“Open Space Technology” is the name given to a meeting without a predetermined agenda. Developed in the late eighties by Harrison Owen of Maryland, U.S.A., this meeting methodology is now used around the world as an effective process for facilitating change in both organizational and community settings.
This is a technique for any situation in which there is:
- A real issue of concern
- Diversity of players
- Complexity of elements
- Presence of passion (including conflict)
- A need for a quick decision
Open Space can be used in groups of 10 to 1000 – and probably larger. It’s important to give enough time and space for several sessions to occur. The outcomes can be dramatic when a group uses its passion and responsibility – and is given enough time – to make something happen.
– Circle of chairs for participants
– Letters or numbers around the room to indicate meeting locations (break-out spaces)
– A blank wall that will become the agenda
– A matrix that shows time slots and meeting places to organise the agenda topics
– A news wall for recording and posting the results of the dialogue sessions
– Enough breakout spaces
– Paper on which to write session topics/questions
– Posters of the Principles, Law of Two Feet, and Roles (optional)
– Materials for harvesting the results
It is important that the topic of the event is phrased in an evocative and clear way so that it inspires the group members.
The Process explained:
The facilitator begins with an invitation to do what you’ve already been doing, looking around the room, seeing who’s here, signalling good morning to the people you know and taking notice of any faces new to you. The theme is restated and briefly explained, perhaps a short story of how we got here, with the reminder that everyone you now see in the circle is here because they care about some aspect of this theme — and have chosen to be here, to learn from and contribute to the work at hand. The facilitator also explains that the big empty wall is, in fact, our agenda. He acknowledges that it is a giant empty space, but reassures us that it will, within the hour, be filled with discussion topics related to the theme. He makes it very clear that all of these breakout session topics will be proposed by us, the people now sitting in the circle. The logistics of this are equally clear.
While the reality of this responsibility sinks in, the Four Principles are explained. What seemed strange when you read the posters earlier, now seems to make a lot of sense. “Whoever comes is the right people” acknowledges that the only people really qualified or able to do great work on any issue are those who really care, and freely choose to be involved. “Whenever it starts is the right time” recognizes that spirit and creativity don’t run on the clock, so while we’re here, we’ll all keep a vigilant watch for great ideas and new insights, which can happen at anytime. “Whatever happens is the only thing that could have” allows everyone to let go of the could haves, would haves and should haves, so that we can give our full attention to the reality of what is happening, is working, and is possible right now. And finally, “When it’s over, it’s over” acknowledges that you never know just how long it’ll take to deal with a given issue, and reminds us that getting the work done is more important than sticking to an arbitrary schedule. Taken together, these principles say “work hard, pay attention, but be prepared to be surprised!”
The one law is The Law of Two Feet, or in some cases, The Law of Personal Mobility. It says simply that you, and only you, know where you can learn and contribute the most to the work that must take place today. It demands that you use your two feet to go where you need to go and do what you need to do. If at any time today, you find that you are not learning or contributing, you have the right and the responsibility to move… find another breakout session, visit the food table, take a walk in the sunshine, make a phone call — but DO NOT waste time.
This simple rule makes everyone fully responsible for the quality of their own work and work experience. It creates bumblebees who buzz from session to session, cross-pollinating and connecting pieces of the work. It creates butterflies who may not join any formal sessions, choosing instead to float at the edges. They create the space for everyone to appreciate the energies and synergies unfolding in the work of the conference. Sometimes the most amazing solutions seem to come out of nowhere — so that’s where butterflies tend to look for them.
After a quick logistical review, the facilitator invites anyone who’s ready to come to the centre of the circle, grab a marker and a sheet of paper, and write down their burning question, passionate issue, or great idea. To the surprise of many, a number of people spring from their chairs and are quickly on all fours in the centre of the circle, scribbling their offerings. As each one finishes, they read their issue(s) out loud. These aren’t speeches; just simple announcements. “My name is _____, my issue is ______,” and we’re on to the next one, while they tape their sheet to the wall and assign it a place and a time (from a pre-arranged set of space/time choices). This is how even very large groups can create two or three days of agenda in just one hour. As the wall fills, those who were at first surprised, find words for their issue and grab a marker. And then, as fast as it started, it’s done.
Having done the impossible in the first hour, the energy level is pretty high now. The facilitator gives a few more instructions and the whole group moves to the wall and signs up for the sessions they want to attend. Minutes later, the first sessions start without any announcement or instructions, because everybody knows where they need to be. Suddenly the large circle is many small circles, in the corners of the room or in separate breakout spaces, each working on some important part of the main theme. Every session has been proposed by someone who really cares about that item and has taken responsibility for making sure it gets addressed. In longer meetings, the convener is also responsible for recording the main points and conclusions reached in his or her session.
As the first sessions finish, at roughly the scheduled time, the second sessions begin. If the work isn’t finished, it continues or a sequel is scheduled. Some people have spent the entire 1 1/2-hour session on one topic; others have bumblebeed or butterflied around, connecting different issues. Everything is moving — people, ideas, resources, beliefs, relationships — but it all revolves and relates to the intention stated in the invitation. This motion ebbs and flows, but the work continues, session after session. In multi-day meetings, everyone also assembles in the morning and evening for short “news” sessions, where things like new sessions, major breakthroughs, and dinner plans can be announced easily.
In some events, especially longer events, the proceedings are captured by computer. The person who convenes a session also takes responsibility for capturing the notes and typing them into the computer. The rule-of-thumb is that one day in Open Space will get you a lot of great discussion, two days will give you time to capture what happens in a typed proceedings document, and a third day (usually a half-day) will allow a more formal convergence to specific plans for immediate action.