Open Space Technology Preparation Cheat Sheet

I have hosted a lot of Open Space Technology processes. It feels like a hundred ish — I first learned in the early 2000s. I’ve also coached many people to host Open Space. I love the methodology for its minimal structure and process to support immediate self-organized groups of learning and action. I love Open Space as a way of being that encourages organizing around passion and responsibility, freedom and accountability.

Often when I’m coaching, I’ve needed to do it in a very short period of time. I’ve had an hour to work with people over breakfast or lunch. To be clear, I’m glad that OS is simple enough for this to be doable in such a short time. And, to be clear, as a way of being, OS is to be practiced over a lifetime. Nuance comes only with prolonged attention.

Anyway, in that coaching I’ve needed a kind of cheat sheet. Here’s what I used last week.


This is particularly for the person that is the first voice and walks the circle. I encourage them to speak no more than 2-3 minutes. I encourage them to speak in story rather telling reporting data, and that their energy is what people will draft off of. If you are relaxed, it is more likely that participants will respond in a relaxed way. Clarity encourages clarity. As far as what to say, I usually go for either an origin story about Open Space, something that I love about open space and a story connected to that, or a story about the particular theme for that OS. If the theme is about courage, I tell a personal story about needing courage. The last part for this role is to name the core question or theme that is shaping the OS session. I want that question to be in front of participants.

How It Works

It’s important to share an operational description (in 3-4 minutes) so that people know whats happening and what their choices of participation can be. I usually say something about “minimal structure (in the form of a community bulletin board) to put people to work in a self-organized way that is based on passion and interest.” I then show people the papers and markers in the middle of the circle, telling people that we will use these to populate our bulletin board, reminding them that these are spaces and times to meet because they care — not because they all have to be filled. I then describe choice of roles. To convene a group (or groups). To participate in a group. To bumble bee (participate in many groups). To butterfly (tend to self and welcome surprise).

How It Works Well / Contrast to Traditional Styles

These are the basics of OS. They are the special sauce (in 3-4 minutes). I usually talk about them as principles of freedom to help the group be in it’s needed learning, planning, and action. “Whoever comes are the right people.” My favorite reference to this is from Harrison Owen, saying, “I’d rather have three people that care than 50 that don’t give a damn.” “Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.” This is an invitation for people to work with what and who is in front of them — it’s not a bad principle for being adaptive, right. “When it starts is the right time.” This one speaks to the energy of the group meeting. Sometimes it doesn’t get juicy until it’s been going for a while. “When it’s over it’s over.” I usually encourage both the freedom to end when you are done rather than filling space together. And, as my friend Chris Corrigan taught me, “if you are two minutes from world peace, please keep going!” The last is a reference to the “Law of Two Feet or the Law of Mobility” — if you are not learning or contributing, go somewhere than you can.

Sharing Learning

Open Space is about creating a format for good learning and planning to happen. Given that we are not obligating people to be in it, or to go to everything, it is important to create a practice of sharing what happened. Harvest is that. Sometimes through a template or worksheet. Sometimes through a formal collection of notes and action plans. Sometimes through a playful return like a haiku or a limerick. It is an art to create full intention to share, yet not to do it in a boring reports way. Sharing headlines is a real skill. Regardless, people need to know in advance what they are expected to come back with. I usually plan on 1-2 minutes to introduce this.

Back to the Theme

With all of that good description in front of participants, it’s important to come back to the theme, the umbrella under which people are being encouraged to name their important questions — no regretful wishing that you could have talked about your favorite topic but didn’t. I often encourage people to sit for a minute in silence, and then open the market place so that people can create their ideas. How long to give it depends on the size of the group.

Set Up

One more piece. Not everyone wants to be a voice in Open Space. Not everyone needs to. There is some important physical set up also. Creating a grid, or other form in which places and times can be clear. Identifying places to meet with paper and markers. Making posters for the them and for the principles. Creating a harvest template.

That’s it — 10-15 minutes to set the container and then get out of the way so that people can do their work. You’ve opened space. Now your job is to hold the space — it’s not facilitating people’s groups for them. A cheat sheet so as to gain entrance to the lifetime of nuancing.

Own Your Container


In the last month I’ve been able to use Open Space Technology as a key part of working with groups in multi-day gatherings. One of the things that I consistently see, and love, in Open Space is that people open up in a different way. They get what they want and feel a kind of “aha” — even surprised shock, that it worked. A bit like realizing that the simple turning of the key (or pushing the power button) of a car actually does turn it on. I’ve seen the “aha” in participants ranging from the really onboard types all the way to some heavily skeptical types — there’s nothing quite like seeing skepticism cracked open to satisfied accomplishment.

One of my key insights in the last month has been about, what I would call, “owning you container.” Open Space is a container. Just like World Cafe is. And The Circle Way. Yes, there are nuances between them. But they are containers for people to do a particular kind of good within them.

With Open Space, I’ve noticed a myth that feels off to me. It is that there is no structure. “You can do whatever you want.” This is one of those statements that is kind of true, except when it is not. Yes, there is freedom intended and amplified in the process of creating an agenda / market place. Yes, there is freedom in self-organizing where to host and what to host. Yes, there is freedom in the law of two feet — go where you can learn and contribute. But all of these principles of freedom are intended to create, or add to, a sense of responsibility — the group taking responsibility for its learning.

If you own the deeper purpose or responsibility, then self-organized working groups are not anything at all wishy washy. And the “owning the container” part for anyone hosting, is to set structure within which an enormous amount of freedom can flow. It’s just like an Ultimate Frisbee game. Though the game is very fluid, and depends much on honor, there are still rules that create the container that is Ultimate. It’s not the structured plays of an american football game. But it is a container for a particular kind of game to occur that emphasizes working with the moment. To invite people to play Ultimate you must own the boundaries and rules that are Ultimate — or you’ve got something else entirely.

It was one of my friends, Toke Moeller, that I best remember talking with about the “gift of the river bank.” The river bank prevents flooding, creating boundaries for a body of water to flow, never being the exact same river in any two moments. So it is with Open Space and other participative process — flow within a container that is different than scripted steps within a presumption of certainty, often imposed by a few on behalf of many. By being clear in yourself about what is happening in Open Space, oh my, people are deeply satisfied by the gift of that container.


Questions & Answers — A Short Tribute to Harrison Owen

Harrison Owen is as much a founder as anyone of the process methodology, Open Space Technology. I’ve met Harrison once in person. I mostly see his posts on the Open Space list-serve, and have read his books. Two of the things that I appreciate about Harrison are his commitment to simplicity and his commitment to self-organization. As for simplicity, the Harrison voice I often hear on my shoulder is, “what’s one more thing you could not do?” It’s an invocation, often needed, to help the group take responsibility for itself. As for self-organzation, the voice I hear is about how “self-organization has always happened, and is always happening.” Harrison has a “no fooling, let’s not kid ourselves” realism to him.

In my facilitation, I often use Open Space Technology. I count on it to get people working together. Quickly and simply. I count on it as one of the ways that groups can embody and tangibly experience a cultural shift to work together by choice, not by obligation. It inspires.

On today’s Open Space list was a post from Harrison. It’s on answers and questions. I very much relate to the questions that matter, and was having a form of this conversation last night with my 19 year-old. I was telling him how I appreciate questions (inquiry) more than I appreciate answers (many of which are imposed certainty, for convenience).

Here’s his post — thanks Harrison.

It is all about answers.
The critical thing in life.
So I was told.

If you do not have the answers,
Or better THE ANSWER,
Life is hardly worth living.

Poor me —
No matter how hard I tried, 
Every answer I found
Was either partial, 
half-assed or stupid. 
Answers don’t help a bit.
It’s the Question, Stupid!
Not just any question. 
The Question. The biggie. The one with no possible answer.

Sitting THAT Question makes anything possible.
Nothing is certain.

It is called real open space. 


Crossing Over

There is a kind of poetry contest happening on the Open Space listserve, now through June 21st. My friend Jeff Aitken is inviting it. It’s an annual thing. It’s playful and serious. It names a Poet Laureate each year.

I saw the announcement for the theme yesterday. It is Crossing Over, and was invitation to express a moment of crossing over from one understanding to another. This is, after all, often what is accomplished in the process of Open Space Technology.

The rules were simple. No more than 33 words. Can be any form. Rhymes or not. Doesn’t have to be a direct experience from Open Space.

I couldn’t help myself. I wanted in! I let it come out of me, really in one breath. Then edited slightly. I’ve seen this kind of pain, and thankfully, crossing over, in myself, in individuals, and in groups of people working together.

Here’s what I came up with.

It was obvious there was pain. 
Feelings hurt. Wounds infected. 
Hopes, dwindling relentlessly over the horizon called “not today.”
It was the story underneath, finally excavated,
that began to change everything.