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Expanding Our Now

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At the start of this thoughtful and revelatory book, Harrison Owen relates the story of how he was lunching with a senior official of the American Society for Training and Development, who observed that if what Owen had just told him about Open Space Technology (OST) was true, then "95% of what we are currently doing does not need to be done."
OST is strategy for organizing meetings that is radical, revolutionary, and deceptively simple. Expanding Our Now is an exploration of what OST is, how it developed as a process for meeting management, and how and why it works all over the world, for groups of all sizes dealing with a vast range of issues.
To be published simultaneously with Open Space Technology: A User's Guide, -- a companion volume which details methods for implementing an Open Space event -- Expanding Our Now provides historical background, with case studies and delves into the questions of why and how Open Space works.
Owen makes a compelling case that OST can move organizations to higher levels of performance, without elaborate training or professional facilitators. By focusing on 'Now' -- this present moment -- perception is expanded so that, for example, AT&T was able to accomplish 10 months work in a matter of 2 days.
'Now' is the heart of the matter. When Now gets big, time and space open up for doing what is needed. In the experience of Owen and thousands of people around the world who have used this technology successfully, OST expands 'Now' . Here he offers numerous successful case studies from corporations (such as Boeing and AT&T), community service organizations, and even countries (Canada) to demonstrate the power of 'Now'.
While Open Space violates many of the traditional principles of meeting (and organizational) management, it is remarkably effective. Owen challenges the idea that anyone can actually control a closed system, suggesting that in reality all systems are open, and OST simply acknowledges and takes full advantage of that reality.

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Chapter I: East Meets West

ePub

It was not the first time Open Space Technology was used, but it was significant nonetheless. Executives from the Taj Group of Hotels, part of the Tata family of businesses in India, had resonated positively to my 1988 paper, The Business of Business Is Learning, and decided that a conference on the subject would be beneficial. In support of that undertaking, they offered their exquisite conference center at Fort Aguada, Goa—with all expenses paid. Why we used Open Space is somewhat of a mystery, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Subsequent experience suggests that it was probably an idea whose time had come.

Support also came from Procter and Gamble, giving birth to a second, parallel conference in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. It, too, was conducted in Open Space and broadly expanded our emerging understanding of learning in organizations. However, since the intent of the moment is to introduce Open Space, I will leave the details of that conference for another time.

Goa is an interesting place. Located on the subcontinent of India, this tropical paradise is an ancient mix of East and West. Once a Portuguese colony, Goa officially (and forcibly) rejoined the life of the East after India’s declaration of independence. There is a definite Western presence here, but it exists within the deep consciousness of Mother India.

 

Chapter II: Open Space Discovered

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Open Space Technology came into being by way of a joke made out of frustration. The frustration was mine, when at the conclusion of a year-long effort to organize an international symposium for 250 souls, everybody agreed the best part had been the coffee breaks. The rest was interesting, possibly useful, but definitely in second place to the juicy moments of sharing in the informality of the coffee breaks. There had to be a better way.

The joke was about technology. Ever since that word became attached to the end of Open Space, strange looks have followed. How on earth could anything like the Goa experience be called a technology?

From the viewpoint of strict definition and narrow interpretation, the word technology is appropriate. There is a techne (technique) involved in order to produce an intended result. But that is stretching to say the least, and in fact the enterprise was never conceived as a technology. It was so designated in an odd moment, and the word just stuck. All of which constitutes a funny story on the way to the future… with a point.

 

Chapter III: Open Space on the Loose: The Now Grows

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Open Space has spread around the world. While definitive numbers are impossible to obtain and the evidence is largely anecdotal, there have been major applications on every continent, in a wide range of settings, and with varying numbers of participants. Open Space has been used effectively with groups ranging from five to over one thousand members, involving multiple cultures, languages, industries, political persuasions, sexual preferences, ethnicities, economic levels, and educational achievement. Corporations, governments, school systems, religious institutions, ecosystems (watersheds), hospitals, mental health facilities, drug abuse organizations, third world villages, and rural cooperatives have all found a home in Open Space. Conservative guesstimates suggest that thousands of events have involved tens and probably hundreds of thousands of participants.

The spread of Open Space has occurred in a surprisingly short time frame. The first event of any sort occurred in 1985. The first event with “real people” occurred in 1989 (Goa). For the next two years (until 1992), I and several others were essentially the only “practitioners,” and our practice might have included five events per year, at the outside.

 

Chapter IV: What on Earth Is Going On?

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Open space is a strange phenomenon. It works even though much of what we have all been taught, and presume to know, says that it should not. The obvious question is, why?

A possible image of an organization, or meeting, is that of a hermetically sealed box with several closely guarded points of entrance and egress. If we are to believe the reports of many executives, who see life as an unending succession of meetings, the difference between a meeting and the organization may be fundamentally a matter of size. In any event, this box is called a “closed system.” Clearly defined walls separate the inside from the outside, and police persons (known as managers or “those in charge”) both defend the connections to the world beyond and insure decorous and productive behavior within.

Much time is devoted to the articulation of structure, and those who perform that function, called senior executives, are accorded a mixture of fear and awe. They give. They take away. With the stroke of a pen, whole divisions, departments, subsidiaries suddenly emerge or disappear.

 

Chapter V: Chaos and Order

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When James Gleick published Chaos (Viking-Penguin, 1987), a number of people, myself included, said, “Wow!” Suddenly a world that defied rational description became describable. Chaotic forces and events, which seem to lie beyond any comprehensible pattern, could be appreciated in their random multiplicity and simultaneously as part of the created order.

Gleick’s narrative of the emergence of chaos theory relates closely to the work of Ilya Prigogene on dissipative structures and self-organizing systems, although curiously enough, Gleick doesn’t seem to recognize the affinity. In any event, Gleick and Prigogene, representing a host of others, firmly placed the notions of chaos/complexity theory and self-organizing systems into the public domain. Subsequent efforts by Margaret Wheatley in Leadership and the New Science (Berrett-Koehler, 1992) and others popularized the endeavor, and suddenly the fractal magic of chaos conspiring with the existing order to create constantly evolving, open, self-organizing systems became a matter of popular discourse.

 

Chapter VI: Giving the Power Away: The Hero/Heroine’s Journey

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Joseph Campbell, mythologist par excellence, has taken many people on an amazing journey. Whether one joined that journey through Bill Moyers’ interviews or through the writing of Campbell himself, the trip has been an eventful one. Well past the signposts of everyday life, down into the interior reaches of humankind’s soul, he has led us to the story of our genesis and growth, the mythology by which the species recorded our enlarging consciousness of self and of the possibilities for humanity.

There is much in our contemporary world that rebels at the whole notion of mythology. We know, as only endless instruction can teach, that mythology is untrue, a mere story, and our rational minds are beyond stories. We want the facts, nothing but the facts. Or so we say.

And yet when the story is told, when the mythmaker weaves and unfolds the fabric that gives our lives meaning, uncomfortable flashes of recognition break through the rational exterior. As Yogi Berra would say, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” We’ve been there, done that.

 

Chapter VII: What Next?

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It is my fondest hope that by 2010 (just to pick a date), Open Space, as a distinct methodology, will have disappeared from the face of the earth. It is not that I wish to rid the earth of Open Space, I simply hope that the methodology will have become so commonplace as to be invisible. I envision Open Space to be rather like accounting—something everybody does—noticed only when it is not done or done poorly.

This hope for the invisibility of Open Space Technology is not without foundation. If you will grant my strong suspicion that a majority of the truly workable aspects of our present organizations look much more like Open Space than the standard picture of command and control, we are already well on the way. Add the notion that the current high-stakes environment has created conditions fostering organizational evolution in the direction of Open Space, and 2010 may well be further into the future than Open Space Technology will extend.

No claim is made for the evolutionary cards being stacked in favor of Open Space, or alternatively, for having designed Open Space to fit current evolutionary trends. But I do not think it takes extreme perception to understand that organizations surviving with style in the next millennium will be flexible, fun, and hugely efficient in terms of human energy and Spirit—always enlarging their 102awareness of an enormously dynamic world—in short, living very intentionally in an expanding Now. The alternative is virtually instantaneous burnout, isolation, and obsolescence, none of which are particularly good for business. Open Space may be able to help in several areas.

 

Chapter VIII: Expanding Our Now: A Journey to Wholeness

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Expanding our Now, my image and metaphor for Open Space, is fundamentally about reestablishing the wholeness of our lives. And at the moment, our lives, both individual and organizational, mostly seem to be falling into pieces. It would be easy to blame the traumatic events of our times for this condition, but I think those events are more symptomatic than causative. I see the piecemeal nature of our experience as coming from a different place, and as largely of our own making. In a word, I think we are shooting ourselves in the foot, a concept that contains both bad news and good news. The bad news is obvious; the good news is that we could stop, given the intention to do so.

Peter Vaill, sometime dean of the business school at George Washington University, describes the role of the professor as “making distinctions with distinction.” It seems that the professors of this world have done an outstanding job, for the fabric of life has been cut into ever finer pieces. We now know more and more about less and less, and somewhere in the process, the connectedness of everything has been lost to view.

 

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