What Is Open Space Technology?

What is Open Space Technology?

“Open Space Technology is a meeting methodology that enables individuals and groups become more effective in work environments that are rapidly and constantly changing by developing their skills as lifelong learners and collaborative problem solvers. It creates the conditions so that the maximum potential of the individual and the organization can be realized. Open Space Technology captures the knowledge, experience and innovation in the organization that is not captured through less open processes.” Billie Alban and Barbara Bunker, Large Group Interventions, Jossey-Bass, 1997

Open Space Technology is the most powerful meeting methodology for the 21st Century. Developed by organizational consultant Harrison Owen from Potomac, Maryland, USA, it taps into the spirit of an organization like no other large or small group intervention can. It is now used around the world to enable organizations to learn and achieve beyond their expectations with a simple approach, based on clear values and principles. Open Space creates an environment for innovation, problem solving, creativity, teamwork, and rapid change. Open Space creates the conditions for an organization to utilize the potential of the workforce, inspire growth in organizational performance, and to learn to use the chaos in the organization to work for you rather than against you.

Open Space Technology is a means of conducting meetings that has both form and essence. Open Space Technology has since evolved resulting in the emergence of the Open Space Organization. Since organizations use meetings as a primary way of connecting people to get work done, it is imperative that meetings be “opened up” in terms of appropriate structure and process to really get the work done that is needed for organizational excellence. Individuals need to be brought together quickly in ways that remove the constraints of inappropriate structure and control. Open Space Technology achieves this.
Characteristics of Open Space Meetings

  • Easy to organize, thus requiring very little lead time
  • Effective for small groups (20-500)
  • Interactive
  • Conducive for leadership to surface naturally
  • Effective for existing organizations, coalitions, associations, or those that are newly formed
  • Facilitated by only one or two facilitators, no matter how large the group
  • Less expensive and less complicated than other large group methodologies

Uses of Open Space Technology

  • Strategic direction setting
  • Envisioning the future
  • Identifying the issues and opportunities to realize the desired future
  • Conflict resolution
  • Morale building
  • Organizational transformation to a high performing and high learning organization.
  • This positively affects the bottom line, whether the bottom line be profits or improved services.

Open Space Technology Format

  • A real issue of concern
  • Diversity of players
  • Complexity of elements
  • Presence of passion (conflict is an element of passion)
  • Decision time is now

Open Space Technology Results

Concrete information gathered results in the forming of a “book of proceedings”. This is created after each discussion group when the recorder inputs the report from the group into the computer. These reports are printed, copied, and one “book of proceedings” is available for each participant. In a two-day meeting, this is printed over the lunch break for distribution after the break. This kind of two-day meeting is possible only with smaller groups of up to 50. In a three-day meeting, it is printed during the second night, for distribution at the start of the third day. The “book of proceedings” is the basis for prioritizing and the development of action steps, both of which are included in a final report.

Far more important and far-reaching, however, is the change which takes place in the minds of the participants, who emerge from the event as ambassadors for change within their organization. Results that they experience include:

  • Breakthrough learning
  • Appropriate structure
  • Genuine community
  • Spirited performance
  • Playful involvement
  • High efficiency
  • High productivity
  • Shared leadership
  • Growth from within
  • Elimination of barriers to do a job with excellence and with pride
  • Genuine excitement to be a part of the changes needed instead of fearing the changes and resisting them

Appropriate Applications of Open Space Technology

  • An existing organization needs re-energizing
  • Creative planning needs to be done quickly
  • An organization faces challenges that need immediate action
  • Communication needs to improve
  • A wide variety of issues need to be dealt with
  • Opportunities for the future need to be explored
  • An organization is in its embryonic stage, to enable it to develop its vision and structure quickly
  • Individual interests with a group appear to be quite diverse
  • A merger is required
  • Public input is desired

Inappropriate Applications of Open Space Technology

  • Specific outcomes are predetermined
  • Existing leadership is not willing to make changes as a result of an event

Open Space Technology Outcomes

  • Take risks and develop practical visions
  • Rekindle the passion for your job
  • Take responsibility for your own changes of agenda
  • Self organize with others in work teams
  • Develop greater awareness of yourself, others, and the organization
  • Flow with the energy of the moment, and with team spirit, for maximum creativity
  • Open Space Technology Logistics

Meeting the needs of your organization may require a one-day, two-day, or three day meeting. One-day meetings are good for raising the issues and opportunities and to make ownership of change possible. A two or three day meeting will go deeper into the issues and opportunities as well as identifying priorities, and developing these into steps for action.

One large meeting room with a large blank wall, on which tape can be used, is required as well as several breakout rooms, depending on the size of the group. One breakout room per 20 people usually is a good formula. Seating in the large meeting room is in one large or several concentric circles depending on the size of the group. Breakout rooms should also be set up with chairs in a circle. No tables. A separate room for meals is ideal, but sometimes it works to have meals buffet style in the main meeting room.

Supplies needed include flip chart paper, masking tape, markers, computers (one per 10 people), a printer, and paper. A public address system in the main meeting room is ideal with groups of 30 or more.

Open Space Meeting Design

Note that Open Space Technology, used well, requires much thinking and discussion in advance of a meeting, as well as work after a meeting to determine how to make maximum use of the information that was brought forth in the meeting. I do not describe all of the details here, but rather give you just a brief description of the meeting itself so that you can see what it looks like.

There are several features to an open space meeting. Chairs are arranged in a circle to facilitate communication and there are no tables within the circle. The role of the facilitator is to open the space and to hold safe space open. The process acknowledges the potential for leadership in every person. The agenda is created by the people present in the room. Passion and responsibility are the two keys to a successful meeting. Without passion, enthusiasm for an idea will soon wane, and without responsibility, there is risk that the ideas will never move forward.

Four Principles of Open Space Meetings

There are four principles and one law for conducting an open space meeting which enable the participants to stay focused on the event at hand and acknowledges that the wisdom to resolve the issue is present in the room. The four principles are:

  • Whoever comes, are the right people (reinforces that the wisdom to achieve solutions is present in the room and the group is not to worry about who is not present nor to panic about who is)
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have (keeps the attention on the best possible effort in the present, not worrying about what we “should have done”)
  • Whenever it starts is the right time (reminds people that creativity cannot be controlled)
  • When it is over, it is over (encourages people to continue their discussion so long as there is energy for it. This may result in a short session not filling the entire time allotted, or it may result in a session longer than the time allotted)

The Law of Mobility states that if participants find themselves in situations where they are neither learning anything or contributing anything, they are responsible for moving to another place, for example to another group meeting. The principles and law enable people to participate in ways that are most meaningful to them.

Having explained the process, the facilitator opens the meeting to let the group create the agenda by identifying topics that are important to the individual regarding the theme. The individual puts his or her topic on a sheet of flipchart paper along with their name announces the topic to the group, and then posts the topic on the agenda wall. There is a means of assigning room spaces and times for the topics that are generated. When all the topics are up, everyone goes to this “marketplace of topics” and signs up for the topics of discussion that interest them. The facilitator gets out of the way. The group self-manages the discussions and produces a report of the proceedings at the end of their discussion for all to read. The facilitator oversees what is happening at the computer station, which is where the reports from each group get inputted. And reconvenes the group as a collective whole at day’s end and in the morning again in a multi-day event.

Following the generation of all of the reports, the facilitator moves into a more guided process to identify priorities of the group and then to identify next steps and future action. This portion of the meeting takes about three hours, whether it is a two or three day meeting.

And then there is a closing circle, further identifying the commitment of participants to the theme and to the future.

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