Open Space Technology: Description and Resources
Open Space is a social technology, a scalable meeting format, and a way to tap into collective intelligence….to clarify the nature of problems, discover solutions, and engage everyone in manifesting more innovation.
Open Space Technology has the power to transform your organization.
You can use this page to quickly learn about Open Space in words, picture and videos.
You can watch and listen to this testimony on the power of Open Space, from an executive responsible for leading 900 people:
Open Space Technology: What is It?
Open Space Technology is a design for an all-hands meeting. Listed below are the ideal conditions for using Open Space. These conditions are typically present ahead of most org-level change initiatives:
- A matter that is of very high importance to the group
- A response time of “yesterday”
- Diversity in terms of people and positions
- The very real possibility of conflict
Here are some additional and useful conditions for using Open Space:
- A nutrient-rich, relatively protected environment
- A high level of diversity and potential complexity in terms of the elements present
- A drive for improvement
- Sparse pre-existing connections between the various elements
- It is all (the whole mess) at the edge of chaos
This meeting format is perfect for new Agile adoptions to kick off, and for existing Agile adoptions with poor results to begin the process of re-starting, re-making, and re-booting.
Here is what Harrison Owen, the originator of Open Space, says about it:
“Open Space Technology requires very few advance elements. There must be a clear and compelling theme, an interested and committed group, time and a place, and a leader. Detailed advance agendas, plans, and materials are not only un-needed, they are usually counterproductive.”
Setting up Open Space is simple- unless you try to control it.
Listen to Harrison Owen discuss self-organization, “open space” AND his reflections on what “Agile” is actually all about: and who might be AFRAID of it ….
- 30 minute audio clip during an OSA certification Workshop.
- Recording Date: September 21, 2017
- (audio link)
Watch some videos on OPEN SPACE TECHNOLOGY:
- Here’s a really good video for socializing Open Space inside your organization. You can show this to company leaders- the production and quality is good, and tells the story well. About 30 mins: (video link)
- Here is another video on Open Space, shorter… a good intro for kicking off some discussion. About 2 mins: (video link)
The User’s Guide PDF: (link)
…a wider manual on how to arrange Open Space
Pictures from Open Space:
Here’s links to 1000’s of Open Space pics:
- Pictures from an Open Space done for the Italian ministry of innovation. Thanks to Gerardo de Luzenberger for the link: (link)
- Pictures from the European Learning Exchange hosted in Italy. Thanks to Gerardo de Luzenberger for the link: (link)
- You will find 10,000 photos collected over the past ten years or so here. Thanks to Chris Corrigan for the link: (link)
- Here is a link to many fine pictures of Open Space in action. Thanks to Thomas Herrmann for the link: (link)
- Photos of the Open Space Stammtisch in Hamburg. Thanks to Markus Wittner for the link. (link)
Open Space Technology, Described: Quoted Verbatim From the BRIEF GUIDE TO OPEN SPACE
This is a portion of THE BRIEF USERS GUIDE from Harrison Owen. A link to the full document appears below….
A BRIEF USER’S GUIDE TO
OPEN SPACE TECHNOLOGY
THE REQUIREMENTS OF OPEN SPACE
Open Space Technology requires very few advance elements. There must be a clear and compelling theme, an interested and committed group, time and a place, and a leader. Detailed advance agendas, plans, and materials are not only un-needed, they are usually counterproductive. This brief User’s Guide has proven effective in getting most new leaders and groups off and running. While there are many additional things that can be learned about operating in Open Space, this will get you started. Some material has been included here which also appears in the book in order to present a relatively complete picture.
THE THEME — Creation of a powerful theme statement is critical, for it will be the central mechanism for focusing discussion and inspiring participation. The theme statement, however, cannot be a lengthy, dry, recitation of goals and objectives. It must have the capacity to inspire participation by being specific enough to indicate the direction, while possessing sufficient openness to allow for the imagination of the group to take over.
There is no pat formulation for doing this, for what inspires one group will totally turn off another. One way of thinking about the theme statement is as the opening paragraph of a truly exciting story. The reader should have enough detail to know where the tale is headed and what some of the possible adventures are likely to be. But “telling all” in the beginning will make it quite unlikely that the reader will proceed. After all, who would read a story they already know?
THE GROUP — The group must be interested and committed. Failing that, Open Space Technology will not work. The key ingredients for deep creative learning are real freedom and real responsibility. Freedom allows for exploration and experimentation, while responsibility insures that both will be pursued with rigor. Interest and commitment are the prerequisites for the responsible use of freedom. There is no way that we know of to force people to be interested and committed. That must be a precondition.
One way of insuring both commitment and interest is to make participation in the Open Space event completely voluntary. The people who come should be there because they want to be there. It is also imperative that all participants know what they are getting into before they arrive. Obviously they can’t know the details of discussions that have yet to take place. But they can and should be made aware of the general outlines. Open Space is not for everybody, and involuntary, non-informed participation is not only a contradiction in terms, it can become very destructive.
This raises the obvious question of what to do with those people whom you want to involve, but who, for whatever reason, do not share your desire. There are two possibilities. The first is to schedule two sessions, and trust that the first one will be so rewarding that positive word of mouth testimony will draw in the recalcitrant. The alternative is to respect the wishes of those involved. In the final analysis it remains true that genuine learning only takes place on the basis of interest and commitment, and there is absolutely no way to force any of that.
The size of the group is not absolutely critical. However, there does seem to be a lower limit of about 20. Less than 20 participants, and you tend to lose the necessary diversity which brings genuine interchange. At the upward end of the scale, groups of 400 work very well, and there is no reason to believe that number could not be increased.
SPACE — The space required is critical, but need not be elaborate or elegant. Comfort is more important. You will need a room large enough to hold the entire group, with space to spare in which the participants may easily move about. Tables or desks are not only unnecessary, but will probably get in the way. Movable chairs, on the other hand, are essential.
The initial setup is a circle with a large, blank wall somewhere in the room. The wall must be free from windows, doors, drapes, and with a surface that permits taping paper with masking tape. The wall should also be long enough so that the total group may stand before it, and never be more than three to four deep. The center of the circle is empty, for after all we are talking about Open Space.
If the room is very large, additional break-out areas may not be required, but they are always helpful. Best of all is the sort of environment in which there is an abundance of common space. If you are going to use a conference center or hotel, find one with plenty of conversation nooks, lobbies, and open grounds, where people may meet and work undisturbed, and without disturbing others.
TIME — The time required depends on the specificity of result you require. Even a large group can achieve high levels of interaction combined with a real sense of having explored the issues in a matter of eight hours. However, if you want to go deeper than that, reaching firm conclusions and recommendations (as would be the case for strategic planning or product design), the time required may stretch to two or three days.
More important than the length of time is the integrity of the time. Open Space Technology will not work if it is interrupted. This means that “drop-ins” should be discouraged. Those who come must be there at the beginning, and stay for the duration if at all possible. By the same token, once the process begins, it cannot be interrupted by other events or presentations. These might come before or afterwards, but never in the middle.
THE BASIC STRUCTURE
Although it is true that an Open Space event has no pre-determined agenda, it must have an overall structure or framework. This framework is not intended to tell people what to do and when. Rather, it creates a supportive environment in which the participants can solve those issues for themselves. Minimal elements of this framework include: Opening, Agenda Setting, Open Space, and Conclusion. These elements will suffice for events lasting up to a day. Longer events will require the addition of Morning Announcements, Evening News, and probably a Celebration.
A standard Open Space Design, using all these elements appears below. If the event you anticipate lasts longer than the time indicated, simply replicate the middle day. If shorter, you will find that an Opening, Open Space, and Conclusion will suffice. Generally speaking, the minimum time required is five hours, but that is cutting it rather close.
OPENING — We have found that a very informal opening works well, especially if the group involved is an intact work group. An evening meal and a time for catch-up conversation will effectively set the stage. Should the group not have any prior association, the simple device of having all the participants introduce themselves by giving their names and telling a short story from their lives to illustrate who they are will usually do the job. Detailed and involved “icebreaking” exercises do not seem to work very well, and more to the point, set the wrong tone. After all, we want Open Space.
AGENDA SETTING — This is the time for the group to figure out what it wants to do. The details for this procedure are given below.
OPEN SPACE — is exactly what the words imply, open space and time for the group to do its business. There is literally nothing here at the start.
ANNOUNCEMENTS — A short period every morning for the group to catch up on what it is doing, where, when, and how. Nothing elaborate, no speeches, just the facts, nothing but the facts.
EVENING NEWS — This is usually a time for reflection and occasionally fun. Not to be confused with a formal report-out session, the approach is “What’s the story?” — with participants voluntarily providing the tale.
CELEBRATION — If your Open Space event is like all the ones we have seen, particularly multi-day affairs, by the last night it will time to celebrate, otherwise known as having a party. Even in “serious” undertakings like preparation of the corporate strategic plan, when it is over, it is over, and people will enjoy celebrating that fact. We suggest doing the celebration in the spirit and manner of the rest of the event. All of which means don’t plan it in advance. It may be worthwhile to have some taped music if your people are inclined to dance, but other than that you will undoubtedly find that the talent you need is already available in the folks you have. Use it. Skits, songs, humorous reviews of what has happened, will amply fill the evening, and add to the learning experience.
CLOSING — We try to keep the closing simple and serious. Simple in that there are no formal presentations and speeches. But serious, for this is the time for announcing commitments, next steps, and observations about what the event has meant. The closing event is best conducted in a circle with no “head table.” Start anywhere, and go around the circle allowing each participant, who wants to, the opportunity to say what was of significance and what they propose to do. But do make it clear that nobody has to say anything. In very large groups, hearing from everybody is obviously impossible, but two or three folks may be asked to volunteer.
FORMAL REPORTS — The formal report-out session has apparently become a fixture of conference life. However, we find it to be boring and generally non-productive. There is never enough time for each group to say all they wanted to, and if sufficient time is allocated, the majority of conference participants are uninterested at any given time. As an alternative, we recommend using a simple word processing system, a computer conferencing system, or both.
In a recent conference 200 participants created 65 task force reports (a total of 200 pages) which were available as the participants left the conference. Mechanically, all that is required is a bank of computers (low-powered laptops will do) and a request to each group organizer to enter the results of their deliberations into the system. They can either type it in themselves, or for the “non-typables,” a small group of secretaries will do the job. We print out each report as it is entered and hang it on the wall, providing an ongoing, real-time record of the discussions. The obvious advantage here is that participants find out what is happening, as it is happening, rather than waiting until the end when it is too late. Of course, having the proceedings at the end of conference, rather than six months later, is a pleasant and positive surprise.
MEALS — You will notice that meals are not listed on the agenda, nor are there any coffee breaks. The reason is quite simple: once the conference starts to operate in small groups, there is usually never a time when something of substance is not going on. And in accord with the Third Principle, it will take place in its own time. All of this creates a small, but not insoluble, problem for such things as meals and coffee-breaks. Our solution has been to have coffee and other refreshments available in the main meeting room, so people partake when they are ready. No need for the whole group to get into lockstep, and stop an important discussion just because it is coffee-break time. Likewise with meals. We suggest buffets, open and available over a several hour period, so people can eat when they want to. There are two exceptions to the flexible meal/coffee-break schedule: an opening dinner if there is one, and dinner on the last night.
The whole point is that the pacing and timing of the conference must be determined by the needs of the group and its learning process, and not by the requirements of the kitchen.
The Open Leadership Network offers training certificates in core Open Space topics: Open Space in Organizations, OpenSpace Agility, Inviting Leadership, and more. The OLN also offers certificates in supporting methods including Clean Language for Teams, Executive Coaching, and Leadership Communication.