Open Space Technology
Liberate Inherent Action and Leadership in Groups of Any Size (90 min. and up to 3 days)
One day a student asked, “What is the most difficult part of painting?” The master answered, “The part of paper where nothing is painted is the most difficult.” – Painting Zen
What is made possible? When people must tackle a common complex challenge, you can release their inherent creativity and leadership as well as their capacity to self-organize. Open Space makes it possible to include everybody in constructing agendas and addressing issues that are important to them. Having co-created the agenda and free to follow their passion, people will take responsibility very quickly for solving problems and moving into action. Letting go of central control (i.e., the agenda and assignments) and putting it in the hands of all the participants generates commitment, action, innovation, and follow-through. You can use Open Space with groups as large as a couple of thousand people!
Five Structural Elements – Min Specs
1. Structuring Invitation
- Invite people to come and address a complex problem
- Invite participants to co-construct the agenda by posting sessions that they will convene on topics they are passionate about
- Invite participants to join any session that they care about
2. How Space Is Arranged and Materials Needed
- Chairs in concentric circles for 10–1,000 people in a large room or open space
- Microphones needed for groups larger than 40
- Large blank agenda posted on easels and flip charts, long tapestry paper, or whiteboard
- Agenda to include slots for enough concurrent sessions to accommodate what is likely to emerge given the challenge and the number of participants. (One rule of thumb is that 3 out of 10 participants will post a session, e.g., there will be 15 sessions posted from 50 participants.)
3. How Participation Is Distributed
- Everyone who cares about the challenge at hand and accepts the organizers’ invitation is included
- Everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute
- The “Law of Two Feet” governs the participation of all attendees in the various sessions. It says: “Go and attend whichever session you want, but if you find yourself in a session where you are not learning or contributing, use your two feet!”
4. How Groups Are Configured
- Start together in one large circle (or as many concentric circles as needed)
- Continue with groups of various sizes self-organized around agenda topics
5. Sequence of Steps and Time Allocation
- Generate action and build energy, commitment, and shared leadership
- Address intractable problems or conflicts by unleashing self-organization
- Make sure that ALL of the issues that are most important to the participants are raised, included in the agenda, and addressed
- Make it possible for participants to take responsibility for tackling the issues that they care about and for what does or doesn’t happen
Tips and Traps
- To get started, we recommend reading Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide by the founder of Open Space, Harrison Owen. All the elements to try Open Space for the first time are included and described very clearly.
- A compelling challenge and attractive invitation are key requirements.
- Write up the entire proceedings in a single document, completed and distributed/shared immediately during the meeting.
- The facilitator should introduce the Law of Two Feet, Four Principles, and the mechanics of Open Space in a seriously entertaining fashion.
- As the facilitator, notice when you form a judgment (about what is right or wrong) or an idea about how you can help, then “let it go”: do one less thing!
- A meeting without the Law of Two Feet—namely, one where the agenda is created by the participants but people are not free to attend the session of their choice—is NOT Open Space!
Riffs and Variations
- Reopen the Marketplace a second time each morning (bigger collaborations may emerge)
- String together with Celebrity Interview, Appreciative Interviews, and/or TRIZ before you start Open Space and with 25/10 Crowd Sourcing after closing.
- Other forms of Open Space are called unconferences and BarCamps.
- For management meetings of all stripes
- Read “Turning a Business Around” in Part Three: Stories from the Field. Alison Joslyn launched a business transformation by inviting all employees to a three-day Open Space meeting.
- Read “Inventing Future Health-Care Practice” in Part Three. Chris McCarthy uses Open Space to set direction for collaboration among the creative members of the Innovation Learning Network.
- Immediately after a merger, for bringing together all the employees of both companies to shape next steps and take action together.
- To share IT innovation prototypes and unleash collaborative action among widely distributed grantees.
Attribution: Invented by Harrison Owen (see Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide). Short form developed to fit in Liberating Structures milieu by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless.
Below: An Open Space circle in Madrid