at Work:

A Personal
and Public
Invitation to
Open Space

Michael Herman

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 Opening Invitation in Organization


We've been reaching for the space beyond command and control for some time now. In many business organizations, we've come as far as 'the learning organization,' but as often as not this means preach and teach, plan and sell, ask then tell -- all watered-down versions of command and control. The literal meaning of 'education,' however, is 'to draw out' -- which starts to sound a lot like invitation to me.

I have been working, at various levels and in various ways, on this notion of managing (or just plain living) by invitation for some time now. I suppose it really started when i first encountered open space technology, through harrison owen's OST: A User's Guide, about four or five years ago. In January, 1996, I met Harrison at a conference and attended the OST training workshop he did in Chicago later that year. For the last two years, I have been the lead organizer and host of the Chicago Open Space Tech workshop. To date, I've worked with corporate, church, community and youth groups in open space. In short, it's the simplest, most effective work i've ever done.

For me, Open Space has always been much more than a facilitation technique. I came to Open Space Technology from a background in business finance (healthcare finance and leasing) and experiential education (wilderness/adventure with outward bound schools). As a facilitator of team learning and experiential teambuilding activities, I immediately saw Open Space as a way to make the 'real work' the teambuilding initiative. Forget the ropes, blindfolds, metaphorical framings, color-coded t-shirts and the coffee mugs emblazoned with gung-ho, all-together-now cliches. Open Space Tech was a simple, powerful way to walk into any size of group or organization, focus attention on the most important business issues, and invite everyone to learn and contribute as much as they could to their successful resolution. For me, it eclipsed the need for teambuilding altogether and made organization-building a practical, powerful reality.

About the same time I discovered Open Space Technology, I came to understand that I was most productive, most effective and most happy on those projects where clients had called to invite me into their work, rather than because I had called them and sold a project. Seeing this, I resolved to make invitation the central focus of my personal and professional practice. I practiced listening for invitations -- from the little intuitive pulls we all get to the more explicit "why don't you come to Philadelphia with me... we could co-present at this conference there!" It quickly became clear that invitations come to those who also invite, so I practiced this as well. Open Space Technology was essential in this practice, as it allowed me to invite everyone (literally) in my personal and professional circles into conversation and action on the issues and questions most important to me. even when we didn't have enough time in these gatherings to do formal action planning, it was clear that everyone present had been touched, moved, changed by our time together. How then, could they not act differently going forward?

Indeed, in these times of rapid, even swirling change -- with complexity, urgency, diversity and the potential for conflict already high (and still on the rise) -- making sense, making meaning, making conversation qualifies as real work and creates real value. Invitations raise the awareness, speak the truth, gather the resources needed to get real results. invitations communicate intention, even to those who won't or can't be present. invitations offer new language for describing the truth of what's happening. Invitations get people moving in the same direction, at the same time -- because those people WANT to move that way. In this way, invitations turn managers into leaders, and invitees into managers. If we see Open Space Tech as one way to practice the leadership art of invitation, is it any wonder that this technique has produced phenomenal results all over the world? When all else fails, it seems clear that everyone still works better and happier when they are invited into their work.

For me, the power of Open Space lies in its ability to invite invitation throughout an organization or community. It starts, simply enough, with one invitation extended by an individual or small group, to everyone and anyone they think will learn from and contribute to breakthrough progress on an important issue or set of issues. This invitation touches everyone who receives it and begins to inform their work. Those who choose to accept the invitation and attend the meeting are invited to post their own invitations to breakout sessions. This gives the original invitation a new level of detail and sets up the next conversations. After each breakout conversation, the participants document their conclusions and next intentions. The issues raised in these proceedings are clustered and prioritized, creating the next degree of detail, next set of invitations, and next round of working conversations. And in every conversation, participants automatically invite each other to see more, say more, and do more. Every round brings more people, more understanding, more alignment, and more action -- toward leadership and action everywhere.

An inviting story, for sure, but how do we DO it? (Did you ever notice that OD is the opposite of DO???) The answer, it turns out, is deceptively simple. First, name your issue and say something about why you think it matters. Second, make a list of "guests" which includes everyone you need to REALLY deal with the situation at hand. Third, get a time, a space and some materials, including such technical items as an empty wall, chairs, markers, masking tape, and perhaps a few computers if you want to be fancy. Fourth, prepare for the care and feeding of the success story that you will create during this meeting. This might include plans to distribute proceedings copies, create a website, allocate funding, meet with senior managers, or hold followup meetings -- whatever it will take to keep this work moving forward. Summarize all of this in a crisp, clear and creative way and send it out -- and always, always, always -- be prepared to be surprised. Which is to say, try not to get your heart set on specific outcomes or solutions that are almost certain to be less than what the inspired creativity of your group will produce. Expect them to blow away expectations -- yours and theirs. This actually happens quite often in open space!

But, you say, breakthroughs happen all the time without Open Space Technology. And, yes, this is true. But if we look at what is really going on at the time of these breakthroughs, we find a lot of the the same basic conditions that we create naturally and intentionally with Open Space Technology. And at the heart of every breakthrough, large or small, we find people following their hearts, speaking their truth, opening to uncertain outcomes, and working with a spirit of learning, contribution and community. The energy of these people is inviting, without their trying or even noticing, the resources they need to make their breakthrough happen. It's only later on that they create policies, procedures and position papers to defend their gains and later still that their attention turns to strategic plans, whole system change and maximizing shareholder value. Eventually, however, comes burnout, turnover, restructuring, data overload, and a need to create something new in organization -- a need for an intentional return to the best of the old days, without sacrificing shareholder value -- a real need to pull it all, invite it all, together again.

This story is about pulling ourselves and our organizations back together again -- beyond learning, through open space, on our way to inspiration, along a path of invitation. After command-and-control, after preach and teach, after plan and sell, after ask then tell, we are discovering the simple power of "post-and-host" -- as in post strategic invitations and host strategic conversations. And in the open space beyond the learning organization, a new kind of organization is emerging -- the inviting organization, where inviting leadership literally calls us to the work we really want to do AND manages the work to be done, very literally, practically and effectively, by the issuing of open invitations.

As we continue to shift from hierarchical monologue through planning dialogue to dynamic and diverse multilogue, everyone is invited to contribute and every voice matters. In line with this emerging multilogue, this story is really a collection of stories. I don't feel any desire to make them into one story that I call mine. Indeed, even the parts of this story that I have penned myself aren't really mine, as they merely echo and extend the work of so many others. My point, then, is that these stories, each one finished and whole in its own right, are OURS. My intention is to pull them into OUR conversation about who we are and where we're going next -- NOT to pull them into my story, or worse yet, my argument for how things should be. My hope is that these stories -- old and new, science and religion, workplace and community, metaphor and checklist, each and all -- when taken together, will give us fresh insights and new languages for working together in the open space, the grand uncertainty, the creative chaos, the passion bounded by responsibility and the spirited universe that we all already know as life.

These, then, are the stories that I come back to again and again, to help me appreciate where we've been as people and organizations, help me remember why i do the work i do, and help me understand how i can do my work in easier alignment with what is now emerging all around the world. The first section offers a taste of some of my own most important guides and mileposts. The snapshots included here are meant to suggest -- or should i say invite you to imagine and remember -- that we're all part of a flow that's bigger than we usually remember in the middle of an average workday, that how and where we work need not be kept separate from what we love, that what is most personal can be powerfully universal, and that the future we are creating is right now.

And now, even as all of this is starting to sink in and flow together for us, the organization of our world seems to be dissolving. We used to call it transition, as if it would all blow over. When it lingered on, we started calling it transformation and prepared ourselves for long-term consulting fees. Now, as we look back at where we've been, we can see that it's been evolution all along -- and we're beginning to see the real possibility of doing it more simply, more quickly and more intentionally. The second section, then, is all about this evolution of organization and the emergence of inviting leadership and inviting organizations. These, as we shall discover, are the stepping stones to truly inspired work.

In the third section, we'll introduce the practice of Open Space Technology. We'll see how opening space is one very powerful way to invite leadership everywhere and create inviting organization anywhere and how we can literally invite more of what we want and need at work. This section provides a wealth of reference materials -- from background stories to preparation checklists, from guiding images to website links to resources and practitioners around the world -- all in practical support for opening space where you are. Finally, our fourth section closes this story with a new opening -- a personal invitation to become inviting leadership and to create inviting organizations -- intentionally surfing on the edge of an evolutionary spirit at work.

And so, you see, this story is itself one grand invitation. This is a space for reflecting on and reconnecting with our own most important stories -- and for preparing to invite more of them. It's an invitation to explore, experiment, experience and encourage others to join us -- in the open space beyond the learning organization, where inviting leaders and inviting organizations are evolving toward truly inspired performance at work. And in the spirit of inviting leadership and the inviting organization, it does what it is -- and is what it does. It is an opening, inviting story. And the being and the doing are one, and everywhere.

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Evolution at Work: A Personal Journey and Public Invitation to Open Space, by Michael Herman (www.michaelherman.com)
© Copyright 1998-2000 Michael Herman. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reprint or distribute without permission and full attribution, including web address and copyright notice. Permission will be granted gladly if you'll just say what you'd like to copy and where you'd like to share it. [email protected]