open space technology

I’m told describing Open Space Technology is like describing what guava tastes like. You’ll get a vague idea, but you’ll never actually know what it’s like until you try it. I’ve spent the last two and a half days at an Open Space facilitation course. So let me try to describe the taste of guava…I mean, OST, for you.

Where to begin? In 1983, a guy by the name of Harrison Owen was facilitating an international conference for more than 250 people. It took him about a year to organise it. For some reason (which he doesn’t remember himself) he ended up leaving an hour for the coffee breaks. The conference ran its course, and seemed successful, but what everyone raved about was the coffee breaks. People had been more productive and successful and energised in the coffee breaks than in any of the sessions. So he began to ask himself: what if you could run an entire conference using the energy and excitement of a good coffee break?

What has emerged is Open Space Technology – a technique for meeting using the principles of self-organising systems. I came to it through nonviolence training, as it is a notoriously successful meeting method used by peace groups all over the world. It’s based in the idea that it is not out of causality that the best, most genuine things happen, but out of chaos. Quantum physics has long recognised that fact, but OS places it in the realm of human organisation, to some quite staggering effects. The result is that, essentially, you can organise large groups around quite complex issues in the space of only one or two days.

It’s an incredibly simple, yet amazingly effective idea. Almost stupidly simple. People are asked essentially to only act in those areas and at those times where you feel some passion, and are willing to take some responsibility. It is these twin poles of passion and responsibility that form the basis for good work – passion because people want to act, and responsibility because otherwise nothing would get done.

These are bounded by the four principles of Open Space:

1. Whoever comes are the right people: Basically this makes the process self-selecting in terms of who is there. People are invited to the event if they feel they have something to contribute, or they have some passion for the topic. Things only get done when the people who want to be there are present.
2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have: This is the only time that these people will be in the same place at the same time in this way. There is no room for what could or should happen. Accept what does happen as the only thing that could have happened.
3. Whenever it starts is the right time: Clocks create too much tension and the wrong expectation. Creativity and inspiration usually don’t show up on time. While there is a broad structure to Open Space, the idea is that it is literally that – Open Space – and that includes time.
4. When it’s over, it’s over (and the converse: when it’s not over, it’s not over): Again, creativity and inspiration don’t follow the clock, so if you’re engaged in a conversation that has clearly run its course, don’t hang around just because the session has 25 minutes still to run. And if you’re in the midst of a productive discussion, don’t stop just because the session has supposedly ended.

Added to these is the one law of Open Space: the Law of Two Feet (or the Law of Personal Mobility). Put simply, it means that if at any time you feel you are not contributing anything or not gaining anything from what is happening, you and you alone have the responsibility to use your two feet to move elsewhere. Go for a walk, try another group, get a drink, but don’t be somewhere that is not useful.

I was doing the training basically as another strings to my bow in terms of facilitation. Mostly I’m intending to focus on nonviolence training, but this strikes me as having a great deal of synergy with those ideas. I also think it’s the perfect forum for churches and the BUV to deal with complex and potentially divisive issues. For churches who want to decide their vision, or to make other complex decisions in a short space of time, there is no better process. Or if groups want to make a response to various social issues, or whatever, this is the perfect means. Plus it expresses in very real terms the very Baptist concept of the priesthood of all believers. The medium is the message.

In fact, it strikes me that these are wonderful principles not just for meetings, but for life itself. In one of the early conversations I had with the course participants, it was mentioned that probably what drew us to Open Space is that, to some degree, we all already operate in similar ways, or at least have some affinity with them. It struck me that that is probably correct – that in fact I had lived most of my life by the Law of Two Feet, and probably by some of the principles too. Julie and I have always moved from one job to another, usually as a natural flow on from the previous job. There is a kind of natural rhythm to the way we’ve gone about it. The only time it’s become difficult or distressing for us is when we’ve let go of these principles: Whenever it starts is the right time, in particular.

And even recently, with inspiral, these principles would have reduced some anxiety considerably. Try thinking that whoever comes are the right people or whatever happens is the only thing that could have and suddenly you realise you’d been worrying about a lot of trivial things that really don’t matter.

Anyway, that’s my last few days at a glace. If you’re interested in looking more at this idea of Open Space Technology go here. Or if you want to hire me as your facilitator, for your church or business, give me a call (I have very reasonable rates). 🙂

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