Generosity Without Wealth

Giving material goods is one form of generosity, but one can extend an attitude of generosity into all one’s behavior. Being kind, attentive, and honest in dealing with others, offering praise where it is due, giving comfort and advice where they are needed, and simply sharing one’s time with someone – all these are forms of generosity, and they do not require any particular level of material wealth.

His Holiness The Dalai Lama

Open Space Happens

Noticed this bit recently in the NYTimes, by an MD expert reflecting on the edge at not knowing. Sounds a lot like open space occuring naturally in the wild of everyday living and working:

While I was able to reel off statistics on the latest treatments and medications, I found I had little to offer when it came to issues most pressing to them. I wasn’t sure of the best way to organize and remember the dozens of medications they were required to take. I didn’t know the most efficient way for them to schedule follow-up visits with me or my colleagues. I had no suggestions other than more pills for dealing with the nausea induced by their anti-rejection drugs. And I could only listen, speechless, to stories about co-workers who continued to discriminate against them by treating them like “sick people.”

I watched as the audience spontaneously broke out into smaller groups, people’s faces lighting up as they recognized their own travails in the stories of others.

The event organizer, a transplant patient herself who regularly coordinated lectures like this, approached me. To my surprise, instead of being upset with me, she bubbled over with praise.

“What you’ve done tonight is to help each of these people begin talking with someone who has been through the exact same experience,” she said. She looked out at the audience and smiled. “This,” she said, pointing to the clusters of conversations, “means more than you realize.”

The story also relates a study in which diabetes patients were given added physician support, monetary rewards, OR peer mentoring support. After six months, only the peer-supported group had significantly lowered blood sugar levels.

I’m continually surprised by how much we have to learn from each other and how often important learning (working, creating, connecting) happens in spite of, rather than because of, the way we usually structure our work and relations.

The Ideal Invitation

Years ago, I wrote in Inviting Organization Emerges, “…diversity, that’s really only half-way there, as it is really about uniqueness, the reality that each of us is absolutely unique…” Today, it seems that 31 years of research, reported by Peter Bregman at Harvard Business Review, is now backing me up on this.

Bregman’s case against diversity training suggests it predictably fails because it heightens, rather than diffuses, focus (especially negative) on categories instead of individual people. While he proposes instead a regimen of “communications” training, to help people deal with each other as unique individuals, I’d suggest this also is only a half-way solution. People, like the differences between them, aren’t as important as the things they hold in common, as valuable, or even more, as ideal(s). Focusing on individuals takes focus away from the importance of the work and it’s best possible outcomes.

I’m quite convinced that organization development pioneers Fred and Merrelyn Emery, with Eric Trist, had it right decades ago, with their core assumptions that people are purposeful (you might disagree or not understand their purposes but they always have one!) — and can be ideal seeking. Values, mission, and vision statements are about as useful in getting real work done as diversity training. Instead, articulate an ideal, or set of them, and invite people to seek their realization, or replication.

It can be as simple as “we’ve had three great successes in the history of this company, and now we’re up against [insert challenge here] — so we need another great success, and soon.” Almost any statement that starts with “We’re in a real pickle, or are sitting at the edge of a great and complex opportunity, and the ideal solution… ” would do. Ideals are stories that directly inform us about what to do — not because they specify the steps, but because they help everyone measure (against the ideal) every step along the way.

So the most important thing about people is not our categories and not our differences — but not our individual preferences and styles, either. What matters in doing great work is shared ideals that we can articulate, care about, and choose to seek together. This is the logic and wisdom of invitation. Review the situation and point to some important shared ideal(s), and get to work.

In the same way that communications trumps diversity training, clarity and greatness of purpose overcomes the need for communication and teambuilding trainings. High ideals invite and require great work, while narrow interests and mushy values communications open space for nitpicking of all kinds. Or said another way, if we have a great shared ideal, a most important shared purpose, we’ll find a way to understand each other.

This is not to minimize situations of genuine mistreatment or disrespect, only to say that they will be greatly reduced by more active calls to important work.

One View

Patrul Rinpoche, a great Tibetan buddhist teacher, wrote a book called Words of My Perfect Teacher. In it, he cites a famous Tibetan master as saying, “That is why my view is higher than the sky, but my attention to my actions and their effects is finer than flour.”

I think I might call this “vastness without a loss of focus.” I’d suggest it’s not far from what we routinely invite in Open Space meetings. We ask participants to consider their biggest, broadest, most important business issues and work out all the nitty gritty details that might be required to address them. We ask them to take on the long-term success of their group, project or whole organization even as they make tiny and personal decisions about what to do to maximize their learning and contribution… now and now and now again.

As another great master once noted… it’s not that Big Mind is better than small mind. It’s the going back and forth that strengthens us. And so I think it is with how minds move in Open Space, and also between Open Space meetings and “normal” or “everyday” ways of working. It’s important to have the capacity to Open Space, sometimes, in whatever moments it’s needed.

Heartening, too, to see this sort of view manifesting in a new book about American politics and economics. Recently I read a summary of American Gridlock, by H. Woody Brock, an intellectual powerhouse and the product of a brilliant economic lineage. In it, he suggests win-win solutions to cut through what he calls the “Dialogue of the Deaf” in Washington. He suggests that the entitlements, especially healthcare, dilemma we face in this country can be solved by increasing access to healthcare — but also (and only!) by simultaneously increasing the supply of services even faster, in ways that cause total spending on them to decline.

He makes similar “this AND that” proposals — all reasoned from what he calls First Principles, not idealogical positions or data cherry-picked or otherwise massaged to fit some narrow interest or bias — to resolve our debt, tax and employment situation, strengthen our negotiating position with China, and rethink redistribution of income in ways that respect relative contribution of our luckiest stars and the relative needs of the unluckiest poor.

Again, it’s the going back and forth between these apparent opposites or mutual exclusives that will strengthen us.

Now What?

some reflections following a conversation this week with a client, about what to do now that they are several weeks past their first open space meeting, an annual/national sort of managers gathering:

if we make open space a “process” or worse yet a “special process” and focus even casually on it being somehow magic, radical, new or otherwise different, then we make all the benefits, the passion, clarity, movement and results of the “program” unattainable until “leadership” convenes or allows a repeat of the “event.” it tells people that they have to go back to being smaller, in whatever box or bottle they habitually stuff themselves into in order to get along in an “organization.”

if, on the other hand, we understand that open space is just an expanded version, deeper, more focused, more fluid perhaps, of what we already do all the time, it tells people that they should continue to feel good, move freely, and keep maximizing their own learning and contribution. if we remember and remind, in official and casual ways, that open space is common and normal: inviting, conversing, and documenting, it gives people permission to be as caring, engaged and responsible as they can be.

caring, engaged, responsible — these are the things that we can explore, invite, and celebrate in every interaction, every time we pick up a phone or a keyboard. in this way opening space is not just a process. it’s also a posture. a doing and a non-doing(being). it’s the things we do to run a meeting and the way that we are with people everyday. i’ve long suggested “inviting” is a useful way to think about this because it let’s me straddle these to ways. it’s a thing i can do, but it’s also a way that i can aspire to be.

the real practice is the effortless pulsation between the two. at our best, these two appear as one, in the same way that some of lifes most amazing moments arise out of surprisingly ordinary circumstances. when it happens, it seems so easy. when it’s not happening, it can seem completely impossible. but when all else fails, it’s enough to keep asking each other “what matters most right now?” and restart the conversation and action from there.

convening power

what i’ve called the practice of invitation, harvard business school’s rosabeth moss kanter highlights here as “convening power.”

The best CEOs do it. Effective entrepreneurs do it. Middle managers who become change agents do it. Individuals with passion do it. Weak leaders are too timid to do it. On September 20-22 former President Bill Clinton is doing it.

Hold those scurrilous thoughts. “It” is convening large groups to tackle big issues and commit to action.

The Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) models the use of a widely-accessible but still-underutilized power in any sector or company: convening power. As leadership shifts away from hierarchical decisions-at-the-top-slowly-cascading-downward, to social networks and self-organizing, knowing how to use convening power becomes critical.

…On a small scale, that’s what meet-ups do. They are self-organized vehicles for finding out who has the interest and capabilities and then getting something moving. Women’s networks have started in many companies just because someone decided to host a breakfast and identify areas for problem-solving.

On a bigger scale, this model is used by courageous CEOs to morph the 15-person management committee into a 1500-person leadership cadre that comes together in one place, in fluid subgroups, to define issues and commit to solutions — like John Chamber’s strategy meetings at Cisco. In another case, a company in trouble convened 35 top people for a leadership conference; post-turnaround, they convened 350. With 350, much more work was done on the spot, including policy changes and action commitments fully embraced by those who would implement them.

Sounds an awful lot like Open Space and Inviting Leadership to me.

the essence of invitation

“i’m going, because it matters. come with me. we need you.” this is, to me, the essence of invitation.

harrison owen reported recently, via the OSLIST, on a conversation with a woman who was in the middle of the tahrir square action earlier this year. they concluded that the tahrir event(s) had all the deep qualities of open space, and none of the official trappings, no facilitator, no flipcharts and markers. i thought, yes, that’s true, save one: invitation, lots of individual invitations, that must have sounded just like “i’m going, because it matters. come with me. we need you.”

this might be the best working template for invitation that i’ve yet discovered. there is the integrity of the leader going first, committing first. there is the statement of an issue or opportunity that really matters. it’s personal and active and voluntary: come with me. and it points out beyond control, to what the leader can do only with the help of others: we need you.

harrison’s point was that open space is naturally occuring, and i would say that’s true… because invitation is naturally occuring. facilitation and flipcharts? not so much. but invitation… is.

inviting business

euan semple muses today about what to call our new way(s) of doing social-media-powered business. He suggests the term “literate business.” my response:

my dad used to work in public relations for ford motor company. along the way he wrote things like the marker at henry ford’s birthplace and materials that went out to every ford shareholder, sometimes speeches, too, i think. when i was learning to write in grade school, he told me “the last thing you do when you write, is write.” think, feel, sense… sort… write.

literate doesn’t fit for me. i always go back to the dictionary on these things, to have a look at the old shape of these things. literate: scholarly, learned. but what you’ve actually described seems more reflective than literate. then i wondered about articulated, annotated, and examined. the unexamined business is not worth…?

and then i come back to the stuff i started working on 10+ years ago, this story of “inviting organization.” perhaps what you’re talking about is “inviting business.” (see InvitingOrganizationEmerges for the full story.) in essence, these new tools and practices you’re talking about are for actively inviting new business, and simultaneously require the thinking, feeling, sensing, and reflecting that must inform our actually being inviting, connecting people.

for me, “inviting business” captures all of the inner, subjective, and aspirational AND all of the outer, objective, and technically practical (practice-able) dimensions of personal practice, collaborative work, and business organization today.

what makes open space training work?

a question came up today, on the OSLIST, about the design of open space training programs, and what the leader could do to make them “work.” this was my contribution to that conversation:

thinking back on the trainings i’ve attended, hosted, designed, and led, the single most important criteria is not what we as ‘trainers’ or ‘teachers’ bring. rather, just like in any other open space (cuz what we’re really doing is just opening a space for learning and exploration of open space itself), so just like any other open space, the thing that matters is the complexity, diversity, urgency and passion that comes in with the participants.

to increase or at least encourage these things, i used to ask early and often for them to bring real situations to work on and wrestle with. then during the sessions, it seems important to keep looking for those situations… not only where “ost” might be used in a meeting, but where each participant may have encountered open space somewhere else in their lives. open space is. and we find ourselves casting about in it from time to time.

how have we handled those times? how can we understand and learn from our responses to those moments? when have we been able to do nothing but “be with” one or more others in their work or even suffering? and as we turn these stones over, the thing we do is help folks understand that it’s all part of normal life, rather than something to be fixed, avoided or otherwise controlled. so we don’t so much as teach open space, but suggest that it’s normal, and useful… then it’s easier to deal with some of those complex, diverse, urgent, passionate meeting situations.

for a while i led training programs with others, and soon found myself callling them “practice workshops” and “practice retreats,” inviting as actively as possible participants to step across the line, between observing open space and actually diving in, or noticing that it is indeed everywhere around them. for some years, the way i’ve extended this is to give up the ‘program’ altogether and work one-on-one with people who want to learn the practice. that’s what i ended up doing inside the ‘program’ anyway.

my one requirement in the one-on-one work is that people bring one or more real situations, so that i can point out the many options and they can make real choices between those options. i think they learn the options better when they examine them all in the face of choosing one. so next time, they will again have all the options to consider, and perhaps choose differently because the situation is different. but mostly what this does is maximize the concentration of “reality” and minimize the spectating and ungrounded theorizing that sometimes bubbles up in training conversations.

the most important condition for learning open space would seem to be a willingness to be in it, in work, in life. if students are willing to make that leap: learning happens.

Inviting Democracy

NYTimes reporting this week…
Few Americans have heard of Gene Sharp. But for decades, his practical writings on nonviolent revolution — most notably From Dictatorship to Democracy, a 93-page guide to toppling autocrats, available for download in 24 languages — have inspired dissidents around the world, including in Burma, Bosnia, Estonia and Zimbabwe, and now Tunisia and Egypt. Full story

leadership and practice

my own working definition of leadership is “practice made visible (to others).” which is to say, invite by vivid example. so what is practice? this guide from last week’s retreat with julie henderson…

notice. continue. stabilize.

this is true for any practice, but we might say that inviting leadership practice will notice, continue and stabilize “what’s working” or “what’s most inviting” in the practitioner’s group, organization or community.


this weekend i did a number of small things that i’d like to think must be part of some grander solution. perhaps you’re doing some of these same sorts of things.

on saturday morning, we woke up to a pile of new snow. so i shovelled our house and six or seven neighbors, plus the park on the corner and the lawrence avenue bridge across the chicago river.

later that day, we bought faucet parts from a tiny little local 30-year-old family shop where adam runs a service counter almost buried in every imaginable faucet part, old and new, as a steady stream of customers line up six deep for his help fixing or finding parts for all kinds of old faucets. on the way home we stopped in at the riverbank neighbors mid-winter planning meeting. then we loaned our folding chairs in support of a baby shower across the street.

tonight, i wrote and mailed a letter to our new governor recommending somebody for appointment to the metropolitan water reclamation commission (the folks who manage the river at the end of our street). this week i’ll send out an email reminder for our block’s next monthly potluck dinner. last weekend i distributed 1000 neighborhood newsletters to 30 block delivery people. it’s also time to make and distribute flyers for the neighborhood winter social event.

less locally, this week i’ll also have conversations about organizing meetings for the future of buffalo new york, the future of the credit union industry, and some other important projects where i might make some small contribution to others’ larger success. more personally, we’re still chipping away at a number of plumbing projects (with some borrowed tools) as we refinish an old house, still slogging away at the triathlon challenge mentioned a few posts back, and just getting started on painting the kitchen so we can finally order cabinets and counters.

mostly this doesn’t seem so much like working as just living. and when i stop long enough to notice, it seems quite lucky that i’m able to do any of these things.

San Diego

Opening Space in San Diego this week. I did a large-ish department’s annual meeting last year and that is being repeated in OS this year, finished this morning. Wonderful to sit in the circle and talk “practice” with 30 or 40 people who’ve now done this twice and are keen to soak it into the rest of their year and work.

Keen too, to share it with the rest of the organizaiton. We’re going to do that in a couple days, when we open again for 100 or so of the management team. This is a new one for me, opening for subset and then opening just days later for the whole (and many people totally new to Open Space). Already, it’s made for good conversation about what this department has learned, and how it will be same and familiar and also very new and different to go now into Open Space with the larger organization.

Also… Hoping to meet up with OS friend and colleague Raffi Aftandelian while I’m here. Went over with the meeting group for dinner on the deck of the USS Midway. (a very BIG boat, but very small airport. amazing.) A bit more noodling on the Four Practices (previous post), too, which I’ll see about posting later.

A Fresh Take on those Four Practices

Over the course of several years, I wrote and taught and wrote some more about Open Space Technology as the skillful practice of Inviting Leadership. Along the way, I wrestled mightily with what we called “The Four Practices,” trying to articulate what it was that we are really doing when we Open Space. Eventually, I just gave up.

Last week, Raffi Aftandelian’s new e-book, Living Peace: The Open Space of Our Lives, (and a request for the latest version of the Practices, which didn’t really exist) gave me a chance to refresh my thinking on these things. So here’s the new short list… Open Heart. Share What’s Inside. Let Everything Move. Own What Happens. And the full story, which I really (finally) do like.

Home Again

It’s just past our first anniversary in the house here and it finally feels like we’ve arrived someplace.

Some weeks ago there was a NYTimes story about a 17-years-running monthly neighborhood potluck “supper club” in New York City. I shared it with a few neighbors here. They shared my interest and last night we had our first dinner. We had positive responses from about 20 of the 28 households we invited, which we thought was pretty good. And by the miracle of potluck, we had entrees, salads, fruit, veggies, and desserts, all totally unplanned. A success by all accounts. At several points through the evening I thought, “I should get up, get around, see all of what and who is here.” Sort of “conference” mode kicking in. Each time followed immediately by the realization that there was no need to rush. No plane to catch. We all live here. And the party’s just beginning. At home.

In a year of busy comings and goings, we’ve met a number of our neighbors, but almost all the conversations seem to take place as one person is just about to walk or drive off to something else. After a night a just hanging out with folks, I came home last night thinking, “What a bunch of good and interesting people.” This morning I’m remembering that this “good people” view shows up over and over again in a volume of favorite life stories my Dad wrote down a few years ago. So the new party feels a lot like the continuation of an old party. Home again.

Backyard Stewardship


Well, it’s official. I’ve been fingerprinted. I’ll be getting a badge and a handbook.

But mostly I’ll just be doing here in my own backyard what I’ve been helping others do around in lots of other places. I’m the new volunteer steward for the Ronan Park Nature Trail that runs along the Chicago River just north of here.

So I’m doing what I suggest to all my clients, posting invitations online, in newsletters, and in the Park… convening gatherings, in this case to work on and enjoy the Trail… and beginning to document what happens in simple blog, an open public record.

Please join us if/when you’re in the neighborhood!

Radical Transitions

That’s the name of George’s and Jack’s newish blog. Radical Transitions: An intentional model for community building. I went a bit nuts in the comments there today, agreeing with Wasting Time Building Consensus.

In short, almost always, I find consensus to be oppressive. An arbitrary requirement that restricts individual action. I much prefer “Finding Consensus” to “Building” it. I prefer to find and focus on those things that we already agree on.

Those agreements, made clear just as they are — not necessarily made broader or deeper — can support immediate action, by anyone. Over time, as we find agreements, take actions, make contributions, we’re bound to make more agreements. We’ll also get more done.

Now I’m curious what else G and J have tucked away in their upcoming book.

The Substance of Revolution

Recent calls for “substance”, or more commonly criticisms of its absence, in Barack Obama’s speeches remind me of so many questions I’ve heard over the years about “How does open space technology lead to action?”

When 100 or 200 people create a working agenda of 50 or 70 cricital issues, take personal responsibility for leading those conversations, and pledge to bring back the notes to share with everybody — in about an hour — that IS action. We just have to know where to look.

As to the history of the Revolution, my ideas may be peculiar, perhaps singular. What do we mean by the Revolution? The War? That was no part of the Revolution. It was only an Effect and Consequence of it. The Revolution was in the minds of the People . . .
—John Adams

Many Obama supporters might simply be thinking differently about politics, partisanship, and policy. It’s a different set of priorities, that includes the process, and the personal experience of the process. Words like cult and messiah are popping up, I think, because it looks so mysterious, as many are voting on the basis of criteria that simply don’t exist for some others. Jeff Aitken has some interesting things about Obama and self-organization and another post that includes this:

Catherine Austin Fitts warns us that we have a stark choice: we support the centralizers or the decentralizers. We support a centralizing economic system (the “tapeworm” economy, which has sucked 10 trillion dollars out of communities into globalized concentrations of wealth); or forge a decentralizing, community economics when we pull our investments (and those of our community’s institutions, like pension funds) out of the tapeworm and put them to work in our communities. The government is not coming to our rescue when “peak everything” leaves us to our own relationships with farmers and shoemakers.

The Adams quote comes from Fitts, and I’ve added her Coming Clean process, toward a financially intimate world, to the Practices Roll in the sidebar. If self-organization and Open Space are less centralized, more intimate, then is it fair to say that Obama is running a more intimate campaign and proposing a more politically intimate government? Not just “for” the people, but more “of” and “by” than ever before?

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