at Work:

A Personal
and Public
Invitation to
Open Space

Michael Herman

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Talking About Opening Space in Organization

More than anything, this entire collection is intented to help more people talk more easily about opening space in organization. That said, I can hear my friend, colleague and teacher Harrison Owen, the originator of Open Space Technology, echoing deep in the back of my mind..."Don't talk about it, just go do it."

What we certainly agree on, is that it's not always easy to talk about space. There are a lot of things it's not, but helping other people see what it IS can be a challenge. Harrison is right, of course. The easiest and most effective way is to simply write an invitation and send it out -- to do it rather than tell it. This is because the purpose of your meeting is always going to be more important than the method. Even so, we often get questions and sometimes real resistance about method. For these moments, I offer the following options.

To begin with, any of the articles in the "Organizing in Open Space" section are appropriate as handouts to groups considering the use of Open Space Technology. Many practitioners tell me that they are using the Executive Summary and Guided Tour pieces together as their only Open Space handouts. The Executive Summary piece is, in fact, being used in eight or nine different languages now.

In addition to these, the following list of story seeds is what I sometimes use to guide the conversation about Open Space as a method, which is different from (and quite secondary to) the conversation about the results that want/need to happen inside of the organization. Sometimes I've handed clients this list and we talk through them. Other times I sneak them into the results and event-planning conversations.

  • the energy of a good coffee break
  • finding what works and growing more of it
  • passion bounded by responsibility
  • productivity guaranteed
  • simple, transparent, replicable, scalable
  • how inviting is your organization?
  • the four principles are about spirit
  • the one law is about learning
  • cyberspace is open space
  • blowing bubbles at work
  • appropriate structure, genuine community
  • the evolution of organization
  • can catholics do this?

Each bullet point refers to a different story or set of stories about how Open Space works. Most of these stories are told somewhere in this volume and most of the bullet points could be replaced with your own favorite stories from Open Space.

The first story is the story of where Open Space Tech came from, as told earlier in Harrison's article. The second story is of my own introduction to Open Space, as told in the Introduction of this volume. And, yes, the last bullet point "Can Catholics do this?" is a question that was actually asked in the planning of my first Open Space event.

In fact, this question comes up in lots of settings, about lots of different 'kinds' of people. It sounds like: "Yeah, okay, now I/we (the leader/planners) really do get it, but can our engineers, sales people, kids, nurses, drivers, staff, participants, etc. do this?" And the answer is always, YES! Open Space runs on some really basic human mechanisms: circle, bulletin board, marketplace, and the ups and downs, ins and outs, back and forth or breathing and conversation.

Beyond these story seeds, I've used the bullet-pointed material that follows here as handouts and notes for talking with clients. Perhaps most important in this set of materials are the bits about when NOT to use Open Space. Taken together, the bullet-pointed lists below do a pretty good job of setting the context for opening space, without getting into the technicalities of facilitation.

For technical issues and resources, including sample invitations, preparation checklists, sample opening script and templates for producing event proceedings, visit the Invitations Collection at <www.michaelherman.com>.

Of course, all it really takes is an issue that matters, written up in a simple invitation, distributed to a list of those you think do or should share your passion for this issue, a space and time to gather, and some way to capture the story so it can be shared beyond your initial meeting. It really can be that simple, almost anywhere, especially if we remember that we this first event need not be a 300-person, company-wide, strategic-direction-setting sort of event.

You know, in the spirit of Open Space being a practice in finding one more thing NOT to do, the obvious starting place would be NOT using any of this handout material at all. If your issue doesn't matter, all these handouts won't prove anything. And if your issue really does matter, and your passion for it is real and strong, all this other stuff won't matter anyway.

And so, enough! Good luck, know it works... and don't forget to breathe. <grin>

What Open Space Does


Invites collective awareness and organizes individual action to:

  • Resolve important or difficult issues and get the workflow back on track;
  • Rally people and resources around new opportunities, or into new situations;
  • Move strategic projects forward with broad, cross-functional wisdom and support;
  • Re-energize everyone's contribution to achieving strategic objectives and realizing most desirable futures; and
  • Channel the power of existing, organic systems into fast, effective results.


Sees work clearly and gets it done quickly with the simple, organic power of self-organization and self-direction. Open Space meetings and conferences can be as short as 3-4 hours, or as long as 2-3 days, with groups of 5 to 500 (or more). They can be organized in a matter of just days or weeks, depending on their size and scope. They are, however, always rooted in four basic goals and intentions, all aimed at best work:

  • Personal Insight - identify, share and leverage the abundance of everything we already know and care about doing best work
  • Open Invitation - involve all (and only) those people who care enough to take responsibility for doing best work
  • Interactive Forum - get out and go beyond everyday routines and traditional structures that often get in the way of real flow and best work
  • Integrated Practice - help everyone do more work with less effort by linking individual ideas and actions to larger pieces of best work.


Deals directly and easily with the reality of rapid, swirling change...
when the way it's always been really runs out of gas. An evolutionary perspective and a little Open Space help leaders (at any level) deal openly and directly with four challenging realities:

  • High Complexity - when no one person or group has the whole story or the perfect solution;
  • High Passion, Concern, or even Conflict - when the issue or opportunity is of real importance to people, when it really counts;
  • High Diversity - when a variety of different stakeholders, skills, styles or opinions must contribute to one collective best effort; and
  • Urgent Situations - when the time to make wise decisions and take effective action is NOW, if not sooner.
Where and Why to Open Space


Open Space IS APPROPRIATE for:

  • Planning and completing special projects, with or without formally organizing a special project team;
  • Resolving cross-functional questions, with or without formally organizing a cross-functional team or task force;
  • Design and development projects, related to new products, services, processes, customers, standards, or other strategic change or improvement projects;
  • Exploring and addressing a range of cultural issues, including diversity, learning, support, orientation, quality, and the like;
  • Rapid response to business surprises, whether to seize an opportunity or pick up the pieces and get back on track;
  • Creating strategic plans that everybody understands and cares about accomplishing and...
  • Staying on track with strategic check-ins that ensure that the details of the plan are still appropriate and still moving toward successful execution.


Open Space yields IMMEDIATE BENEFITS, including:

  • Experiential, Breakthrough Learning
  • Appropriate Structure and Control
  • Open Communication and a Genuine Sense of Community
  • High Play, High Creativity, High Efficiency, High Productivity
  • Shared Leadership and Personal Responsibility
  • Inspired Performance and Growth from Within
  • Elimination of barriers that get in the way of doing work quickly, with excellence and pride


Open Space IS NOT MAGIC, benefits can evaporate when:

  • Leader(s) believe they already know the answer(s) and are looking for ways to sell or impose those ideas on the rest of the organization;
  • Leader(s) believe that they are the only ones responsible for, or really necessary for, the organization to do its best work;
  • Leader(s) are seeking the appearance of participation, but are unwilling or unable to deal openly and directly with high passion or concern, increasing complexity, real diversity of people or opinions, and/or the urgent need to make decisions and take action.
An Open Space Workplan


BEFORE an Open Space Meeting or Conference:

  • Open conversation and one-on-one interviews to explore the issues, opportunities, intentions, appropriateness, scope, and timing;
  • Set parameters that determine just how open this should or could get; challenge leadership to provide as many 'degrees of freedom' as possible, including who needs to be invited for best possible results;
  • Make logistical decisions, including drafting and distribution of the invitation, choice of space, information processing plans, and other practical matters;
  • Clarify expectations around questions of control, success, measurement, evaluation, surprise, and support for follow-up, (which might include holding a small 'dry-run' meeting, for key personnel, before a larger conference).



  • Finalize preparations of meeting space (and establish communication with on-site hospitality staff for conferences);
  • Facilitate the opening of the space, initiating the processes for self-organization and best work;
  • Guide and support data-processing activities (and hospitality activities during conferences);
  • Maintain conditions for best work; every participant's right to determine what constitutes their own best learning, best contribution, best work.



  • Debrief conversation, revisiting questions of control, success, measurement, evaluation, surprise and support for follow-up;
  • Complete processing of information into proceedings document, including formatting document for electronic distribution/access;
  • Establish interactive systems, including methods for electronic communication, that will support follow-up learning and action; and
  • Support emergence of new issues, invitations, interactions and opportunities for contribution.
Open Space Outcomes


Appropriate Structure

Open Space is a simple, dynamic, integrative and expanding environment, that allows planning, learning and implementation to occur simultaneously, in a unique and powerful (self-organizing) combination of:

  • Support Group - where resources are shared, creativity nurtured, hunches confirmed, decision-making supported, learning and risk-taking encouraged, peers consulted, progress and accountability maintained, and successes celebrated;
  • Think Tank - where events are reviewed, patterns and relationships identified, experiences analyzed, theories critiqued, observations shared, futures envisioned, scenarios sharpened;
  • Learning Laboratory - where assumptions are tested, issues explored, experiments attempted, products design, plans drafted, possibilities discovered, and new ways to work invented and practiced;
  • Workshop/Working Model - where actions are taken, phone calls made, blueprints finished, invitations issued, momentum experienced, contributions made, services delivered, products delivered, and responsible, intentional, self-organization demonstrated productively.


Certain Productivity

Opening Space may be the fastest way to get an impossible amount of work done with any size of group, especially with issues that are larger, more complex, more diverse or more conflicted than your usual meeting. An Open Space meeting or event can happen, literally, as fast as the sponsors can find a meeting space and the invitees can clear their schedules. And, while we never know exactly what solutions will emerge when we ask a group to go to work on a really tough issue, we can be sure that with just a few days in Open Space, any organization or group can:

  • Engage everyone who really cares about the question, theme or situation
  • Identify all of the most important issues and opportunities related to the question, theme or situation
  • Create working groups to address all of the issues and opportunities identified as essential to success
  • Practice effective leadership, planning, teamwork, and implementation behaviors without lectures, manipulation, or other external motivation
  • Do everything that can be done right now or immediately following the meeting, in the normal course of business
  • Make Plans for those issues and opportunities that will require additional study and review before implementation
  • Refocus attention on those issues and opportunities that require long-term or ongoing monitoring, assessment and/or activity
  • Document the discussion, ideas, plans, commitments and other progress made on every issue and opportunity identified
  • Prioritize all of the issues and opportunities raised, based on the best judgment of the entire group
  • Associate secondary issues and opportunities with top priority items, so nothing important gets lost in the shuffle
  • Determine immediate next steps in each high-priority area
  • Distribute the entire proceedings, priorities and action steps to every participant before the end of the meeting
  • Disseminate the entire proceedings, priorities and action steps online, just days after the meeting ends
  • Raise the level of awareness, conversation, learning and activity around every aspect of the organization's most important business or community interests
  • Begin to raise the level of learning and contribution, organization-wide


Growing the Bottom Line

Open Space is, far and away, the most cost-effective way of getting people, information, and spirit moving in an organization, alliance or coalition. The actual costs of holding a meeting or conference in Open Space are low relative to other large-group methods and a mere drop in the bucket when held up against the very real costs of delayed projects and disheartened people.

Remembering that the Open Space approach can be used with groups of 5 to 500 (or more) people, one rule of thumb for estimating consulting/facilitation costs is it that takes 3-4 days of preparation, meeting and follow-up time for every day (or partial day) of the meeting or conference itself. According to this rule, estimate half-day meetings at 4 days total and 2 1/2 day conferences at 8-12 days total, on the part of the consultant/facilitator.

More importantly, Open Space really hits the bottom-line in terms of lowered costs and increased revenue because it gets so much work done so quickly. When a project that is expected to take 10 months comes in 6 or 8 months early, the reductions in direct costs alone are tremendous. On the revenue side, one company created a whole new product line in two days and made $24 million in its first year of sales. Suffice it to say that bottom-line gains are all about being prepared to be surprised!

Open Space Stories: Successes and Strategies


A number of real open space events are documented online. Here are a few to start with...

Strategic Planning in Open Space -- three short stories from an export trade council, a community college and a volunteer executive board retreat.

Special Projects in Open Space: Meetings that Make a Difference -- Harrison Owen's story of the project team that built the AT&T pavilion for the Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Opening Space in Dangerous Times -- observations from working with a small hosptal on an Indian Reservation and a number of comments from the managers, supervisors and assistants who participated.

Photos from Open Space -- worth several thousand words, these were taken by participants at the September, 1998, Intentional Evolution Workshop in Open Space.



And a couple of websites that will have many more stories from around the world...

Worldwide Open Space Website/Portal - the center of the Open Space Tech world, with links to stories, conversations and resources offered by practitioners and websites around the world.
<http://www.openspaceworld.org> click Marketplace link, then click Stories link.

Tales from Open Space - A collection of open space technology stories written by professional writers and edited by Open Space Tech originator, Harrison Owen. Originally published by Abbott Publishing, now available at Harrison's website.

OS Stories Collected by Chris Corrigan - in addition to ten of his own stories from Open Space you may find links to a further eight stories or collections of stories from around the world.

The Worldwide Open Space Institute -- one of the first online repositories for open space stories and other practitioner resources, created and collected by Barry Owen.

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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]