Using Open Space Technology

A post I made to the OSLIST today…

I seek simplicity in trying to describe where and how Open Space does it’s magic.

One of the ways I have had excellent success over the years in describing this work is derived from David Snowden’s work on the Cynefin framework.

The short story is this:

We are faced all the time with problems that are basically knowable, and problems that aren’t. Knowable problems mean that with the right knowledge and expertise, they can be fixed. A technical team can come together and analyse the causes, work with what’s available and craft a solution. Then they can get an implementation plan in place and go ahead and do it. These kinds of problems have a start line and a finish line. When you are done, you are done. Building a bridge is one of those kinds of problems. You build it and there is no tolerance for failure. It needs to be failsafe.

Open Space doesn’t work well for those kinds of problems because the solution is basically already known, or at least knowable.

Then there are problems for which no know solution exists, and even if you did get a solution, you can’t really “solve” the problem because the problem is due to a myriad of causes and is itself emergent. For example, racism. Look around and you will find very few people that identify themselves as racists, but look at the stats for Canadian society for example and you see that non-white people are trailing in every indicator of societal success. Essentially you are seeing the results of a racist society but no racists anywhere. This is an emergent problem. Racism itself is a self-organizing phenomenon, notwithstanding the few people that actively engineer racist environments. Such a problem didn’t really start anywhere and it can’t really end either. What is needed is a way of addressing it, moving the system away from the negative indicators and towards something else.

In other words, this is a complex problem.

The way to solve complex problems is to create many “strange attractors” around which the system can organize itself differently. Open Space nis the best method I know of for creating such strange attractors, as they are born from the passion and responsibility of those that want to create change, and they are amplified by people coming together to work on these things.

It’s “post and host” rather than “command and control.”

And because you can’t be sure if things are going to work out, you have to adopt a particular mindset to your initiative: one that is “safe to fail.” In other words, if it doesn’t work, you stop doing it. If it does work, you do more of it. And all the way along you build in learning, so that the system can see how change is made and be drawn towards those initiatives that are currently making a difference. Certainly this kind of problem solving is not useful for building a bridge, as you cannot afford a failure there. But for problems with no known solutions, it is brilliant.

Harrison has spent decades outlining this simplicity in even less words than I have now and his writing and thinking is, and continues to be far ahead of it’s time and maybe a little under appreciated because it is delivered in simple terms like “don’t work so hard.” But ultimately this is the best and most important advice for working in complex systems.

Open Space. Do it. Learn. Do it again. Don’t work so hard.

More than that really starts to build in the delusion that people can possibly know what to do. From that place solutions will be deluded. That they may work is pure luck. Open Space offers us a disciplined approach to addressing complexity in an ongoing way. Don’t be fooled by its simplicity.


  1. Great post in term of clarity

  2. Hi, Chris

    I have been involved in AOH since the first taring course last year and I love your story explanation on Open space the “penny doped!” Amassing how information emerges when you need it. I am off in an hour to met with the Prof on Business Performance at on one of the local universities and he wants us to do a meeting for CEO. I was wounder how to describe Open Space and when to uses it. I will be using you story today Thanks so much for sharing


  3. Great post and a much needed expose of OSTs value – the fact that it sets up the ‘safe to fail’ mindset this is a very valuable opening tool for change.

  4. Hi Chris, Nice post. You should get hired by David Snowden to communicate his messages. I took his training in 2007 (so he might have gotten better) and found the way he delivered very challenging….though the concepts (as you note) are very relevant and important! Thanks for sharing, Michelle