Open Space Technology (OST) is an approach to purpose-driven leadership, including a way for hosting meetings, conflict minded peacebuilding, conferences, corporate-style retreats, symposiums, 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.
Open Space is the only process that focuses on expanding time and space for the force of self-organisation to do its thing. Although one can’t predict specific outcomes, it’s always highly productive for whatever issue people want to attend to. Some of the inspiring side effects that are regularly noted are laughter, hard work which feels like play, surprising results and fascinating new questions.
Guiding principles and one law
In his User’s Guide, Harrison Owen has articulated “the principles” and “one law” that are typically quoted and briefly explained during the opening briefing of an Open Space meeting. These explanations describe rather than control the process of the meeting. The principles and Owen’s explanations are:
- Whoever comes is the right people …reminds participants that they don’t need the CEO and 100 people to get something done, you need people who care. And, absent the direction or control exerted in a traditional meeting, that’s who shows up in the various breakout s/>sions of an Open Space meeting.
- Whenever it starts is the right time …reminds participants that “spirit and creativity do not run on the clock.”
- Wherever it is, is the right place …reminds participants that space is opening everywhere all the time. Please be conscious and aware. – Tahrir Square is one famous example. (Wherever is the new one, just added
- Whatever happens is the only thing that could have, be prepared to be surprised! …reminds participants that once something has happened, it’s done—and no amount of fretting, complaining or otherwise rehashing can change that. Move on. The second part reminds us that it is all good.
- When it’s over, it’s over (within this session) …reminds participants that we never know how long it will take to resolve an issue, once raised, but that whenever the issue or work or conversation is finished, move on to the next thing. Don’t keep rehashing just because there’s 30 minutes left in the session. Do the work, not the time.
Law of two feet
Owen explains his one “Law,” called the “Law of two feet” or “the law of mobility”, as follows:
If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else.
In this way, all participants are given both the right and the responsibility to maximize their own learning and contribution, which the Law assumes only they, themselves, can ultimately judge and control. When participants lose interest and get bored in a breakout session, or accomplish and share all that they can, the charge is to move on, the “polite” thing to do is going off to do something else. In practical terms, Owen explains, the Law of Two Feet says: “Don’t waste time!”
Because the agenda of an Open Space meeting is emergent, it is impossible to know exactly what is going to be addressed during the meeting. That said, there are several important outcomes that always happen, because they are specifically built into the process, and some other outcomes that can be built in:
- All of the issues that are most important to those attending will be raised and included in the agenda.
- All of 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 the purpose requires, and time is allowed for it, the group can prioritize the issues addressed in the report.
- When the purpose requires, and time is allowed for it, the group can draft action plans for the highest priority issues.
Good documentation design is vital for ideas, recommendations, discussions, and next steps, it is part of the pre-work to make a good design.
Typical event process
The full form of Open Space Technology includes the following (but if some part is missing, then it is not Open Space Technology, only something similar).
- Opening Circle (agenda co-creation process at the start, without the facilitator helping / synthesizing / suggesting / reducing topics)
- Facilitator’s explanation of principles and law (calling them guidelines, invitations, whatever)
- Multiple conversations ideally happening around the same big space, ideally several discussion sessions across time (without the facilitator helping those groups)
- Closing Circle (comment and reflection)
At the beginning of an open space the participants sit in a circle, or in concentric circles for large groups (300 or more).
The facilitator will greet the people and briefly re-state the theme of their gathering, without giving a lengthy speech. Then the facilitator will invite all participants to spend the next ten minutes, say, in thinking through and identifying any issue or opportunity related to the theme. When the facilitator announces time is up, any participants willing to raise a topic will come to the centre of the circle, write a short description (typically up to 7 words) on a sheet of paper and announce it to the group. The person who has called out this issue or opportunity then posts the paper in an area of the space designated for the agenda. If the meeting takes place in a room, that space is often a wall on which are mapped out pre-determined time slots and meeting locations. That wall becomes the agenda for the meeting.
The facilitator will also explain that anyone in the circle(s) may call for a topic following these steps. However, if someone posts a topic, they are expected to have the passion to be responsible enough to start the discussion on it. That person also must make sure that a report of the discussion is done and posted (often on another wall so designated) so that any participant can access the content of the discussion at all times. Depending on the size of the meetings and the desires of the participants, the person who announced the topic may also type the proceedings into a laptop so that the proceedings can be shared electronically after the conference is ended, or someone in the group discussion might volunteer in their stead. The only limit on the number of issues that get posted is the number of people who take responsibility for the topic getting discussed.
When all issues have been identified and 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 (or five days if the stakes are high). The opening and agenda creation lasts about an hour, even with a very large group. There have been some cases where only the topic announcer showed up for a session. In this case, that person has several options: use the session as free time to think the issue through and record their thoughts as a contribution to the proceedings, join another discussion leader on a related topic and see if they’re open to joining topics together, or drop the topic altogether (then they just indicate on their post how they resolved no one showing up so that the session has been accounted for).
After the opening and agenda creation, the individual groups go to work. The attendees organize each session as they go—in other words, are free to decide which session they want to attend, and may switch to another one at any time. This supports different styles of participation as many people like to sample before landing, others may be looking for the most productive sessions, while yet others are hoping to pinpoint discussion on an issue. Networking can occur before, during, after, and in-between 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 the meeting participants themselves. After the opening briefing, the facilitator typically remains largely in the background, exerting no control over the meeting content or participants, though possibly acting as a resource, such as supporting the compiling of whatever sort of document is produced by participants. The facilitator “holds the space”, making sure the space is safe for openness and creativity.
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.
Imagine the huge room – perhaps it is a convention center or an exhibit hall.
To me, it is a safety and a time issue, the way I set up the room at the start. Too dangerous / difficult / huge to make an actual circle (or concentric rings) for an Opening Circle. So instead, I invite participants to come in and sit anywhere to start, and they are sitting in pre-set circles-of-chairs all across the room. And then everything I do is -implying- a circle, still – because that is what so many of us have learned in our sharing about rooms and set-ups. Always, circle.
Therefore, just like for a small room, I divide the expected number of participants by (an example) 12 (circles of 12 chairs – I make smaller circles for smaller groups but find that more than 12 chairs makes it hard to hear in a group / in a room where everyone is talking at once.)— Lisa Heft, Open Space practitioner
There are three different roles that can be chosen by anyone willing to participate in an Open Space:
- Bird – it’s the proponent of a theme within the macro subject of the session, who will lead his group’s work, remain at the table/circle (the “nest”) at all times and be in charge of the feedback, be it oral (if the Open Space’s time and amount of groups allows it), or alternatively will input the data into a computer or prepare a written report for the organizers.
- Bee – the person who got interested in a particular theme proposed by someone else, and joins him to work on it; the bees won’t leave the table until the end of the work, unless anyone is following the “Law of two feet”, explained above.
- Butterfly – the person who is not willing to be fixed on a single theme and would rather visit many different groups, collaborating in a more punctual way; butterflies have a very important role in the dynamics, because they represent the space of freedom of the process and perform the task of cross-fertilization, helping groups to overcome creative blocks, inspiring them with fresh views or sharing solutions they already saw in another group. It is not uncommon to see a butterfly become a bee, if the person gets very caught up by a particular theme.