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Open Space Technology Process

Open Space Technology, created by Harrison Owen, is a self-organizing practice that releases the inherent creativity and leadership in people. By inviting people to take responsibility for what they care about, Open Space establishes a marketplace of inquiry, where people offer topics they care about, reflect and learn from one another, to accomplish meaningful work. It is recognized internationally as an innovative approach to creating whole systems change and inspiring the best in human performance.

What is Open Space Technology (OST)?

At the very least, Open Space is a fast, cheap, and simple way to better, more productive meetings. At a deeper level, it enables people to experience a very different quality of organization in which self managed work groups are the norm, leadership a constantly shared phenomenon, diversity becomes a resource to be used instead of a problem to be overcome, and personal empowerment a shared experience. It is also fun. In a word, the conditions are set for fundamental organizational change, indeed that change may already have occurred. By the end, groups face an interesting choice. They can do it again, they can do it better, or they can go back to their prior mode of behavior.

Open Space is appropriate in situations where a major issue must be resolved, characterized by high levels of complexity, high levels of diversity (in terms of the people involved), the presence of potential or actual conflict, and with a decision time of yesterday.

Open Space runs on two fundamentals: passion and responsibility. Passion engages the people in the room. Responsibility ensures things get done. A focusing theme or question provides the framework for the event. The art of the question lies in saying just enough to evoke attention, while leaving sufficient open space for the imagination to run wild.

Open Space Technology has one outstanding characteristic – the generation of energy and commitment. It also has one outstanding enemy – control. It will not work where the energy and commitment generated are not permitted to bear fruit. This is not to suggest that OST is an invitation to anarchy. Far from it. Provided the constraints -economic, political, legislative – are recognized and spelt out very clearly at the start, and the areas where discretion and freedom to be creative ('defining the space') are also made clear, Open Space Technology is proving itself to be a powerful tool for harnessing commitment and responsibility. Several organization-wide Open Space Technology meetings within a short time frame will start to shift an organizational culture from something that might be de-energized into a more vibrant organic networked community that is effectively producing results.

Open Space Operates on Four Principles and One Law

  • Whoever comes is the right people.
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
  • When it starts is the right time.
  • When it's over, it's over.

These principles are simple statements of the way things work. While they may appear counter-intuitive to some, they are my observations of what always happens when people interact.

The one law or rule is called The Law of Mobility, also known as The Law of Two Feet. The Law of Two Feet says to stand up for what you believe and if you feel you are neither contributing nor learning where you are, use your two feet and go somewhere else. The law is fundamentally about personal responsibility. It makes it clear that the only person responsible for your experience is you.

The Mechanics of Open Space

According to Rachel Assuncao of Dalar International Consultancy, 'The duration of the meeting is dictated by a number of factors, and is generally one-half day to 3 days in length. For any large or complex issue, a meeting of at least 2 and a half days is recommended.'

The venue is a large conference room with lots of adjacent 'break-out' or session rooms. When people arrive for the Open Space Technology meeting, they initially come to the plenary room and find a venue in which there is an empty room, except for a large circle of chairs. The circle is an invitation to communication with no barriers.

The workshop begins with a welcome by the sponsor that is brief, highlighting the theme and the 'givens,' and then a facilitator explains how the Open Space Technology workshop will operate. The broad purpose of the workshop is stated again, as are the 'givens' or constraints. An example of a broader theme might be 'Issues and Opportunities for the Future of the Organization.' Sometimes the broad purpose is quite focused such as 'Issues and Opportunities for reworking the assembly line.' In the middle of the circle is a collection of newsprint paper, masking tape, and felt pens. Participants are then invited to create the agenda for the workshop. It works like this.

  1. Anyone who has any ideas at all that relate to this broad topic are invited to take a sheet of paper and along the top write their topic of interest or passion. People are asked for ideas for which they have passion and for which they are prepared to take the responsibility of leading a discussion group on that idea (they do not need to have had previous experience in leading a discussion group but simply to get their topic started and to be sure that everyone who comes to their discussion has a chance to speak), and to make sure a record of the discussion is recorded (report forms are provided). The sheets announcing each of the ideas, along with the name of the person who put up the idea and a note of when the topic will be addressed and which breakout area it will be in) are affixed to a blank wall. Participants can put up ideas for which they have a lot of information including having handouts that they have brought to the meeting for the purpose of sharing the information, or they might know nothing more about the idea than to have a question.
  2. The next step involves a 'marketplace.' All workshop participants go to the market wall to look at the ideas outlined on each sheet. When they find the topic of most interest to them, they sign up, by writing their name on the sheet beneath the topic.
  3. The next step involves participants going to the break out spaces to participate in the topics of their choice. As far as possible, each session is defined by a circle of chairs and no other furniture, though it may have flip charts, post-its, felt pens, etc. The person who posted the idea is responsible for leading the session in whatever way s/he chooses. The facilitator has no involvement whatsoever. The only requirement is that, at the end of the session, the session leader brings back to a central point a summary of session ideas, and who has agreed to do what. This is to be provided in a somewhat standardized format, usually noted on a form given to the session leader at the start of their session. It is important to record the highlights of the discussion in such a way that they can be understood by people who were not part of the discussion.
  4. A bank of computers is available and session leaders or a representative from the group enters the report into a computer. As soon as a report is entered, the facilitator prints a copy of it for a newswall and posts it so that all participants of the broader meeting can read about what has happened in each session. As well, a copy of the report is made to be entered into a 'book of proceedings', a book that is comprised of all of the reports and contact information of the participants so that they can reach each other for further networking. This book is available to each participant of the meeting. The book of proceedings is given to the participants prior to convergence and action planning if these actions are a part of the meeting. If convergence and action planning are not a part of the Open Space Technology meeting, the book of proceedings is generally distributed to the participants within a few days of the meeting. Often, the 'book of proceedings' is available electronically as well on a website or by e-mail.
  5. In meetings where the intention is to move topics to action steps, the facilitator conducts a summarizing session for convergence, prioritizing and action planning, including seeking input on next steps and follow-up. This is a feature of Open Space Technology meetings that are longer than one day.

Open Space Institutes and Open Space World

There are a number of Open Space Institutes (OSI's) worldwide, all born and raised by the efforts of volunteer members. Most of these OS Institutes have their own websites, as do a number of individual practitioners and other organizations.

The Open Space World site offers an open invitation to connect with the people and practices, insights and experiences that are showing up in worldwide open space. This site was created in the spirit of the simple, powerful functionality that is Open Space Technology — to provide easy access to the growing number of Open Space organizations, practitioners and resources available on the web.

Open Space Technology Resources

Open Space World website
Harrison Owen and colleagues, articles, training workshops, books and more.

OpeningSpace.net's Photo Gallery
Lisa Heft, a leading Open Space facilitator and consultant, offers a great gallery of photos from Open Space programs on her website. 

Dalar International Consultancy
Senior Consultants Birgitt and Ward Williams offer the Genuine Contact training program and other Open Space services.

Open Circle Company
OST toolbox, papers and other resources offered by Peggy Holman

Expanding Our Now
Owen, Harrison. Berrett-Koehler.
What is Open Space Technology, and why does it work, particularly when it apparently violates all the rules of meeting and organizational management? The global experience to date is described and the search initiated for the new rules by which Open Space operates. It seems to have more than a little to do with self-organizing systems and ancient mythology.

Open Space Technology: A User's Guide, 2nd Edition
Owen, Harrison. Berrett-Koehler.
All you ever wanted to know about facilitating an Open Space event. Included are the specifics about time, place, logistics, invitation and follow-up. Special attention is devoted to the preparation of the facilitator and when not to use OST. New material on the computer connection and how to bring the Open Space Event to the critical point of concrete action.

The Power of Spirit: How Organizations Transform
Owen, Harrison. Berrett-Koehler
This book is about Spirit and the ways in which Spirit forms and transforms in organizations.

The Spirit of Leadership
Owen, Harrison. Berrett-Koehler.
All about leadership in Open Space.

Tales From Open Space
Owen, Harrison, Editor.
In this book, journalists, practitioners, and just plain folks share their experiences with Open Space Technology, and reflect upon the outcomes. Downloadable for free at www.openspaceworld.com/tales.htm.

Developed by NCDD, this description of Open Space includes excerpted materials from Harrison Owen's book Open Space Technology, the Open Space World website (www.openspaceworld.org) and Dalar International Consultancy's website (www.dalarinternational.com).

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