John D. Adams, Ph.D., Emeritus Professor, Saybrook University, USA
John D. Adams, Ph.D. wrote this piece during the Sixth Annual Symposium on Organization Transformation (OT6) held at Djurö, Stockholm archipelago, Sweden, August 1988.

The OT Story

Sometime during the very early years of this decade, probably in 1981 or 1982, a large number of people began to use the term organisation transformation to describe their work. During the Spring of 1982, a few of these people recognized each other at a conference outside of Boston, and began to discuss their common interest in concepts like vision, purpose, spirit in the workplace and global perspective.

Jack Martin Leith: These concepts were revolutionary in the 1980s.

By the summer of that year, quite a few of these people in the United States had contacted each other, and everyone was experiencing much excitement about these ideas and their application, and many enquiries began to arrive from all over the world. As there was a sizeable number of people in the Washington, DC, area, that city was an early focal point. Within a few months, dozens of people who had not previously known each other were suddenly operating in a very close, high energy way.

Harrison Owen had a centrally-located office in the city, and this became a regular meeting site. Harrison sent out a letter (download the letter) that summer to his mailing list asking if others were interested in the idea of OT, and the response was overwhelming. The letter was sent on stationery which had the letterhead TWG which had been printed for an organization that never came into existence, but it struck a responsive chord, and most of the enquiries were about how to join the TWG group. A newsletter was created and, since no one was interested in creating a network that would have to be managed, TWG was characterized as an energy field that would congeal into gatherings from time to time. A monthly sharing session began in Washington, and interest grew in holding a large event in the summer of 1983.

Harrison Owen, Frank Burns (see obituary below), Jim Shannon, Linda Ackerman, Linda Nelson, Lawry DiBivort and I were among the people who worked on creating the first International Symposium on Organization Transformation, which convened with more than 200 participants (three from Europe qualified it as international) in July 1983. In many respects it was a traditionally designed conference, but it had many new features. It was connected to the then newly-formed Meta Network computer conferencing system, no one received any remuneration for speaking, much of the design was emergent, the idea of the Native American ‘talking stick’ was introduced, and a great deal of attention was paid to celebration, ritual and conference energy. With the exception of The Meta Network, these concepts have continued to be central to subsequent OT symposia on both sides of the Atlantic.

In July of 1984, the conference was repeated in Columbia, Maryland. It was noticeably less traditional, although there were still prearranged, invited presentations – but this was the last year for that.

During the late 70s and early 80s, Frank Burns had been experimenting with emergent conference designs in his work with a think tank in the US Army, which involved several hundred military and civilian people who were working to create the “Army of the Future.” Among those involved was Harrison Owen, who further developed this idea as Open Space at the 1985 OT, held in Monterey, California. In 1986, Open Space was again the hallmark of OT4, held over the July 4th holiday in Tarrytown, New York. During this conference, Sabina Spencer, Frank Burns, Lisa Carlson and I were given the opportunity to create OT5.

As we discussed what we would do, we came back repeatedly to the fact that, while we spent a great deal of time at each gathering talking about global spirit and global consciousness, our attendance was more than 95% American. So we thought it would be interesting to have OT5 happen outside of North America, to make it possible for a lot more of our OT friends to participate, and to challenge our country people to take global consciousness seriously and fly over the Atlantic puddle for the symposium. Since Sabina and I were associated with Ashridge Management College in Berkhamsted, England (in fact we met there), we suggested that location, and so it came to pass that OT5 moved to Europe in August 1987. About 100 people attended, from 14 countries, as Open Space and the talking stick made their first appearance in Europe.

At every OT gathering it is not known whether it will be the last one. When it is time to move on to other ways to use our energy, we assume it will be apparent. The existence of the next gathering depends on someone deciding there should be such a gathering, and volunteering to make it happen. Last summer at the closing session of OT5, a group of Swedes stood up and volunteered to bring OT here. So, no one knows if there will be an OT7.

JML: At the close of OT6, the Dutch participants announced their intention to host OT7 in Amsterdam the following year. I was a participant.

But one thing is clear. A strong network of people is evolving around the planet, much of it interlinked via computer networks, which is the leading edge of transformational change in organizations. It is also very gratifying to see that our ‘‘movement’ is continuing to attract new people from diverse areas, and also to see that OT has rapidly become mainstream in the practice of organization development in many parts of the world.

The term organization transformation is now being used in a number of diverse ways by different individuals and groups. I am most gratified that our gatherings have consistently emphasized the importance of spirit, vision, purpose, energy, creativity, integrity and dignity, and the emergence of broader consciousness.

I am sad to let you know that our friend and colleague, Frank Burns, died yesterday in Austin, TX. His wife, Billye Adams, and sons Scott and Kent and their families were all with him. I share the experience with many others here of having the special experience of knowing and loving Frank. He’s certainly my most unforgettable person. We are having a “virtual wake” on The Meta Network where we’re sharing thoughts and memories of Frank. If you’d like to join just make yourself an ID and join the FRANK — Into the Light conference. As some here may know, Frank designed and sherpherded meetings as early as the late 70s in the Army’s Delta Force think tank using many of the principles that later came to be called Open Space. He co-conspired with Harrison and others to create the first OT meeting in NH in 1982¹. It’s not possible to count the many contributions he made to our thinking and practice. But it’s his spirit that will be most greatly missed.

Lisa Kimball, 5 December 2003 | Note 1: This is incorrect; the year was 1983.

Further reading

A memoir on changes in the field of OD: the advent of organization transformation, by John D. Adams, on the International Organization Development Association website (June 2016). In this article, John Adams discusses some of the trends and events that paved the way for the birth of organization transformation.

A memoir on changes in the field of OD: the advent of organization transformation, Part2, by John D. Adams, on the International Organization Development Association website (June 2016). Here, he enriches and continues the organization transformation story.

View the complete list of OT symposia