The Merits of Open Space Thinking in Everyday Life

New land is harsh, and vigorous, and sturdy. It scorns evidence of weakness. There is nothing of sham or hypocrisy in it. It is what it is, without an apology.”

– J.E. Lawrence

What is Open Space?

The first time I attended an Agile community event using Open Space Technology, I remember thinking, “Wow! This meeting format really epitomizes the essence of the Agile Manifesto values”.

From the circle of people to open the space to the circle of people to close the space and everything in between, it was all about individuals and interactions.

I love the moniker, “Unconference” as some have referred to Open Space events. No agenda and no preparation meant no plan to follow, only relying on what stirred within each of us at the moment to respond to our urges.

As those urges translated to questions or topics yearning to be shared and discussed, we collaborated with each other by announcing our intent and posting it in the marketplace. There was no negotiation to decide what was or what wasn’t worth discussing. Our courage to announce a topic made it worthwhile. Emotions ruled.

There were no glossy brochures to market the event. There were no Cerlox bound proceedings to capture the conversations and learnings after the event. The raw working flip-charts adorned the walls after every session. People took pictures of what mattered to them. Oh, they also left with renewed energy and fond memories.

Open Space events aren’t the exclusive purview of Agile practitioners. Events using Open Space Technology (OST) started as early as the 1980’s, predating the Agile Manifesto by almost 20 years. According to OpenSpaceWorld.ORG,

Open Space (Technology) is a simple way to run productive meetings, for five to 2000+ people, and a powerful approach to leadership in any kind of organization, in everyday practice and turbulent change. Open Space works best when the work to be done is complex, the people and ideas involved are diverse, the passion for resolution (and potential for conflict) are high, and the time to get it done was yesterday.

If you’ve never been to an Open Space event, I invite you to try it. It’ll be a memorable experience.

An Agile Coach colleague of mine vividly remembers her first Open Space event. It was a bewildering experience for her. Mostly because her mentor didn’t show up after he suggested they both go. She was counting on his presence and guidance to calm her angst. Instead, she was left on her own to navigate the day and the people. To this day, I don’t think she’s fully forgiven him for bailing on her. We think he didn’t show up on purpose. Just so she could learn to grow on her own!

Why Not Open Space Your Life?

Life is complex and unpredictable so why not apply some Open Space thinking to your life. Open Space events are guided by 4 principles, 1 law and couple of related points.

  • Principle #1: Whoever comes; it’s the right people.
  • Principle #2: Whenever it starts, it’s the right time.
  • Principle #3: Whatever happens, it’s the only thing that could happen.
  • Principle #4: When it’s over it’s over.
  • The Law of Mobility: If you aren’t contributing or learning move somewhere where you can.
  • Point #1: Some people behave like bumblebees. Some others behave like butterflies. And that’s ok.
  • Point #2: Prepare to be surprised!

My favourite is Principle #1. How often have you taken the effort to show up for meetings only to have the meeting cancelled because a few can’t make it? If we lived by principle #1, we’d say “F*k it, why don’t we just start…

How many of us are so risk adverse that we choose to wait until conditions are ideal or even perfect before we start doing anything? If we lived by principle #2, we’d realize in life, there is no ideal or perfect time to start. Anytime you decide to start will be the right time. So again, “Let’s just start…

Do we second guess ourselves? Beat ourselves up because we didn’t achieve the outcome we expected? Waste our time commiserating over what could’ve been? If we lived by principle #3, we’d say “It is what it is.” We’d notice, observe and move on with life.

A senior leader I respect used to demand “flawless execution” in everything we did. It was probably the only time, I disagreed with him. For some things, it may be achievable but not for everything. Life is full of flaws. Sometimes, I wonder if it’s not by design to test and grow the mettle of our human spirit. If we lived by principle #4, we’d stop at “It’s good enough for what we need” rather than continue striving for zero defects on things that don’t matter.

Do we look forward to work on Mondays and don’t want to leave work on Fridays? Crickets! If we lived by The Law of Mobility, we’d keep moving until we could answer that question with a resounding “Yes!” A colleague of mind recently left a client he had been with for over 2 years. His reason for doing so was, “Life is fun. Not going to waste it by doing few things.” The Law of Mobility is our escape clause for not getting stuck doing the same old, same old in life.

In life, whether you choose to be a bumblebee pollinating the imagination and possibilities of others or a butterfly simply noticing and observing – always expect to be surprised.

Life is what it is, so let’s give ourselves some open space to roam and live.



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