Ep. 013:  Harrison Owen


Show Notes


  • Introduced the concept of Open Space and author of Open Space Technology: A Users Guide
  • Author of 10 books and articles, also a photographer.
  • Explored the nature of leadership, evolution of consciousness in organization, organizational transformation, the power of myth and culture, and open space technology

Open Space

  • Started in 1985, people began using it everywhere, and in 1989 Owen began to understand it was important.
  • Open Space arose when Owen had offered to convene the third international symposium on organizational transformation
  • Noone was paying me, so I said I will create some space and what will happen will happen.
“In west Africa when the people have some difficulty they need to work on in a village, they just sit in a circle. Nobody yells and screams at them, there isn’t an agenda there are personages who have roles that they play, but you wouldn’t notice that unless you knew the village very well. So I thought, well, that would be a good place to start.”
“What are we going to talk about? The image that came to mind was a bulletin board”
“Then you are left with the logistics, who what when where why: the image that came to mind was a marketplace.”

Five Principles of Open Space

  • Whoever comes are the right people
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
  • Whenever it starts is the right time
  • Where ever it happens is the right place
  • When it is over it is over.

The law of two feet

If at any time during our time together you find yourself in a place where you are neither learning nor contributing use your two feet, put one foot ahead of the other and go somewhere more fun.

Why does it work?

  • It violates all principles and practices of meeting practices.
  • The best and only explanation is that it just so happens that the cosmic phenomena of self-organizing systems applies equally to human systems.
  • Open space is terrifying.
  • People will physically avoid it.
    • The pre-conditions
    • A real issue that people care about
    • Complexity and diversity
    • Conflict
    • Passion
    • Urgency
“The notion of control is not only illegal, immoral, and fattening, it is delusional. There is a very simple reason for that. We live in a world that is so complex, interconnected, fast moving and just ungraspable, we can’t even think at that level, I mean everything interacts with everything else which means that nothing can be predicted. What you can’t think, you can’t control.”
“If life is fundamentally a self-organizing system; one thing you know is that organizing a self-organizing system is not only an oxymoron it is stupid, because you can’t do it. The only thing you can ever guarantee to achieve is to screw it up, which we do with abandon.”
  • I know I have done a very good job if on the second day a participant looks at me and says “who are you?”
  • Open Space is a natural experiment and what the experiment is about is the natural appearance of peace and high performance.
“Peace does not mean lay back in the hammock, peace for me is that marvelous dynamic harmony where potentially conflicting choices bounce off each other and amplify each other.”

Israel and Palestine

  • One of the curious things about translation is that you often don’t need it, you might do better without
  • To this day, I don’t know what the issues were or the discussions
  • By the end of the second day there was tension, it was the most highly strung human atmosphere I had ever been in, it sizzled
  • I remember exactly at 3AM, a phrase from Rumi went through my head: ‘there is a place beyond right thinking and wrong thinking I will meet you there.
  • I know for a fact that there are a whole mess of nasty things that did not happen because of that meeting
“It isn’t about the process. Everybody keeps trying to make open space into a process. You don’t do the process, it does you.”
“Why is it not being used? Because people are afraid to succeed. Think of how many tenured professors would be out of a job. Think of how many consultants would be out of a job. What do managers do? They try to get rid of an informal system, when the informal system is the only thing that is working. This is disruptive”
“The condition for entry in any open space is that you care I would much rather have 5 people who seriously care than 50 of the right people who could care less… We get so stuck on the notion that you have to have the right people, and what you get is a whole bunch of people who don’t care.”
“open space for me is a natural act, we do it all the time. If I did anything, it was to give it a name. The one thing we have learned is that it works.”


Contact Harrison

You can reach Harrison via his website.