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InvitingLeadershipWritingProject

Embodying Open Space

In many ways, this piece marks the end of OST/theory and the beginning of OS/practice. It's all about becoming the change we wish to see in the world and I think its rightful place would be as the very first article in the How To section here. We could call it what to do before the beginning. But busy westerners being what we are, prone to doing first and asking questions later, it seemed more realistic to sneak it in here at the end of the How To list. Consider it a sort of highly evolved version of How To. After we have satisfied our hunger for technical details and getting it right, maybe then we will notice How To open the space that already is. MichaelHerman


We know that Open Space Technology enables groups of any size and mix to do extraordinary work together, but it need not be rationed as the occasional organizational treat or held in reserve as a secret weapon in times of crisis and 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.

So what do you want to become?

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 keep 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 is happening at school today and see what might be coming next. The bubbles will all look pretty much the same, but the conversations will be new and different everyday. What can that child become through this kind of practiced, careful, attention to each day and each bubble?

And what can people and organizations become through the regular, careful, practice of 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? The answer, I think, is anything they really want to.

...and where to begin

In my experience, in a variety of organizations, this begins with what is best about what and who we already are, 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.

It's Already Now

We can appreciate open space stories. We can read articles and books and begin to understand how it works, perhaps even envision using it in places where we live and work. If we go furthrer, we can enact open space in those places, go through the motions of writing the invitation, walking the circle, explaining the principles, opening the marketplace. We know that if we do this, we get better meetings, toward better organizations. And still there is more; there is the potential to embody openness, movement, spaciousness and power in organization, as organization. And this embodiment starts with one individual, a facilitator, a leader, a manager, perhaps, but not necessarily.

To understand the difference between appreciation, envisioning, enacting on the one hand and actually embodying on the other, the practice gets so much simpler than open space technology, or even blowing bubbles. It starts with one person, you or me. It starts as simply as yawning, yes, yawning. We've said open space technology runs on four basic mechanisms: circle, bulletin board, marketplace and breathing. The first three, however, get most of the attention. So now, it's time to focus on the heart of it all. Breathing. Really spirited breathing. Breathing that takes your breath away. It's called yawning!

The practice can be as simple as taking a few minutes to yawn one hundred times or taking five minutes four times through the day to do nothing but yawn. Let yourself yawn as big and open as you can on each inbreath. Let yourself say 'aaaaahhhhh...' as loudly or softly as feels good on each outbreath. If you're able to have a few minutes of napping after each yawning session, the benefits will sink in deeper and last longer. And the benefits are many, but you can discover them for yourself.

We have said that open space is a practice in invitation. So invite yourself to yawn. Open a bigger space inside yourself. Stretch a little. We've said open space is about finding one more thing to NOT do. Yawning is a great way to not DO anything. We've said it's a practice, this opening of space. And yawning, too. Can you yawn on every breath or does it take some practice. Are any yawns the same? And we've said open space is about letting go of traditional control. Are the best yawns not spirited little moments when your breath seems to take you away, as you ease up to an edge, slip over, and then come back renewed, stretched, open, bigger? These are just a few of the ways that we can begin to embody the invitation, practice and letting go that are open space. But open space is also about passion bounded by responsibility, so you'll have to practice this yourself to really embody the spaciousness of it all.

And as you do practice, five minutes here, five minutes there, see if you don't find that all this yawning leads to what you might call a better way to be alive as body, in the same way that open space technology, invited, practiced, surrendered doesn't lead to better ways to be together as an organization. You might notice how many times you're able to have big, climactic, breathtakingly stretchful yawns in that five minutes. You might notice how long your 'five minutes' really lasts. You might look around in your body to see what shifts occur away from the apparent center of your yawning. Notice, perhaps, what you do with your attention while you yawn. Where do you focus, concentrate, cajole or otherwise try and effort? Does it help? And finally, notice how you are with others after one of these sessions. Does it help your work? Does it radiate?

Then look to see the same subtle shifts in organizations in open space. Yawns and other openings happen already, all the time. But the intentional, invitational practice of these kinds of little, momentary, subtle surrenders still hold great potential. Or more accurately, we all have great potential for spacious, easy movement. The heart of the challenge of opening space in organizations and communities, however, seems to begin with an invitation to ourselves... to breathe, to stretch, to open, to yawn. And I think the spirit that moves organizations in open space must come from deep down inside of all of us, from the same place that those big, stretching, catching, deeply satisfying yawns come from. All we need to do is find that place, to find that we already embody it all...yawn...aaahhhh.....yawn yawn yawn yawn....ah ahahahahahhhaahhaaaaaahhhhhh...oh!

And you know that yawning is contagious. Just reading the word yawn on this page may already have you yawning. Open, yawning, spaces resonate deeply, ripple out easily, radiate brilliantly ...through body, in organization, as community... as we become the peace ...yawn...aaaaahhhh... that we wish to see in the organizations of our world. And so we are yawning, yawning, yawning, opening, opening, opening ...until people and organizations finally, groaningly, grinningly, wake up.


body rests like a mountain

breath moves like the sea

heart like the sky


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Last edited April 21, 2006 9:37 pm CentralTimeUSA by Mherman
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© 1998-2017 Michael Herman and www.michaelherman.com, unless signed by another author or organization. Please do not reprint or distribute for commercial purposes without permission and full attribution, including web address and this copyright notice. Permission has always been granted gladly to those who contact me and say something about themselves, their work, and their use of these materials. Thank you and good luck! - Michael