Open Space Technology and Open Space


Open Space Technology opens space. That might sound a bit strange, or even a bit obvious, but bear with me.  I’ve said that for a reason.

In the Open Space Technology community of practitioners and fans I’ve encountered over the last twenty years, there is a strong behavioural pattern of not changing the first and original version of Open Space Technology. Harrison Owen called it a technology – it is a way of doing something that does this: opens space. SO why change it? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Open Space Technology, as you’ll find it taught today, is just about exactly the same as it was back in the ’80s.

Now, back to “Open Space Technology opens space”. What on earth does that mean?

It opens space for a conversation. It opens space for self-organised exploration of an issue of importance to a community. It opens space for getting things done. And often a hell of a lot of things do get done from an Open Space event.

There sits a group in a circle, and when the space opens and they self-organise, using the minimal structure of the Open Space Technology process (marketplace, principles, rules etc), all kinds of stuff then bursts into the physical space from the previously hidden world of Spirit, (Or Potential, if you prefer), realising all kinds of action in space and time. In other words, practical, useful and usable action results. Open Space Technology has achieved that again and again and again and again and again and … (insert tens of thousands of ‘agains’ here). No, it really has.

So, as I said, Open Space Technology er… opens space.

Over the years, this hardly changed technology has added a new principle, and tinkered with the wording here or there. Anticlockwise “walking of the circle” has crept in, and the odd talking stick has popped up, and an Eastern gong brings back attention to the circle. But, at its core, Open Space Technology is a technology that has never had (nor, according to its fan base) needed, an upgrade.

Indeed, whenever an upgrade has been suggested, the elders in the Open Space movement tend to sigh knowingly and then kindly offer “Aw, shaddup and open some space already!”. If that sounds like a generalisation, I invite you to read the Open Space discussion list over the years and you’ll find plenty of evidence of “don’t change a thing”.

Suggestions for change will come and go with the passing of mortal facilitators, but Open Space technology is either as timeless as love, or will pass away, unchanged, in its own good time. 

At recent OSONOSes (What is THAT?, I hear you ask – it’s an Open Space meeting ON Open Space!), I discovered that a lot of people like the fact that Open Space Technology is largely still below the radar of mainstream organisational intervention and meeting theory. It quietly piles up its tally of successfully opened spaces without much care for detailed research into its practice and efficacy. It lies largely outside of journal based scrutiny, and, most of all, it lies beyond innovation and tinkering with its own process. Yet at two recent OSonOses I met a significant number of people who do adapt it, change it, innovate it, and they still find that, not surprisingly – space still opens! They feel as bit sad that its a golden field of practice that doesn’t seem to want to lovingly question its foundations. As a result, what should have been a changing, organic building, has turned into a temple that moves only its pot plants around.

Yet space still opens. Of course it does. You see, Open Space technology opens space. But so do a bunch of other gorgeous and eloquent processes. And sometimes (and I heard more than a few stories confirming this), dogmatically unchanged Open Space Technology limits the opening of space. The officionados would claim that it is never Open Space Technology that limits the opening of space, but a bunch of other factors. It’s the sponsor’s fault, or the facilitator should have done X or Y differently. They usually sigh at the facilitator and say “Get over it, and just stick to the knitting”.

This is all very (annoyingly) general, I know. But I’ll keep to that and see if the generality resonates with anyone reading this for now.

I’ve written in detail, elsewhere on this site, how and why dogmatic use of Open Space Technology can inhibit and limit the opening of space.

I do believe there are archetypal elements in Open Space Technology that are pretty timeless or, at least, standing up pretty well in terms of relevance and applicability, to the test of Time’s passage. Archetypes tend towards timelessness.

In Action Learning, for example, reflection on action is a pretty timeless archetype. As Action  Learning has evolved into a range of approaches, that core concept of the “learning cycle” of conceptualisation, experimentation, action and reflection,  seems to stay relevantly at the core of all the diverse developments. Yet how we do action learning has changed wonderfully.

In dialogue work, as another example, the importance of active listening remains and pervades, even as the field of practice widens.

In Open Space technology, the archetype of the circle remains and has a deep living quality, wherever space is opened. Equally, the spirit (if not the wording) of the principles remains vibrant and relevant. The notion of self-organisation sits at the heart of the natural world, and is a core, timeless quality of opening space. But “Breaking news”, and “Marketplace” and even the role of the facilitator, are not as fundamental as many of the elders think they are.

At the OSonOses (including the World one) I met people who thanked me for challenging the status quo (which wasn’t in any plan of mine going in). Some said they didn’t feel they could challenge Open Space Technology at these events, nor share alternatives or share stories of how they has changed it in practice.  I myself got some hate mail from an Open Space elder a few years back when we ran an OSonOs exploring “Beyond the dogma”. I’m not sure how true it is that there’s a norm to stick to the technology like glue or feel like an outsider. It’s a big shame if it is true and if it becomes true at the WOSonOs in Florida in 2013. There’s certainly nothing formal to stop healthy challenge and questioning, but quite a few people pointed to a norm that exists in the Open Space Technology community, that critique marks you out as a kind of “misery guts”, even as a betrayer of a lovely elderly gentleman. Basically you are pooping on a party that is so benevolent is lies beyond that poop.

Open Space Technology, in its classic form, opens space. Often, and beautifully. But it isn’t the only “technology” that opens space, nor is it always the best or right one. Also it isn’t only technology that opens space. Art also does it. Often, when a facilitator is truly in the moment, in an ego-free state of service to his or her community, space opens and NEW approaches emerge, sometimes beautiful hybrids of Open Space Technology, sometimes tiny adaptations, sometimes entirely new fusions, versions, forms. Sometimes something entirely close to Open Space Technology “escapes” into our practice entirely afresh, especially when we have forgotten it!

At the heart of all these approaches I believe is nearly always the circle, the principle and love of self-organisation, the creative urge towards getting things done, and also a kind of acceptance of the rightness of who is there, where we are, whatever happens and also, the love of freedom to flow in and out of the open space as needed. These are the archetypal qualities that have led to Open Space Technology being so powerful and enduring.

But there is no need for chapter and verse, no need for the technology to be so rigid in its core design. What is important is that potential that wants to be realised can find its way to space that has opened for it. Fractured communities that come together into circles and then self-organise into smaller circles, before reforming into bigger ones again, always linked to the strength of that “holding circle” can use the circle to achieve amazing things, notably synergy, where we are more together and where the circle gives us shared inner and outer focus.

“Whatever” is more important than any Open Space Technology Dogma. But not the whatever of laziness and indifference. This is the whatever of emergence, of the space that reveals, the circle that opens into possibility and then turns possibility into free choice, and free choice into committed action in and upon the world.

So, I’ve discovered there are now two overlapping (uneasily) communities, There is the Open Space Technology Community, employing a technology that Harrison Owen could have tried to patent or copyright but didn’t, but has instead offered it freely to the world, trusting its beauty and success in the world, to leave it unchanged and used as needed in the world. Then there is a larger community which is the Open Space community that uses the classic version of the technology but also adapts it, and also uses other methods, all of which, more or less, open space for self-organisation, for conversation and action. I think it’s a pity, and also a bit of an emerging tragedy that those at the core of the Open Space Technology Community (by no means all of them) are not more open to change and innovation from that wider community, to be enriched and inspired by it. Because of this, the Open Space Technology community now has its own underground where people ARE questioning its fundamentals and morphing it, but aren’t sharing that openly at its events nor on its discussion lists. When they do, there tends to be a benevolent and parental closing down by many of its supporters to just leave things as they are and put faith in the version that is never in need of an upgrade.

Sometimes space needs to open without any stated principles, without any structure-polemic, no matter how minimal and well meant. Sometimes space needs to open with few if any words.  Sometimes space opens better in the language of the community and not the language of Open Space Technology. Sometimes space opens better through artistry, not technology.  Sometimes space opens without the need for a physical circle, and sometimes even without the need for a facilitator. Sometimes space opens with Open Space Technology in its original form.

But sometimes that form becomes a wall. The stories where Open Space Technology has failed to open space tend to go unreported, part of a collusion of niceness. Those stories are there to be found, but they are below the radar of the community that has confused blanket positivity with the grittier, messier mission of Open Space to bring beauty to the world. Avoidance of our pain is often both fatal and ugly.

Open Space Technology, when it becomes ossified, becomes arthritic. When a facilitator doesn’t just DO Open Space Technology, but becomes open space in their own inner activity, they will sense what needs to be done, not out of dogma, but out of the present needs of the situation. Often this situation will call for a traditional use of Open Space Technology. But not always.  Sometimes we need to open space. And it is beautiful that there are so many ways to do that.

What am I suggesting? I’m suggesting it might be time for Open Space Technology to open the trap door – the trap door to its own beautiful critique. It needs to look more warmly and openly at what is growing consciously below its own radar. And it isn’t about defending the first technological model from a position of elder wisdom. It’s about inviting in the younger ones, the new generation. If Open Space Technology lies beyond an upgrade, then let that view survive a healthy Popper-esque conversation. But in 2012 I met some truly wonderful people who have upgraded it anyway. They are the right people, in the right place, at the right time, who dance with two wonderful feet into the future. Be prepared to be surprised by them.

Something tells me it isn’t quite over yet, Harrison Owen!

Welcome to the open space community. It loves Open Space Technology. But it loves so much more too.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. jeppelajer says:

    Thank you so much Paul. As one who feels part of the “new generation” I’m very gratefull for your invitation to allow play with the the space and the technology even though we might be breaking or bending some rules. – Even though some of the very experienced os people can be a bit sceptical.. Integrating the a/v digital space and even performing arts in open space is what I am playing around with, and from my perception it can open space even MORE than for “just the talking”. Open space is a bold invention and we should use it boldly although wisely.

  2. Let me be one of the very very experienced people in Open Space that says Hooray to your experimenting with the form! PLay with it, bend rules, break them, be heretical, be orthodox.

    Just promise me (or the world really) that whatever you do, you’ll always do it for the best interests of the group you are serving. That is the most important thing to remember as a facilitator in my long toothed experience. Sometimes a pure and simple Open Space is the way to do that, sometimes getting funky is what is required.

    Mostly, play. the world is not going nto have it’s problems solved by doing the same old things over and over.

  3. Thanks, Chris, for restating so eloquently the entire purpose of this blog.

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