at Work:

A Personal
and Public
Invitation to
Open Space

Michael Herman

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Pulling It All Together: An Artful Practice


What follows here is an example of what the proceedings from an open space event look like (the practice of documentation). These are the actual notes from a real session that took place at a conference for about 100 environmental educators in Illinois, in May of 2000. On the next page, this piece ALSO wraps the art of opening and holding space into a simple metaphor -- the testable, teachable, tangible practice -- of blowing bubbles with soap. In true Open Space form, it's all starting to move and flow together here now.



TOPIC #19: Youth and (many others) in Open Space (Technology)

CONVENER(S): Michael Herman

PARTICIPANTS: Wynne Coplea, Marsha Nix, Nancy Saulsbury, Karen Zuckerman, and some others who joined in along the way...


-Open Space Technology is a simple, powerful approach to facilitation, learning and leadership in organization and community that allows everyone who cares to take direct responsibility for contributing what they can, to create the world they want, in ways that are aligned with and support their co-workers, allies and neighbors. Details at <www.globalchicago.net/mha/openspacetech.html> and <www.openspaceworld.org>.

-We started with a couple of stories about what youth and others have done using open space technology to organize and manage their work. One such story is available online at <www.globalchicago.net/mha/stories/youthaction.html>. Briefly, it's the story of how 35 Racine Wisconsin youth started what quickly became the largest YMCA Earth Service Corps <www.yesc.org> chapter in the country. They also injected themselves into the creation of a new skateboard park, were recognized nationally and contributed learnings that have given rise to other youth-in-open-space events and organizations. THE FIRST DISCOVERY WE HAD WAS THAT OPEN SPACE IS AS MUCH OR MORE A PRACTICE IN ORGANIZATION, A POWERFUL WAY TO BE *IN* ORGANIZATION, AS IT IS AN EVENT METHODOLOGY.

-Beyond this, we explored a whole range of possible beginnings, with middle school students in the classroom, with park district employees, with community action meetings, even with environmental educators regionally and statewide -- to address themes from responsibility, recertification, environmental education, peace and safefy, to name a few.

-The ingredients required to open a space are: invitation (a truth-filled statement of a really important need), invitation list (everyone who might have an interest or make a contribution), a space and time to meet (logistics) and some plans to support the story that emerges, so that it can keep emerging and growing. These pieces have to be loosely aligned and similarly scoped. Mostly, however, we need a truth-filled statement about something REALLY important, complex, possibly conflicted, urgent for a functionally, ideologically, or demographically diverse group of people to respond to.

-Some websites with more info were noted... (see More Stuff section)

-Finally, the following was written by Michael during this conference and summarizes some of the story he told during this session to communicate something of the spirit of open space...

Opening Space for the BIG Stuff:
How Leadership Can Bubble Up in Organization

I really can't explain Open Space in a nutshell, but I can explain space, open space, open space technology, organization, leadership and management in just a few bubbles. That's a lot of ground to cover, but it's all there in the bubbles we used to blow out of soap and water.

Start with the spaces -- around us, within us, at every level of life, between people and particles everywhere. Blowing bubbles just makes it a little easier, and a lot more fun, to play with space. When we blow bubbles, we put a little bit of ourselves into a structure that we know is not going to last. And we remember that the space we live in is open, with bubbles, structures, ideas, sensations, tensions and flows arising and passing away, every moment, at every level. Open Space Technology is a simple, powerful way to align human and organizational activity with the realities of the open space and flow of conversations we already live in... and blowing bubbles is one way of understanding and preparing for leading people and organizations in open space.

The bottles of bubbles they sell these days come with a new, and supposedly improved, bubble-blowing wand. This new tool has little ridges cut in one end that make it very easy to blow lots of smaller, same-size bubbles. This seems a lot like our organizations these days, where we have lots of little meetings, all nice, neat, easy-to-schedule, one-hour sessions that invite small groups of people to address small, one-hour questions and issues. The breath of one day now gets you lots of little same-size bubbles, a full schedule and busy day of little little, standard, manageable meeting bubbles focusing on so many small pieces of our story. But our most important work, our most pressing questions take days, weeks, months or more to work through!

The challenge then, is to blow some really big bubbles, to put more of ourselves into some larger, deeper gatherings and conversations that can dare to take on our most important questions in organization and dare to invite everyone who will be needed to answer them. Asking the largest questions we dare is, to me, the real work of leadership and blowing bubbles is a good practice for remembering what is happening when we take responsibility for being this kind of leader, from anywhere in the organization. Specifically, the practice is to take one of these new-fangled bubble-blowing tools, made for many small bubbles and try to blow a really, REALLY big bubble -- to begin to redefine what BIG bubbles and effective organizations ARE. This stretching, expanding redefinition of ourselves and our work is what happens in events facilitated in Open Space.

When blowing a BIG bubble with one of these modern tools, you'll need to take a really BIG breath, to literally embody or become a bigger bubble yourself, before you can create one in the world. In our modern organizations, this means breaking our own unconscious routines, scheduling a big chunk of time, stretching and expanding our own sense of what is possible, and generally gathering spirit and energy for something really new and important to begin. Next comes focus and attention. We think BIG bubble, which means we have to decide just how big we think is really possible -- and to be ready to keep going if we find that we were thinking too small. We focus on BIG and we focus on that little loop in the wand -- and begin to blow, to let go. In organizations, leaders wrestle with the BIGness of the questions they dare to raise. Sometimes they get so focused on the little loops, their tools, and let the soap drip away before they dare to blow at all. But when things really work, it's because somebody somewhere in the organization took the lead, and scheduled something BIG, put a BIG piece of truth on the table, and blew it out there for people to respond and contribute.

Whether blowing big bubbles or leading in organizations, the challenge seems to be all about putting as much of ourselves as we can into a structure that is dynamic AND fragile, expanding AND on the edge -- of POOF! We have to blow hard enough to support the structure -- and gently enough to keep from blowing it up or blowing it away before it's reached its full potential. This tension between blowing hard enough to grow it and carefully enough to stay connected mirrors the balance between making our own plans and goals internally and responding to external, customer demands. It IS the tension of leadership, played out for us inside our chests and right in front of our faces, in every attempt to blow a really BIG bubble.

And, of course, once a bubble of any size is full, it must be released -- and allowed to make its own decisions, follow its own course. There is no such thing as bubble editing. Likewise, once the invitation is issued, the people are gathered and the space is opened, the leaders must allow the structures they've set up and the people they've gathered to raise their own issues, make their own decisions, and practice leadership for themselves, testing and validating their boundaries. Everyone knows that bubbles and organizations must be set in motion, but we must also remember that once they really start to move in open space, no amount of managing, analyzing, explaining, or other efforts to control them is going to be very helpful -- or change the ultimate result.

More and more, in fact, it is proving both easiest AND most effective to let them go, in open space -- and enjoy the beauty and power of simplicity mixing with chaos -- the beauty and power of ordinary people doing everything they can think of, as fast as they can, to maximize their learning and contribution, for themselves, their customers and their whole organization.

And when it's over, it's over. Though, like with the bubbles, we usually can't wait to get back into that bottle and do it again -- but BIGGER!

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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]