On “Open Space” and tosspots…

Marc Hudson has been to one too many event that describes itself as “open space”. The fightback starts here.[Update: here’s how he’d have done it]

The Evil Corporations and their Evil State lackeys are trying to defeat us!! They constantly steal our ideas, water them down, and then use them to sell their own very non-participatory and non-liberatory junk back to us. There are bars called “Revolution”, and rubber-stamp consultation processes called “participation”. It’s awful and wrong.

All this is true…. But we have met the enemy, and he or she is… us.

Every time you go to an event that claims to be using “open space” but is just the old system of an agenda but with time in the afternoon for the loudest people to try to get folks along to their “come listen to me spiel”, you are witnessing the co-optation and destruction of important ideas. But by “our” side, not the “enemy.”

Every time you witness it and fail to speak up, you are complicit in the watering down of an important tool, and in the creation of long-term cynicism and despair.

If we are not willing to challenge bad practice in our own culture, why should anyone listen to us criticise “mainstream” culture? Why should anyone – least of all ourselves – take ourselves seriously?

This article looks at what “Open Space” actually is and where it came from. It then turns to how the tool is being (ab)used, and then looking at why that is happening, what the consequences are and, finally – crucially – ‘what is to be done’?

Open Space

[UPDATE 13/11/2014; NOOOO!  The following account is just so inaccurate that it’s not even wrong.  See here for the actual story!]

Software engineers got bored and frustrated with turning up to conferences and being sat in rows and being talked at for hours by different people with crappy powerpoints. They got bored and frustrated with having to use the “gaps” in the programme to do what they actually wanted – which was to talk about the practical problems they were facing, and trying to find someone who might be able to help.

So they changed. Instead of a top-down scheduled agenda, they had everyone turn up with their “what I need help with/can help with” heads on. People who had an issue (problem!) they wanted to discuss wrote it on the top of a big sheet of paper. Everyone who was also interested in discussing that same problem wrote their name underneath as many of the papers as they wanted. While everyone else went for coffee the hosts figured out which problems were burning hot, and assigned bigger rooms to them.

Everyone came back from coffee, saw which spaces were set aside for which problems and set off on their own personal missions.

Crucially, if it turned out the problem got solved, or people in the group were being asshats, or for whatever other reason, you didn’t have to stay in the group you first chose any longer than necessary. Because, as well as the agenda being spontaneously generated (but then curated), the other key tool of “Open Space” is “the law of two feet.”  It says that you have two feet – one for learning, and one for contributing. If you find yourself in a situation where you are doing neither, it is your responsibility to respectfully go somewhere that you are.”

Normally, you would sit and stew and have the red mist descend, and then ben the wrong headspace when you do have a chance to be involved. But now you are free (and with great freedom comes great responsibility) to leave and take charge of your own experience, saving your own (often limited) energy and morale.

It. Works. Well.

So what has happened the last three occasions I’ve been to events from the “left” which have contained so-called “Open Space”?

The Tosspots have taken over, is what. Tosspots? Terminators of Open Space’s Subversive Potential.

Here’s how it’s gone.  The crucial first couple of hours get taken up with very very standard “this is our organisation, this is what we do, this is how great we are [“you should join/subscribe. Really. Here’s the form.] and here is our guest speaker(s) to tell you funny stories.”

So people set into the “I am here to be ego-fodder/to say my piece when asked” headspace. They are NOT able to get into their “I am part of a movement that is not winning nearly as many victories as it could be, as it needs to be” headspace. So when they “open space” bit comes along, they are in their “I want to advertise my group” rather than “I want to get other people’s help solving specific problems” headspace.

Instead of actually giving the responsibility for the day to the attendees (and turning them from audience and ego-fodder into participants), the organisers run a very standard meeting, with a specific period of time designated for “Open Space.”

Why do they do it?

The charitable explanation (assuming that many Tosspots mean well and aren’t brittle control freaks) is that they don’t know what Open Space actually is, and are just mimicking what they saw someone else do recently. Send three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance.

OR they do know, but they either had a failure of nerve, or were over-ruled as the agenda developed, and the label that was originally accurate has been left in situ.

The uncharitable explanation (and there ARE Tosspots who don’t mean well/are brittle control freaks) is that people are using the term as part of their “look at us, we’re cool and hip and cutting edge” marketing strategy. They are latching on it to the sexy new thing ; cool-hunters gonna hunt.

The short-term consequences

  • My blood-pressure goes up
  • Other people’s blood pressure goes up
  • The law of two feet gets invoked.

The long-term consequences

  • Open Space gets a bad rap/is misunderstood. The term gets hollowed out of meaning
  • People become cynical about it, and an important opportunity to improve the dismal quality of our meetings and events goes to waste.

What is to be done
People should make more strenuous efforts to avoid being Tosspots themselves.

And remember; “Friends don’t let friends be Tosspots”

And Non-friends don’t let friends be Tosspots. Here are two sample letters.

Dear xxx,

I see from the agenda of the meeting you are advertising that there to be an “element” of what you are describing as “Open Space.” I do hope you have read this rant about what Open Space is and isn’t. (links to this post!)

I’d like to remind you that you as an event organiser have a responsibility to tell the truth about what you are planning to have happen, so that potential attendees can make an informed choice about whether to use their limited time and energy coming to your thing. I’d also like to remind you that the use of labels matters a great deal. If what you are actually intending is “a bit of time for groups to advertise their existence on short notice” then please call it that, ‘kay?

Yours sincerely



Dear x,
I see that your event has a session in the afternoon called “open space.”
This is a travesty and you are actively destroying an important tool. I neither know nor care if you are doing it consciously or unconsciously. You should stop it now.
Open space is about helping people get help solving problems, not creating platforms for loud narcissists.

Oh, and if you are going to call your event “open space” are you going to run the ENTIRE meeting under the law of two feet. If not, why not?

yours in dismay


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: