The Art of Hosting

Michelle, after learning about Holacracy, went further in her quest (22 Jan.2012):

Hello everyone,

We use the AoH philosophy and practices now to act as stewards within the context of meetings.  What about an ongoing organizational context?  Can an organization be governed effectively in this way, over time?  If so, what existing conditions are necessary (for example, does everyone need to be at a certain level of maturity/consciousness)?  On what occasions would this not make sense (for example, when unilateral decisions are needed, or when speed is more important than emergence and engagement)?   What additional support might be needed?
Helen Titchen Beeth wrote earlier today of the limitations of AoH as a governance system within the EU.  In a simpler system, or one starting fresh without deep patterns of disfunction, might the story be different?
What has been the experience of the stewards of the global AoH network?  Have you found that you had to draw on other disciplines or practices to be effective stewards of this "organization"?
Thanks for your thoughts on this!
Michelle Holliday

Being so heavily involved in the Occupy Movement, I GREATLY look forward to everyone's answers here. I've been wanting to form a database of AoH-like best practices for small governance, but usually find the time and nuance necessary for emergence to be impractical in such fast moving, high stakes, middle of the road maturity-type of situations...
Ben Browner
Hi Ben, Everyone.
There is a deck of cards recently created by the Group Pattern Language Project. It includes 91 aspects of working well in groups. I was recently gifted these (thanks Chris Corrigan) and feel excited about them. I see them as a way to see what is underneath method. It is some of the stuff that supports a quality of co-learning on an ongoing basis.
Thanks for the stirrings this morning.

I love this thread, great getting right to an important point, everybody…

It takes courage for a leader to change the place from which they operate. The idea of “less control” being preferred over more control can be un-nerving…

I think the means to a core operating system (OS) for many group situations, is through small groups. Several of us here, at A Small Group, have experimented with numerous local groups using the Civic Engagement Series. We’ve learned that in two 3 hour gatherings, 20-45 people can connect, practice and generate a rich environment for innovation and change.

Leaders who continuously connect group members to each other can then begin connecting associations to associations… This is where scale comes from.

Best Wishes,

Dan Joyner


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Thoughtful response, with lots of information, by Linda:

Hi Michelle and all - YES this is a really great question and its so good you have asked it.... Ive been fascinated by the replies and sitting on this e mail all day – middle of the night here, I'm being a night owl maybe its time to send it.
Im gonna try and get into the practice a bit here.

Can an organisation be governed effectivly over time using AoH principles?  Putting aside for one moment what we might mean by governed or organisation, I'd say absolutely yes, why not?  They are principles that resonate with us deeply.

You might look at the Kufunda story or the Columbus Ohio story for inspiration about sustaining AoH principles of stewardship over time and Im sure there are other examples of this in the network. Frauke recently posted some case studies that simply lay out the governance and structure of AoH itself ( Networks for social change ). We look at these and they look so different from how we normally imagine governance and organisational structure that it challenges our minds to see what is really there, but its like beauty, we cant describe what that means exactly, but we sure know when we are seeing it.

The 5th organising paradigm is the closest I can come to a model  that I have seen that illuminates an organising pattern -  circle, triangle, square or bureaucracy and network. ( I wonder if there is also a 6th that is the voice of the organisation or the entity itself- is that Holocracy? ) I'll try and share some 'hands on experience' from practicing this within Tasting the Future and the Finance Innovation Lab,  both of which have AoH principles and principles of living wholeness at their very heart.

You asked – what existing conditions are necessary and does everyone have to be at the same level of consciousness?  I'd say People don’t have to be at the same level of consciousness ( we'd have to wait for ever for this) but they do have to share a world view and a resonant tone or way of working. Not simply a purpose, but a way of working towards fulfilling that purpose maybe?
Our two core teams (of Tasting the Future and Finance Innovation Lab) are like the inner circles holding strategic stewardship and within the core there are different constellations ( triangles ) that go to work on different aspects like evaluation, innovation, learning, funding, connecting, illuminating, hosting, scaling up.  These constellations come together and weave other people in from time to time, sometimes short lived and sometimes ongoing.  Between the core teams, some of us work on finance and others on food, some people cross over both areas, some hold this as their main work, some are supporters and advisors and it is constantly moving, open and flexible.

Our core team is expanding in Tasting the Future and we are paying careful attention to how we do this.  We do feel a strong protection and some of that has come about because we have been really challenged on our basics – and thank goodness for challenges coz they make us stronger. We started off with a wider stewardship group of people who were invited to hold the core with us, but ran into difficulties as we didn’t have a common worldview.  We learnt to stand up for our approach, thank the people who had been involved and let them go.  I've been learning about Spiral Dynamics and think maybe it has much to offer us here about moving from the Green stage ( everyone is equal and all can participate ) to the next stages Yellow and Turquoise  ( a more chaordic state of consciousness that is systemic, functional and collaborative – and where different people bring their strengths to a learning ecology) so do we have to draw on different disciplines to be effective ? YES absolutely. I draw on everything I've got all the time!

The whole core (both core teams together) comes together regularly to sense into what is happening and the way ahead. This is both emergent and planned. Sometimes decisions are made by smaller groups, trust and communication is really important here, as is each of us feeling and sensing our gifts in the ecology.  Sometimes its really slow as we await emergence to show herself. We have surfaced principles of working and share world views that set an underlying tone for how we work.  We are continually engaging with our core purpose, the need  and the context so we can sense the next wise step forward. We put time into our own depth learning and harvesting and sense making. We also have a laugh together ( and a cry ) and usually good food is involved !

Around the core is another circle of what we call family and friends.  These are people who are resonant both with the work and with the way we work, using a living systems approach, seeing things as complex, interconnected and messy and working with the whole as well as the parts. We are still building relationship and capacity here and working with these groups to blend and expand

The square or bureaucracy comes in the form of the host organisations, WWF and Institute for Chartered Accountants – where the callers also live. Sometimes this square drives us mad as they often want answers to questions that have no answer ( and that’s part of our principles: its Ok to not know !  ) ...but actually it has also been really helpful ( as are funders ) in requiring us to be more rigourous about things like evaluating outcomes and developing theories of change.  Acoounting for where the money goes that sort of thing.

Finally the network, the heart and soul of this whole thing.  The people who engage, ask questions, pursue dreams and inquiries, come together and share.  Our organising pattern here is to host regular and very diverse activities and spaces for people to meet and innovate, learn together, that sort of thing.  More people are stepping into hosting themselves, calling their own spaces and projects and some are stepping into hosting the whole with us.

I hope this is helpful, for your question, I have surprised myself in writing it!  I loved what Helen wrote of the EC and have some experience there as well. Im not sure that AoH is limited in the system, more that the system is so complex, so huge that David and Goliath come to mind. Then I think about ants and how a small number of these little creatures can move a mountain.

Love Linda x

And here is my own response to this conversation:

Hello all,

This question of 'can AoH serve as an organisational governance structure' has picked my interest. I want to talk about the experience within the global AoH network. To be clear for all, the network has no official organisation, there is no boss, and things get done in the network because people step forward to do them. It's their gift to the whole. One way of looking is to say that we live totally in Open Space, and our sponsor is life itself.

The stewarding of such a self-organising system or network is not always easy. Over time we have come up with the notion of Stewards and stewardship. At a few occasions - really a few - some of us had to step forward to prevent that the name of AoH was mis-used, but for the rest the governance of this self-organising system has been very laid back and more on an energetic level than anything else.

There has been a time when there was some friction about who could name them self a steward, or who was going to decide that someone was one. We didn't come up with any straight rules around this, we want only a minimal, optimal structure that let things flow and so far that structure is indeed very minimal. But we see there are people who take responsibility for the whole - in whatever way - and these we call stewards. We see now that more regional stewards are standing up. Good!

There has also been some friction - or maybe confusion - around the difference of standing in the center, or holding the center. This tension released itself in the last Stewards gathering (where everyone pays for own travel and accommodation, again a gift to the whole) into the forming of a holding circle - the ones who are sitting at the rocks, holding the core of our practice. They don't do much in the manifest plane, but hold the energetic level of our network and our practice. Now and then they check in with each other in conference calls. One of the insights born there is that we are not a global community, but we better name ourselves as a network of (local) communities and then the question is what it means to hold this field in a good way?

On the AoH Ning there is a page where you can read the whole story from the beginning till now, with all the documents, reports that I know exists and that picture the process we went through. (Resources -> Documents/Articles -> History and Governance)
We have always used our own AoH practice, with the methodologies that we all know, and nothing else. But the question is of course, would you name us an organisation?

So, we are not an organisation in the strict sense, but we are 'working together in a more long term commitment', of course not day to day. And yes, the frictions and tensions had to do with projections and irritations, but we use our own practice of circle - as long as it takes - to get to some shared clarity. So far it has worked.

My personal opinion is that when your organisation has as its ultimate purpose to serve life, that AoH can give you all the tools you need. I don't have personal experience of working for a long time in a structure where the purpose is to make money, or some other smaller purpose than life, so I can't say much about it. But I see that our global network has been doing incredible work and has a wide influence, so that is good enough for me.

I hope this was useful for some of you,
With love,

And an answer from down-under:

Hi Ria,

Thanks so much for your thoughts.

My initial response to this question was "Why would you want AoH to be a governance structure?" and still this question sits with me. AoH is a practice and was not, as far as I am aware at least, ever designed to be a governance structure. And I really wonder if it's helpful to see it as some sort of silver bullet to work in all situations.

Governance is a multi-faceted construct and, while AoH practice can support good governance it is not a governance structure in its own right. Indeed taking Ria's great example of the AoH community, I wonder if the governance structure here is self-organisation, as opposed to AoH?

A final thought is the contribution the Chaordic Stepping Stones and the organisational paradigms might offer in the realm of governance. The organisational paradigms have been mentioned before so there's no need for me to add more. The Chaordic Stepping Stones might be a really good structure on which to base a governance. They require clarity of purpose, principles, practices (which could well include AoH), understanding beliefs that limit, organisation structure and constitution. This seems closer to a governance structure to me.

In conclusion I am left with the view that AoH is not a governance structure, and yet it is so much more.

Kind regards


Link between self-organisation and chaordic space by Tenneson:

Interesting thread -- thank you Ria, Stephen, all.

Here's a bit that I would add that helps my thinking.
I think of self-organization as the part that is free. It is the "order" in the chaordic path model that many of us use. Because systems are alive, they self-organize into an order. Yes, self-organization is the underlaying quality. In nature, it is the forest that "just is" without being designed.
I think of of control (in the same model) as what we humans do to attempt to simulate the order for free. In the best of experiences, we mobilize with an energy and intention. In the worst, we impose systems of over-control or even tyranny.
I think of AoH as a pattern that is really healthy for supporting order for free. Like many others on this list, I speak of AoH as the pattern for a group to learn, build relationships, and get to work.
In living systems, pattern is everything. In human living systems, we have cognition and a few other things that enable us to choose or shift pattern. AoH helps that shift to be in a natural way.
To the center.
Greetings from Utah.

More from Stephen, in answer to a question for clarification:

Hi Ria,

Some lovely thoughts. Thank you so much.

I'm not sure emergence and design are mutually exclusive! I spend a great deal of my work designing for emergence to occur.

I wonder if AoH is a practice that allows collective wisdom to emerge? It can also be more. I am reminded of the interesting work of Lahey and Kegan on the levels of cognitive development - technical, adaptive and transformational - and I think AoH, as a practice can offer great technical tools, strong adaptive frameworks and transformational potential. I've seen all three emerge from the same training in different people, depending on how ready and open they are. The invitation seems to have an impact on that too.

Thank you for picking me up on my oppositional language. I shouldn't have said "as opposed to" and it was merely a turn of phrase, poorly chosen. The point I was attempting to make was to be clear about the underlying structure, which seems to be self-organisation, which of course is also core to complex adaptive systems, which in turn are part of the context for AoH. Just as Tenneson has contributed.



Again from Michelle:

Hi all, 

A few weeks ago, I wrote asking if AoH could be used as a governance and decision-making system for whole organizations on an on-going basis (rather than for meetings alone).  Some people thought yes.  Others asked, "Why would you want this?" And others suggested that something other than AoH is needed - something more contained and directive (these are my words). 
The discussion left me feeling that I had lost my grasp on the concept of "organizational structure" - something that should be obvious and tangible, that I used to understand clearly, but suddenly it seemed slippery to me.  It's the processes people use to get things done and the patterns they create and reinforce... so why couldn't those things be hosted?  But that didn't seem quite permanent enough a concept.  "Hosting" seemed too ethereal when we're creating lasting infrastructure. Or maybe that's wrong.  I wasn't sure.   
Then I had a conversation with an amazing client today.  He suggested that what's needed is a permaculture approach to designing organizational infrastructure, where we observe the flow of energy and we seek to remove barriers and offer support to what's alive in the system.  He said that the traditional (mechanistic) approach seeks to enforce "laws" and "shoulds" in creating organizational structure.  But he said that in nature there are no laws, only forces.  So we have to work with the forces that are present within the organization and support them, or seek to redirect them.  Another inspiring client asks always: "What's the lightest possible structure we can create to support the outcome we want?" This is also a principle of permaculture.
If we look deeper than specific techniques like Open Space or World Cafe, we can see that the concepts my clients are suggesting are also core, underlying aspects of the Art of Hosting philosophy (as I understand it). Leaders are hosts or stewards, creating the fertile conditions for life to thrive within a system, including the infrastructure, process and patterns of interactions.  So at this point, my answer to my own question would be: yes, AoH principles can be used to guide the design of an effective governance system and organizational infrastructure.  
How does this sit with you?  Is there already writing available about this?  Does anyone know of examples of organizations that use this kind of approach? Visa and Semex come to mind.

Talking about the new paradigm... guided by principles...

Yay Michelle,

This resonates so much within me!
I've been studying all three, AoH, sociocracy and permaculture, and I know the underlying principles are the same. It's been intuitive and not so easy to explain to other people.
I'm now exploring the forces in practice in a newly born co-operative, and I'd love to get to know more people, study & practice together.

Could we start putting some thoughts down somewhere?


on the difference of starting a new organisation and changing an existing one...

Delicious, all this!
All you (all) say feels right - when creating an 'organisation' from scratch.

My inquiry is somewhat different - the world is full of pre-existing organisations, many of which have enormous power in the world, for good or ill. As far as I can tell, many start off being for the good, and then end up so trapped in their structures, procedures and 'world views' that they end up doing ill. That's how I feel about much that is coming out of the institutions of the European Union at this time. What is being 'done' to the Greeks is the most poignant example. Our governments, our economic and financial institutions, all are crippled by out-dated governance structures and processes that cannot move fast enough or re-purpose themselves appropriately, leaving well-intentioned, capable men and women doing meaningless, even soul-destroying work, despite their initial idealism on joining these organisations to make the world a better place. That's certainly very strongly the case with the European Commission.

So, my inquiry and my working practices are around: can we liberate these existing organisations into lighter, more agile structures? If so, how? We have been working with AoH patterns for over 3 years, and are having some impact on individuals and in some pockets in some departments that are starting to operate very differently, using AoH principles. But of course they run up against the rigid, crusty old structures and procedures, and are often stymied by the traditional ways of thinking that hang out higher up in the hierarchy. So progress is limited and for me, the jury really is still out on whether it's possible to transform an organisation of this size.

Interestingly, in my very own department, there's an organisational revamp going on with, I suspect, the intention of loosening the rigid structures and introducing something more flexible and able to handle complexity. And yet I fear it will end up with two conflicting/competing organisational paradigms vying to occupy the same cultural space. And I don't see how a top-down, command-and-control hierarchical bureaucracy can co-exist in the same people that have to operate in a flexible, networked matrix organisation. The two are based on different assumptions... The same holds true as we seek to introduce more participatory, collaborative ways of working together. Two such different paradigms cannot co-exist in the same head space and the dominant paradigm crushes and distorts much of the fruit of our good work.

It might sound discouraging, but that's where the challenge lies, for me. Who else out there on this list is experiencing the challenge of working in existing organisations, rather than trying to create something new?


how to combine the old and new paradigm in organisations...

Dear all,

I am really happy to hear about all your experiences. It gives me hope that we can work something out, which really is new and good. Because what does it mean, this new good way of working together, in a healthy world? What does it look like? It is great to hear your examples and reflections around it, thank you so much.
The emails of yours arrive to me in a time of 2 new beginnings: 
one is that I am starting up my own company, with the intention of slowly developing an organizational culture that allows for the flourishing of every person involved, plus where we develop structures that help us hold on to that culture. I imagine this to be a timely process that involves a lot of community building. This culture can only emerge if we live it from the beginning, and at the same time that we live it, we develop it and find out what it is.
The second is that I am working for a rather traditional company whose service is to "innovate business models". They are themselves in the process of finding out what it means to integrate people, planet and profit in their ways of working. So they are moving towards something new, without knowing what it is exactly. This involves change in organizational structures as well.
I am living with this question: how can I bridge these 2 things in me? How can they inspire each other, or is it two different and separate realities? How can I make sure that knowledge from one field transfers into the other equally? I don´t want the start-up scene to provide innovative ideas which the already established organization can use without giving anything back. Nor should the only thing that they provide be money.
How to consolidate 2 different worlds, while looking at people with whatever worldview with a loving eye?
Best greetings,

From Steve, from his experiences within an organisation:

Thank you Michelle for stimulating this conversation and for your perspectives, Helen.  You have articulated the challenges that we face these days as we work from a new paradigm within systems that are stuck in the old command and control world view.

I worked for over twenty years within an organization that was committed to the principles that we later discovered to be core to the Art of Hosting.  We worked to be inclusive and transparent, to empower individuals and teams to make decisions and to be self organizing and we continually challenged the temptations to revert to systems of control. 

It felt like a constant challenge to live into our intention and to avoid being pulled back into the dominant paradigm.  There were two primary sources of resistance from my perspective - fractals, actually.  At the individual level, it was hard work and very demanding to take individual responsibility and collective responsibility without looking to a boss to solve problems.  Individuals and teams also had the tendency to become too self-directed and to forget that they are part of a larger organization and that their actions and decisions need to be in support of the larger mission and vision.  Over time, I came to appreciate just how important it is that individuals have practices which support their individual development and that this work take on a spiritual component (even though such language was not allowed in the workplace).

On a macro level, we were continually challenged by systems based on the old paradigms from the legal system which required an individual to be identified as being in control to governmental rules requiring traditional personnel systems to collaborative organizations that demanded to know who was in charge.  My experience was that dealing with these systems took an amazing  amount of energy, which in time exhausted everyone.  As with the individual level, there was a need for practices that would allow the organization to sustain the energy for change.

It really feels like we are in a time of transition with old dying systems reacting and push back as new systems are striving to be born.  In such turbulent times, it is hard not to get attached to outcomes and to the illusion that there is a destination.  The real work often seems to be just showing up in service of the new paradigm, celebrating the moments of success along the way and being gentle with all of the stumbles along the way.


From Helen - on the difference between self-directing and self-governing:

What a wonderful response, Steve! What you say makes total sense.

Interestingly enough - since we were talking about Holacracy on this list not long ago - the interesting thing about Holacracy is that it allows self-governing at every level of hierarchy, but NOT self-directing. The organisation itself has its own purpose in the world, that the people are in service of. And part of the job of the 'senior circle' is to give the direction to its 'junior circles'. That avoids the problem of teams becoming too self-directed.
For the rest, I'm right there with you that we just need to show up wherever we are and try to do what makes sense.
sending hugs

Again a contribution from experience:

A cross-over point related to self-organization and self-direction:

An organization I'm working with is using both Holocracy and hosting practices.  They'll be hosting a World Cafe later this month to surface collective wisdom around the purpose of the organization.  The board intends to use the harvest to help them articulate the organization's purpose, which will become the purpose of the broadest circle in their Holacratic structure.
In my experience, hosting practices are great for exploring big questions and sparking new ideas, but don't seem to provide enough structure to coordinate an organization's day to day work, and Holocracy provides wonderful structure for getting the work done, without saying much about how to figure out which work to do.  It seems like a perfect marriage to me, so I'm often left somewhat mystified by the responses I get from people who are interested in one or the other but not both.

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