we could use. I carefully took four pieces of paper, labeled them Purpose, Story, Structure and Action and placed them around the inside of the circle of chairs, ready for the closing.
As people reconvened I told the story of the inviting organization, as I had read it just then. It was the first time all day there had been any kind of excitement present in the room. Eyes lit up, people sat forward a little in their chairs. Here were four magic words lying on the floor, and here I was talking about each quadrant and what would happen if we were to move towards spirited work in each quadrant.
There was a hum in the room, even at the end of a long and dispirited day. A few comments and questions were offered about the model, and finally one person said “This is what I need. I need my hospital to be an inviting workplace. I don't care about the cuts anymore, I just want people to feel invited to come to work.”
I was awestruck at the deep response to such a simple model. Part of it was the integrity of the quadrants themselves, focusing on all aspects of organizational life. Part of it too was that this map, like all good maps, helps us get oriented on the landscape and gives us clues about where we might go. And like big maps, the map of the inviting organization also inspires us to travel to the horizons, into the realm of spirited work and deeper being in the world.
The story itself travels well, and I found myself using it to help people figure out where they were stuck. I started noticing that the story itself flows nicely from Purpose to Story to Structure to Action. Seen in this progression, it articulated the ways ideas originate as inspiration and move through planning and implementation to become action. This use of the map helped me once when I was facilitating a strategic planning session with an environmental group in Whistler, BC. The group had been founded by environmental activists and was becoming more and more mainstream, with many people now joining from established businesses for whom instituting a recycling program was a big step forwards.
The group was meeting to plan what they might do over the next year, but our conversations about action seemed not to be getting to the core of some of the underlying issues. In order to find out where we were stuck, I walked the group through the quadrants model. The purpose was pretty clear, and no one seemed stuck on the vision. But when I asked the structure question – how to we get where we want to go? - a skirmish broke out.
“THAT is the fundamental problem,” said one group member. “Some of us want to use activist techniques, and the new people want us to be more 'respectable.' As far as I'm concerned that's a sell out.”
A new board member responded. “As far as I'm concerned this group's move to the middle in terms of tactics is responsible for me joining. I wouldn't be a board member of a radical group.”
From there the stage was set for the real conversation the group needed to have. Could we balance approaches to environmental issues in a way which invited inclusion and effectiveness?
While the quadrants themselves provide as useful tool for looking at organizational dynamics, the promise of evolution through these quadrants became an inspiring story for me as well. As I looked at how one might travel around the quadrants while moving out at the same time through the levels of matter, body, mind, soul and spirit, I realized that we could chart the evolution of almost any organization or community. And not only could we use the quadrants/levels story to trace history, but also to give us some perspective on where we might go. I took the theory of this story and, over a year or so, re wrote it into the story of the donut shop that changed the world. And briefly the story goes like this:
It's important to note that this story begins with the appreciation of what is, and is propelled through the levels and quadrants by a continual appreciation of the place in the pattern where we are in organizations and communities.
A map of the ground helps us to orient ourselves and to become curious about what we are and what we might also be. It brings us to a place where we can begin to appreciate the assets we have and the deep connection we cultivate to our purpose.
outline of story bits to write, review and blog