Structured or Unstructured?

This question from Rene in the Netherlands…

Thanks for sharing your experiences with Open Space on your web site and in your publications. I’m a consultant in the creative industry in the Netherlands and I have facilitated a lot of workshops over the years. I bumped into your approach and want to use Open Space for a
workshop next week.

After reading your work (and other resources on Open Space), one question remains for me: How do the principles “it starts when it starts” and “it’s over when it’s over” relate to the agenda making process, where subject owners plan a room and a time spot where they will discuss their topic?

Click the comments link (immediately below) here to read my answer, or to offer an answer of your own.

Have a question, too? Send it along. We’ll post and invite answers as we’re able to get to them. Thanks!


@ Michael: Thanks for your extensive explanation. I’m starting to understand now the relation between the principles on one hand, and the practicallity on the other hand.

@ Mark: I recognize this approach, and agree that it really works if the organizational culture allows it…

I decided now to create some timestamps/location combinations on sticky notes, and that the conveyers can stick those on their topic description. Since these are post-its, the starting time can changed easily if needed.

Thnx for both your inputs, will let you know how things went 🙂

Hi Rene.

There was a time when I led OS-based meetings in very strucured government environments. The culture itself guided how the “Principles” and the “Law” were understood and implemented.

Thus, each “Convenor” — including myself — determined in that cultural context, when the sessions would start, and who the “Right People” were.

Typically, this meant that sessions (meetings) started “on-time” with whoever was “present” being empowered to represent the “Whole”. This was a significant factor in the culture because decisions were made at these meetings that might impact any and all of the associated organizations. Hence, people (and organizations) that felt that they might have something at stake in the sessions — always had a representative present at the appointed times and places, for the duration of the sessions (“when its over its over”).

Individual and collective “self-Interest” within the context of the culture defined the norms for interpreting and acing on the “Law” and the “Principles”.

My feeling is that when people “get” that they are indeed responsible for the quality, content, and process of their own individual and collective experience (“The Law”) — they accurately (and usually effortlessly) interpret the “Principles” in ways that are generative within their cultures.


first, the principles are not rules, they’re more like hints about what’s coming. the grid of post-it notes with places and times is only for supporting the convening of meetings.

it’s not uncommon for sessions to start later than posted, usually by just a few minutes, but sometimes nobody comes and it’s rescheduled for the next day, perhaps, so it starts a whole day ‘late.’ then sometimes it doesn’t finish, and a sequel is convened. or the session ends, but it starts up again at the bar later that night. or at lunch.

the principles are there to remind us that the stuff on the post-it notes is not in charge of what happens, is not what makes things happen, and is not what sets the timing, ultimately. the participants, all together, do all of that, together.

in the end, every session always starts when the people are ready. the posted time is an invitation to get ready at that time. then the readiness, so invited, usually shows up at about that time, and the conversation happens. same for the closing, it’s a just a guess and a guide that gets recalc’d as the group goes on.

before every open space meeting, we mark out breakout spaces and timeslots. we put them up in a grid of postit notes. then we explain the principles and invite people to name the issues. they write their issue, choose a space/time tag, put the whole thing on the wall for all to see.

each topic is an invitation to all to be ‘ready’ for that issue at that tiem. if people are ready, something will happen. if not, nothing will happen…. hence the usual counsel: “be prepared to be surprised.”

i would say this makes Open Space structured AND unstructured.