Open Space and Spirit Shows Up

Harrison Owen

Although I have written much on the subject of Spirit (1), I have never been able to define it. Then again, I have never felt any particular need to. My experience, shared by many I believe, has been that we know Spirit when we meet, and no precise definition is necessary, or even particularly useful. We know that when Spirit is present in a group of people, wonderful things can happen. We also know that when Spirit is somehow absent or flagging, no amount of money in the bank, technology in the backroom, or executive talent on the roster makes much difference – nothing really seems to go right.

Of course there are times when precise statements about the quality and nature of Spirit are important, but in the work-a-day world, it is usually sufficient to acknowledge the presence of Spirit, by whatever name. Call it what you like – team spirit, esprit de corps, Great Spirit of the Cosmos – sooner or later they all connect. I think. But the critical thing is to acknowledge Spirit when we meet, and somehow summon it again when it is absent.

For me, quite simply, Spirit is the most important thing in my life, my work, and in the organizations I serve. When it is present, I experience power, flow, and endless possibilities. When Spirit goes on a holiday, it is a dull day indeed. I do not think I am alone. So allowing (inviting, encouraging) Spirit to show up is not an incidental consideration.

One might even say that I am hooked on Spirit. Indeed, it seems to be a life long addiction. As a young adult, the symptoms were largely “negative,” manifesting as something I was missing. I didn’t know what I was missing, but I did know that something of import was absent from my life. I suppose you could call this the beginning of a Spiritual journey, but to be honest, if felt much more like an attempted prison break.

I think it had a lot to do with the ’50s. I went to the “right” preparatory school, followed by the “right” college, Eisenhower was in the White House, and everything was supposedly “right” with the world. Of course Kerouac was on the road, and the Beats were following a different path, but I seemed to be locked in a jail not of my making. And frankly, I just wanted Out – some room to breath.

My initial attempt at opening some doors and windows for my life might seem odd, I became a priest (Episcopalian). If this sounds like an “out of the fat – into the fire” sort of thing, the reality was quite different. Indeed the Church (or at least the Episcopal Church), was one of the few places where thinking and doing different sorts of things was allowed, and to some degree actually encouraged. Within limits, of course. Wearing a clerical collar can be restrictive, but I found the immediate alternative of a grey flannel suit, uniform of the corporate world, to be infinitely less attractive.

The first edition of my life plan turned out to be short lived. The 60’s and the Civil Rights movement burst in and I traded parish life for city streets, first in the deep South and then in our nation’s capitol. In quick succession I turned organizer for civil rights demonstrations, directed a community action organization, created urban programs for Peace Corps in West Africa, conceived and managed patient, public and professional education programs for the National Institutes of Health, and concluded with my last honest job as a political appointee in the Carter administration. Since then, I’ve been a consultant.

The good news has been the bountiful opportunity for thinking and doing all sorts of different things. But I was still looking for Spirit. And Spirit came in a most unexpected way as the gift of two martinis.

The Gift of Two Martinis

The story may be briefly told. In 1983 several colleagues (including our illustrious editor, Peter Vaill) and I organized what became known as The First International Symposium on Organization Transformation. In those benighted days, Transformation was a familiar phenomenon in the worlds of physics, esoterica, and psychology – but never to be thought of in relation to organizations, and especially those hard nosed critters called corporations. After a year’s hard work the Symposium rolled out with 250 participants and a panoply of speakers, workshops and panels. But much to my surprise and chagrin, the best parts were the coffee breaks, and all the rest seemed an interruption to the main event… the coffee breaks. So much for one year’s work.

Two years later, I agreed to host the 3rd iteration of the Symposium (we are now at #18), but with the caveat that never again would I create all the organizational minutia associated with the standard conference. I was also clear that I hadn’t a clue how we would actually proceed. And so the martinis.

The first martini got me through the ego-shock caused by the realization that one year’s work had largely been wasted on creating interuptions to the all powerful coffee breaks. And with the second, I began to meditate on possible alternatives. My mind drifted to experiences in West African bush villages where I had noticed that people seemed to gather with ease, elegance and a minimum of up-front arrangement – and their secret seemed to lie in the fact that they always sat in a circle. Perhaps, I thought, if we were to start in a circle… but then, what would we do? The image of a bulletin board came to mind upon which might be posted all the things that people wished to explore. That done, a market place might provide the means and opportunity to make the necessary time/space arrangements for groups to gather. And just about then the gin ran out.

Four months later, 65 intrepid souls met in Monterey CA for the Third International Symposium on Organization Transformation. We began in a circle, and in a very short time had completely organized a 5 day meeting from scratch. It worked, much to the surprise of all. But more than simply “work,” there was a quality in the working which I could only describe as inspiring or … Spirited. Something quite different had happened, and we called it Open Space Technology.

The Open Space Experience

Open Space Technology, as it has evolved, is an approach to meetings of all sorts, enabling groups from 5 to 1500 to quickly self-organize around complex issues with very substantive, and often surprising results. For example, 400 Boeing engineers needed to improve the doors they made for the multiple aircraft in the company’s product line.

If you are going to make better doors at a reasonable cost, it is obviously necessary to understand in some minute detail how doors were presently made. Unfortunately nobody at Boeing actually knew how they made doors. This was not a matter of stupidity or oversight, but rather the enormous complexity of the operation. 20,000 people in something like 5 countries all had a hand in the process. Standard practice would dictate sending out a party of experts to benchmark current practice, analyze the results, do a re-design and disseminate the results. A process which might take a year or two. But that time was not available.

Instead, the 400 Boeing folks gathered for two days and a little bit in two separate sites, connected by computers, at the end of which they basically had the results they required. It wasn’t pretty in the sense that detailed multi-colored charts had been prepared, but they had the essential elements from which a much smaller group could quickly produce a finished product.

Open Space is extraordinarily simple. Those who cared about doors were invited to come. They sat in a circle, actually several concentric circles. A bulletin board was created on which the group could post the issues that any person thought to be important. When all the issues were posted, a market place opened in which those who cared about the issues might discover colleagues who were interested to pursue the several issues, and make the necessary time and place arrangements. Lapsed time to this point was about one and a half hours. There were two facilitators (one for each site) who basically spent their time following the opening picking up coffee cups. There was no advance work done on the agenda or the structure of the meeting, both of which appeared as if on cue in the hour and a half opening.

The experience at Boeing has now been repeated thousands of times with every sort of group imaginable, on virtually every continent on the planet. In short, this was not a freak event, albeit Boeing engineers are in fact a remarkable group. It seems, based on current evidence, that any sort of group, anywhere in the world is capable of similar results.

Most people, when told the raw facts of the situation find it rather hard to believe. By training and experience we would expect days or weeks of advance preparation, an army of facilitators, and a tightly structured design – none of which occurred. You may well ask, what on earth is going on? To be honest, that is an evolving mystery, but it probably has a great deal to do with what we are now learning about the process of self-organization in systems of all sorts. But 15 years of global experience with thousands of iterations makes it exquisitely clear that the situation described at Boeing is by no means unique, and that it is repeatable. (2)

And There Is More

The speed of organization and the substantial nature of the results are indeed a surprise, but even more surprising are the manifest behaviors evidenced by the group. Without prior instruction, indeed without even mentioning the words, Self-managed Work Groups appeared as the modus operandi. Effective leadership manifest where needed without prior designation. Diversity of opinion was not only tolerated, but honored as the rich seed bed of new opportunity. This diverse group of what in other situations were often hostile and suspicious competitors, became (apparently without intention or effort) something that looked an awful lot like a truly supportive community which not only worked hard to accomplish much, but also had fun doing all that. And through it all, the facilitators never intervened, no manager or executive called the group to task, or struggled to keep them on time and in order. Everything just happened by itself.

Much more happened indeed, but the most significant occurrence could not be seen with the eyes of flesh. Spirit showed up. Call it inspiration, inspired performance – call it what you like, but in some indefinable way (and the presence of Spirit always seem to outrun the capacity of language) the group became electric, almost incandescent. It just glowed. This was not about frenetic activity, or stellar performances by this or that individual, although both occurred. But the group as a whole evidenced a pacing, rhythm, flow which seemed at once effortless and possessing of enormous power. Clocks, although in evidence, seemed never to be consulted. Our editor Peter Vaill would have been quite pleased to say, I think, that what he called a High Performing System had just appeared. Although this High Performing System created itself on demand, so to speak. I can only say, Spirit (with a capitol S) showed up.

Open Space as a Spiritual Practice

Obviously, the discovery of ways to Spirit is not a novel undertaking. Indeed, every religion, to say nothing of all the esoteric practices have been engaged in the process. I have never thought of Open Space as a religion, although some of my colleagues and critics are not so sure. But as a practice, I have found Open Space to be very rewarding.(3) And we desperately need effective practices.

The recent interest in Spirituality, and more particularly, Spirituality in organizations and businesses is interesting, and maybe even beneficial, but I find much of the emphasis to be more appropriate to the head than to the heart or Soul. Many words about Spirit, but somehow Spirit never really seems to show up. So I must ask – Where’s the Beef? What’s the practice?

The list of practices, possible and actual, is virtually infinite. But most, indeed all that I can think of, apply to the individual. The notion is, each person must find their practice, pursue it, and thereby (and usually after a very long time) achieve enlightenment in some form or another. And enlightenment, of course, is but another way of talking about a direct encounter with Spirit. All well and good. But what about large groups of people? And what about the time available? After all there are 6 billion of us on the planet, with another 4-5 billion arriving soon. To the extent that enlightenment, or if you prefer, a direct and meaningful encounter with Spirit is essential for a full and truly productive life (and I think it is), we have a lot, and probably an impossible amount of work ahead of us. There are neither the teachers nor the time to pursue such a goal in any foreseeable future.

Please do not mis-understand me. I am by no means suggesting that the multiple individual practices are without merit. They have been, and will remain an essential part of the human journey. It is just that I believe we need something in addition. And Open Space may be such an addition, or at least a reasonable start.

Open Space as a Group Practice

Open space always starts with a real live business issue. Better Doors for example, or the future products of our organization. In short, it begins with the common place, the everyday. And that is precisely where it ends too. With better doors and new products. But along the way some major shifts, one might say transformations, occur.

For example, in an Open Space conducted several years ago for the Arizona region of USWEST (the Baby Bell), the focal point was “Fixing Arizona” and USWEST/Arizona as a business enterprise was indeed broke. Having gone through the rigors of Process Re-Engineering the state of affairs was anything but appealing. The endless amounts of peoples’ time expended on developing the new organizational design were largely wasted due to a major shift in the market place. What started out as a great idea became totally irrelevant when the demographics of the region simply exploded. Add in a major downsizing, and the work load became overwhelming, made even worse by the fact that many of the senior people with the most experience had been amongst those “downsized.” And just to make matters worse, Arizona had its first major flood in centuries, something which is not supposed to happen in the desert. Arizona was indeed broke, and the people involved were far from happy. That is where we started.

For two and a half days people intensely worked through complex technical and organizational issues. The feelings were high, and deep anger never far beneath the surface. But the issues were worked and the fixes devised. More important than anything else, however, was a profound change in Spirit which became manifest in the closing circle.

At the end, as at the beginning, people sat in a circle, but it was a very different place. What began as a ominous combination of a council of war and a wake – ended with genuine thanksgiving. As the gathered folks were offered the opportunity to reflect on their time together, a veritable litany of heart felt Thank you, Thank you came from the lips of many. This was not planned, scripted, or even invited. Very simply it came from the heart.

And then one of the union guys stood up to address his colleagues. There were tears in his eyes, and his subject had nothing to do with technical fixes or organizational changes. He said, “As some of you may know, I have had some trouble with my family (a divorce, I think), but I want you to know that I have found my family, and it is you.” Spirit had just shown up in a remarkable and very new way.

Come Monday morning, it was back to the trucks, T1 lines, clients, and all of the mundane tasks and tools of the telephone business. But for those who were there, and for many who only heard about it, the mundane was now approached with a very different Spirit. Somehow the light had gotten through, which maybe what enlightenment is all about. On the surface it looked very much like the “same old, same old” but seen in a very different light. As the old Zen admonition would have it, “Before enightenment you draw water and chop wood. After enlightenment, you draw water and chop wood.”

Open Space as a Personal Practice

If it is possible for groups to experience Spirit in immediate and direct ways in Open Space, so also for the individual. And personally, I have been a major beneficiary. Over the 15 years since Open Space was first done, it has been an amazing journey.

The learnings have been many, but two stand out in particular. First, it is all about letting go. We have discovered, through countless pointed lessons, that there is precisely one way to mess up an Open Space – and only one way. And that is to think that you are in charge of what happens, or worse yet, to act that way. Truthfully, the facilitator has little if anything of a substantive nature to contribute. No fixes, no interventions – or at least not of an obvious sort. For a brief time at the beginning, the facilitator holds center stage (literally), and then it is essential to get out of the way.

For me, as for most of my friends and colleagues, being charge, taking control, was the be all and end all of a proper manager – by whatever name. And if we weren’t in charge, then surely somebody had to be. We became quite skilled at developing marvelous designs for training and other work, timed down to 5 minute intervals with precise instructions for who, what, where, when and how. We knew that things didn’t always work as we hoped, but we had the idea – the perfect span of control would be realized, the optimal organization set in place. If not today, then tomorrow for sure.

The stakes involved much more than professional skill. It was really about image and self-esteem. Those who were in charge ruled, and to be out of control was, typically, to be out of a job. Giving up the one thing that seemingly defined me as me (at least in a professional sense) seemed a little much.

I can’t say that I achieved my objective all in one fell swoop. Truthfully, I did not fully realize how deeply the urge for control had rooted itself in my daily life and professional practice. However, by taking things one step at a time, not unlike the twelve step approach to breaking any addictive behavior, useful things happened. My approach was quite straight forward. Each time I have the privilege of Opening Space for some group, I would think of one more thing not to do. Some little intervention, bell, or whistle was laid to one side. “Ice breaking” exercises disappeared. Warm up, creativity inducing programs were put down. To my surprise, as each layer was pealed off, the function of the group suffered not a whit. Indeed, it only got better.

The hardest part of letting go was to put to one side the self-expectation that in the event of conflict, it was my job in life to intervene and fix it. I found, however that in the (usually) unlikely event that my intervention was effective, the group would look at me with some kind of wonder, forgetting totally that they were the ones who were wonderful. And of course, if I failed miserably, the group would blame me, and forget that I did not have a conflict – that it was not my problem to be solve.

The story is by no means complete, and each Open Space I find there is something else to let go of. But now I am finding that what began in Open Space has great application in my daily life. The world was not designed for my pleasure and dominion (surprise) and to the extent that I spend my waking hours trying to get everything in order, I waste an awful lot of time and energy. This is not about throwing my hands up in futility and abdication – but about learning at a very experiential level that life lived in harmony and flow (albeit with a few bumps) is a very full life indeed.

My second major learning falls generally under the heading of Collective Consciousness. I am not totally clear what Collective Consciousness might be, but I do know that very quickly in every Open Space I have participated in – corporate identity emerges which is infinitely more than the sum of the individual parts. Over arching themes manifest in the several discussions, and nobody ever made an obvious effort to focus the attention of the group. Should the group be stressed by some unanticipated happening, it will often respond as a whole in what appears to be a very rational, and sometimes very elegant fashion. What is noteworthy is that nobody did it – in the sense that nobody convened some form of consensus development. It seems to happen all by itself.

As the facilitator, I have learned that it is essential to “tune in” to this apparently subtle level of being. The overt details of discussion and behavior may vary widely at a level of complexity that simply boggles the mind. But the core flow of consciousness (if I can use the terms) is the primary object of my concern. I do not even have to be in the room, and I become quite aware of the on-going happenings of the moment. All of this might be ascribed to powers of intuition, but having conjured up that wonderful faculty, I am not sure the discussion has been advanced substantially. My experience is rather that of being a silent witness to the flow of consciousness. I feel neither blame nor judgement. Perhaps more interesting, there is no feeling or desire to change a thing. It all appears to be happening quite perfectly.

A Conclusion of Sorts

Open space, and Spirit shows up. That has been my experience, which seems to be shared by a multitude of my colleagues. The effect of Spirit in a group of people is profound, yielding results that are often termed unbelievable, magic, and sometimes weird. But at the end of the day, the observable results are perhaps the least significant. At a deeper level, I believe Open Space to be a Practice through which it is possible for groups and individuals to encounter Spirit up close and personal. Not vague abstractions, nice ideas about… but the real thing. Right here. Right now.

1. See Owen, Spirit: Transformation and Development in Organizations (Abbott, 1987), if you can find it.

2For a fuller description consult my book, Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide. (Berrett-Koehler. 1997) For an interpretation of the Open Space experience and suggestions as to how it may be further applied see my latest effort, The Spirit of Organizations: How Organizations Transform, (Berrett-Koehler, 2000).

3. A full discussion of the distinction between a religion and a practice require more space than this small chapter allows. But very simply a religion includes a whole mess of things such as dogma, ritual, mythology and practices. Practices, on the other hand are usually very sparse and direct. In essence, they are injunctions – Do this, and such and such will follow. The statement of a practice is usually quite simple. Carrying it out effectively may take a lifetime.