There is one organizational development process that I have used occasionally and really wish I had been able to apply more often in my career: Open Space Technology.

And why have I not been able to use it more? Well, Open Space is not for the faint hearted. Most business leaders like at least a little bit of control and an idea what everyone is going to do if you bring them together for a big meeting. Open Space is the opposite. Absolutely no control over what people will do and no apparent planning beforehand about what will be done. Yet it always seems to give great results.

The father of Open Space is Owen Harrison. Wikipedia says he was an Episcopal priest and civil rights activist, although I knew neither of these things at the time.

Open Space was born from his observation in the 1980s, a thought that we’ve probably all had, that if we go to a conference, even if the programme is world-class, the best conversations and learnings happen at the coffee breaks and in the post conference bars. If only that could be captured and built upon.

Which is what he did.

Open Space meetings are self-organizing. Although all participants have been invited by the meeting sponsor and charged with addressing a pre-chosen theme, the agenda and organization of the discussions are created by the participants. Voluntary self-selection is the basis for Open Space.

For Open Space technology to work best it should focus on a real business issue that is of passionate concern to those who will be involved and where the situation is complex and the answers are not already known. It can also be applied when conflict might be holding back the ability to change, when there is an urgent need to make speedy decisions and where input from all stakeholders is  needed for good decisions to be made. In all cases though, Open Space runs on passion and responsibility.

An Open Space meeting usually will start with short introductions by the sponsor and a single facilitator. The sponsor introduces the purpose; the facilitator explains the self-organizing process. The participants are often sitting in a large circle, or even circles within circles, with a (open!) space in the middle. There may also be a ‘talking stick’ so it is clear whose turn it is to speak.

The process is as follows. People are asked if they have a topic or opportunity within the purpose of the meeting, for which they have passion and will take responsibility. They give it a name or title and maybe very briefly give a description of what their idea is of the name is not self-explanatory. A location for the discussion and a starting time are agreed.

The process then repeats itself until everyone who wants to run a session has had their chance. If some topics appear very similar the owners may agree to combine the session. There obviously needs to be some sort of overview made so all participants know when and where the sessions will be held. And each location, which could be a separate room or just a corner of the conference room, will need flip charts and pens.

Then it all starts with other participants deciding where to spend their time and energy.

Open Space has a Fourfold Way, Four Principles and One Law (the Law of Two Feet), which the facilitator will also describe when introducing the process.

The Fourfold Way for participants is to:

  1. Show up
  2. Be present
  3. Tell the truth
  4. And let it go

The Four Principles of Open Space are:

  1. Whoever comes is the right people
  2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have
  3. Whenever it starts is the right time
  4. When it’s over, it’s over

The Law of Two Feet states that:

  1. If, during the event, any person finds themselves in a situation where they are neither learning nor contributing, they must use their feet and go to some more productive place

A common worry is that someone proposes a topic and then no-one joins them to discuss and work on it, but I love Harrison’s take on this.

  • You feel hurt or angry? Don’t be.
  • Maybe wasn’t a very good idea in the first place.
  • Or it was an excellent idea at the wrong time.
  • Or it was a great idea at the right time, but you are the only one competent to deal with it
  • And just reflect, when was the last time you had a large chunk of time to work on a major idea for which you had passion?

Whereas most people will attach themselves to one or other session, there are also participants who are referred to as bumblebees and butterflies.

Bumblebees constantly flit from place to place, pollinating and cross-pollinating the discussions. Butterflies on the other hand never go to any discussion. They stay at the bar or wherever, doing very little and that appears to be their only contribution forming a centre of non-action.   Everyone will stop by once in a while however and then the butterfly role may indeed be significant. You can imagine some business leaders having trouble with the concept of participants apparently not participating and this being a vital part of the process!

For the HR practitioners amongst us, the ideal Open Space facilitator is described as being ‘fully present and totally invisible’, creating the opportunity for participants to self-organize, rather than managing or directing the conversations, as would often be the facilitator’s workshop role.

That’s all there is to it for as long as it takes (‘when it’s over it’s over’!)

The whole group may reconvene at the end of the day back in their large circle and the leaders of the sessions (and maybe even some participants) may briefly report on the highlights of their discussions and recommendations. And the topic owners are expected to write up their sessions in as much or as little detail as they wish, but usually with the template of: title, convener, participants, discussion/recommendations. In this way all participants receive all the information from all of the sessions.

Examples of Open Space in the open literature include up to thousands of participants. A couple of examples when I have used Open Space were with relatively new organisations and people. One with Shell Chemicals Technology and the extended leadership teams of about 100 people for a couple of days and one with all staff in Fonterra Europe (about 60 people) for half a day.

In both cases we had a lot to decide and organize for the new organisations under severe time constraints and in both cases the result was a rapid ramp up of those processes, led by a number of committed and enthusiastic people, who chose to take ownership for the results and follow up processes. Rather than the more traditional route of being ’volunteered’ by senior management!

Owen’s original short and readable book is still the best source if you want to learn more about Open Space. Harrison Owen ‘Open Space Technology: a user’s guide’, Abbott Publishing (1992). Although there really isn’t much more to it than I have written in this blog. This should be enough to get you started. If you and/or your senior executive sponsor dare!


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