Book review: The power of spirit

Harrison Owen is the inventor of Open Space Technology, the most exciting and productive way of meeting with other people that I know of. In The power of spirit, how organizations transfrom he describes what an organization might look like, if it lived by the open space principles. And let me say this right away: If they’re hiring, I want to work there!

The book describes several different stages of organizational development. The most prevalent today is the “Proactive” organization, which is based on the classical command-and-control structure. The heroes in proactive organizations are the accountants who ensure that everything happens by the numbers.

An organization that embraces open space might become what he terms “Interactive”. Here everybody is a hero, every single person is allowed to contribute according to the persons wishes and the organizations needs. Each organization contains a number of “givens”. The givens are the absolutely essential tasks like making sure employees are paid, that taxes are paid etc. The organization should ask “what is the minimal level of formal structure required to take care of the identified givens”, and should maintain the smallest possible structure to handle these. Everything else will be planned, defined and executed through a continual open space process.

And why would we want to create these Interactive organizations? To make room for Spirit in the workplace, says Harrison Owen. He purposely does not define what this Spirit is. He argues, that you can either see the whole book as a definition, and that anyway, an exact definition is probably both imossible and superfluous. Although we may not be able to define Spirit, each of us knows when it’s present and when it’s not. Proactive organizations, with their tight command-and-control structures, leave very little room for the spirit.

Harrison Owen argues that we are already moving from Proactive to Interactive. That we are currently sitting on the fence between these two models – and that’s never a comfortable place to be.

The book covers a lot of territory besides this. There’s a section on Griefwork, the phases that are our human hardwired response to changes in our environment, no matter how big or small. There’s also a chapter on Myths in organizations which is synonymous with storytelling, one of todays buzzwords.

I highly recommend this book. I plucked it of my to-read shelf 2 days ago, and devoured it in almost no time – it’s that exciting. It’s also beautifully written, and well structured.

And you know what: I’ve tried it and it works! Enterprise Systems (the company I started with 2 other guys), embodied many of the practices and principles of the Interactive organization. The result: 5 years of having fun, growing as people, growing as an organization and making money.

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