The Magic of Opening Space

Since discovering the wonder of Open Space un-conferencing, I seldom go to regular conferences – it seems hard to justify letting strangers decide how I should spend my time and energy! (You might have been an Open Space event without realising it, or something like it, keep reading if you don’t know what Open Space is and you are curious.)

“A circle of chairs” does not an Open Space make!

I have also experienced a number of formats, some of them calling themselves open space, others not, all of them mixing together Open Space and traditional conference practices. Does it matter? To me it does, because I do not observe the powerful and helpful culture shift happening there which I wish for my clients.

In this article I’d like to tell you why I care about the definition of Open Space, and share some common examples I’ve experienced – things I recommend people stop doing if they hope to create passion, innovation and fruitful self-organisation – especially if they are calling it Open Space.

Does it matter if it’s really Open Space?

About the format: the simple Open Space format was first used in 1985 and documented by Harrison Owen in his book “Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide“. Since then, a huge international community of facilitators has used it hundreds of thousands of times, holding to the basic principles laid out by Owen, and always, as is natural, introducing local nuances to accomodate cultures, needs, and opportunities. Leaders within this community meet regularly at World OS-on-OS or WOSonOS events – meetings that still run in the original Open Space format. Out of this movement, and parallel to it, have grown other powerful methods, like World Cafe, The Practice of Peace, Deep Democracy, Lean Coffee, Genuine Contact, and others.

Freezing a method breeds dogma and the need to defend purity. From Wikipedia:

Owen never trademarked or patented or certified “open space” in any way. He always claimed to have discovered, rather than invented, it. He said it could be practiced freely by anyone with a good head and good heart. From the beginning, he said only that those who used the approach and found it valuable, should share their stories and learnings as freely, as well.”

These stories are shared and questions discussed in the wiki of the informal, international Open Space facilitator community, and on their lively mailing list. This community welcomes passion, reflection and innovation, and so many flavours are visible in these sources, and the way Open Space is used is clearly quite elastic. And yet, when leaders within the community depart from the original formulation, I notice that they tend to signify this by clearly naming their approach to indicate that is it something new.

In this way, one can continue to collaborate with practitioners everywhere on Open Space topics without constantly re-defining basic terms, while still also leaving room to explore and create exciting new, and perhaps better, approaches for other contexts. To me, this unambiguity in discussing Open Space does matter: misunderstandings, arguments and disambiguation require energy I’d rather spend on creating passionate, dynamic, self-organising communities and individuals.

Furthermore, I myself do not feel a need to “improve it” for at least three reasons:

  1. it works. I’ve experienced it. And it has worked over 100,000 times (wikipedia).
  2. it does not claim to be the perfect or only solution, just a good one, for a particular context. I welcome other approaches for this context. And I am excited by the innovations coming out of our community to adapt it to different uses.
  3. there is something timeless and essentially human about it. I had a lovely experience of this: a man, who had travelled from Africa to join our french-language WOSonOS in Quebec, seemed to be puzzling over something. Near the end, he stood, raising his hands with amazement: “Ah, I see! Open Space is the Palabra tree!” recognising in this “new” thing his own people’s ancient tradition, where elders have historically gathered in the shade of a Baobab tree to ponder the big questions of the day.

Here I speak of the practitioner benefits of unambiguous terminology within the community. But, more importantly, I have seen how classic Open Space can create new and energize old communities, making them generators of vibrant ideas and productive relationships. But for this to happen, it is necessary to really let go and give people an experience of the self-organising paradigm. Open Space is one way to do this. That is, Open Space with NO voting, NO “redundant” or “deleted” topics, NO coffee breaks (seriously?) and NO talking heads.

What is the difference? How can I tell?

When classic Open Space gets going, it’s more likely to be like this: a mildly uncomfortable, somewhat disorderly, day(s)-long coffee-break; where far more good ideas surface than can be addressed in the time given, and where people exchange email addresses to be sure to follow up with the projects started and kindred spirits discovered. Every event is an emergent phenomenon, and while each one is different, sometimes wildly so, each still uses as a jumping-off-point the constellation of classic Open Space practices.

Here are some of the adaptations I have seen, and the outworkings I observed.

You know You’re in Open Space When…

Classic facilitation Adaptations I’ve seen Outworkings of adaptations I’ve observed
The center of the room is a large empty space unconference in a classic auditorium with fixed seating, or tables & chairs People remain unaware how radically different this event is and apply their own self-imagined “rules”. Themes are announced from all directions, not everyone hears. In one unconference, experienced members of the community, who’d come armed with .ppts, quickly and excitedly announced themes, making newbies shy – so at the end of the day I heard “I wish I’d understood how this worked… I guess new people present the next time”. The “Whoa!” effect of the empty space is a big signal to new participants which, when followed by the classic principles and law, invites them to throw away their usual conference assumptions and behaviours. And the circle around the space is a democratizing symbol, leveling the playing field.
The Law
of Two Feet
is shared and its impact explained (sometimes
called “butterfly and bee” behaviour)
a barcamp simplifies the format by skipping the rules, and the facilitator runs off to his first session. This creates an unnecessary heirarchy of knowledge, where newbies, full of uncertainty, feel inferior to the experienced participants who seem to operate according to some secret code. Recently, I heard of bored people feeling “trapped” at the front of a room whose speaker was holding a monologue. What a waste of human passion! After the Law was introduced, things relaxed – people were now unafraid to offend colleagues by moving around during sessions.
During the initial explanation, there is no “front” of the room;
all positions around the empty space are of equal significance
the explanation is done from a real or perceived
“stage” which stands in a break in the circle
self-organization is slower to develop, since the
layout suggests “leader”. People ask lots of questions (to “get it right”) instead of spontaneously starting to create solutions. I think one reason the classic Open Space facilitator walks in the open space is to actively refuse to be a leader (yes, it is irritating, isn’t it?) … to build desire in participants to get beyond the facilitator and get on with the work! (of course, this is harder if the room is full of chairs!) Once the facilitator leaves the center of the Open Space void, the theme proposal process happens, at best, unfacilitated: the beginning of self-organisation.
All sessions are accepted voting on themes; forced combining of themes; show of hands to remove low interest themes the messages implicit in doing this are numerous:
“leader” and “control” are clearly displayed; personal passion is not enough; popularity dictates the value of a theme. It artificially makes speaking with others a scarce commodity, wheres, in fact, the Law of Two Feet means that among 100 people, at least 50 conversations could conceivably happen at once,
proposals continue until the group feels they are finished
restricting session proposals with a tight timebox or a
limited, grid-like marketplace wall.
When a timetable-like grid is used for a Marketplace
wall, I commonly hear murmers of “oh, it’s filling up…” and people holding un-presented topics while sitting, not going forward, while others jostle for position to announce theirs, causing tension. Again, artificial scarcity is introduced and spontenaiety of contributions suffers.
participants negotiate the theme wall together, with hosts having final say. facilitator collects themes, orders them, assigns rooms, combines or removes themes. again, sends a message of “leader” and tends to freeze
an agenda that should be in constant evolution. It saddened me to hear a distressed participant say “I can’t find my session!” “Which one?” “Mine! They’ve moved it outside but I don’t know where!” This responsibility had not been clarified at the start.
There is a final “negotiation step” to move/split/combine themes
people rush off directly to their first session..
Perhaps the wall is cramped by chairs and people, not easy to see. Such a marketplace is unlikely to change during the day.
In Open Space, once all themes are presented, the group
self-organizes during a final negotiation step to make things happen at “the right time” and with ” the right people”. People are not used to having freedom to influence a conference in this way, and if it is not explicitly invited and both time and space made for it, then people tend to follow habit and accept the wall as it initially is – secretly sad to “have to” miss themes that are important to them. Furthermore, exciting new learnings or ideas tend to disappear into notebooks rather than appearing on the wall, sparking new synergies..
an agenda with minimal structure keynotes, coffee breaks, mandatory sit-down meals, meditation break, time for a walk… every one of these items pulls people back from self-organisation, refocuses them on the organisers’ (well meaning) plan, and disempowers them. In these events the organisers do more work, answering questions and “making things work” for people. I prefer to remind people at the start that Open Space can be exhausting, and that they should listen to their bodies and take care of themselves – eat, take a nap, whatever. And I try to always provide healthy energy snacks, and a place to just sit and relax or chat. The first time, in their excitement, people tend to over-do it – but where do we get off playing kindergarten teacher to these adults? This is self-organisation: they can only do it their way, then they learn that they must balance their own energy and passion, and then do it better.
(sometimes: it is explicitly called Open Space ) an unconference, a team meeting, a barcamp, a meetup, a conference, a conference track… I believe this name is only important, during the event, if there is an understanding that participants may want to use this approach afterwards, because it provides a search term to help inform creation of their own self-organizing event. But for the event itself, it is often superficial information.

All that being said, there are still many very different looking applications of Open Space. There are many other details people ask about: can we do Open Space with chairs in a long rectangle? Can we do it standing? Can we do it in only half a day? Can we have two facilitators? and so on… and my answer is always: if you have to, yes.

What if I get it wrong?

Ok, let’s make it simple: you will make mistakes. I make mistakes. And yet, I have run many successful events while “getting it wrong” :-) The fact is, the event is really created by the people you set free with your simple rules at the start. Pay attention to how you create the container for them… then whatever they create on the day will be just what they need. (Note: if what they “need” is a shouting match, you can watch, and let it happen. This is how groups learn about themselves and grow into self-organisation.)

Just as with an Agile process experiment, I suggest at the beginning:

understand the classic formula, apply it as-is, support its elements well.
yes, you can probably do it in half the recommended space, with a number of important concessions. But why do that to your people? Accept the formula as a gift from those who have already tried it. And of course, not everyone has a circular room – be smart too.
don’t make assumptions about what to “improve” before you try it.
Afterwards, if it really needs help, I usually find it isn’t in the area discussed up front.
be kind to yourself
expect it to be imperfect, while still being perfectly adequate
work with a buddy
to reduce the likelihood of falling into your own “usual” conference organizer behaviours!
really give it over to the group
if it needs important changes, and if they understand it is *their* event, they will surface organically, in real time.
And invite the group to help plan the next one, they will bring their knowledge organically into the planning. Those with passion for change will come, and you will find that for most, it was good enough.
this is the “magic” of classic open space. It works because the right people talk about what really matters and are free to work toward solutions. You cannot plan to make this happen. You can only plan to open the space and hold it open while they do what
they need.

A challenge

I dare you to simplify your event down to the bare Open Space practices, hold yourself back from “fixing” things during the event, and see what happens. Why? I think you will have more fun, less worries and end the conference with more joy and energy. But be warned: your participants may discover that they need you less than they thought. (Unless event organisation is your dream, this should be good news, right? Now you can do more of what you love!) Worth a try?

This is the pure practice of servant leadership. You have nothing to offer in terms of direction, only a container to hold and a will to manifest. You place yourself outside the circle, get out of the way when the marketplace opens and you find that the group manages itself.

“You stay away to the side, observe with compassion but remain detached from the outcome. You trust the people, the process, the great truth unfolding, and find yourself folding in to the emergence which is springing out all around you.”

— “Long Enduring” from The Tao of Holding Space by Chris Corrigan


Further reading:
Open Space resources & upcoming Open Space facilitator workshops

Comments (9)

  1. This sounds a lot like a nice summary of a discussion that we had during your workshop last year (September) – thanks again for all of the valuable information there, and thanks again for posting this information here in a form that I can refer to in discussions that invariably will come up before our next Open Space event.

    You might want to add “printed/designed” signs – this was one of the eye-openers that you provided then: Hand-written signs & no-grid-agenda provided more incentive to actually provide input & self-organization. I’ve made really good experience with this hint.

  2. Thank you Deborah! As we ease into the last few weeks of getting ready for Agile Open Northwest 2014 (our 8th!), I’m happy to report that we’ve stuck with the traditional form and it’s been great every year and it gets better every year. I appreciate you for the clarity and reflection you’ve shared here.

  3. Yeah, what a great job and tool to use for spreading the word. This is so very helpful and offers opportunities to add and include, as we go, our learning insights on Open Space – just do it!! Thanks Skye

  4. Great reflections, thanks for writing them down and sharing them Deborah. I agree with what I read and I like the video too, a nice way to give an intuitive feeling of what OST is about.
    All the best

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