Open Space Technology (OST) is an approach for hosting meetings, conferences, corporate-style retreats, symposium, 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.
Highly scalable and adaptable, OST has been used in meetings of 5 to 2,100 people. The approach is characterized by few basic mechanisms:
- a broad, open invitation that articulates the purpose of the meeting;
- participant chairs arranged in a circle;
- a “bulletin board” of issues and opportunities posted by participants;
- a “marketplace” with many breakout 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 (the official or acknowledged leader of the group) 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” (see Owen, User’s Guide), “holding a space” for participants to self-organize, rather than managing or directing the conversations.
At the beginning of an open space the participants sit in a circle, or in concentric circles for large groups (300 to 2000 people and more).
The facilitator will greet the people and briefly re-state the theme of their gathering, without giving a lengthy speech. Then someone will invite all participants to identify any issue or opportunity related to the theme. Participants willing to raise a topic will come to the centre of the circle, write it on a sheet of paper and announce it to the group before choosing a time and a place for discussion and posting it on a wall. That wall becomes the agenda for the meeting.
No participant must suggest issues, but anyone may do so. However, if someone posts a topic, the system expects that the person has a realpassion for the issue and can start the discussion on it. That person also must make sure that a report of the discussion is done and posted on another wall so that any participant can access the content of the discussion at all times. No limit exists on the number of issues that the meeting can post.
When all issues have been 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. The opening and agenda creation lasts about an hour, even with a very large group.
After the opening and agenda creation, the individual groups go to work. The attendees organize each session; people may freely decide which session they want to attend, and may switch to another one at any time. Online networking can occur both before and following 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 meeting participants. After the opening briefing, the facilitator typically remains largely in the background, exerting no control over meeting content or participants, though possibly supporting the compiling of whatever sort of document is produced by participants.
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.
Hundreds of Open Space meetings have been documented (http://www.openspaceworld.org; Open Space Institute US, STORIES Newsletter;http://www.openspaceworldscape.org; Tales from Open Space, edited by Harrison Owen, Abbott Publishing). In “Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide,” (and seven other books about Open Space), Harrison Owen explains that this approach works best when these conditions are present, namely high levels of (1) complexity, in term of the tasks to be done or outcomes achieved; (2) diversity, in terms of the people involved and/or needed to make any solution work; (3) real or potential conflict, meaning people really care about the central issue or purpose; and (4)urgency, meaning that the time to act was “yesterday”.
According to Harrison 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.
Whatever happens, there are some outcomes or results that can be guaranteed to happen when people assemble in an Open Space event.
- The issues that are most important to people will get discussed.
- 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 sufficient time is allowed, the report contents will be prioritized by the group.
- Participants will feel engaged and energized by the process.
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 issue of concern, that it is something worth talking about.
- a high level of complexity, such that no single person or small group fully understands or can solve the issue
- a high level of diversity, in terms of the skills and people required for a successful resolution
- real or potential conflict, which implies that people genuinely care about the issue
- a high level 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 nutrient 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 cartoon 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?
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