On Gratitude: With a nod to Harrison Owen, Anne Stadler, and Spirited Work

When I ran a session last year at the International Conference on Complex Systems, I was struck by a practice followed by most of the presenters.  They acknowledged the people who had influenced their work.

I’m just finishing a wonderful book that I got at the conference: Complexity: A Guided Tour by Melanie Mitchell.  It’s a terrific overview, looking across multiple disciplines – computation, evolution, genetics, networks and more. Like the conference presenters, Mitchell included photos of thought leaders as she introduced their ideas.

I am inspired by this custom of honoring those who influence you!

So as I return to my blog after a crazy, wonderful, hectic year of sharing the ideas from the award-winning Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into Opportunity, I thought I’d begin with a thanks to those who have most influenced my work:





Spirited Work was an Open Space learning community of practice that met quarterly from 1998 to 2004 to explore the intersection of being and doing – spirit and work.  Anne Stadler cooked up the idea of Spirited Work.  It became our playground for learning about emergence in human systems, among many lessons.  It continues to inform our work and our friendship years later.

The form at the heart Spirited Work – Open Space Technology – was created by Harrison Owen.  Harrison introduced me to Anne – one of the many gifts for which I am grateful.  Beyond the intro to Anne and Open Space Technology, Harrison’s friendship has brought with it his lifetime of learning about chaos and order.  My first taste came during an Open Space Technology workshop that I did with Harrison in 1999. As participants were off in breakout sessions, Harrison told me of his Ph.D. research into chaos and order.  He spoke of the contradictory images of an immanent and a transcendent G-d in the Old Testament.  I remember the question said he was researching: if the best and the brightest of the time created this holy book, what was their purpose in introducing so much contradiction?

His stories about pursing that question, not to mention the power of the question itself, influenced me more than I can put into words.  Through the years of making sense of why Open Space works, that use of the language of spirit coupled with an explanation based in complexity science helped me to recognize that these were simply two ways of pointing into the same territory.

When I talk about the gifts I’ve received from knowing Harrison and from Open Space, I often share some lessons that I took away early on:

  • Generosity of spirit.  Harrison opted not to copyright or trademark the process.  Instead, he made it clear that Open Space is free for the taking. The only responsibility is to give back, to share what you learn.
  • Focus on essence. While it is easy to get wrapped up in the complexity of any situation, Harrison has a talent for attending to what matters most. All the rest is details.
  • Simplicity of design.  I’ve called Harrison a master of laziness, always finding the path of the least effort for the greatest outcome. I love the power of a question he always poses: What’s one less thing to do?  To which I add: and still be whole and complete?
  • Inclusion/invitation. The stories Harrison tells of welcoming the stranger makes it exquisitely clear that both the stranger within and from outside bring gifts, no matter how they how they show up.

So I open this year on my blog with gratitude to Spirited Work, Anne Stadler, and Harrison Owen!


Leadership in a Networked World

A colleague sent me a video of birds flocking yesterday.  He was excited by the implications for self-organizing in human systems, asking what are the leadership mechanisms behind flocking?

Image by David Kessler

Since finishing Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into Opportunity, I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of leadership in networks.  Social networks have some parallels to flocks.

Think about the difference between pack animals, with alpha leaders keeping others in line versus birds, ants, bees, or other animals that seem to function with no one in charge.  These interactions call on different leadership skills than rising to the top of a pyramid.

What can we learn from flocks, swarms, hives, and other leader-full forms of organizing? More, how can human consciousness enhance the effectiveness of these collective forms of leadership?  We live in an age in which networks are an emerging means for organizing.  They are more responsive, resilient, creative, and let’s face it, more fun than most hierarchical organizations I’ve experienced.  Over time, hierarchies may well give way to networks as our dominant organizational form.  Understanding new leadership skills will help us transition.

Image by David Kessler, http://davidkessler.biz/art_gallery.htm

I’ve observed that leadership in social networks is a more multi-threaded phenomenon than hierarchical leadership.  For example, traditionally, we rely on a few people to make strategic decisions for everyone else.  Increasing complexity – a more diverse public, greater access to a broader range of perspectives, technological innovations affecting scale and scope of just about everything – makes this strategy less effective.  No longer can a few people with relatively similar backgrounds and perspectives make the best choices for a whole system.  Whether companies, communities, or social systems, like health care or education, networks call forth new approaches to decision making and leadership.

The Nature of Networks

Social networks are loosely connected, brought together largely by common purpose and personal passion.  Following the boss’ orders just doesn’t work in networks.  So how does anything get done?  More basic, how do people know what needs doing?

Leadership in networks is relational, collective, and emergent.  As I’ve read more about networks, two dynamics rise to the top when thinking about how they function:

  • hubs form and evolve; and
  • links connect.

How do these dynamics play out in social networks?  My experience with network leadership has been influenced by a seminal experience with the Spirited Work learning community.  Spirited Work met for an extended weekend four times a year over seven years.  We met in Open Space, a process that supports groups in self-organizing around what matters to them.  After the first couple years, the four founders did something quite unique: they stepped down as the sole leaders and invited anyone who felt called to do so to step in to steward the community.  In other words, leadership became self-selected.  It seemed such a great learning laboratory that I stepped in.

We, the stewards, became a hub for the Spirited Work community.  We discovered that whatever challenges existed in the larger system showed up in our meetings.  Stewarding was the intensive course!  As we brought our diverse perspectives and interests together, we learned to listen for what was beneath the dissonance of our differences because it contained the seeds of breakthrough.

For example, early in our life, we had a financial crisis, discovering our income wasn’t covering our costs.  A philosophic clash arose between paying our bills and welcoming whoever wished to participate regardless of their financial means.  The larger purpose of Spirited Work – learning to link spirit to practical action on behalf of the community and the world – held us together as we worked through our differences.  Ultimately, someone suggested holding an auction to raise funds.  A few people took on the task and at our next gathering, the auction debuted.  Not only did we clear half our debt in that first auction, people had so much fun sharing their gifts on behalf of the community, it became a regular activity.  And our financial woes were permanently resolved.

Leadership and Network Hubs

From the outside, hubs in a network look a lot like hierarchical organizations.  They are groups of people organized to accomplish something together.  That makes it easy to confuse leadership of a hub with hierarchical leadership, thinking the same rules apply.  Not!  Giving orders, chain of command, top-down decision making doesn’t function when people choose whether to participate.

Hubs form because people are attracted to them.  Hubs grow when people are drawn to the purpose and/or the people and believe that they can both give and/or receive something of value.  The remarkable communities that maintain the Wikipedia or fill the Open Source software movement are examples of networks producing real-world benefit.

Leadership and Network Links

Link leadership is elusive because it doesn’t fit our traditional thinking about leadership. Why is connecting people or organizations a form of leadership? If you want breakthroughs, interactions among those who don’t usually meet is an essential ingredient. And when hubs connect to hubs, ideas can spread like wildfire.

While sometimes those connections are random, as often, they’re the work of people with a knack.  Malcolm Gladwell famously identified three types of link leadership in his best seller The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. He called them connectors, mavens, and salesmen.

Hubs and links attract different personality types.  As someone who tends to be part of stewarding a hub, I have developed a complex relationship with linkers.  They come late to meetings (if they show up at all).  They often bring dissonant ideas from “out there”.  They never really seem to fully belong to the hub.  So they’re easy to discount.  And doing so is always unfortunate.  And I’ve discovered, they often feel unappreciated.

I’m learning to love linkers!  They are late or seem outside because they spend their time with those at the margins.  They are often the source of new ideas or differences that can attract others who, in the abstract are desirable, but aren’t getting involved.  Skilled linkers learn how to bring outside perspectives and participants in graciously.

There’s So Much More To Say!

I could keep writing because there’s so much more to say.  And even more to learn. Still, I’ll stop for now, knowing my understanding of the multiple skills and aspects of leadership in networks will continue to evolve.


Reflections on the Organization Development World Summit

I recently returned from Budapest, Hungary after a wonderful week with 350 Organization Development practitioners from 30 countries at the OD World Summit.

The Hungarians were great hosts!  They fed us well, arranged for evenings with music and dance every night, and organized a terrific conference on “co-creating a new world of organizations and communities.”

I was honored to do a “master class” on Open Space Technology and to be part of an opening plenary, bringing an Open Space perspective.  Others speaking were:

We each spoke to the question: what are the three most important ways that our practice has influenced the field?

My answers for Open Space Technology:

Open Space Technology made explicit the notion that everything is self-organizing.  OST offers a pathway for productively working with the dynamics of self-organization.

OST re-defines the role of the facilitator.  No longer the expert in the front of the room, but “totally present and completely invisible”.  Rather than a facilitator who intervenes, the OST practitioner opens a welcoming space for self-organization to emerge.

OST provides a profound invitation to people to work from passion and responsibility.  Or, as I usually say it, to take responsibility for what they love.  Not just during an OS event, but as a life practice, when we pay attention to passion and responsibility, the good of the individual and the good of the collective are both served. To many, this seems a contradiction.  Yet when we operate by taking responsibility for what we love, we touch the part of us that connects to a deeper stream from which we all draw. In practice, when we each bring our full-voiced selves, a differentiation occurs from which novel patterns that draw from all facets of a system emerge. In other words, individual passion helps us discover our fit as a greater whole.

Before this opening panel, we were taken on a journey through the history of the field of Organization Development.  I was touched to discover both The Change Handbook and Engaging Emergence were identified by the organizers as pivotal contributions to the field.

Following the journey, participants reflected on where OD was heading.  I was excited to learn that people were hungry for new, more emergent, ways of working.  There was an openness to new ideas in the room.

A conference highlight for me was meeting the Gestalt practitioners.  I wasn’t familiar with their work.  Though I’m still not, the taste I got of the people and their work – focusing on awareness, wholeness, and working with disruptions – whet my appetite to learn more.


An Interview on Open Space Technology

I had the privilege today of being part of a fun experiment. The organizers of the Organization Development World Summit, Budapest, August 22-26, hosted an interview and online chat with me today.

Here’s the 20 minute interview.

The chat was quite an experience!  People posted questions online and my little fingers were humming along on the keyboard typing answers.  There were a lot more of them than there was of me!

I was struck by the questions.  Some were basic, some complex.  All challenging to answer in such a brief format.  Here’s a sample: Continue reading “An Interview on Open Space Technology”


A “Conversation” on Open Space Technology

On Thursday, July 29th at 18:00 CET/9:00am Pacific/Noon Eastern, the hosts of the upcoming Organization Development World Summit 2010, happening in Budapest in August are sponsoring an online chat with me on Open Space Technology.

You’ll have a chance to watch a recorded 20 minute interview I did on Open Space: http://odws2010.weebly.com/ and post questions and comments in a chat space on the page.

I’m hosting a 1 and a half day pre-conference workshop in Budapest called Open Space Technology: Supporting Self-organization at the conference on August 21st and 22nd.

The online chat is an appetizer.

How Does the Chat Work?

The interview will be broadcast at: http://odws2010.weebly.com/. You just need a computer and  internet access to participate.

During the interview, you can post comments and questions  on the website.  I’ll respond to as many of the questions and comments as I can.  So come online and ask about what interests you!