Open Space Anywhere

Whether you’re just learning about Open Space, have some experience as a participant or facilitator, or even when planning your first Open Space meeting, the patterns described below can guide your work in Opening Space and help you skillfully adapt Harrison Owen’s OST: A User’s Guide (book/html) anywhere.

You can see these patterns turn up in stories of open space events.  Looking across these three groups, you might also notice that the four conditions loosely inform the planning considerations and ultimately the mechanisms of the actual meeting.  The condition of diversity, for instance, is reflected in the invitation list and honored when marketplace gives everyone the space to chart their own course in the work.

Initial Conditions – When to Open

Open Space is an inviting alternative to the usual meeting, conference or summit format, in organizations, communities, alliances and networks, when these conditions are present – and especially when levels are high and/or rising:

  • Complexity – when the question to be solved is bigger than any one person, group or area of expertise will be able to fully address.
  • Diversity – when successful resolution of the issue or question necessarily must include input and action from a wide variety of different kinds of stakeholders and/or with a wide diversity of interests.
  • Conflict – real or potential, when there’s real passion in the situation, meaning people care enough to fight for or about something.
  • Urgency – when the time for decisions and action was yesterday.

Open Space will work with almost any question and any group that cares about that question, but it works even better when things get challenging in these ways.

A Simple Plan – Get Ready to Open

Open Space is a practice in finding one more thing to NOT do.  Here are the essential considerations, without any requirement that they be accomplished any certain way.

  • Invitation – There need to be some reason to meet, an important purpose, a gap in what’s known and some need (according to the conditions above) to close that gap.  Usually this involves words, often they’re typed and shared online, but that’s not required.  The main thing is that people get the message about why, where and when to show up – and have the OPTION to show or not.
  • Invitation List – This is diversity of stakeholders in action.  Anyone who’s input and energy is needed, anyone who MIGHT care enough to show up, to learn or contribute, should be considered for inviting.
  • Space/Time Logistics – This usually includes markers, papers, tape, chairs, a meeting space with a roof, flipcharts and devices – but really good meetings and events have happened without each and all of these things.  The barest essential is a place and a time to meet, even if the place is virtual.
  • Products – This usually means a report of some kind, the aggregated notes from all the sessions.  Sometimes it’s enough to walk away with a story, or a list of takeaways identified in the closing circle.  Other times, you might walk out of a meeting with working drawings for a building.  The point here is to plan to have on hand, in the room, whatever tools or information are needed to produce the things you want.

There are always a lot of things we COULD do before any meeting, but what really matters is an issue of importance, a group that cares, a place and time or other platform to meet, and way to capture the results.  That’s it.

Basic Mechanisms – Practice Space

Here we look at the basic mechanisms at work in Open Space.  These are forms that people everywhere understand and know how to operate.  Again, offered without any need to specify exactly how these things will be operationalized in any particular setting.

  • Invitation – As used here, invitation includes some articulation of the conditions above, a purpose or question of import, a list of invitees, a place and time to meet, bundled up and offered as the option and request to participate.  Invitation is also every breakout topic that’s announced and every breakout report is an invitation to some kind of action.  Inviting is something to do and to aspire to be.  It reminds us to focus on purposes that matter and voluntary self-selection.
  • Circle – No matter the actual shape, the circles let everyone see everyone else, and address everyone else.  They let everyone know who’s in and who’s not.  Circles support clear, but permeable, boundaries, belonging, commitment and communication. Circles create space for everything that matters: caring, connecting, sharing, learning, working, celebrating.  Circles hold spirit and possibility – and share responsibility.
  • Bulletin Board – One of the simplest ways to maximum information with minimum effort.  However you do it, there needs to be some way to see all of the issues raised and all of the reports brought back.  In non-reading cultures this might end up being a certain kind of story circle, virtually invisible.  In online settings, the whole platform can look like bulletin board. Both allow for easy, open, many-to-many communication.
  • Marketplace – This is about making room to move, for people to create the structures they need to support them in their work. Marketplaces, also called platforms in business-speak today, allow flow and open exchange, make working faster and easier, and give the right and the responsibility for managing their own learning and contributing, all in service of the shared purpose.  Marketplaces support complex (not complicated) responses to complex situations. The clearer and more compelling the purpose, the easier it will be to make fewer limiting rules and support more emergent structures and active exchange.  The trade-off for some people exerting less control, for letting people move and connect, might be everyone wasting less time on waiting, work arounds, compliance and cover-ups.
  • Breathing, Pulsation or Iteration – This describes the easy movement between plenary sessions and breakouts, the iterative nature of having several rounds of breakouts, but also the realization that this new way of working might well take several iterations for a group to learn to maximize its potential.  Open Space allows us to ask bigger questions and address bigger issues than normal meetings and organization can normally handle.  That doesn’t mean it’s not going to take several rounds and ongoing practice to get the job done.
  • Storytelling – It’s all stories.  An invitation is a story about what we want.  The circle is a container for stories and bulletin board helps share them around.  Stories are what we’re trading in the marketplace.  And the notes we capture, the stuff we take away, the stories we tell about what happened… are all fodder for the next invitation(s).  Stories literally keep us, and our work, going.  When all else fails, invite some stories about what’s good and right and working.  Then open a little space to make more of that.

None of this is prescription or requirement.  You don’t need all these conditions for Open Space to work. There isn’t any one way to plan a meeting, invite stakeholders, create a bulletin board or open a marketplace.

If you can’t Open Space the way it’s written up in Harrison Owen’s OST User’s Guide (book/html), just look for ways to bend the practices you have, in the direction of… invitation, circle, bulletin board, marketplace, and practice.  Invite people into a purpose that matters, make the boundaries clear but permeable, open access to information and the tools to distribute it, give people as much room as possible to direct their own work, and look for ways to establish an easy rhythm and ongoing practice.

An Open World

Finally, if you look for these forms in the world, in the business press for instance, you might begin to suspect that we are, already, living and working in Open Space, no matter how big, how slow, or subtle, the patterns and movements. Wherever we are, we have only to point to the conditions, make a simple plan, and use these basic mechanisms to open some space.


Michael Herman