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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What is needed in networks, what is needed in organisations? by Tenneson

Thank you for stirring something really important here. I can feel it churning in me.

A few thoughts are here on my blog if you want to peruse. Mostly about a network's need for stewarding that feels different that an organization's need for governance.
However, even more important seems to be the consciousness that goes with these and the shifts of consciousness in relation to individuals, offerings, accountabilities in this time.

and this tread didn't stop...

Thank you for stirring something really important here. I can feel it churning in me.

A few thoughts are here on my blog if you want to peruse. Mostly about a network's need for stewarding that feels different that an organization's need for governance. However, even more important seems to be the consciousness that goes with these and the shifts of consciousness in relation to individuals, offerings, accountabilities in this time.

Tenneson, I love your blog post.  Really good. 

My first thought in reading it is that over-reliance on traditional governance methods - rigidly defining roles and responsibilities within org charts, for example - may truly be detrimental to the life of the system.  Rather than enabling everyone to see themselves as responsible stewards, actively evolving the system together, such methods invite people to sit back and lean against the structure, which they then perceive as separate from themselves. 
My second thought was that I can hear one client saying, "But we're not a network, and people are salaried, so this doesn't apply to us."  And I can hear Helen saying, "How on Earth would the European Commission work as a network??"

But then, I just read about the example of Google, with 20,000 employees and $23 billion in sales - it seems that they operate with a network and stewardship model.  They talk about it as "hacker culture" but I think it's the same basic principles. 
  • Google has a healthy disrespect for authority and meetings; we create an environment where engineers (hacker culture) can get into the creative flow
  • Successful companies can create an environment, setting and culture that allows the flow to happen, “not by managing, but tending to garden”
  • Focus on results produced versus effort and time; allow people to manage their own schedules
  • Non-negotiable commitments with self
I don't know about the European Commission, but I think my doubting client might actually come to see that they are more network than they think and that it would be better to build engagement and stewardship on that foundation rather than stifle it with too much prescribed structure.
Underneath all, I believe, is the need to shift to principles of living systems. That feels hopeful to me in all of these contexts. Whether in structure or practice.
Thanks again Michelle for stirring much.
Ok, since you have named the shift to principles of living systems, let me share an article I wrote for Kosmos Journal which is about just that: Evolutionary Entrepreneurship - Engaging the Collective Will - it seems ever more topical these days
Absolutely, Michelle, there are many, many networks inside the Commission - without them nothing world work. There are even starting to be some real communities of practice that transcend the many silos. Richard Hames talks about 'the cathedral and the café' - the cathedral being the organisation chart and official procedures and meetings, etc; the café is exactly the networks and informal conversations that go on in the basement, so to speak, where the work really gets done.
in a hurry...
To expand on the point that Helen brings up about organizations and networks:
Organizations, communities, networks, and crowds are overlapping and interacting forms of collective behavior.
Sometimes people get really excited about one or the other, and want to look at everything as if it is, say, a network.  That's a great lens, which offers some real insights and suggests some useful tools.  The downside is that this sometimes leads to an "out with the old, in with the new" mindset which motivates a dismissal of, say, organizations in favor of networks, rather than a widening of perspective to see how they fit together.
For me, at least, the places where these forms of collective behavior come together is where all the action is!
Hi all,
In regard to Tenneson's blog post, there's a distinction I would draw about networks and organizations:
A network is not an organizational form, because a network is not organ-ized: it doesn't have distinct organs that fulfill different but related purposes as an integrated, overall whole.
Of course, that's not a knock on networks!  Their ad-hoc and decentralized nature is often a source of strength and usefulness.  A network may have many generative hubs that create space for new conversations.  (Those hubs might also be places where communities and organizations are seeded and grow.)
To me, something networked suggests connecting, something organized suggests governing, something communal suggests sharing.  Each mode has its benefits, and creates something distinct from the others.  I would suggest that each of these activities is a form of stewardship in a slightly different way.  
Nice Karl. I like your reference to varied forms of stewarding. And there is a vibrancy in networks isn't there. I'm really intrigued by the principles that support a network getting things done as offerings rather than assignments.
Yup, keep cracking.

More information is drippling in:

Dear Michelle and friends,
When I read your last question inquiring about examples of organizations that use this kind of approach, a company came to mind that I had the opportunity to learn about through an interview I conducted as part of the Business as an Agent of World Benefit project. The company is Namaste Solar out of Colorado. They have a storybook available on their website, which you can access here. In particular, I love their definition of holistic wealth, and the way in which they have captured their own story is lovely to see. As part of the BAWB project, stories are being collected in an Innovation Bank from organizations across the globe that create societal and business benefit; this may be another place to find examples of different approaches to organizing and governing.

and the conversation continued...

Hi All,

I have been following this string with a great deal of interest and a slight sense of discomfort. I have resisted being a voice of dissent as I agree with so much that has been written. 

I agree that principles are more appropriate than rules. I agree that a living systems model has a lot to offer when considering governance. 

I am reminded of an insight, which I believe comes from Mark Twain, that when all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail. This is the core of my discomfort. I have a niggling question about whether AoH is being used as a hammer in this context? I am completely aware that AoH is more than a tool, and maybe that adds to our temptation to be seduced into simplistic solutions?

I go back to my original question about why do we need AoH to be a governance system/approach? Are we at risk of seeking an excessively simplistic view of the world, with AoH as a silver bullet? AoH has so much to offer there might be a temptation to see it as the answer to all questions. 

My final thought, ironically enough, is that the Chaordic Path might have something offer to considerations of governance, with the right balance of the creativity and flexibility of principles along side the structure of policy and systems. It is not that one is good and the other bad, but the right balance allows them to dance together gracefully. 

Yours in genuine curiosity,



Thank you Stephen - to my mind, you've raised a shared concern and have expressed it in a far more apt and eloquent form than I could have managed.  
Jennifer Stone
Stephen, I am hearing your concern about whether AoH might be being seen,
as the "answer to all questions"...

and also, your sense that "the Chaordic Path might have something offer to considerations of governance, with the right balance of the creativity and flexibility of principles along side the structure of policy and systems."

It seems to me that this conversation may have come around full circle an earlier starting point, where Michelle had written:

"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."

From a meta-perspective, I'd like to add that this conversation reminds me a bit of similar ones in other communities... for example, the Open Space community, where people have often delved into what it might look like to run an organization, in a way that is fully informed by Open Space principles. (If I am not mistaken, the Genuine Contact community has grown out of just such an inquiry...) As I understand it, this would not mean that OS would be the only policy, form or structure existing within an organization... more that the "spirit" or "philosophy" of OS, would function as an underlying "prime directive".  

So, this kind of inquiry is intriguing to me, as a "larger pattern" that seems to occur within various communities...

yet I'm not sure it fits completely as a "everything looking like a nail" phenomenon, as I don't think it has so much to do with a particular method, as with an underlying philosophical inquiry...

something along the lines of, "what are the few basic irreducible principles which give rise to the vast display of phenomena?" and, "what might it mean, to live our lives fully in accordance with those principles?"

Still, the diversity question remains quite relevant... as it seems to me that there are multiple sets of "basic irreducible principles" that might fit the bill, and that reality itself, is not reducible to our cognitive representations of it, as understandable (and as fruitful in many ways) as our search for "basic principles" might be...

anyway, those are my late-night musings here...
I have found this thread quite thought-provoking, and am very grateful to all of the contributors to it.

with all best wishes,


I'm afraid I'm not really following who is posting what here and what is going on, but I like it!

On present dysfunctional organisations vs creating new ones - I think permaculture / ecological / AofH principles are so different from those that underpin current organisations.  Yes, the real value lies in reforming them, but I think that is still too tall an ask for us.  The 'low hanging fruit' of organisation is the new organisations being created, new businesses, new community organisations... there is very ripe potential for supporting these to excel.  And then we develop our knowledge of how to better organise with these principles - and have ammunition and case studies to boot.

And if worse comes to worse, then at least we have examples of the alternative that we'll need to replace the current methods with when those institutions collapse. : )

That's my philosophy for change - not universal wisdom...

Ria Baeck said:

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?


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