Open Space – the Real Guide

” …the 5 principles and the Law are descriptive and not prescriptive. Or at least that is the way they popped into my head: simple observations of what was transpiring, as opposed to directions concerning what should be taking place. I have always said “Principles” and “Law” with a smile, because if you really think about it, they are neither (principle or law). More like, “funny things that happen on the way to the future.” There is an essential humor, sense of fun in Open Space – and if we ever lose it, we begin to take things much too seriously” Harrison Owen 2013

Whenever newcomers to Open Space engage with the open space community, they are usually referred to the “users’ guide” which is a kind of manual that has largely remained set in stone since the late 1980s. There are shortened versions of it such as this.

Harrison Owen regularly refers to this over-long guide which many established facilitators claim is “all you need” and also refer to as indispensable. The User Guide is a brilliantly written book that is often (but not always) entirely unnecessary to open space.

This 170-page guide does exactly what it says on the tin. And its only problem is that it is far too long, far too detailed and is a manual for the very thing that doesn’t need a manual. The user guide is over-elaborate. It is also defended as many defend a bible. It isn’t a bad book but baking bread is fairly easy, and so is open space. Guides are actually a contradiction of open space which would escape more into this world if “change agents” would get the hell out of the way. I believe the “Guide” is mostly useful when we see it as a guide to facilitation more generally. The kernel of it is about ten lines long (see below). A circle can be opened in one minute or so (see here), and here’s the thirty second description…

Open Space takes about one minute to explain. Here it is:

Open Space is a self-organised conversation.

– it needs volunteers for a conversation around action

– it needs a few principles that offer freedom and flow

– A community is invited to form a circle of people who self-organise a conversation by creating their own agenda

That’s it. Really. That’s all you need. Maybe even less.

Since the user guide came out, a lot more has been written on either side of the actual open space conference process – reams about the sponsorship and design meetings, and reams about follow-up.

This is largely down to the need for many facilitators to actually make a living from this simple gift to humanity. It’s been elaborated in order to sell books, offer trainings and create a “craft” around a process rooted in the same play of children.

Open Space Technology and opening space exists in spite of all the words written all over and around it, not because of them. Open Space is best explained as a short story, often from someone who has opened some space.

Look for short descriptions, avoid thick user guides, and trust to the circle. Open Space is nearly always better as a DIY (do it yourself) process. There are occasions where a community or organisation needs external help. A facilitator can bring an outside perspective, an energy and skill not always held by that community or organisation. But open space merely needs a voluntary commitment, a room and a self-organised agenda. It really is that easy. Don’t be fooled by the facilitators, no matter how benevolent, who are stuck in a conflict of interest. You see most are trying to earn a living from this stuff. So they’ve fashioned a craft our of the “technology”, a craft that now appears far more complicated than it really is. And I believe that because of this: Space WANTS to open. Potential WANTS to find realisation and expression. It will help you. Open some space using open space technology and it will be easier than you think, as long as the minimums are met. And they aren’t to be found in any old manual. You’ll find those minimums in the wisdom of simplicity and good old common sense and a bit of love and trust. Whatever a facilitator tells you, they can’t facilitate love into either an “invite” or an open space conference. Love emerges from the circle and turns into passion for action.

Five minutes is all you need. Or maybe even three…

Foot note

Does this seem or sound disrespectful to Open Space ? It’s a plea for simplicity. Why does something as simple and beautiful as open space need a 170 page guide? What’s really going on here? I think the over-elaboration is born of compulsion and the wish to lend wider credibility to the “technology”. It turns it into a trainable programme, a product, a system. And that’s plain wrong because open space technology belongs to the whole of humanity. Circles are simple and so is opening them. All the “padding” (defended so fanatically by some working with OS) is more about career, product and mystique than allowing potential to emerge through self-organisation. It also creates a hierarchy of knowledge and experience in a place where innocence and newness are the real and needed virtues. In open space the masters need to regularly sit at the feet of the novices. Because all open space processes should be new. Each new open space is the first open space, discovered, fresh and born of simplicity. The wisdom of the “elders” is not the input to it, but simply part of the space itself.

Comments on this most welcome.

One Comment Add yours

  1. A.Serna says:

    Well said Paul,
    I too have nothing against ‘the book’ or people writing theory for Open Space. But that is an after-the-fact activity in a way. Open Space comes first (or was there to begin with), and then we try to eloquently put all these descriptions around it. I am far away from being a master, like far away. I have probably messed up some of my Open Space events in ways I don’t even comprehend (reading over you articles on over-facilitating was painful mate). But I think the more one does Open Space, then the less one does if that makes sense.

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