Open Space Technology
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Open Space Technology (OST) is an approach to purpose-driven leadership, including a way for hosting meetings, conflict minded peacebuilding, conferences, corporate-style retreats, symposiums, and community summit events, focused on a specific and important purpose or task — but beginning without any formal agenda, beyond the overall purpose or theme.
Seen by proponents as especially scalable and adaptable, the OST event format has been used in meetings of 5 to 2,100 people (in self-discovery work for smaller groups or even individuals). The approach is characterized by a few basic mechanisms:
- a broad, open invitation which articulates the purpose of the meeting;
- participants' chairs arranged in a circle;
- a "bulletin board" of issues and opportunities posted by participants;
- a "marketplace" with many break-out spaces that participants move freely between, learning and contributing as they "shop" for information and ideas;
- a "breathing" or "pulsation" pattern of flow, between plenary and small-group breakout sessions.
The approach is most distinctive for its initial lack of an agenda, which sets the stage for the meeting's participants to create the agenda for themselves, in the first 30–90 minutes of the meeting or event. Typically, an "open space" meeting will begin with short introductions by the sponsor and usually a single facilitator. The sponsor introduces the purpose; the facilitator explains the "self-organizing" process called "open space." Then the group creates the working agenda, as individuals post their issues in bulletin board style. Each individual "convener" of a breakout session takes responsibility for naming the issue, posting it on the bulletin board, assigning it a space and time to meet, and then later showing up at that space and time, kicking off the conversation, and taking notes. These notes are usually compiled into a proceedings document that is distributed physically or electronically to all participants. Sometimes one or more additional approaches are used to sort through the notes, assign priorities, and identify what actions should be taken next. Throughout the process, the ideal facilitator is described as being "fully present and totally invisible", "holding a space" for participants to self-organize, rather than managing or directing the conversations.
- Complexity, in terms of the tasks to be done or outcomes achieved;
- Diversity, in terms of the people involved and/or needed to make any solution work;
- Conflict, real or potential, meaning people really care about the central issue or purpose; and
- Urgency, meaning that the time to act was "yesterday".
According to Owen, originator of the term and the approach, Open Space works because it harnesses and acknowledges the power of self-organization, which he suggests is substantially aligned with the deepest process of life itself, as described by leading-edge complexity science as well as ancient spiritual teachings.
Origin and ownership
The history of Open Space Technology is detailed in the Introduction to "Open Space Technology: A User's Guide", by Harrison Owen.
In the spring of 1982, Harrison Owen and David Belisle wrote a paper on what he called "organization transformation". He presented this paper at a traditional management conference, the Boston regional ODN conference. It was well enough received and resonated with enough people that Owen and several others were able to organize a conference to specifically address the issues and opportunities he identified in his paper. Owen hosted the first annual Symposium on Organization Transformation in 1983, in a traditional conference format, in Monterey, California. The second annual symposium (OT-2) one year later, but still in a traditional conference format.
Owen agreed to organize OT-3 for the following year, but by his own account, did not relish another year of work to manage all the details. Upon volunteering to host the third symposium, he retreated to the bar, where he consistently claims to have discovered what he later called the "open space" approach to meetings and events, at the bottom of his second martini. His plan for the following year's symposium was informed by his experience as a biblical scholar, associate pastor, peace corps organizer in the villages of west Africa, and federal government staffer and organization development consultant in Washington DC.
The following year, he sent out a simple, one-paragraph invitation, and more than 100 people showed up to discuss Organization Transformation. In his main meeting room he set the chairs one large circle and proceeded to explain that what participants could see in the room was the extent of his organizing work. If they had an issue or opportunity that they felt passionate about and wanted to discuss with other participants, they should come to the center of the circle, get a marker and paper, write their issue and their name, read that out, and post it on the wall. It took about 90 minutes for the 100+ people to organize a 3-day agenda of conference sessions, each one titled, hosted, and scheduled by somebody in the group.
Participants at OT-1 and OT-2 said that the best part of the events was the coffee breaks, which Owen always pointed out was the one part of the event that he didn't plan and couldn't take credit for. His inspiration to articulate the theme, the larger purpose for the work of the symposium, in an invitation and then a brief opening comment, and then simply "open the space" for participants to self-organize around the issues and opportunities they saw as essential to that purpose, was a conscious decision to make "more of what works". His martini-based plan sought to minimize the grunt work by leadership (him) and assign responsibility for maximizing productive learning and contribution to his participants (everyone else).
The approach worked well, in the 3-1/2 days symposium, where it was repeated annually through OT-20. Soon after the first "Open Space" event at OT-3, however, Owen tried the same approach with a consulting client, a large chemical firm and a group of polymer chemists. When it worked there, too, the participants of OT began trying it out with their clients, in a variety of different kinds of organizations, to address many different kinds of strategic and community issues, in countries around the world. They returned to the OT symposium each year to share lessons.
Owen never trademarked or patented or certified "open space" in any way. He always claimed to have discovered, rather than invented, it. He said it could be practiced freely by anyone with a good head and good heart. From the beginning, he said only that those who used the approach and found it valuable, should share their stories and lessons as freely, as well.
Twenty-five years later, Owen estimates that more than 100,000 different "Open Space" meetings have taken place. The Open Space World Map documents that these events have taken place in more than 160 countries. In December 2009, the OSLIST email listserve for practitioners worldwide had 660+ members in 39 countries and more than 26,500 publicly searchable messages, relating to all aspects of practice. Information about open space is now posted in 21 different languages at Open Space World. There are at least five different government-chartered associations or institutes (France, Germany, Portugal, Sweden and USA) promoting Open Space practice around the world, and also active, but informal, organizations in several other countries (including Canada, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand, and the UK). The German-language Yahoo group started February 2002, had 233 members at year-end 2009, mostly from Germany, Austria and Switzerland and also from France, Spain, The Netherlands, Poland and elsewhere, with 3497 messages in its archive. At year-end 2009, the Australian email group was more than 500 strong.
Owen originally used the term "open space" for his "self-organizing meetings". One of the earliest implementations of the approach was for a conference theme of "The business of business is learning," in Goa, India, in 1989. The organizer of the conference was interviewed by the local media and described the simple process. When asked what the process was called, he embellished it a bit, with the more important-sounding "Open Space Technology". The story was picked up by The New York Times (need date, c. 1989), and so "open space" became "Open Space Technology".
Because the agenda of an Open Space meeting is emergent, it is impossible to know exactly what is going to be addressed during the meeting. That said, there are several important outcomes that always happen, because they are specifically built into the process, and some other outcomes that can be built in:
- All of the issues that are most important to those attending will be raised and included in the agenda.
- All of the issues raised will be addressed by the participants best capable of getting something done about them.
- All of the most important ideas, recommendations, discussions, and next steps will be documented in a report.
- When the purpose requires, and time is allowed for it, the group can prioritize the issues addressed in the report.
- When the purpose requires, and time is allowed for it, the group can draft action plans for the highest priority issues.
Good documentation design is vital for ideas, recommendations, discussions, and next steps, it is part of the pre-work to make a good design.
Ideal initial conditions
According to Open Space Technology: A User's Guide and other books by Harrison Owen, open space technology works best when these conditions are present:
- A real business issue that people care about, that it is something worth talking about.
- Mind numbing complexity, such that no single person or small group fully understands or can solve the issue
- High levels of diversity, in terms of the skills and people required for a successful resolution (far-reaching, boundless)
- Much passion and real or potential conflict, which implies that people genuinely care about the issue
- Real sense of urgency, meaning the time for decisions and action was "yesterday"
He goes further to explain these as when we are not ready to do Open Space. When we are:
- without a real business issue, nobody cares.
- without complexity, there is really no reason to have a meeting (solve it!).
- without diversity there is not sufficient richness in the points of view to achieve novel solutions.
- without passion and conflict—there is no juice to move things along.
- without a real sense of urgency, all that wonderful passion loses focus and power.
Further, the recognition of these conditions by leadership typically implies some level of letting go of control and opening of invitation. In different ways and to varying degrees, leaders convening Open Space meetings acknowledge that they, personally, do not have "the answer" to whatever complex, urgent and important issue(s) must be addressed and they put out the call (invitation) to anyone in the organization or community who cares enough to attend a meeting and try to create a solution.
In a different text he talks about preconditions for open space
The essential preconditions are:
- A relatively safe neutral environment.
- High levels of diversity and complexity in terms of the elements to be self-organized.
- Living at the edge of chaos. Nothing will happen if everything is sitting like a lump.
- An inner drive towards improvement. e.g. a carbon atom wants to get together with other atoms to become a molecule.
- Sparsity of connections.
Kaufmann is suggesting that self-organization will only occur if there are few prior connections between the elements, indeed he says no more than two. In retrospect, it seems to make sense. If everything is hardwired in advance how could it self-organize?
Typical event process
The full form of Open Space Technology includes the following (but if some part is missing, then it is not Open Space Technology, only something similar).
- Opening Circle (agenda co-creation process at the start, without the facilitator helping / synthesizing / suggesting / reducing topics)
- Facilitator’s explanation of principles and law (calling them guidelines, invitations, whatever)
- Multiple conversations ideally happening around the same big space, ideally several discussion sessions across time (without the facilitator helping those groups)
- Closing Circle (comment and reflection)
At the beginning of an open space the participants sit in a circle, or in concentric circles for large groups (300 or more).
The facilitator will greet the people and briefly re-state the theme of their gathering, without giving a lengthy speech. Then the facilitator will invite all participants to spend the next ten minutes, say, in thinking through and identifying any issue or opportunity related to the theme. When the facilitator announces time is up, any participants willing to raise a topic will come to the centre of the circle, write a short description (typically up to 7 words) on a sheet of paper and announce it to the group. The person who has called out this issue or opportunity then posts the paper in an area of the space designated for the agenda. If the meeting takes place in a room, that space is often a wall on which are mapped out pre-determined time slots and meeting locations. That wall becomes the agenda for the meeting.
The facilitator will also explain that anyone in the circle(s) may call for a topic following these steps. However, if someone posts a topic, they are expected to have the passion to be responsible enough to start the discussion on it. That person also must make sure that a report of the discussion is done and posted (often on another wall so designated) so that any participant can access the content of the discussion at all times. Depending on the size of the meetings and the desires of the participants, the person who announced the topic may also type the proceedings into a laptop so that the proceedings can be shared electronically after the conference is ended, or someone in the group discussion might volunteer in their stead. The only limit on the number of issues that get posted is the number of people who take responsibility for the topic getting discussed.
When all issues have been identified and posted, participants sign up and attend those individual sessions. Sessions typically last for 1.5 hours; the whole gathering usually lasts from a half day up to about two days (or five days if the stakes are high). The opening and agenda creation lasts about an hour, even with a very large group. There have been some cases where only the topic announcer showed up for a session. In this case, that person has several options: use the session as free time to think the issue through and record their thoughts as a contribution to the proceedings, join another discussion leader on a related topic and see if they're open to joining topics together, or drop the topic altogether (then they just indicate on their post how they resolved no one showing up so that the session has been accounted for).
After the opening and agenda creation, the individual groups go to work. The attendees organize each session as they go—in other words, are free to decide which session they want to attend, and may switch to another one at any time. This supports different styles of participation as many people like to sample before landing, others may be looking for the most productive sessions, while yet others are hoping to pinpoint discussion on an issue. Networking can occur before, during, after, and in-between the actual face-to-face meetings so discussions can continue seamlessly. All discussion reports are compiled in a document on site and sent to participants, unedited, shortly after.
In this way, Open Space Technology begins without any pre-determined agenda, but work is directed by a "theme" or "purpose" or "invitation" that is carefully articulated by leaders, in advance of the meeting. The organizers do outline in advance a schedule of breakout times and spaces. The combination of clear purpose and ample breakout facilities directly supports the process of self-organization by the meeting participants themselves. After the opening briefing, the facilitator typically remains largely in the background, exerting no control over the meeting content or participants, though possibly acting as a resource, such as supporting the compiling of whatever sort of document is produced by participants. The facilitator "holds the space", making sure the space is safe for openness and creativity.
Small groups might create agendas of only a few issues. Very large groups have generated as many as 234 sessions running concurrently over the course of a day and longer meetings may establish priorities and set up working-groups for follow-up.
Imagine the huge room - perhaps it is a convention center or an exhibit hall.
To me, it is a safety and a time issue, the way I set up the room at the start. Too dangerous / difficult / huge to make an actual circle (or concentric rings) for an Opening Circle. So instead, I invite participants to come in and sit anywhere to start, and they are sitting in pre-set circles-of-chairs all across the room. And then everything I do is -implying- a circle, still - because that is what so many of us have learned in our sharing about rooms and set-ups. Always, circle.
Therefore, just like for a small room, I divide the expected number of participants by (an example) 12 (circles of 12 chairs - I make smaller circles for smaller groups but find that more than 12 chairs makes it hard to hear in a group / in a room where everyone is talking at once.)— Lisa Heft, Open Space practitioner
There are two remarkably different behaviors that needs mentioning, that can be seen when participating in an Open Space event:
- Bee – the person who is not willing to be fixed on a single break out session and would rather visit many different groups, collaborating in a more punctual way; Bees have a very important role in the dynamics, because they represent the space of freedom of the process and perform the task of cross-fertilization, helping groups to overcome creative blocks, inspiring them with fresh views or sharing solutions they already saw in another group.
- Butterfly – the person that is not willing to take part in a break out session at this moment. The butterfly helps us feel safe in the space by tending to its own needs and passions. Often some Butterflies gather with deep thoughts about the purpose of the meeting with ground breaking and paradigm shifting inputs, truly transformative in nature.
Guiding principles and one law
In his User's Guide, Harrison Owen has articulated "the principles" and "one law" that are typically quoted and briefly explained during the opening briefing of an Open Space meeting. These explanations describe rather than control the process of the meeting. The principles and Owen's explanations are:
- Whoever comes are the right people ...reminds participants that they don't need the CEO and 100 people to get something done, you need people who care. And, absent the direction or control exerted in a traditional meeting, that's who shows up in the various breakout sessions of an Open Space meeting.
- Whenever it starts is the right time ...reminds participants that "spirit and creativity do not run on the clock."
- Wherever it is, is the right place ...reminds participants that space is opening everywhere all the time. Please be conscious and aware. – Tahrir Square is one famous example. (Wherever is the new one, just added
- Whatever happens is the only thing that could have, be prepared to be surprised! ...reminds participants that once something has happened, it's done—and no amount of fretting, complaining or otherwise rehashing can change that. Move on. The second part reminds us that it is all good.
- When it's over, it's over (within this session) ...reminds participants that we never know how long it will take to resolve an issue, once raised, but that whenever the issue or work or conversation is finished, move on to the next thing. Don't keep rehashing just because there's 30 minutes left in the session. Do the work, not the time.
Law of two feet
Owen explains his one "Law," called the "Law of two feet" or "the law of mobility", as follows:
If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else.
In this way, all participants are given both the right and the responsibility to maximize their own learning and contribution, which the Law assumes only they, themselves, can ultimately judge and control. When participants lose interest and get bored in a breakout session, or accomplish and share all that they can, the charge is to move on, the "polite" thing to do is going off to do something else. In practical terms, Owen explains, the Law of Two Feet says: "Don't waste time!"
Criteria making a topic inappropriate for OST
Tackling a topic using Open Space is inappropriate and simply won't work when:
- There is no real question/uncertainty about how to do the work, (e.g. setting up an accounting system)
- Leaders and/or sponsors believe they already know the answer(s) and are looking for ways to sell or impose those ideas on the rest of the organization
- Leaders and/or sponsors believe that they are the only ones responsible for, or really necessary for, the organization to do its best work
- Leaders and/or sponsors are seeking the appearance of participation, but are unwilling or unable to deal openly and directly with high passion or concern, increasing complexity, real diversity of people or opinions, and/or the urgent need to make decisions and take action.
- "There is a very thin line between a facilitator and a space invader"
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Open Space Technology.|
|Wikiversity has learning resources about Open Space Technology|
- openspaceworld.org Supporting and supported by Open Space practitioners worldwide. The site offers materials (or links to materials) in 20 different languages.
- openspaceworld.net wiki for stories about Open Space technology
- openspaceworld.com website of the originator of Open Space Technology, Harrison Owen
- Owen, Harrison. "A brief user's guide to Open Space Technology". Retrieved 2008-07-29.
- " A grounded theory study on the value associated with using open space technology by Richard 'D' Norris Abstract of the HRDV 6000 Report Webster University, Merritt Island, FL, May 2000 accessed 9/9/09