The Heart of Open Space

Open Space is a label we have given to something that isn’t really a something.

For some, it is something esoteric, something spiritual. And that runs along a line from a holy grail of happiness, healing and renewal, to a process for getting stuff done, quickly and remarkably.

For others, it’s a metaphor for a reaction to over-structure – the minimal “technology” or “structure” you need to maximise flow in a community or organisation. That flow focuses on their collective restlessness to make things happen in the world we live in.

In its development as a label since the 1980s, it has largely been associated with Harrison Owen, who coined the phrase “Open Space Technology” to describe a very defined process that contains a minimal set of rules and processes to allow an emergent conversation around an invitation to a community of interested people to self-organise within a minimally organised and usually facilitated structure called Open Space Technology. It could be in a business, another type of organisation, in a community, or even in government. Open Space – the notion of a “circle” of people opening up space for a conversation has been in existence for thousands of years. Open Space Technology is a structured alternative to what was, in the 1980s, a dominant form of overstructure – the pre-planned, over-designed meeting.

Open Space Technology is guarded by a core of people and practitioners. Yes, guard. By some, it has been productised into over-elaborate training, even as they profess it to be minimal and emergent. Its gatekeepers guard its “rules” even as they claim to encourage experimentation. As I have said elsewhere, it is subject to little or no critique and, if the current World Open Space on Open Space 2013 (WOSONOS) is anything to go by, it is going to be preloaded as a happiness-fest, in the spirit of the Happiness Project. It shows signs of developing cult-like qualities and when its founder passes on, I sadly predict its principles will turn even further into tenets, its rules cast even more in stone, mainly because those at its core who claim it needs to be “Played with” are not walking that talk and are talking mostly in rhetoric. Many of the views expressed on this web site have been labelled by one person as “bombs”. The language of attack is often used by those who fear open conversation that might lead to changing something they’ve become addicted to. I’d suggest these thoughts are more like seeds. Here in quaint old England, we don’t have a problem with loving something enough to critique it. We don’t live in the binary world of “either-or” so strongly. Critiquing Open Space Technology doesn’t mean I can’t love it, celebrate it, and practice it at the same time. I can. I do. So there.

When it is critiqued, Open Space “folk” tend to react as if the critic is a “betrayer” or, at best, misguided. They are simply an example of why open space works. This reminds me of the self-referential modelling of some fundamentalist religious folk. Any critique simply reinforces the model under scrutiny. Sadly when you become too good a gatekeeper and over too long a period of time, you start to confuse yourself with the gate.

Does this seem harsh? Is this aggressive?

No, because Open Space, as a force in our times, deserves not to fix and become dogmatic. I believe the world needs open space and that open space needs to become ever more detached from “Open Space Technology” which is a passionately gate-kept and guarded process that needs to sit as one excellent, but just one method among many. By gate keeping Open Space technology, the fertile field of Open Space remains narrow, starved of newness, and lacking flow, just at a time where Generations Y and Z could well encounter it and embrace it. It’s magical in its simplicity and immediate accessibility. And yet younger people find themselves at hug-fest conferences and also finding artificial doorways called “trainings” which basically wrap up the five minutes needed to explain how to do an open space event with days of “how to facilitate” cladding. On top of this, the whole process of “inviting” and “sponsoring” has been over-elaborated and turned into an over-structured version of the very thing Open Space Technology was a reaction to.

Meanwhile, in the centre (yes, the centre, yes, the heart), the founder of the feast, regularly reminds every one looking for one less thing to do, to play and question, even as the “rules”, down to the last syllable, remain unchanged and untouchable. Again, many facilitators I’ve met during 2011 and 2012, tell me privately they morph and play with Open Space Technology, yet they do not publish this or open it to creative challenge within the more formal community. (Yes, there is a formal community). Also, no one wants to risk upsetting the founder – he’s too nice a guy and it would amount to “spoiling”.

That’s always dangerous you know – in fields such as medicine or education, when peer critique gets labelled as “spoiling”.

The time for Open Space is now. It’s time for Open Space Technology to truly open up to … open space! It won’t. Too many facilitators have found it to be a new and rich seam of income to mine. It’s become too lucrative to too many who need to elaborate it to charge more than the day or two it really needs. In fact, it often doesn’t need a facilitator at all.

Open Space is when people start spontaneously dancing together. Open Space is when the forest manages to survive the flood. Open Space is when the cafe volume gently rises and tables start to join together. Open Space is the talking stick, the sudden abandonment of the agenda, the spontaneous hello on the train. Open Space gets hidden behind the label “Technology” when benevolently-motived gatekeepers guard what belongs not only to all of us, but also to that part of us that wants to question and challenge.

There is a danger that Open Space Technology has simply become one structure (simpler for sure) that replaces another. Yet, little rocks and huge mountains are still rocks. Self-organisation over time is evolution – in moments, in minutes, in aeons. It’s time for Open Space Technology to open up to the future. No, gatekeepers, it isn’t doing that. And it needs to.

This year’s World Open Space on Open Space claims to be looking for “One less thing to do.” Yet even that can become a fixed rule. Why not look for one different thing to do, and that MIGHT include one less thing? But it might not.

Self-organisation in nature sometimes simplifies; often it diversifies, and the world is all the more gorgeous for it. Self-disorganisation is cancer. Self-organisation is a glorious whatever born of freedom and play.

The heart of Open Space isn’t Open Space technology, nor is it Harrison Owen. The heart of open space is humanity, it is nature and potential. Open Space Technology opens space beautifully and so often. But not always. Because there are other ways to open space, other ways to self-organise, and these dreams lie beyond the gates of fixed ways to do things.

Sadly, in the open space technology community, the debate isn’t being had. The gorgeous and scary questions aren’t being asked. The younger generation is a bit bemused by the way such a simple process is “trained” by people selling it and making it appear as a kind of skilled wizardry. The most worrying thing is that charisma is building around some individuals and that Open Space Technology itself, through its Youtube videos and celebratory stories is being selectively reported, talked up as panacea medicine. Yet it should sit easily in my back pocket.

But here’s the really exciting and sacrilegious thing: Often Opening Space often works EVEN BETTER without open space technology. Yes, the thoughts you’ve been having are fine. They way you did it differently is fine. Open space for open space technology and watch it self-organise into something glorious and different and, sometimes, watch it reform back into its original form. It’s ok to change it, because the heart of Open Space Technology is you. And don’t take that from me – take it from Harrison Owen.

Happy Easter.

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