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Open Space Technology

The following is adapted from

Open Space Technology is a powerful meeting methodology for the 21st century. Developed by organizational consultant Harrison Owen, it taps into the spirit of an organization or other collective group of people 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 Technology (OST) creates an environment for rapid innovation, problem solving, creativity, collaboration, teamwork, and change. OST creates the conditions in which an organization, a community or any collective group can utilize the potential of its people toward inspired growth, improved performance, expanded creativity and problem solving capacity in addition to learning to use chaos to work for them rather than against them.

OST meetings have both form and essence. Since meetings are used as a primary way of connecting people in order to get work done, it is imperative that meetings be "opened up" and that only necessary structure and process are in place. This “opening” enables organizations and other groups to identify and focus on the “real work” that needs to be done in order to achieve and maintain excellence and eliminate the unnecessary elements that often hinder progress. Individuals need to be brought together quickly in ways that remove the constraints of unnecessary and inappropriate structure and control.

Open Space Technology is a valuable methodology in many situations such as:

  • 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 simultaneously
  • Opportunities for the future need to be explored
  • An organization is in its embryonic stage and wants to develop its vision and structure quickly
  • A diversity of interests or desired outcomes exit within a group
  • A merger or strategic alliance is required
  • Public input is desired

These are only a few examples of the types of situations in which OST can have a great impact on the effectiveness of a group, team or organization.

In an Open Space Technology meeting, participants will discover how to:

  • Take risks and assume leadership when needed
  • Develop practical visions
  • Rekindle their passion for their ideas and responsibilities
  • Take responsibility for their contribution
  • Self organize with others
  • Develop greater awareness of self, others, and the organization (or group)
  • Flow with the energy of the moment and with team spirit for maximum creativity

The benefits of Open Space Technology are numerous. OST meetings are:

  • Easy to organize, requiring very little lead time
  • Effective for small to large groups (7-1,000)
  • Interactive, thereby supporting effective communication and the natural development of relationships
  • Conducive for leadership to surface naturally
  • Effective for existing organizations, newly-forming organizations, coalitions, associations, communities or any collective group of people with common goals
  • Highly self managed with facilitation by only one or few facilitators, no matter how large the group
  • Less expensive and less complicated than other large group methodologies

What does an Open Space Technology Meeting look like?

Open Space Technology, used effectively, requires a great deal of thinking and discussion in advance of a meeting therefore focused pre-planning time is required from the meeting sponsor. There is planning work to be done afterward as well to determine how to make maximum use of what happened in the meeting. All of the pre-planning and post-planning details are not described here, but rather a brief description of the meeting itself is offered to help you understand how it works.

There are several features to an Open Space Technology meeting. Through the pre-planning process, a theme is developed and communicated to all invitees. At the meeting, chairs are arranged in a circle to facilitate communication and there are no tables. The role of the facilitator is to open the space and to keep the space open for participants to explore the selected theme.

The OST process acknowledges the potential for leadership in every person. The people in the room create the agenda based on the ideas and questions that they have passion for exploring within the meeting’s theme. Passion and responsibility are the two keys to a successful meeting. Without passion and enthusiasm, an idea will soon wane. Without responsibility, there is risk that the ideas will never move forward.

There are four principles and one law for conducting an OST meeting. These provide the freedom that enables participants to stay focused on the event at hand. The principles and the law also enable people to participate in ways that are most meaningful to them.

The Four Principles:

  • Whoever comes are the right people (Reinforces that the wisdom to achieve solutions is present in the room and that the group is not to worry about who is or is not present.)
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have (Keeps the attention on the best possible effort and wisdom in the present moment thereby discouraging "should have done" thinking in retrospect.)
  • 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 principle may result in a shorter session that does not fill the entire time allotted, or it may result in a session longer than the time allotted.)

The Law of Two Feet (Mobility):

If persons find themselves in situations where they feel they are neither learning nor contributing anything, then they are personally responsible for moving to another place, for example to another group meeting or even to the break area where casual conversation may emerge.

The OST Meeting Process

The OST process is simple:

  • After welcoming participants and explaining the theme, process, principles and law, the facilitator opens the meeting to let the group create the agenda.
  • Individuals identify topics that are important to them regarding the theme. Individuals write their topics on flipchart paper, announce their topic(s) to the group, and then post their topic(s) on the agenda wall which is called “the marketplace”. There is a means of assigning room spaces and times for the topics that are generated.
  • When all the topics are posted, everyone goes to this "marketplace” and selects the topics of discussion that interest them personally. Each person goes to the assigned location for each session at the designated times.
  • The facilitator gets out of the way. The group self-manages within each topic discussion and produces a session report at the end of their discussion for all to read. Someone from each topic group is chosen or volunteers to capture the session report on a report form.
  • The facilitator oversees the computer station to ensure that all is working well with the report entry but the group leaders are responsible for ensuring that their session reports are entered.
  • All during the meeting, people are moving about to different places and joining topics based on their interest and passion without any guidance or interference from the facilitator. The facilitator never intervenes in the topic discussions, no matter what happens within them.
  • The facilitator reconvenes the group as a collective whole at the end of each day, at the start of each subsequent day and at the close of the meeting.
  • If time is allowed for action planning, after all topic discussions have ended and all reports have been created, the facilitator uses a more guided process to help the group identify priorities, break into planning groups and identify their next steps and future actions. This portion of the meeting takes about three to four hours, whether it is a two or three day meeting.
  • At the end of the meeting there is a closing circle. In this closing, individuals are able to share reflections on their experience and further their commitment to the theme and to the future.

Contact us to learn more about bringing Open Space Technology into your organization.

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