What We’ve Learned About Open Space and Inviting

Harrison Owen has always claimed to have discovered Open Space at the bottom of a second martini.  It was 1984 and he’d just agreed to facilitate another symposium on Organization Transformation.  But everybody said the best part of the first one he’d organized was the coffee breaks, for which he could take not credit.  Open Space was his way of purposefully making more of that “energy of a good coffee break.” More than 30 years later, we’ve proven that it works – in every kind of organization, all around the world.  Here are some key learnings:

Inviting Gets People Moving Together

If you write an invitation about something you care about, and shop it around, the people who share your passion for that challenge or purpose will show up.  If you set a bunch of chairs, like 5 to 5000 of them, in a circle, the people will sit down.  

Then, if you walk into that circle and ask them what specific issue or opportunity brought them there, many of them will write that on a piece of paper.  They’ll gladly add their name and post it on the wall.  Once all the posting is done, they’ll take personal responsibility for leading a breakout conversation about that topic. 

Everyone who shares their particular concern will show up to participate.  If you give them paper, they’ll take notes.  If you print out all the notes, they will study them.  If you give them dots or computers or some other tools, they’ll quickly prioritize them.  Given a little more time, they will make action plans to address the most important ones.  Then some of them will repeat the whole process on their own, with other groups and issues.

Anyone With a Good Head and a Good Heart Can Do It

Harrison ran his annual symposium this way for several years, until DuPont asked him to help facilitate the sort of breakthrough they’d only ever seen perhaps five times in their history.  They needed to replace patents for nylon that were expiring.  

The “Law of Two Feet” and the “Four Principles” were drafted as hints, not rules or designs to control behavior.  The Law gave everyone the same charge:  learn and contribute as much as you can.  The principles reminded everyone that the best work is done by people who care, that spirit and creativity don’t run on the clock, and that once a thing has happened it’s better to deal with it than try change it.  

When the word got out that polymer chemists could work this way, his friends and colleagues tried it on others:  churches, schools, government agencies, social service, military and more businesses, large and small.  They did half-days and three days, even every other Tuesdays.  Even before COVID, they did online days.  

Inviting Works Where Other Approaches Fail

We learned that it works best in the most difficult situations:  with high levels of complexity, diversity, real or potential conflict, and an urgent need for action.  It’s mechanisms are old human tools that everybody understands:  circle, bulletin board, marketplace and breathing.  But the thing that brings each of those to life is Invitation.  The invitation to gather, to post issues, to get to work, and to keep moving.  

This is why I’ve always taught Open Space as the skillful practice of invitation.   And when we take Inviting on as a technical practice we can do, but also as a way that leaders aspire to be, we begin to create Inviting Organizations, capable of responding to all manner of challenges by circling up, posting the issues, and getting to work together. 

Getting Started is Easy

Draft an invitation briefly describing where “we” are, how we got here, what is needed now, and when/where the meeting will happen.  Shop that around to an invitation list of people who care about the results you’re looking for.  Let that begin the conversations and let the invitation evolve if needed.  Provide the place, chairs, markers and paper.  Make a simple plan to capture and distribute all the most important ideas, notes, and next steps.  Show up at the appointed time, restate the invitation, create the agenda, open the marketplace and let the exchanges begin.  

The Result is Always the Same. Be Prepared to Be Surprised!

All the most important issues and opportunities go up on the wall.  Then are addressed by everyone who cares and wants to contribute to solutions and successes.  You may not get everything you want, expect or need, but it can hardly fail to be more productive than the way you normally work together. 

Practice Matters

For best results, rinse and repeat.