Open Space Principles 4 + 1

Two principles about "time." You're right! But are both necessary? I thought so at the time (bad pun J). The principles (all of them) popped into my head over a period of years as I noticed the strange things that happened in Open Space - and particularly the strange things that appeared to perplex people. I found myself enunciating the principles as a way of pointing out what they were likely to run into and to suggest that, strange as it might seem, everything would work out just fine.

The first Principle should make the point. Everybody was always concerned that the "right" people come to a meeting. Usually they meant those people with the political position, the appropriate authority, or the right expertise. The experience, however, went in a very different direction. Often it seemed like that even if NONE of the "right" people showed up still very useful things happened. I confess it took me a while to figure out why that might be true - but from the start, it just seemed like a fact of life. Counter-intuitive as it might seem, "Whoever comes is the right people."

The two "time" Principles showed up for similar reasons. Obviously they are both about time, but very different sorts of time. There is "beginning" time and "ending" time. And people seemed very concerned about each, but for different reasons. I noticed that folks were often sweating the fact that we might not start "on time." But I also noticed that whenever we started, everything seemed to work out just fine - hence, "Whenever it starts is the right time."

Ending time is a different creature. And most people just really don't want to talk about it. In extreme situations that sort of time is called "death." But even in more proximate situations, "ending" is something we would rather not confront. Hopefully, things will just go on forever. But the don't! All of this becomes quite difficult when we spend a lot of time and effort keeping something going, when in fact it is already ended. Dead so to speak. Companies that have seen better days and should just retire from the field of battle with a good funeral just keep plugging away, wasting massive amounts of human energy and Spirit. In truth they would do everybody a favor, themselves included, if they would just admit the obvious, It's over! Hence the Principle: "When it is over, it's over."


When something sneaks up on you as a Blinding Flash of the Obvious, it is not uncommon for it to take a while to understand what happened. Such is the case with the 5th Principle for me. I make no pretence that clarity has arrived, but I think I am getting somewhere.

I knew in the moment that it seemed like a GIT (good idea at the time), I even had some inklings as to its use and purpose - but hardly more. True it created a nice symmetry: 5 Preconditions for Open Space (Real business issue, complexity), 5 Principles, 5 typical results (High Learning, High Play). And of course all that is easy to keep track of with the 5 Fingers on the hand - although you might need a third hand.

But what about space? Isn't it odd that in conversation about something called "Open Space," space/place is never mentioned? I am pretty sure that the reason it never occurred to me previously was that the venue (space) was simply a part of the logistical scene - rather like computers, magic markers and flip charts. All needed but hardly worthy of a Principle, if indeed there was any principle involved. No reason to even mention it for the comfort of those present. So what's different now? It is simply an invitation to notice that all the marvelous things which occurred "in" the event needn't stop at the venue door. In fact they can and do occur anywhere.

When Words are slippery and it only gets better. I first "thunk" the 5th Principle as, "Wherever it is, is the right place."  So much better: "Wherever it happens is the right place."

There is really nothing very arcane and deep theory about these 5 Principles. Just funny things I've noticed that sometimes seem to get in people's way as they move in Open Space. The Principles don't actually change a thing. What's going to happen will. But when folks have a "heads-up" it seems to make it a little easier for them

Harrison Owen