The Fundamental Principle of Open Space

The fundamental principle of open space: For an open space event to be truly emergent, the facilitator must also behave emergently.

Sadly open space has become a fixed structure, a frame, and many adhere to it dogmatically. At best it is then a Nightingale’s cage with the door open, but not a true open space at all…

For that frame to be always relevant, open space process would have to coincide with or express a timelessly valuable archetype. For a facilitator to recognise and utilise that archetype, they would have to meet open space anew, as if for the first time, each time, and the possibility of not using it must also be there. The facilitator has to be emergent, not waiting with it sitting like a rusty tool in the kit bag of history.

The archetypes of open space are “emergence” (the latent, invisible potential WANTING to reveal and incarnate), “dialogue” (the sharing of thinking, feeling and impulse in a way that allows synergy to emerge, “the empty space” (the physical and mental blank canvas of possibility) and the “circle” (the form of a group that is community). And perhaps the most important archetype of all is “self-organisation”


Too many open space facilitators I have met lack the flexibility and improvisational ability to really support emergence and self-organisation. What then happens is that we end up with over-organised self-organisation. Participants then fall into a mode of compliance, “complying” with the structure, “rules” and processes of open space. Clay turns into lego bricks and, in some cases, lego bricks turn into a model kit with instructions. There is still play, but it is diluted, and its potential is starved of the air of flow and play.

Open Space itself can be guilty of this when it becomes a blueprint, learned by rote on a training weekend by a hungry facilitator. Facilitation turns into facipulation, as the facilitator recites the script (in their own theatrical way) and sets up the Nightingale’s cage of limited freedom. Some would argue that the model for Open Space Technology (which remains largely unchanged and untouched since its first day on earth)is timeless, and is the minimal structure needed for the maximum amount of self-organisation. I would suggest the many successful examples of Open Space conferences that appear to bear this view out have more to do with the restless spirits of some human beings in the rooms at the time than to do with some kind of unchangeable model.

Open Space is very archetypal for sure, it contains many timeless elements, not least the archetypes mentioned above, but its realisation in the last third of the twentieth century in a particularly fixed form is now a potentially limiting factor. The world has changed, the quality of consciousness continues to change, world-views change, even the temperature of the plane is changing. The quality of quality cries out to be expressed, and one aspect of this is potential that wants to be realised. This requires processes for emergence, and these processes need to be emergent as well. There can be no fixed forms that aren’t met anew in the moment. If we repeat history, it is to renew history in improvised freshness.

The fundamental principle of Open Space itself needs to be up for renewal and we need to meet it each time as if for the first time. So long as it emerges, it remains true.

So, would the structure of Open Space Technology always emerge as the best way in all situations? Of course not. It has to flex with the currents and flows of life as it expresses itself on the timeline of past, present and future. If it sits outside of the timeline in eternity (the present is the point at which time touches eternity, said C.S. Lewis) then it is at least healthy to re-invent it anew, to test its continuing validity by letting emerge out of potential each time.


Visit my Open Space Realm

One Comment Add yours

  1. Claire Jones says:

    I really like the way you talk about Open Space and also challenge us to not set the form. Thanks! Challenge accepted!

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