This, then, is my own short story on Open Space Technology: It is the skillful and ongoing practice of invitation in organization. I say this not only because an open space event begins when the leader(s) of the organization issue a strategic invitation and open a strategic conversation, but also because of what can happen next, and next, and next... rippling through everything.
When the leader(s) of any organization notice (and dare to say) that the most important questions facing the organization are more complex, diverse and urgent than the current systems and structures can handle, that there is some conflict between what we have and what we want, Open Space Technology allows them to invite and engage anyone and everyone who has any concern or responsibility for resolving these questions. When that first invitation goes out, it naturally attracts all of those with real passion for the issues identified. This IS what any good invitation does: it raises issues, stirs passions, and links them to responsibility for showing up to work.
When the people gather on the day of the event, the facilitator walks into the open space in the center of the group (circle) and invites them again. This time the invitation is to identify the issues that they are most passionate about and for which they are willing to take some responsibility. Then any number of people jump out of their seats, grab markers and paper, and the next invitations go out. This time, however, the invitations come from all over the organization, from any of the participants in the room. These folks are inviting the rest of the group to their targeted breakout session to deal with the issue(s) that they see as most important.
When the conveners (hosts, if you will) of the breakout sessions capture the notes, ideas and next steps identified in their sessions, they can be distributed in a book or website with the same from all of the other sessions. These collected notes invite all participants, and anyone else with whom these notes and next steps are shared, to follow-through on the actions identified. Often, some of those next steps include convening other meetings in open space. In this way, the practice of invitation comes full-circle, and sets itself up as an ongoing practice in organization. When new leaders emerge in open space, new invitations spring forth, and new results tend to follow -- people and organizations growing together, by invitation.
In day-to-day organizational life, this identification of issues, assigning of responsibility, scheduling of meetings, discussion of options, and documentation of next steps all qualifies as "real work." In Open Space, however, so much of this real work happens so quickly and easily, that we often fail to notice how much real work is actually getting done. Indeed we often slip into measuring "real action" and "real work" in terms of pain and suffering rather than promise and progress. And, as ever, we'll get what we ask for.
We could theorize that this new, inviting organization goes beyond command-and-control, to a place and practice of post-and-host -- the posting of working invitations and hosting of working conversations. We could reason further that while there is much to achieve in organization, nobody wants to BE an achievement. And while people want to BE inspired, as soon as we put "inspire the troops" on our to-do list, we flatten spirit into just another doing. Invitation begins to resolve all of this -- because invitating is something we can DO as an ongoing practice and can aspire to BE as leaders and organizations.
In practice, however, we quickly discover that things tend to get done faster and easier by invitation. In short, working by invitation really works.
And looking back, we see that nothing has been wasted. We've called it management flavor-of-the-month. Well, pick your favorite flavor and you're sure to find it on the map of our evolution, sure to find it contributing to the infrastructure that supports the emergence of open invitation at work. We've seen the emergence of "people goals" and "culture objectives" that give attention to the softer side of organization. Flexible schedules, open-book management, large-group meetings of all kinds have created new options, movement and markets within organization. We've seen all kinds of experiential team-building work, supporting both the rise and the fall of traditional leadership in organization. In our systems, we've seen technology explode into e-commerce marketplaces and knowledge management systems let everyone talk to everyone, even across time through the use of archiving functions. In the area of diversity, we have evolved from boundaries and glass ceilings as a focus, to quotas (diversity by the numbers), and now to various kinds of diversity training that helps organizations find valuable diversification rather than dangerous deviance in difference. The inviting organization rests upon and fully embraces all of our work to date, every flavor-of-the-month has been distance made good.
Looking forward, with this clearer picture in hand, we can see how our journey can be that much more carefully directed and quickly actualized. We can see now how evolution calls us to balance our work in the four dimensions. Over-emphasizing finance or speed at the expense of clear cultural story and passionate, personal artistry can only throw our wheel out of balance. We can see ourselves rise and fall between the levels of evolution, not a steady, mechanical climb but a series of peak moments that we keep working and practicing to make ordinary, everyday, routine. We can see that what happens in Open Space meetings and events are such peak moments and that the practice of invitation -- doing AND being inviting -- makes more of them. And finally, we can see that in supporting this seeing, this story itself invites you to create it and reaches for the vision, the dream, that lies beyond.
As I shared this picture with Harrison Owen one evening, it occured to me that in the physicists' story, matter arises out of nothingness, the void. And in the mystic's story, spirit returns us into it. When I added that blackness in the center AND at the edges, it immediately followed that I should fold the four blackended corners into the blackened center, so the whole thing becomes a sort of doughnut. In this way, our seasonal evolution through the four quadrants becomes a spinning around the empty hole of that doughnut. And our evolution through the levels becomes a turning of that doughnut through the hole of that doughnut. This realization gave me pause, a quiet little moment of personal "oh, wow!" Then into that silence, Harrison told me for years he'd had recurring dreams of such a doughnut, mysteriously spinning in space, around and through it's own hole...and that some years later a physicist friend of his explained that physicists call the doughnut a "torus" and know it as the shape of every energy field in Universe.
So we just might be onto something that's quite a bit bigger than we expected. I find it reassuring to rest inside of a story that goes so far and can still inform my day-to-day work in organization. In a recent Open Space conference on management renewal, inside of a giant pharmaceutical corporation, a number of managers noticed that once the event got underway, I didn't seem to do very much at all. The usual comment as they approached was something like, "Boy, I wish I had YOUR job." And my usual response was to notice aloud that when we get our most important issues and projects posted on the wall, with a space and time for each one, the people get moving, the work gets done and management gets a whole lot easier.
These kinds of Open Space events are inviting this kind of simple, powerful, productive ease -- in more and more major corporations, schools, churches and community organizations around the world. I find it incredibly hopeful that so many of these stories are emerging in Open Space and in the world. More and more, it seems that as we get better at bringing people together at work, it gets easier to get the job done. It gets easier to breathe, easier to sleep, easier to let go... and easier to do the most amazing things, at work.