How Long Should an Open Space Be ?

Do short Open Space events short-change their participants?

Michael Pannwitz, an Open Spacer of long experience, makes the important point that open space events need to be whatever length is appropriate for the specific situation they have been suggested for: “Open Space Technology for social systems can not be too short or too long, it can be adequate for the purpose of the task of the social system.”

Sometimes organisations who are used to pressure on time and always pushing for tighter timescales will try to squeeze an open space into a half day when a day is really needed. Then the facilitator needs to be prepared to say no and walk away, or to challenge the suggested time length and open up the conversation. Often facilitators will find that, having explained the potential of Open Space, an originally intended half-day can turn into three days! I wonder if it ever happens the other way? I wonder if a facilitator ever challenges a two-day open space to become a couple of hours? Or even five minutes? I doubt it. Anyone out there willing to share on that one?

Whilst I agree and resonate with the sentiment of “if only you had longer than two hours”, I don’t agree that shorter open spaces “short change” participants. And I am someone whose most wonderful OS experience was at an Open Space that ran for four days!

So, here’s an alternative perspective – one that distinguishes Open Space Technology from Opening Space.

Opening Space can take one second and be vital and wonderful. When our eyes meet a stranger and we smile – that can be opening space, especially if we self-organise, taking or giving ourselves permission to break with the “rule” of never smiling at strangers or the structure of “always walking on by.

Open Space Technology takes a bit of time to set up, and therefore longer is often suggested as better (though even Open Space Technology can bet set up in a few minutes, rather than the 45 mins it is often strung out to). Also quite a few open space fans see open space is so good for the world, that any minutes not doing are a kind of terrible shame. That distaste for structure is plain silly and a bit vain.

Opening Space lies beyond time, though it manifests for us on timelines and in space. We can open space during five minutes for a life-changing conversation. We can open space for two hours, or two days, or two decades.

Often less can be so much more – and this applies to number of minutes too.

Opening Space needs only permission to self-organise and the principles of OST are great to enable that self-organisation. Often, at the planning stage of an open space event, the steering group makes some kind of assessment of how long will be needed, a bit like a music teacher who gets a potential pupil to play something for them and then decides how many lessons will initially be needed. This will need half a day, or this will need two days, and so on. It seems like an obvious thing to do. Business leaders also like to be and feel in control before they take leaps into the unknown. And yet, the self-organising potential of a specific open space is a mystery. We don’t know what will be said; we don’t know what will emerge. We can hope, and if we try to fix it in advance we may well kill it off. But we don’t know whether the big idea will come, if at all, in the first minute or at the end of the fifth day. That is why it is always, in my view, vital to follow the one principle for Open Space Technology that was never put alongside the others. (Perhaps it feels too obvious to Harrison Owen, though it drips from his writings). It is this: Always open space for Open Space.

So, for me, two hours is what it is, and it is potentially as powerful as a lifetime. Two hours is not “not longer” – it is 120 gloriously potential minutes of who knows?

Open Space for it and trust the community to make use of it. Out of it might come some restlessness to open more space. Or not.

I believe it is a fallacy to equate open space as being always better if longer. I’m not sure we have really begun to see how OST can embrace an hour, though I’ve heard some inspiring stories. Moments of ‘wow’ happen in moments, and not always because they took place in hours of not wow. They emerge. And they can emerge across a crowded room between two strangers in a second, and change the whole universe, just as much as they can emerge at an open space conference over 8 hours.

You have two hours and that is what you have! So, open Space for two hours and trust to what opening space can do with anything, anywhere, anytime. If the need of the unique situation authentically calls for a bigger space in terms of time, then be prepared to go for that, or even to walk away. But listen also to what could be done anyway. Just one idea, in one split second, can change everything.

Perhaps Time doesn’t have length – only our perception of it ? Perhaps Time has depth and resonance and maybe we open space for that?

Harrison Owen recently said this to me:

“When people get all upset about the amount of time (not enough, too short, wrong sort) my puckish side tends to put in an appearance with a question: How long does it take to have a good idea? Sometimes it seems like a whole lifetime, and not much shows up. But in the moment it’s momentous. One might even say timeless. Or something.”

Harrison Owen wrote a very important book called “Expanding our Now“. I believe it is our Now that expands us.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Tim Sheppard says:

    Thanks for opening an important discussion! To me this question distills down to: How can one create a miniature Open Space? And what scales work well?

    A true miniature is a faithful version of the full-size, keeping its essence and function. A true miniature keeps as much as possible of the construction that makes the original, so that although there may be hidden differences a person’s experience of the miniature is miraculously the same as the full-size.

    This creates a sense of wonder and of close-up focus. How close depends on the scale. In the dollshouse world for instance a house, a room, or an object is generally given a 1/12 scale. I have bound 1/12 leather-bound readable books, and seen a fully functioning vacuum-cleaner 2 inches long. But 1/24 scale is popular too, and 1/144 scale is useful for the ultimate challenge of putting a 1/12 dollshouse in a 1/12 dollshouse.

    Each scale sacrifices something from the original, some degree of usability or function, or faithfulness of construction or materials, yet each scale gives a sense of wonder at how much has been retained and achieved so well. Miniatures give one a feeling of delight at the neatness, perfection, and craftsmanship, as well as the experience of the full-size original.

    So I would ask again – what would it take to create a true miniature (of time rather than size) experience of an Open Space, and what times would naturally fit best? How would one create an event true to the essence but only taking one hour, or five minutes? Miniatures may need new tools or ingenuity to achieve them, and much hard work can be hidden beneath the surface, so what is needed so that each OST aspect and result can be delivered fast and delightfully without losing the essence?

  2. Koos de Heer says:

    From a philosophical viewpoint, I agree with what you write, Paul. Something I want to add to that is that of expectations and responsibility. The ecpectations of the client and the responsibility of the facilitator.

    The client expects certain things from an Open Space gathering. How he or she comes to that expectation is not always clear. From hearsay, from our own advertising, from a colleague, who knows. I alwas talk about these expectations and feel responsible for talking with them about it. Are their expectations realistic? Am I prepared to meet their expectations or do we need to have a conversation about it before we can proceed?

    Sometimes client expect the same great results that another organisation had. The other organisation did an Open Space meeting of a day and a half. There were reports, action plans and some great innovative projects already underway as the meeting ended. This client however only wanted to make a half day available. Can I open Space in half a day? Certainly! Will there be suprising results and will people be touched by it? Most likely. WIll there be written reports and project plans? Probably not. And that is where my responsibiity as a facilitator comes in. In my experience, people need a longer meeting to write reports and to do convergence. Half a day is enough to open the Space and let magic happen. But that ‘s it. Is that not worthwile? Of course it is worthwile, it is great stuff and if you get the chance, by all means do it. But be realistic about what the tangible results will look like. Whether or not you find it important, if the client finds it important and he does not get it, there is trouble ahead.

    I once made an overview of different goals one can have with an Open Space gathering, sett off against the possible time frames. It helps faciiltate the conversations I have with clients about this. I can make it available if folks are interested.

  3. Thanks for such a considered reply, Koos.

    I’d love to see how you link goals to time frames.

    I’m also interested in the notion that goals only reveal themselves after the open space event and not going in.

    We can set goals and then invite the volunteers to self-organise around them. Or we can open space for goals to emerge.

    I know I’m being a bit philosophical but hey, philosophy is the most practical thing we can do, isn’t it ?

    If the goals we set going in are for the organisation and not for the open space I’m more happy with the prospect.

    I’m also intrigued at going into an open space that has no defined ending in time. What if, when its over it’s over applies to to open space event itself and not just the sessions ?

    The space might stay ever open. And why not ?

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