The Five Invitations of Open Space

Open Space is an emergent phenomenon, developed and spread globally over the last forty years, with zero organizational backing, zero marketing budget, and zero employees. It must be doing something right. It must be adding value. But what, exactly, is the allure? And how does one get started? Ask five people and you might get five different answers.

Open Space is a remarkably effective way to run large and small meetings. But it’s also a great way to live in a world that’s out of our control. It’s the self-organization of evolution and complexity science AND organization transformation made immediately practical. It’s that moment of utter unknowing, when the old thing is gone but the new thing hasn’t started yet AND it’s the momentum of learning that is changing the world in surprising and encouraging ways.

This page teases out Five Invitations of Open Space. In your own practice, you might yet discover a sixth or even a seventh. Emergence is like that. Learning is like that. But for now, Open Space offers at least these five important pathways. Start with any one of them. You’re bound to discover the others along the way. All of them are calling us to get “outside of the box.”

Expand Your Now

The past is gone. The future hasn’t happened yet. All we have is now: our personal experience of space and time, connection, direction, momentum. Meditation might help expand one’s sense of now, but that’s not a requirement. Open Space facilitators sometimes say, “Open Space starts when we pick up the phone.” Every meeting and conversation is a chance to open a little more space for ourselves and others. Sometimes we call this Living in Open Space. We can take the Four Principles and One Law wherever we go. We can look for what’s working and how to make more of that, rather than focusing on faults and problems. We can look for one more thing to not do. Day by day, we can practice holding space for ourselves. Breathing and letting go. Noticing without deciding. Surfing more confidently and comfortably whatever is emerging in our lives.

An expanded, emergent personal Now is the first invitation.

Getting started: Download these books: Harrison Owen’s The Practice of Peace, Michael Herman and Chris Corrigan’s The OST User’s Non-Guide, Raffi Aftandelian’s Living Peace: The Open Space of Our Lives, Chris Corrigan’s The Tao of Holding Space. And this short story: Grandma’s Lullaby.

Everything is Open Space

Myriad stories, told around the world and through the ages, tell us this is so. Yin and Yang. Buddha. Shiva. The great chain of being and the evolution of consciousness. Meeting under the trees and the medicine wheel. Open systems theory. Agile. Dialogue. Peacemaking. Liberating Structures and the Art of Hosting. Complexity science and self-organization. The grief cycle. Everything that begins will come to an end, and be the birth of something else. Everywhere in our world we see cycles, within cycles. It’s all moving. We make sense of it in stories. The stories you grew up with, the stories you studied in school, the stories we tell in meetings and communities. Every organization, every transformation. It’s all unfolding as stories in open space. Nobody’s in charge of any of it, but no one and nothing is left out of the churning. There’s no such thing as a closed system, in the timeless dance of order and chaos.

The power of a self-organizing universe is the second invitation.

Getting Started: See the many Papers and Books by Harrison Owen, most of them downloadable as .pdf files, in Shared Stories, especially Open Space for Emerging Order (paper), Spirit (downloadable book) and Wave Rider (at Amazon). See also Harrison’s book recommendations at the bottom of his Books page and Michael Herman’s Inviting Organization Emerges.

Have a Bigger, Better Meeting

Call a different kind of meeting. Engage a bigger circle. Having an amazing meeting that feeds the people AND the work is easy. This has been proven hundreds of thousands of times, over more than forty years, as “Open Space Technology.” Don’t overthink it and work too hard. Less is more. Start with any issue, any question of real concern, as your invitation. Welcome everyone. Invite passion bounded by responsibility, learning and contribution. Sit in a circle. Create the agenda, a bulletin board. Open a marketplace of ideas. Breakout and get to work. Take notes and take action. This is the meeting methodology Harrison Owen discovered in the bottom of a second martini. It’s the WD-40 of organization. It works best with high levels of complexity, diversity, real or potential conflict and an urgent need for alignment and action — in groups of 5 to 5000+. Anyone with a good head and a good heart can do it. No certification required. Try it for yourself. Write a short invitation, sit in a circle, create an agenda, and hold space for what emerges in an open marketplace of ideas. Let it be that simple.

Opening your first Open Space meeting or event is the third invitation.

Getting Started: See these short descriptions: What is Open Space?, Open Space Anywhere, Guided Tour. Download these guides: Harrison Owen’s User’s Guide, Michael Herman’s Inviting Guide, and the OST User’s Non-Guide. Watch these videos: USWest in Open Space (16 mins) and Devoted & Disgruntled (4 mins). Here are three recordings of Opening Briefings. All of these have been helpful for first time facilitators. You might share any of them with leaders and planning teams, but usually NOT with participants, who will need ONLY a short briefing at the start of the meeting or conference. Finally, LeanCoffee can be a small-scale, very short, very limited experiment with some of the dynamics at play in a larger Open Space event and the OSLIST email group will be your 24/7 support line.

Open More Space

Rinse and Repeat. Make it more than a novelty. Make it a practice. There is a learning curve for facilitators, but also for participants. Do it again. Do it better. Learn, refine, and improve, by finding one more thing to not do. Set a cadence. Invite more people. Invite “those” people. Ask the next bigger question. Get more together. Have more fun. Use your office walls and online platforms to make all your work visible. Develop your own rules for ongoing open space. Notice what’s working and make more of that. Infuse your everyday ways of working with the spirit of self-organization: passion bounded by responsibility, maximizing learning and contribution. And share your learning with other leaders and facilitators. Better meetings aren’t just about having a better organization. It’s a better way to be IN organization. It’s high learning AND high play, appropriate structure and control, genuine sense of community, and spirited work.

Ongoing, intentional, adaptive practice is the fourth invitation.

Getting Started: Make Open Space a regular practice in organization: Harrison Owen’s Millennium Organization and Tales from Open Space (see University of Kentucky Rules for Ongoing Open Space and Open Space in a Social Services Setting) books and Ongoing Open Space. For Open Space+Agile practice: See Inviting Agility, Agile Transformation at Walmart, What to do After Open Space, OpenSpace Agility™, and the Agile resources in Shared Stories. For collegial support: Bring your practice questions to the OSLIST email group, the WOSONOS conference, and/or a local practice group. Use the Open Space World Map to find an Open Space colleague/coach near you. See also Training and Coaching for formal trainings.

Change the World

Transform your workgroup, community, organization or favorite continent. The practice of peace. The Business of Business is Learning. What began as a better, faster, easier way to have a an international conference on Organization Transformation has become, over forty years, a global phenomenon. And then it starts to disappear. Open Space Technology can, through intentional application and practice, dissolve into “just the way we work around here.” In deep practice, it has guided great schools in Haiti and Africans developing Africa, accelerated successful agile transformations, helped revitalize the performing arts in Britain, transformed communities with Journalism that Matters, instilled the spirit and practice of self-organization in a Catholic parish. Think Big. Change the World. Peace and High Performance.

The fifth invitation goes out to eight billion people. Pass it on!

Getting Started: Some inspiring stories of inviting and supporting large-scale, long-term transformation in Open Space: The Practice of Peace, Village Care International (Africa), Haiti Partners, Devoted & Disgruntled, The New Parish Priest, Journalism that Matters, Peaceful Development in Nepal, Open Space in Tahrir Square (Arab Spring)