• Jenny Hegland

The Wonder (and usefulness!) of Open Space

“Leadership is a collective and constantly redistributed function, and not the private property of the few or The One.”

― Harrison Owen (Author, Open Space Technology: A User's Guide)


The World Open Space on Open Space (WOSonOS) conference was held in Washington DC this November, and I’m grateful I was able to join the amazing group of practitioners it drew together from more than 10 countries. Open Space Technology is one of the core practices in the Art of Hosting. This gathering reminded me why I keep returning over and over again to the Art of Hosting practices. They invite us into deep and authentic connection with ourselves and each other. They invite us to see everyone as leaders and agents of change. They remind us that good ideas and the willingness to choose accountability can and do come from everywhere in an ecosystem. They nurture the quality of the social field, unleashing endless possibility for learning, experimenting, organizing, and action.


What is it?


Open Space Technology is a simple, economical, and scalable methodology for self-organizing that can be used by groups of any size. It’s been used in thousands of organizations ranging across business, entrepreneurial, and community sectors in more than 130 countries. The process invites participants to take responsibility for their own learning and needs in a meeting, conference, or community gathering.


How does it work?

Participants in Open Space set their own agenda around a central theme. For the global conference this year, our theme was “Honoring the ineffable spirit of Open Space Technology.” Groups can organize around highly operational themes as well. For example, space might be opened with the theme/calling question: “What needs to be explored, uncovered, or discussed in order to respond to our current crisis with the wisest possible collective action?”


A simple set of 4 principles guides how participants engage and interact, which I love for their profound simplicity:

  1. Whoever comes are the right people (this isn’t about persuading or cajoling participants)

  2. Whenever it starts is the right time (adherence to time is secondary to following energy)

  3. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have (in other words - go with the flow!)

  4. When it’s over, it’s over (again, it’s not about adhering to strict time constraints or forcing any outcome)

In addition, there are 4 roles participants can embody:

  1. Host (calls and hosts a conversation or activity)

  2. Participant (participates in a conversation or activity)

  3. Butterfly (takes time out/away to reflect)

  4. Bumblebee (cross-pollinates between conversations)

Finally, Open Space invites people to follow The Law of Two Feet: If you find yourself in a situation where you are not learning or contributing, move somewhere you can.


What made this Open Space gathering memorable and worthwhile?


One of my favorite sessions I attended was focused on movement and embodiment. While participating, I was conscious that while I’ve been drawn to such practices lately, where I can practice listening to my body and accessing the wisdom and information it holds, it also feels uncomfortable bringing these practices into environments where the social norm of interaction tends to be solely conversational. So, what do I say to convince myself to go for it anyway despite the discomfort?....... “Time to lean forward! Another opportunity to practice being uncomfortable in service of deeper learning! The more you practice, the more natural it starts to feel...” (I’ve found that to be true, btw!). After about 30 minutes of whole-body movement meditation, we experimented a bit with Social Presencing Theatre, a process that emerged from Theory U designed to help systems see and sense themselves. I will be attending a weekend-long Social Presencing Theatre workshop in December hosted through the Shambhala Meditation Community of Washington DC, so more on this to come! One of the questions I’m holding after the experimenting we did during this Open Space conference is: why and how does embodiment invite different learning insights than conversation alone, and how can I help it feel less “weird and scary” for people (including myself)?


Another session I attended was called by a participant who wanted to explore how to design a “life changing experience” to help others understand the power of participatory leadership. I was curious what might emerge here, so I chose mostly to listen, and harvest what I was hearing. I used this as an opportunity to practice a bit of generative scribing (the photo here shows the visual I captured). We took several minutes to collectively meditate on the image after I captured it from the discussion, and then shared what we saw, felt, and sensed from it. The reflections that followed taught me a lesson about how important it is that people have an opportunity to make meaning for themselves. Why? I believe we all have a wise an ancient teacher within us, and our job as leaders is not to try to act as that for others, but instead to hold space in which others can access that deep source of wisdom within themselves. I’ve learned that generative scribing is one practice that helps create and hold this kind of space.


Lastly, I was able to meet Harrison Owen, one of the creators of Open Space. He’s a big deal in this community! I was struck by what felt like a deeply spiritual presence when in his company. He drew a connection between Open Space Technology and the Tao Te Ching, which caught my attention. This is one of the ancient wisdom texts I hope to dive deeper into for inspiration in my own growth and hosting practice.


I’m looking forward to putting Open Space into practice more in the coming months in different experiments and workshop settings. For example, there’s talk of a possible “Flash-mob Open Space” in Washington, DC’s DuPont Circle (it’s the brainchild of a new friend I met at this conference). Wouldn’t that be a fun experiment!? Imagine a group of people self-organizing around conversations most important to them, sipping hot cocoa, in an open public space, where anyone who wanted could join in. It makes me wonder: what would participants most want to talk about with each other on a cool winter morning in DC's Dupont Circle?


Curious to learn more about where and how to apply Open Space Technology? Let’s talk!