The Tragic Re-Imprisonment of Open Space

The Tragic Re-Imprisonment of Open Space

“In 1989, Open Space escaped” (1)

These words, from Harrison Owen, hidden in an article by the stetsoned fella himself are rather important. In fact, I’d say they are everything.

Harrison Owen, at no point, has ever laid claim to Open Space. He’s never “run” an Open Space, nor did he ever claim to have invented it. You see, Open Space is a revelation. In words which might annoy some: It is a revelation in our physical life, of the Spirit. In less annoying terms but in befuddling ones: Open Space is metaphysical, and therefore would seem to lie “beyond” our mundane existence. At best, we often experience its echo, and some might even say its shadow. We might often imagine it as an ideal. Yet Open Space is often nearer to us than we imagine. It then becomes a way of being, and we can step on its path of being and becoming “Open Space”. That path is best self-organised. Perhaps, more acceptable to some, Open Space is an “archetypal” process that can realise very practical things in the world of the senses.

Whatever you call it, let’s come back to the fact that it escaped. That which escapes was once in chains, imprisoned, or behind bars, or, at least, not out in the free, open light of day.

In the history of conferencing and meeting, its escape was pretty well timed. Conferencing, based on a largely classroom-based, academic format, was over-structured, formalistic and based on a top table with a largely passive audience of adult schoolchildren, sitting passively in neat rows. Dialogue occurred, if at all , through placing one’s hand in the air and hoping one was picked to “ask”. Question and answer, often labelled up as “discussion”. This still largely pervades in the world of conferencing.

Even in more open conferences, “breakout” groups tended to mimic that formalistic process in smaller rooms, yet still with a ‘top table’ mentality.

Open Space really did “escape”. It symbolises someone who, locked up or hidden away, escapes into open air, finally free of bars, routine, prescription, and four stony walls. It surfaced in conferencing and meeting, but has value and applicability in much broader aspects of human life. Its minimal approach, its simplicity, its love of self-organisation, offered up (and continues to offer) a new perspective and process for progressing down-to-earth problems and questions.

At the recent World Open Space on Open Space (WOSonOS2012), I met some truly wonderful, insightful people and joined in some vibrant and inspiring conversations. But when I first walked into the space, my heart actually sank, because I had entered what felt a bit like the beginnings of an Open Prison, right down to the over-sticky marketplace board where we were humorously warned that, once an offered session has been stuck onto the programme wall, it might be very difficult to remove (See Footnote 1).The Open Space principles hung on high on curtains and walls like tablets of stone, and the Open Space opening circle was delivered by a very eloquent and warm-hearted soul in a way that feels to me now, looking back, like an unintended and accidental keynote lecture. We were told quite a lot about quite a lot, with a microphone that was much louder than the rest of us, as an already-existing organisational form was “delivered” into the room. (See Footnote 2)

There was much warmth in this vast gathering space. There was much good intention; a sense of welcome, and gladness this event was taking place again. And the people here were certainly more emergent and creative than most people I tend to meet. There was love of Open Space and an authentic celebration of its escape. I have no doubt the team that put this Open Space together have the highest skill in Open Space facilitation, know how to create a successful large group event, and are working for a better world.

And yet, this “WOSonOS” community is unwittingly recreating some of the conditions that led to the escape in the first place. Open Space is institutionalising, and its elder statesman is becoming framed as a kind of cuddly, white-haired Albus Dumbledore (which is a shame because Harrison Owen is not a magician, a wizard, nor a guru, but a very wise, spiritual man with a very important twinkle in his eye).

I’m going to go further I am afraid. WOSonOS2012 was a very engaging conference. But it wasn’t an Open Space Conference. It did create a lot of emergence. But the only self-organisation was in the offering of sessions. (I am aware that some people who attended WOSonOS2012 and who are reading this may well wonder if they were at the same event I am describing here, but this was my experience of it). Yet Open Space’s self-organising heart is not only about the creation of a timetable. The whole event is a self-organising process around a very common sense topic, something on the Earth, that tries to engage the Spirit to reveal itself, through potential realised. Here’s Harrison Owen again:

“If everything is hardwired in advance how could it self organize?” (2)

Open Space is about Mythos. When a lot of new people attend an Open Space that happens each year, that mythos is enriched and many souls add their energy, intention and creativity to the ongoing, unfolding, revealing story. Then the humble structure that may have served the previous year needs to become a real-time sensing mechanism and flex delightfully and willingly to the new faces that are entering the space. True, new attendees also need to meet what is already there with openness and a willingness to embrace, but they mustn’t feel that what is there is too fixed for no good reason. They mustn’t feel a pressure to conform. The institutional form needs to remind itself that it is temporary, and part of an evolving flow. That which was hard-wired needs to unravel. Here’s Harrison Owen again:

“Mythos creates the structured Open Space in which Spirit appears, grows, and experiences meaning.”(3)

Please, please! It isn’t just the story we have shared up until now that creates the needed specific form for the Open Space. That which is present in the moment has a big part to play as well. The present is one of the loudest voices to speak to the emerging story. We need the Aboriginal form of “deep listening” here and be prepared to banish fixedness in favour of innocence and receptiveness. Nothing is given forever, especially at WOSonOS!

At WOSonOS2012, I entered a too-fixed form, a form that the “regulars” have fallen in love with, but that love has become cast in stone or, at least eloquently carved wood. It needs to have water and air qualities flowing through, not only in the “sessions” but also in the organisational form.

And criticising it is okay! Even if it appears to spoil the party. Open Space has escaped into our world at a particular needed time, and it needs to escape again and again and again. We have to be very careful not to label criticism as “spoiling” or “misery making”, but that is what happens when the joy at an Open Space isn’t mostly emergent, but is “engineered” or becomes part of the only acceptable norm (though it did burst forth spontaneously when people started to dance!). Joy and laughter must never become an Open Space code of conduct. And surprise isn’t always joyful in the short run. Sometimes the pain that shines forth here, is a star a-brightly shining on high.

So, we came to the closing circle and I could bear it no longer. This priceless, precious community, accidentally fled from the possibilities of emergence, deciding that pre-fixedness is also a form of emergence and then we are lost in the paradoxical Alice-in-Wonderland-truth that “Even convergence, even fixing deciding things in advance, is a form of emergence” and “Even the ancient mountains are a form of change”. This then becomes an excuse to repeat history, and to “fix” things in advance. The gentler voice of present possibility doesn’t get heard or even invited to speak.

The closing circle became a celebration of institutional permanence, and the invitation to the “next one” felt like a pre-set fait accomplit.

And that killed the Open Space. I predict that emergent potential will flee from it more and more in the coming years unless it allows Open Space to escape once again.

Sometimes you love something enough to criticise it. I love WOSonOS, its community and I love Open Space.

Again, something from Harrison Owen:

“The only way to bring an Open Space gathering to its knees is to attempt to control it. It may, therefore, turn out that the one thing we always wanted (control) is not only unavailable, but unnecessary.” (4)

I hope and pray that WOSonOS remembers itself, before it is too late. But hey; even if it doesn’t, Open Space will probably find a way to escape again, anyhow.


1. Harrison Owen, Opening Space for, Emerging Order, Originally published in the ODN Practitioner (Fall 1998) with the title “Open Space”

2. Harrison Owen, Opening Space for, Emerging Order, Originally published in the ODN Practitioner (Fall 1998) with the title “Open Space”

3. Harrison Owen, First chapter of Spirit: Transformation and Development (Abbott/1987)

4. Harrison Owen, Opening Space for, Emerging Order, Originally published in the ODN Practitioner (Fall 1998) with the title “Open Space”

Footnote 1
Phelim explains: “Re: the set up of the sticky agenda wall and the signs in the windows – it’s interesting that what was a solution to the rules of the building ie. not being allowed to stick anything on the walls or touch them is interpreted as an intention… Sometimes even creative solutions can be misinterpreted.” I fully accept this creative solution created on the first evening that led to the sticky board but I’ll still hold to the impression made upon me as I arrived to register, having not been present at these pre-circle activities. It felt too organised, too predesigned and this didn’t feel like a space to self-organise anything other than sessions on the agenda. When people walk into an Open Space venue, let as much of it “escape”, anew, as possible. Write the principles afresh, in the moment. This was the effect on me before the opening circle and its just my view.

Footnote 2

If this seems to be unduly harsh criticism, it isn’t intended to be aimed at the facilitator. We are a community, and this article is about my perception of some general trends across our field or work. WOSonOS is a focal point for that community of practice and is the one event of peers I attended this year. The facilitator spoke with warmth, humour, sensitivity, and eloquence, and is part of an incredible Open Space initiative in theatre that is helping to transform the way the theatre world (and other spheres of life) thinks about meeting and organisation and I hold their work in the highest regard). The critique is born of a genuine wish for Open Space to develop over the flow of time.

See related posts:

A Response – to much discussion of the above post

Over-control and Open Space – a deeper look at the issues mentioned above

“Sort-of” Open Space – should Open Space Technology ever change?

When Does the Space Open ? – a look at the whole process

About the author
Paul Levy is a writer and facilitator who has worked in collaboration with groups and organizations on over fifty Open Space events over the last twenty years. He is founder of Cats3000 and is passionate about emergence and self-organisation


Visit the Open Space Realm.

6 thoughts on “The Tragic Re-Imprisonment of Open Space

  1. I would like to see this comments posted and debated at the OSLIST – the larger circle which WOSonOS is a part of – Artur

  2. Love the defense of the principles and spirit of Open Space in this article. I agree about the sticky tape. When I first saw the streamers of screeching sticky tape deployment by the first volunteers, I remember being scared (at least until I joined in on the fun)! If they had used the tape with sticky side in – they could have used blue tape to make the sessions movable. But it was still a beautiful wall.

    I actually loved most of what Phelim raised in his opening. I intend to steal quite a bit from him. In fact it was the best Open Space opening I’ve ever seen – but agree it needed to be shorter. But I also felt I was at an entirely different event. I felt a lot of presence of self-organizing. And I’d love to see more self-organizing catalysts – and people supporting events like the WOSonOS to help make it happen. If Suzanne Daigle hadn’t stepped forward for Florida next year – I’m not sure if anyone else would have. She actually left a *lot* of room for people to step forward and talk before she brought out her printed invitations.

    I would have been happier with a little more creative conflict and people competing to host the next one = but I’m also grateful to be able to support Suzanne to bring more open space into the world. And I’m not convinced that Phelim and Improbable imprisoned it in London – if anything I think he nurtured it beautifully to help more flowers grow in this field. At least that was my experience!

    Echoing what Artur wrote – it would be great to see the salient points here posted in the OSList and see what happens. Someone posted the link – but there’s so much traffic on the OSList – and I think people would rather talk to you about it than other readers. Your perspective I think would actually help “open space” for those of us maybe too in love with the energy, form, and the community to see what we could improve.

  3. Thanks for your comments Harold. I’ve been aware of Phelim and Improbable/D and D’s work in recent years and I have no doubt he is a fine facilitator. He is part of ground-breaking work in the Arts. I’m concerned if it seems my article is in any way focused on him. I agree he’s one of the finest facilitators I have seen in Open Space in recent years and it is precisely for that reason I found inner permission to write the article. On the contrary, the article is much more broadly pitched. It is a paradox in a way, because I agree, WOSonOS2012 was opened with warmth, eloquence, sensitivity, humour, some genius moments of silence and was, indeed, a tour de force.

  4. Thanks Paul for sharing this. It reminds me also the words of Harrison Owen during this wosonos : “Open Space is everywhere, all the time”
    Nobody can own it, neither use it. We just can all experience it … our own way … sometimes we do it good, sometimes we could have made it better ..

  5. Thanks for your comments Jean-Philippe. Harrison often suggests that we’d better spend our time opening more spaces than in dwelling on “lessons” from what might have been in the past. I wonder if Open Space would have “escaped” into the world so soon if Harrison Owen himself hadn’t done just that himself – reflecting on the past, a previous conference and then deciding to do it different next time. Time for a nap…

  6. Sorry, i am french, so my english may seem unsubtle. I apologize in advance.

    Thank you Paul, for your thoughts. I am glad to read something i am feeling since a few months. I am afraid Open Space Technology is becoming a consultant marketing label, used for any purpose. Owen wrote in the article “Open Space Technology and beyond” :
    The essential conditions for Open Space are as follows:
    1) A genuine “business issue” that people really care about.
    2) Lots of complexity
    3) High levels of diversity in terms of
    opinions, professions, ethnicity – or however else diversity can be measured.
    4) Large amounts of passion and conflict.
    5) A real sense of urgency. One might say, a decision time of yesterday.

    The fifth condition is probably the one who is almost never taken in account. And so is the WOSonOS : what is the urgency of the topic “os on os” ?. And think about the others conditions…

    But the good thing is that there is no Imprisonment of Open Space. We are only jailed in our brain and we are our own prison warden. There are lots of facilitation techniques and tools, open space is one of them. What inspires them is self organization.

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