Wednesday, July 1, 2009


A prescient spirit with the name of Suzanne, whom I have known briefly and hope will become a friend, wrote the following – expressing many of the questions I have had about (arising from) Open Space Technology. I responded to her note (below) with what I might now call – A Manifesto. that is to say a lot of the things I have been thinking and never quite dared to say in on place—so I have said it! Manifesto!

Suzanne --

How can we honor a client’s desired outcome which assumes predictability and control when Open Space invites something quite different? With my limited experience with Open Space (I’ve only done two as an unpaid volunteer) and a long corporate career, my gut tells me that the Open Space way of lighting up passion and responsibility in individuals and collectives will lead to results that far exceed what a client could initially expect. I know because all my life, I’ve seen how much gets accomplished when people are passionate about what they do. Open Space is all about that. Many clients want a clear-cut route to improved results, better service, higher quality, etc. This we cannot promise. Rather, OS is a journey, a new way of doing which means undoing what didn’t work, and seeing what we don’t’ want to see to create what we can’t know.

How can we effectively convey to a client the importance of gut feel and intuition, inviting them to an experience that they must “feel” and not just “think”? The dilemma is that you cannot know Open Space until you’ve done Open Space and not just once. How can you describe what get’s ignited in people when they get to choose (Law of Two Feet), feel Equal and live/work according to principles (4 OS principles) – something that makes so much sense but that is so different than what our current hierarchical world dictates?

Once people are activated in an Open Space way, I think it ignites a longing that is in each of us and the difficulty is that you just don’t want to go back to the old way. How then do we blend traditional and self-organizing?

I struggle with these questions and as I embark on this wild ride of OS, I imagine myself building trust at the beginning of my relationship with clients talking about the issues that they care about and that they know: their business. Hopefully by connecting and being honest, I will establish enough trust so that they will want to try this new way, knowing deep inside them that the old ways aren’t working any more. It’s about finding the courage of our voice and actions, doing this together in a supportive way.

My Response –

Suzanne – You have succinctly posed both the problem and possibilities of Open Space. On the one hand it (OS) violates virtually every principle and practice of the management of organizations. In addition it cannot provide the one thing that most managers/executives seemingly want – certainty and predictability. On the other hand it “works” – often at surprising and breathtaking levels, which itself becomes a problem if only because the results are so far beyond the “standard curve” as to appear outlandish, weird, and to be truthful – like a pure fabrication. Otherwise known as a lie! Nobody in their right mind should be caught in association with such an aberrant phenomenon. Definitely hazardous to your professional health, as it probably is some new cult or religious fantasy, replete with odd dogma and secret handshakes. At least some people seem to think so, and I wouldn’t blame them.

Given all of the above, it is totally remarkable that Open Space is still around to bother people. By all rights it should have been eliminated or at the very least contained. And in fact it is clear that efforts have been made in that regard. The first level of effort might be called The Silent Treatment. It has always been interesting to me that the academic world has essentially ignored Open Space. Virtually no articles, classes or discussion of a phenomenon that has been around for 25 years, with 100,000’s of iterations, appearing in 136 countries. But were you to go to most business schools, “it” never happened. Actually this is not all that surprising because if OS did happen, much of what takes place at the average business school would be open to radical question. This would not be good for employment, tenure, and the continuing collection of (very large) student fees.

A second level of effort is the Containment Strategy, which comes in two forms. First is “Doing a Little Bit of Open Space.” As Open Space gained some degree of popular interest, some thought to give it a try, but with severe limitations, lest it get out of control. This became known as doing a “little bit” of Open Space. In the worst of circumstances it was the same old meeting (closely controlled, highly facilitated, with detailed schedules, and list of guaranteed outcomes) – and with the magic words, “Open Space” whispered quietly at the start.

The second form of the Containment Strategy might be called The Tool-in-the-Box approach. Open Space is described as one more tool for the box – and in my more suspicious moments I rather think that some people would like to keep it in the box as much as possible. By defining OS as a tool it may be equated and compared with other such tools (presumably, Future Search, AI, etc) and used only in the appropriate situations. There is some logic to this strategy for at first glance, OS certainly does look like a tool. But with a little closer inspection the oddity of Open Space as a tool begins to peep through.

In the first place Open Space is ridiculously simple. Sit in a circle, create a bulletin board, open and market place, and go to work. No self respecting group method (large or small) could possibly be that simple! And it gets worse. It is not entirely clear how or why it works. In fact it seems to work pretty much all by itself and the less the facilitator does, the better it works. Obviously this is a tool best left in the box. It is unreliable (un-predictable results), can be “done” by virtually anybody, and has a mind of its own. What sort of irresponsible consultant could possibly choose such a tool – let alone recommend it to a client?

Now we come down to the really sticky wicket. There are some strange people, myself for one, who have come to an understanding that the resolution of the mystery of Open Space (Why it works?) comes from the world of self organizing systems. In short, Open Space works because self-organization works. Or put another way – Open Space is self-organization at work. This sounds like a nice, safe, theoretical premise. But maybe not! Should it turn out that self-organization is a (or the) fundamental mechanism in the ongoing evolution of the cosmos – the whole cosmos including all human systems (us) – then it is ALL open space and choice is not an option. To offer people a choice is to offer a false choice, and to the extent that this choice is offered in order to meet perceived client need to be in control (have predictability and certainty) – we are effectively enabling delusional behavior. We are also offering something we can’t deliver. And that, of course raises certain ethical questions.

Now I am definitely in trouble. But that is what happens when you mess around with Open Space. Welcome Aboard Suzanne!