Michael Herman
Opening Space for Business Agility


Talking About Opening Space

Before you set up the chairs and bulletin board, before you send out the invitation, you'll probably have to explain Open Space to somebody. This isn't always easy. There are a lot of things it IS NOT, but helping other people see what it IS can be quite a challenge.

Mostly, I think, this is because it just doesn't matter. Open Space works, period. If, that is, your purpose is important and your people are willing to take some responsibility for addressing it. So the best way to talk about Open Space is to not talk about it. Talk about the purpose. Talk about the people, theresources and the deadlines. The meeting places, the dates, the time available. Talk about the results you want to achieve. Even if you really just want to try out the process itself, find a really juicy purpose or question first.

That said, many practitioners tell me that they are using the OpenSpaceTechnology/ExecutiveSummary and OpenSpaceTechnology/GuidedTour pieces together as their only OpenSpaceTechnology handouts to prospective clients or sponsors. The OpenSpaceTechnology/ExecutiveSummary piece is, in fact, being used in a dozen or more 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.

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 these practice notes or elsewhere in the site and most of the bullet points could be replaced with your own favorite stories from Open Space.

The second story is the story of where Open Space Tech came from, as told earlier in Harrison's article. The third story is of my own introduction to Open Space, as told in the Introduction of Inviting Organization. And, yes, "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 invitation language, preparation checklists, sample opening script and templates for producing event proceedings, see the rest of this section.

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:

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:

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:

Where and Why to Open Space

Open Space IS APPROPRIATE for:

Open Space yields IMMEDIATE BENEFITS, including:

Open Space IS NOT MAGIC, benefits can evaporate when:

An Open Space Workplan

BEFORE an Open Space Meeting or Conference:



Open Space Outcomes

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:

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:

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!