The Power of Spirit: How Organizations Transform

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Forms and transforms in people, they become strong, focused, and vibrant-and wonderful things can happen. But when the spirit is down, nothing else seems to make a difference-because not too much happens. Many of us today find ourselves trapped in just such organizations. The spirit in our workplace, to say nothing of our own spirit, is getting a little tattered, showing the early stages of what Harrison Owen calls "Soul Pollution." Those in the advanced stages may find themselves plagued by exhaustion, high levels of stress, and the abuse of just about anything in sight, including spouses, substances, and fellow workers. So what is the secret to transforming organizations? The answer, says Owen, is simple: we must consciously be what we already are-natural, open, self-organizing systems. In The Power of Spirit, Owen examines the world of Spirit/Consciousness in organizations and offers help to those who find themselves dreading another day on the job in an organization seemingly bent on its own destruction, as well as the destruction of its members. He draws from what we are now learning about self-organizing systems to provides a practical application to the world of organizations, revealing the ways in which Spirit shows up in new, emergent organizational forms. Widely known for his Open Space Technology-a broadly used meeting management tool-Owen now pushes well beyond that surface appreciation and suggests deeper applications and implications, showing how what has been experienced in a typical "great meeting" with Open Space can actually be a 365-day-a-year reality. For all those interested in Spirit and spirituality, particularly in the workplace, individuals who are feeling down and out and buried by Soul Pollution in the workplace, and for current practitioners of Open Space Technology who are wondering what comes after a "great meeting"-The Power of Spirit will offer a pathway to positive transformation.

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chapter 1: Chaos and the End of Control As We Knew It

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IF THERE IS A SINGLE SACRED WORD in the culture of most of our organizations, that word is control. When we have it, we are in good shape, and in its absence disaster is a short step away.15

As managers we have been trained to control, and control is the prime attribute designating high-quality management. The centrality of control is not usually stated so blatantly, but it is never far from the surface. According to the old dictum, the good manager makes the plan, manages to the plan, and meets the plan. And the essence of all of that is control. Close, tight control.

We presently find ourselves in rather strange circumstances. It remains relatively easy to make a plan, for after all we control the pen, paper, or computer. But ensuring that the plan, once made, will have any relevance past the drying of its ink, is no easy task. Sure as the sun rises, some unpredicted event will shatter our best efforts. These are hard days for plan makers, and all those other folks who place high value on being in control.

 

chapter 2: Chaos and Learning

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THE SUGGESTION THAT CHAOS AND LEARNING are naturally linked, and more, that one forms the essential precondition of the other, may appear nothing short of lunacy. Do we not know, as only countless hours in the schoolroom can teach, that learning requires order? What else does the teacher do but maintain order in the classroom so that learning may take place?25

But do we not also know, as only a squirming fifth grader can know, that such order, even in mild doses (to say nothing of extreme application), can become exquisitely boring? Boring to the point that learning and boredom are often equated. It somehow seems that if we are not painfully bored, we can’t be learning.

I can claim no expertise in the art and science of educating fifth graders, but I can bear testimony to my own experience of that time under the iron hand of Mr. Birdsil. Mr. Birdsil’s class was the very model of order. We sat in neat rows and spoke only when spoken to, and then only rarely. Mostly we listened while Mr. Birdsil pontificated on a variety of subjects, the impact of which was so minimal as to be insignificant. Occasionally, perhaps more than occasionally, the endless pontificating would be interrupted by the abusive denunciation of some unfortunate who had fallen asleep. More usually, the denunciation was nonverbal, taking instead the form of a well-placed shot with a blackboard eraser at the sleeping head.

 

chapter 3: Chaos, Order, and the Creative Process

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IN THE FIRST BLUSH OF EXCITEMENT generated by the appearance of chaos theory, there was a fixation on chaos. Blame it on the media if you like, because chaos was news, and order was not. Chaos theory, however, is actually a misnomer, for the news was not so much about chaos, but rather the apparent contradiction that chaos has an order, or perhaps better said, order emerges in the midst of chaos.37

Truth to tell, the real excitement was neither chaos nor order, but rather what happens in between, which we might call creation. Somehow, in the great dance taking place between chaos and order, something new emerges. That “new thing” could be a living cell, a small creature, you, your friends, or a combination of any or all of the above, which we might call an organization, or in contemporary jargon, a system.

Organizations or systems come in all shapes and sizes. In the human sphere we have families, businesses, and countries, just to name a few. Beyond us, we discover ecosystems, planetary systems, and ultimately the cosmos itself. As vastly different in appearance and size as these systems may be, they share common bonds: at some point in time they came into existence, over time they change, and some time they end. In short, they have a life.

 

chapter 4: The Standard Business Curve Revisited

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WE HAVE ALWAYS KNOWN that things change, sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse. But we have hoped for the best, and generally speaking it has seemed that our various endeavors developed in a positive way.61

In the world of business, this perception finds expression in the Standard Business Curve, a graphic seemingly emblazoned on the forehead of every MBA. Things start slowly, with a bare minimum of systems and products, followed by a take-off period when systems and products (to say nothing of plant, facilities, and employees) are added at something approaching an exponential rate. Finally, growth levels off, or proceeds upward at a gentle predictable rate, following a line that hopefully projects out to infinity, indicating the arrival of a mature business.

There is, however, one significant piece of data that never appears in the graphic representation of the Standard Business Curve. That datum, as Gregory Bateson points out, is common knowledge to every schoolboy. Somehow, however, it escaped the attention of the organizational theorists. Simply put: “What goes up will come down.” It is never a question of “if,” only “when.” Sooner or later, the market will change, the product will become obsolete, the competition will intensify, the financial market will fall apart. Someday, somehow, somewhere, that rising business curve will come down, which necessitates a revision of the Standard Business Curve to reflect the truth of Bateson’s dictum. Every day we discover anew what every school-age child always knew: what goes up will come down.62

 

chapter 5: Grief at Work

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WHEN CHAOS STRIKES, transformation begins. The Spirit of a people enters a critical process with possible end results ranging from dissolution to the emergence of a radically new, more complex, adaptive organization. The process itself is that of grief working, enabling us to let go of what was in preparation for what is yet to be.67

To some large extent, the process just happens all by itself. It cannot be avoided, nor can we change or skip the essential steps. Like the process of birth, there is a beginning, middle, and end. Nothing we can do will alter the natural progression. This, I believe, is self-organization at work, as the complex adaptive systems we are evolve to meet whatever destiny lies in wait.

Even though the process will happen pretty much by itself, there are ways to deepen the experience so that it is perceived as more than a cacophony of conflicting, painful happenings, but also as a creative enterprise in which we may participate and contribute. Knowing in advance the stages of this process may give us a sense of purpose and direction, even if such knowledge does nothing to eliminate the pain of passage. And with that knowledge comes the possibility of assisting ourselves and our fellows through the stages involved. Indeed there are some very concrete things that may be done as the process of transformation rolls along. But the role of the helper is exactly like the role of the midwife in birth. The midwife did not conceive the baby, will not bear the baby or raise it. But her presence can be extraordinarily helpful during the process. Our interests here are therefore both theoretical and practical. At the level of theory, I wish to offer a likely story descriptive of our transformational journey. Practically, I will point out certain things that can be done to speed the journey, possibly lessen the pain, and lead to the enhanced possibility of a positive outcome.68

 

chapter 6: Organization Development in Four Acts

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AFTER VISION—WHAT? Presumably we get back to work, and once more the New Standard Business Curve begins to rise. New structure, new products and profits, all carried aloft on the wings of a renewed Spirit. True.79

But there are also occurrences along the way to the future which are not described by that famous curve. Maybe it’s just analogy or metaphor, but it seems to me that what we now know about the process of birthing suggests some useful insights regarding what happens to our organizations. The work in question was done largely by Stanislav Grof 1 as reported in his book, Beyond the Brain. Drawing upon physiological and psychoanalytical evidence, Grof relates what people have described as happening to them prior to birth; it apparently occurs in four stages. I leave it to Grof’s colleagues to judge his findings, but I use them here, at least the basic description of the process, only because it has been helpful and suggestive to me in making sense of the developmental life of an organization. Herewith the Four Acts of organizational life.

 

chapter 7: Stages Along Spirit’s Way

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PART II TRACED THE SPIRIT of a place as it moved from one way of being to a new one, the adaptive process. In and out of chrysalis, so to speak, through the cycle of birth and death. It is now time to consider the several forms that Spirit assumes along the way (caterpillars to butterflies as it were), thereby laying the groundwork for suggesting where we are, and where we might be headed.93

Describing the forms of Spirit, particularly the Spirit of an organization, may seem a rather new undertaking. But conversations about Spirit have been going on forever, or so it seems. And some of them have gotten fairly detailed and precise. Most of these conversations have revolved around the Spirit of the individual, which in the East is often referred to as consciousness. The Eastern schema for describing the evolution of consciousness are numerous and complex, but basically break down into seven steps, or multiples thereof. The first and the last steps are essentially nothing or “void,” about which not much can be said. However, the intervening five stages may be described very briefly as follows: Body, Mind, Intellect, Soul, and Spirit.1

 

chapter 8: Over the Edge

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IN THIS MESSY OLD WORLD, a few things are becoming clear. Change in the fundamental manner in which we organize ourselves is no longer a debatable issue. We are now down to the fine points: When? How much? and to what end?107

In answer to the first question, the grudging consensus seems to be, “Immediately,” if not before. The issue here is less about designing systems that are efficient and effective than about staying alive in these systems. On paper, our systems look marvelous. In practice the end result, more often than not, is vast amounts of Soul Pollution. Presumably we could run a little faster, give up another weekend, sacrifice another relationship, skimp on the quality time with our kids one more time. But who needs it?

So if change is inevitable, how much? To date the answer has been, “as little as possible.” Words like incremental, transitional, managed change have populated the organizational vocabulary in this area. If change is necessary, as it seems to be, then the change process itself must be carefully controlled. This is a great sales pitch to harried executives who have enough on their plate and dare not face a genuine revolution, but with one problem. Managing change of the sort and order we currently face is simply ridiculous. It is necessary to move up the Richter Scale of organizational change words.

 

chapter 9: A New Way

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DIFFERENT TIMES DEMAND different tools and approaches. What worked well in the days of the ProActive Organization simply doesn’t cut it any more. Our methods and approaches for that era are not necessarily bad, but they are now no longer appropriate and in fact usually prove to be counter-productive. In their stead we must discover new ways appropriate to a new reality—beginning right at the beginning. At the moment of creation, indeed at the moment before the moment of creation, what do we do?137

Here is a scenario. You have just had a brilliant insight, call it a vision, about some new product or service. Clearly it will rock the marketplace and redefine the business. But, and it is a very big “BUT,” how do you get from vision to actually doing business? The answer is simple, both in terms of statement and execution, even if the specific results are by no means guaranteed. But after all, there are precious few guarantees in this world, especially when it come to launching a new venture. The answer? Try a little Open Space.

 

chapter 10: Optimization

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IF WE ENGAGE IN THE SEARCH for a fully InterActive mode of communication with which to support life in the InterActive Organization, our search need not be a long one. The answer to our needs is to be found as close as the nearest PC (or Mac). The name is Internet, or in its local version, Intranet.147

Internet is the appropriate choice, and probably the only choice, because it provides an electronic environment, an open space, in which organization without walls can grow. To be sure there are those who have dreams of controlling the Net, but their dreams last only as long as it takes to create a new generation of software that opens things up once again. And yes, there is talk about creating secure firewalls, but any good hacker, given the time and the inclination, will find a way through. Because the Internet is essentially without limit and prescribed form, InterActive organization naturally finds a home there.

Where all this is headed, nobody knows, but the visionaries in our midst, like Kevin Kelly,1 author of Out of Control, are striking out on some very interesting paths. What started out as an electronic mailbox has transmuted into an alternative reality, and from there into the cybersphere, a whole new “place” where things can grow. And in this new space/time, multiple creatures are being fruitful and multiplying like crazy, with names like Amazon.com, ebay, and Yahoo. Another name applies equally as well, I think: InterActive Organization.148

 

chapter 11: Sustaining the Integrity of Spirit

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THE ISSUE OF KEEPING THINGS TOGETHER in the InterActive Organization goes much deeper than matters of information sharing necessary for collaborative effort. At root, it is a question of integrity, and not just system integrity, as in insuring the conscious and continuing connection between activities and elements of the organization. It is also moral integrity, as in shared values, and most particularly shared positive values.157

At the end of the day, the organization will live or die depending on the strength and quality of its values. Is this a place where people care to be, where they feel the freedom to follow responsibly what has heart and meaning for them? Do they feel respected, treated with dignity? Is there room for real differences, allowing for innovation? Does the inevitable conflict arising from differences lead to deeper solutions, or simply to dissolution? If the answer to these questions is yes, organizational life can be rich, full, and long lasting. A negative answer will quickly produce the kind of life circumstances Thomas Hobbes described as “nasty, brutish, and short.”

 

chapter 12: Healing a Broken Spirit

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JONATHAN WAS A STRONG ORGANIZATION, as reflected by the bottom line of its balance sheet, its reputation in the business, and the power of the stories it told. But not all organizations are so fortunate. Consider the corporation whose CEO thought in terms of asylums and inmates when speaking of her business and employees. The fact that she would do such a thing is questionable. The fact that her comment became part of the organizational mythology is disastrous, the cause and effect of a broken Spirit.175

Interestingly enough, the corporation in question had a very healthy bottom line. In fact it was making money hand over fist. At the same time, the corporate reputation for being well managed was among the best in the country. Everything looked wonderful on the surface, until a fateful day when a corporate raider struck, and the organization was put to the test. At precisely the moment when spirited, to say nothing of inspired, performance was essential, it became clear to all that there was precious little in the gas tank.

 

chapter 13: Everyday Life in the InterActive Organization

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TO THIS POINT, we have considered some of the basic and essential mechanisms for the maintenance of organizational integrity both at the level of information and knowledge flow necessary for collaborative effort, and at the deeper level of core values. It now remains to deal briefly with what we might call everyday life in the InterActive Organization. Doubtless as our experience increases with our new organizational life-form, there will be more to say on the subject, but for the moment, three items of pertinence present themselves:181

The “givens” is shorthand for all those things that the organization just has to do. This is not about pursuing new passions, opening more space, indulging ourselves in High Learning—it is just taking care of business. What’s got to get done.

I believe we are in for a pleasant surprise in this department, for an awful lot of what we used to think would fill our days just doesn’t need to get done any more. Or if it does need to be done, it will not take as long. For example, the whole business of getting things organized used to consume endless hours. But with the gift of self-organization, that major task pretty much takes care of itself. Of course there will always be some things to tidy up, as it were, but the heavy lifting is pretty complete.182

 

chapter 14: Ethics in the InterActive Organization

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WHEN WE ADMIT CHAOS INTO POLITE SOCIETY and acknowledge that it has a useful function to play, much of what we used to consider bad and evil looks rather different. The simple dichotomy (order is good and chaos is evil) that defined much of our ethics in the ProActive Organization is no longer possible.199

To see the point in the larger arena of the natural order, we need only remember the title of a recent book, The Perfect Storm.1 The book describes a massive Northeast gale that churned the Atlantic off the Grand Banks, producing waves in excess of 100 feet and wreaking havoc on fishing fleets and mariners of all sorts. Life was lost, boats were sunk—and this was a “perfect storm?”

And yet from the storm’s point of view, if I may be permitted the anthropomorphism, the storm was doing neither more nor less than it was supposed to do, perfectly. Violent natural events are most inconvenient for human beings if you happen to be in their way, but it is precisely these massive events, and their smaller relatives, which have enabled the living system, planet Earth, to become what it presently is—a hospitable place for us and all the other creatures. Just another day at work for chaos.

 

APPENDIX: COLLECTING THE STORIES

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The most accurate and efficient way to collect the stories of an organization is through a series of interviews with a random group from the organization. I sometimes call this a Noah’s Ark sort: two of everything. The precise number does not make a lot of difference, and by the time 10 to 15 individuals have been interviewed, the tales have been essentially identified. Additional interviews are more a matter of confirmation and politics. Thus if one continues on through another 10 to 15 interviews and finds no substantial variation in the results, it is a safe bet that the story has been received. On the other hand, if major variations or additions appear, add interviews until the situation stabilizes. Deciding when enough is enough is always a judgment call, and while it may be possible to statistically validate the findings, I am not at all sure there is any added value. There comes a point when you hit the end of the road and it is pretty obvious.209

My reference to political concerns refers to those individuals in an organization who just have to be interviewed. Thus, if there are two unions representing the workers of an organization, it simply will not do to interview only one of the local presidents. The same logic applies to senior vice presidents.

 

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