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Open Space Technology

Culture & Collaboration


Open Space Technology is a framework for organizing a longer group meeting. It includes a structure for organizing an event, a template for setting up the event and co-creating an agenda with the group, and specific guidelines for leadership and open space principles. This framework is best used with a group that needs to focus on creativity and innovation.

Although it is true that an Open Space event has no predetermined agenda, it must have an overall structure or framework. This framework 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. Generally speaking, the minimum time required is five hours, but that is cutting it rather close.

The Basic Structure

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. 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 — All that is required is a bank of laptops or tablets and a request to each group organizer to enter the results of their deliberations into a system the leader has set up online. 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. 

MEALS — Meals and coffee breaks cannot be scheduled in a pre-planned agenda with accordance to the Third Principle (see below). 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 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.

Leadership in Open Space requires a style that some may find uncomfortable and counter-intuitive. This is especially true for those who equate leadership with control. The function of leadership is to provide a focal point for direction, and not to mandate and control a minute-by-minute plan of action. The details must be left to the group, which means amongst other things, the group must be trusted. In no case can any leader possibly solve all problems or direct all actions. Leadership in Open Space requires that one set the direction, define and honor the space, and let go.

There are Four Principles and One Law which serve as guides to the leader and all participants. The principles are: Whoever comes is the right people. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have. Whenever it starts is the right time. When it is over, it is over.

  1. The first principle reminds everyone of the obvious fact that those present are the only ones there. Whatever gets done will get done with them, or not at all. There is little point, therefore in worrying about all those who should have come, might have come, but didn’t come. It is essential to concentrate on those who are there. The experience is that, in some strange way, the group present is always the right group.

    None of this is to suggest that effort should not be made before the gathering to be sure that invitations are extended to critical people. Or indeed that those critical people should not be specially urged to attend.

  2. The second principle is yet another statement of the obvious. Given the theme at hand and the people in attendance, whatever happens is the only thing that could have. Change the people, time, place, or theme, and something different will result. No one could possibly predict the synergism of effect that will take place when those particular people assemble. Some of what happens will be non-useful. It is the leader’s role to raise the expectations of the group and bring to light what is created during the event. 

    Here is the most difficult and important point about leadership in Open Space. The leader must truly trust the group to find its own way. Attempts on the part of the leader to impose specific outcomes or agenda will totally abort the process. Any person who is not fully prepared to let go of their own detailed agenda should not lead.

  3. The third principle will seem essentially wrong to those whose lives have been dictated by the clock, which is basically all of us. The conventional wisdom says that if you want to get something done, you must start on time. The conventional wisdom is right so long as you know what you are going to do, and how. On the other hand, when creativity, and real learning are involved, the clock can be more of a detriment than an assist. Things will start when they are ready, and whenever they start is the right time. In fact, when the creative learning moment arrives, it seems to create its own time, or put another way, clocks don’t seem to matter much anymore. When “it” happens, it will happen in its own time, and scheduling a breakthrough for 10 am is not only an exercise in futility, it is consummately destructive of Open Space.

    Open Space Events do, of course, occur in time, which means that there must be a time of beginning and a time for closure. But everything in the middle must be allowed to run its own course.

  4.  The final principle, “When it is over, it is over,” again states the obvious, but it is a point we may forget. Deep learning and creativity both have their own internal life cycle. They may take more or less time, but when they come to completion, they are over. Occasionally this means that we have to spend more time than we had planned, but more often than not, the reverse is true. The creative moment can occur very quickly, and just because the session or meeting was scheduled to take two hours is no reason to sit around and waste time after the moment has passed. When it is over, it is over.

Finally we come to the One Law of Open Space. It is a law only in the sense that all participants must observe it or the process will not work. We call it the Law of Two Feet. Briefly stated, this law says that every individual has two feet, and must be prepared to use them. Responsibility for a successful outcome in any Open Space Event resides with exactly one person — each participant. Individuals can make a difference and must make a difference. If that is not true in a given situation, they, and they alone, must take responsibility to use their two feet, and move to a new place where they can make a difference. This departure need not be made in anger or hostility, but only after honoring the people involved and the space they occupy. By word or gesture, indicate that you have nothing further to contribute, wish them well, and go and do something useful.

When Not to Use Open Space Technology

Open Space Technology is effective when real learning, innovation, and departure from the norm are required. When you aren’t quite sure where you are, and less than clear about where you are headed, and require the best thinking and support from all those who wish to be involved, Open Space Technology will provide the means.

On the other hand, if the present state, and future position are crystal clear, along with all the intervening steps, Open Space Technology is not only a waste of time, it will be very frustrating. Using a very mundane example, if the task at hand is the implementation of a known technology, inviting people to be creative and inventive is quite beside the point. They simply have to learn the skills and methods required. 

What follows is an adaptable outline for introducing the event. The needs of your group and your own style will ultimately determine the best way.

  • Assemble the group in a circle with a large blank wall behind them.
  • Place paper and markers in the centre of the circle.
  • Share the theme for the event. 
    • Explain that the blank wall is the agenda. Pause and allow the blank wall to sink in, possibly some folks new to Open Space will feel nervous and that’s okay. 
  • Introduce the Community Bulletin Board. 
      • In a few moments you will ask anyone who has an opportunity or issue connected to the theme to come forward and write it on a piece of paper. 
      • Each person who brings forward an issue will take personal responsibility for it. 
      • This person must decide where and when the group will meet and enter the results of their discussion into the reporting system (meeting spaces must be posted in advance). 
      • Add where and when the group will meet to the paper. Leave space on the paper for people to add their names.
      • Then they will come in front of the group, share their issue and post it on the wall.
      • Each person may offer as many ideas as they like. 
  • Introduce the Village Market Place.
      • Once issues are on the wall, everyone is invited to come sign up for as many groups as they desire.
  • Explain the Four Principles (see above).
      • We advise writing them out on chart paper in advance and posting them for reference. 
  • Begin the process by asking: What are the issues and opportunities around our theme, for which you have real passion and will take genuine responsibility? Go when you are ready.
  • Give time for the process of agenda forming to happen. Try to keep discussion to a minimum because discussion should happen in groups and people need to hear what is being posted on the wall. 
  • When it seems that all the items have been posted on the wall, ask if there are any more, and direct the group’s attention to the wall.
      • Ask everyone to sign up for groups they are interested in, without worrying about conflicts for the moment. 
  • Once people have signed up for groups, share the process for conflicts: tell people to find group leaders and see if they are willing to change their meeting time or merge sessions. If not, make a choice about what is most important to you. 
  • Once the agenda is created and people have signed up for groups, begin! Tell everyone what time to meet back for the Evening News or Closing Session. 
      • Leave the room to emphasize the point that the group is now responsible for what happens.