at Work:

A Personal
and Public
Invitation to
Open Space

Michael Herman

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So what do you want to become?


Open Space Technology enables groups of any size and mix to do extraordinary work together, but it need not be the occasional treat or the last ditch effort to save the day or put out a wildfire. Indeed, what happens in Open Space is simple enough to do everyday and powerful enough to help people and organizations become what is needed most.

To approach everyday work in the spirit of Open Space, is to make some simple, though subtle shifts. We shift our attention from what is wrong to what is right, from problems to what's working, from what we want to go away to what we want to be, from what scares the beejeezus out of us to what really excites us, from perpetual firefighting to purposeful goldmining.

We write open invitations, little maps to the gold, sharing our desires and dreams, large and small, and posting them for everyone who might want a bit of the gold we're after, who might be able to help dig and carry. These simple invitations, shared in emails and bulletin boards, begin conversations with the people who share real passion and are willing to take responsibility for making something important happen.

Then we keep that passion closely linked with responsibility, "what do you want?" with "what are you willing to do about it," put your money and time and energy where your mouth is, and "great question, good idea, why don't you take care of it?" -- at every level of the organization.

And lest we get overwhelmed by all there is to do, we continually remind ourselves that less is more -- that continually looking for one more thing to NOT do needn't sacrifice hard business results, on the altar of softer people objectives. 'More easy' need not equal 'less effective.' Indeed, it usually means we can have more of what we want with the same amount of effort and resources, or can have all we have now for less. But we have to be willing to say so openly, invite it explicitly, connect it closely, and practice it continually in the open space of everyday living and working.

Imagine sitting on the porch, blowing bubbles in the afternoon sun, with a young child. If it's only about the bubbles, it might get old in a few days. But if sitting in the sunshine and blowing the bubbles are allowed to become the backdrop, the gathering point, the ritual that allows us to discover what happened at school today, it will be new and different everyday. Imagine, then, what that child will grow into by blowing bubbles everyday.

And so it is with Open Space Technology, which is not really about the bubbles, the events, the principles, processes or proceedings documents, but about shining some light on what we really want to -- and really can -- become in organization, in open space.


...and where to begin


In my experience, in a variety of organizations, it begins with some happy endings, with making my own individual list of "what's working," BEFORE we make the list of what's "to do." I update both lists weekly, or even daily when things are really moving. And I like to post my lists or otherwise make them as open and accessible as possible, so everyone knows where I think I'm going. As often as not, the things-to-do are really the questions-that need-answering and my lists are an easy way to pose those questions to the people and groups who will make up the answers.

These lists also make it possible for me to call meetings with a clear purpose, because I see something that needs doing that I can't accomplish by myself. I invite everyone I think I need to get something done or who would be interested in what's happening. The people who can't make it probably don't have time to help, so I'd rather have them not show than make them attend and press them to sign up for action we both know they just don't have the time, energy, or whatever to get done. The truth about what is not going to happen is as important as the truth about what is.

Then I begin each meeting by inviting a rapid-fire, just-in-time, up-to-the-minute, conversation to create "what's working" and "what's most important to do" lists for the group. If my own list is up-to-date (which is different from being complete or correct), then I've got all the information I need to make this invitation and lead this conversation. And even if you don't get to discuss everything on the list, everyone still leaves the meeting crystal clear on the entire vision, so any items not covered can happen more easily before the next meeting.

At the end of every meeting we create a "who's-got-what-by-when" list which is distributed to everyone immediately after the meeting. This list, and all progress or non-progress on the issues identified, becomes fodder for the "what's working" and "what's to do" lists at the next meeting.

And finally, as the world changes, we keep in mind that less is more and are not afraid to let individual tasks fall off the list before we finish them -- regardless of sunk costs, individual egos and organizational politics -- if and when real changes in business needs render them irrelevent. We use the law of two feet and literally walk away from those things that no longer provide real learning or contribution, for ourselves, our customers and/or the organization.

Call it a practice in paying attention -- a continual identification and documentation of the organization, department, or project team's bliss, the regular posting of strategic invitations and hosting of strategic conversations. As we do this practice, we move closer and closer to what's REALLY most important at work, closer and closer to the crest of our evolutionary wave. And as our little wave gathers momentum, it's only natural that we'll find ourselves making lists of bigger questions and inviting more and more different people into the circle to address them.

It's not always easy, but it's not a bad place to be, either.

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Evolution at Work: A Personal Journey and Public Invitation to Open Space, by Michael Herman (www.michaelherman.com)
© Copyright 1998-2002 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]