Authority Distribution in Open Space

Open Space is a most interesting format for a “gathering,” also known as a “meeting.”

What exactly is going on in Open Space?

(NOTE: If you are new to Open Space, see the links at the end of this essay to get oriented. Open Space is a key component of OpenSpace Agility, a method for introducing agile ideas into your organization.)

Here are some facts about the Open Space meeting format:

  • No one has to attend the meeting. Attendance is 100% opt-in. That means anyone can opt-out of attendance.
  • No one that attends the meeting can be made to do anything they do not want to do. Specifically, no one (authority figures or otherwise) can make you: attend an Open Space session, initiate an Open Space session, speak or otherwise contribute to an Open Space breakout session, etc.
  • No one can make you stay the whole day.
  • If you want, you can do absolutely nothing during the meeting. For example, you can just enjoy the coffee, snacks and food all day, and not attend a single session during the day.

What is going on here? Why is Open Space a 100% opt-in meeting?

As it turns out, Open Space is much more than a mere meeting or gathering format. Open Space has the potential to completely shift your culture towards a stronger capacity to adapt.



Let’s call authorization the “right to do work.”. Authority is something you grant someone else… on an opt-in basis. When you take a job, you opt-in to respecting the authority of your manager to define your job and your work.  Your manager in turn is opting-in to that role, a role which is authorized by the organization itself.


Formal and Informal Authorization

In the example above, your manager has formal authorization to manage people. It comes from the organization. Your manager is “duly authorized” by the organization. This is formal authorization.

Informal authorization is the “right to do work” that others grant you, or that you grant them…informally. It does not come from the organization. Instead, informal authorization comes from individuals and is inherently peer-to-peer. You may be recognized by another person on your team as an expert, or recognized as someone who just knows “how to get things done.” In slang terms, they have “street credibility”, also known as “street cred”. You respect their skills… and are happy to say so.


Drafting or Nominating Someone Into a Role

If you are perceived as someone who can get some work done, people may attempt to draft or otherwise nominate you to occupy a role, or otherwise take up a task. When you accept this invitation, you are consenting to it. You are opting-in.

Sometimes,  a person (or persons) may attempt to draft you into a role without your consent. They might try to “volunteer” you. And they may pressure you in some way (via guilt, peer pressure etc) to accept the invitation to play that role.


Dynamic Sending of Authorization

In the authorization game, you can play as a sender. If you are a member of a group, and you see something that needs doing, you might draft or nominate someone into a role, to do some specific and important work. In effect you support and sponsor them in that role.  If you are on a software development team, and the work is about databases, and you think PersonX has that expertise and is qualified to lead, you might suggest to the group that PersonX might be able to best be able to provide direction, and make some key decisions, and lead the group’s effort for some period of time. This is the dynamic sending (by you) of informal authorization.


Dynamic Receiving of Authorization

In the authorization game, you can also play as a receiver. When an individual or the group attempts to draft you into a role, you can either opt-in or opt-out. Since being offered more authority can be very flattering, we often find ourselves occupying an authoritative role without our explicit, fully conscious consent.

If you are on a software development team, and the work is about databases, and you have that expertise, some other team member may suggest to the group that you might be able to  lead the group’s effort for some period of time. This is the dynamic receiving (by you) of informal authorization. Receiving authorization is one thing; consciously consenting to it is quite another.


Drafting Someone Without Their Explicit Consent- aka “Coercion”

We often draft others into roles without their explicit consent. We don’t ask. We might “volunteer” someone, perhaps by threatening them with feeling of guilt, or getting them to “move” in some other way. Persuasion is a mild form of coercion and is in fact a kind of manipulation.

In high-functioning self-organizing teams, this does not happen very often. Inside high-functioning teams, attempts to manipulate others are rare, and coercion is typically non-existent.


Self-Organization in Teams and Groups

Now that we understand the basic mechanics of informal authorization, we can address self-organization as it pertains to groups of people.

Self-organization can be said to be the process of the dynamic sending and receiving of authorization by and between individuals and the group. In other words, “self-organization” is actually the act of dynamically establishing who has the right to do what work.  Figuring out who has the right to do what work is a dynamic process and is by no means static of fixed. It’s a flexible process that responds to the situation at hand.

A major and essential aspect of social system organization is the dynamic sending and receiving of authorization. Without this, the group cannot accomplish what we currently call “self-organization.”

Some of the most important work in a group is the work of deciding. People who make decisions that affect others have higher authorization than others in the group. This higher authorization comes from the members of the group.

Authority is something that can be granted, and taken away.

Self-organizing teams routinely and dynamically authorize one individual and then another as time progresses, in response to ever-changing internal and external conditions. As you think about this, you may notice these dynamics in your own working life, inside the teams and groups where you have membership. High-functioning teams have extremely flexible and fluid authority-distribution behaviors.

When seen in this light, we can safely say that self-organization is actually the dynamic sending and receiving of authorization and information related to it. This dynamic allocation of authority tends to be responsive, highly adaptable… and highly efficient. This is the informal authorization system. The formal authorization system (the one represented by the org chart) is no match in a test of adaptability with a self-organizing system. It’s not even close.

The informal system of dynamic authority distribution changes moment by moment as needed to respond to conditions. The formal system does not do this, and might be up to 1000 times slower than the informal authorization system which dynamically and continuously adjusts to changing conditions.


Authorization Dynamics in Open Space

Now we can scrutinize what might be going on in Open Space. Recall that no one can “make” or compel you to do anything at all during and Open Space event. This includes your manager. Repeat, this includes your manager, the person “in authority over” you.

Open Space has a theme, one “law”, five “principles”, one slogan, and a few roles. That’s it.

(NOTE: Describing all of these components is beyond the scope of this essay. If you are new to Open Space, keep reading and later investigate the related links that appear below.)


When a genuine and authentic Open Space meeting starts, at least in theory, everyone except the Sponsor and the Facilitator have equivalent authorization. Folks may attend the opening circle, or not. They may initiate a breakout session, or refrain from doing so. They may (or may not) attend sessions throughout the day. Since there is no defined lunch break, a participant in Open Space can elect to eat and drink whatever is available, and do that whenever and wherever they like. Whenever they like.



Yes, it is true that each person brings their “story” and reputation into the meeting. Yet, even with that fact, Open Space creates the conditions where, in theory at least, everyone in the room (with the exception of the Sponsor and the Facilitator) has an identical level of authorization and/or identical “right to do work” during the event.


As the Event Progresses, Authorization Changes

The one slogan in Open Space is “Be Prepared To Be Surprised.” And nowhere is this more true than in the domain of authorization.

The structure of Open Space creates the conditions necessary for self-organization to happen. Recall that a big part of self-organization in a social system is actually the dynamic allocation of authority, in real time, moment by moment, in the here and now.

Open Space helps this to happen. And so, for example: a normally very shy and retiring person, Beth may rise from her seat in the opening circle of the Open Space meeting, and define a session, and invite people to participate in it. If the session is a hot one, and of interest to lots of people, there may be some cheering as Beth places the session description on the wall. During Beth’s session, lively dialogue and debate may ensue. In defining this session and helping to make it happen, Beth has spoken for the group as a whole.

Most everyone notices, and pays attention, and makes note of this. Formally authorized leaders may also be attracted to the session and attend, to investigate what is going on.

At the closing circle of the Open Space event, several people refer to Beth’s session and express positive feelings about that session, and about Beth. After the event, formally authorized leadership examines the Open Space proceedings (a written document) and pays particularly close attention to the report on Beth’s session. They later invite Beth to chat about the session after the event, as they meet to decide how to address the organizational issues surfaced during the Open Space meeting.


Summing Up

The above scenario is but one example; there are many other dynamic Open Space examples and scenarios I could describe here.  The point is very simple: the Open Space meeting format creates the necessary conditions for self-organization to emerge. And as we now know, what we call “self-organization” in human groups is largely the dynamic allocation of authority by and between the members of the group and the group itself.

What’s going on in Open Space? It’s the dynamic, responsive, and flexible informal authority distribution system that is in charge. There is no formally authorized “boss” of your work there. There’s just you and the other participants in a single meeting event that we call “Open Space.”

The reality is that in that place, at that time, everyone– and not just formally authorized leaders– can influence what is happening inside the group-as-a-whole.

Who is present? Who is “the boss?” There’s just us— figuring out what work is important to the group, and how to best get it done. In that time and in that place, if it is done well, Open Space sets up what we often call a “level playing field”, a place and a space where everyone has a legitimate shot at influencing what happens next.

And so, in Open Space: be prepared– to be surprised– about authority and authorization. Because, in a self-organizing world, the dynamic distribution of authority (in real time) is how it actually happens.


Related Links:

Authority Unpacked: BART Analysis (Boundary, Authority, Role & Task) (link)

OpenSpace Agility– a template for moving forward with process-change (link)

Introduction to Open Space (link)

Pictures of Open Space Meetings (link)

A Brief User’s Guide to Open Space (link)