Open Space Technology

Open Space Technology (OST) is an event format used in meetings of 5 to 2,000 people, invented by Harrison Owen in 1985​. 

Participants create the agenda for themselves and facilitators lead and record the resulting discussions.

There’s a twist in this version with the inclusion of a process that gives the organizers a little more control over the agenda. While keeping all the benefits the participants feel from ownership of the day itself.

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Open Space Technology

NASA scientists, engineers and technologists running an Open Space session in 2010 (source)

Objectives

  • To tackle a large number of the most important / difficult issues facing a large group of people.
  • To achieve shared ownership of not only the outcomes but also the process and the event itself.​

Outcomes

  • All the most important issues to those attending are included in the agenda.
  • All the issues raised and worked on are addressed by the participants best capable of getting something done about them.
  • All the most important ideas, recommendations, discussions, and next steps are documented in a resulting report.
  • When the purpose requires, and time allows for it, the group can prioritize the issues addressed in the report.
  • When the purpose requires, and time allows for it, the group can draft action plans for the highest priority issues.

HARRISON OWEN'S 1 LAW


If at any time during your time here you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, and go somewhere else.

When Would You Use It?

  • Open Space works best when there are high levels of
    • Complexity (hard problems to solve)
    • Diversity (lots of different types of people needed)
    • Conflict (people really care about the issue)
    • Urgency (it has to be fixed as soon as possible)
  • If you have a culture of distributed leadership in the organization / group.
  • If management are willing to let go of the reigns and put trust in their people to find solutions to complex problems.
  • When you are looking to reach a common understanding of a large group of people behind a complex problem.
  • The nature of the format means a lot of view forming between peers happens on the sidelines. By the end of the session (you need at least 1 day) many of the participants will have shifted their views from where they started.

When is Open Space a bad idea?

  • When the problems aren’t complex enough. Easy to solve problems rarely invoke enough passion in participants and when you have large numbers of people not caring enough your event can fall flat.
  • When management have decided (or are close to deciding) the way forward. Almost anything can come out of an Open Space session and leadership must be willing to embrace whatever happens otherwise participants will feel their time has been wasted.
  • When the organization has a top-down autocratic culture. Open Space is extremely democratic by nature but for it to work well the participants need to feel their views are being taken seriously.

Why Would You Use It?

  • Open Space is ‘participant driven’. This means your participants have more control than usual input over the process and outcomes. What you get for that loss of control is high-levels of ownership in the results.
  • If you are short on time in the preparation phase then OST will work well for you. You have to do very little process planning in the lead up because the participants do it for you on the day.

Resources Required

  • Depending on the size of your group you need a room (or rooms) large enough to host all your participants comfortably.
  • Lots of chairs (no tables).
  • One facilitator (at least) for each session.

How much control do organizers have?

Open Space Technology with a twist

This twist in the process gives organizers a little more control over the agenda

Pre-Event Process (the twist)

This first phase is different from the traditional Open Space Technology process. If you want to go traditional just ignore this part.

  1. Email all your participants at least 2 weeks before the event telling asking them what burning questions they would like answered at the event.
  2. Collate and categorize your responses as they come in.
  3. Identify a short-list of questions that you plan to tackle on the day remembering they should contain high-levels of complexity, diversity, conflict and urgency for them to be effective (see the When Would You Use It section).
  4. Plot your questions into a schedule spanning your event. Each question should have at least a 1 hour slot allocated.
  5. Leave a few slots towards the end of the day free.

Start-of-the-day Process

If you’ve done the Pre-Event Process first.

  1. Gather your participants together and briefly explain how Open Space events work using Harrison Owen’s 1 Law and the Guiding Principles as appropriate. Traditionally you should do this with everyone in a circle around you but you don’t necessarily have to.
  2. Present the schedule for the event so participants can see which issues are being discussed when.
  3. Ask participants to spend 10 minutes thinking through if they have any other issues they’d like to raise.
  4. You then invite participants with extra/new issues to briefly explain it to the group.
  5. If there is a general agreement that the issue has enough support and passion invite the issue owner to add the issue to the schedule.
  6. Once all new issues have been discussed and added invite the participants to sign-up for the sessions they’re planning on attending (they are free to change their mind later if they want to).
  7. Your sessions start.

Start-of-the-day Process

If you’re following the traditional Open Space Process.

  1. Gather your participants together and briefly explain how Open Space events work using Harrison Owen’s 1 Law and the Guiding Principles as appropriate. Traditionally you should do this with everyone in a circle around you but you don’t necessarily have to.
  2. Ask participants to spend 10 minutes thinking through if they have any issues they’d like to raise.
  3. You then invite participants to briefly explain their issues explain to the group.
  4. If there is a general agreement that the issue has enough support and passion behind it invite the issue owner to add the issue to the schedule.
  5. Once all issues have been added invite the participants to sign-up for the sessions they’re planning on attending (they are free to change their mind later if they want to).
  6. Your sessions start.
Open Space Example Agenda

An example of an Open Space agenda

Process for a Session

  1. Each session should be a round group of chairs (no table in the middle) with preferably one facilitator to lead the discussion and a scribe on the flipchart.
  2. A session starts with the issue owner welcoming and thanking the group for coming and then giving a description of the issue as they see it.
  3. The facilitator then leads the discussion inviting people to give their input at their request.
  4. The scribe records the discussion on flip chart paper making sure to mark Issues, Ideas, Questions (that can’t be answered today) & Actions. When a flip is finished they should tear it off and put it in the center of the circle or on a nearby wall for people in the group to see.
  5. Allow people to leave and arrive as they see fit though don’t allow them to interrupt or slow-down your progress. It is a new arrival’s responsibility to catch-up with the discussion using the flip chart outputs no matter how high up or important they are.
  6. When the issue looks like it has been covered and there are no more inputs coming from your group thank them for their time and invite them to join other groups if the session time is not over.

Guiding Principles

1) Whoever comes are the right people

This is to remind participants they don’t need top management or lots of people to get things done. The only people it’s important to have are those who feel passionately about the issue. And if they don’t come then they’re not passionate enough.

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2) Whenever it starts is the right time

This is to remind participants that you are not late (or early for that matter) in discussing the issue at hand. Removing the feeling of anxiety allows the group to focus better.

3) Whatever happens is the only thing that could have

This is to remind participants that whatever comes out of the discussion is the right thing. Once it’s done, it’s done and the only direction to move now is forward.

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4) When it’s over, it’s over (in this session)

This is to remind participants that once they feel the issue has been resolved they should move on to the next one. There’s no need to keep talking about the same topic just because there’s still time left in the session.

Secret Sauce

  • When you’re setting the schedule before event, if you are running parallel streams (different groups looking at issues at the same time) try and put similar topics together at the same time. That way people can move between the groups freely and find the right discussion for them.
  • You should stress to issue owners that they are expected to have lots of passion for their topic.
  • Each issue owner must take responsibility for creating a report after the discussion has taken place so that all other participants can access the content at any time (otherwise you’ll be left with carrying the responsibility).
  • If the issue owner is the only one who shows up for their session that person can either use the session to think it through on their own, join another discussion, see if someone else who is running a session would like to join together, or drop the topic altogether.
  • Try your best to have small groups of no more than 12 so those who want to speak are given plenty of opportunity.
  • No single person should be allowed to dominate a session whether they are a facilitator or participant.

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About the Author

Nick Martin has more than 15 years experience as a change manager and is the founder and CEO of WorkshopBank.

Leave a Reply 3 comments

Eric Lilius Reply

Your twist takes the Open out of Open Space.

    Nick Martin Reply

    I respectfully disagree Eric. Everything is still 100% participant led with the ‘twist’ and therefore still open. The ‘twist’ is simply some pre-work on the agenda to appease the sponsor and to engage with the audience before the event.

    For me that second feature is the most important and maybe I haven’t emphasised it above.

    Often an audience coming to an event is unwilling or disengaged before they even arrive. Especially if the last 5 all-hands events have been designed and run poorly so they’ve left feeling dejected and flat. “Is this event going to be another waste of my time?” Negativity like that at the water cooler before the event spreads fast through your participants and you have little to no control over it.

    The ‘twist’ works by showing them in advance that this event is going to be different. In effect it becomes a bit of a word-of-mouth PR tool for the design team that generates pre-event enthusiasm.

    My background is change management and I’ve learned the earlier you can get your targets engaged in the process the higher your chance of success. Works in marketing too btw. And training.

    Yes it’s more work for the design team before the event but, in my experience at least, the benefits are significant in creating a pre-event buzz and starting the day off with more energy

David Vachell Reply

I think I’m with you Nick. The twist will provide a focus which can be beneficial. It needs to be carefully done though ‘cos in my experience, one of the great powers of OST is the surprises that can come out of the openness and the unexpected ideas that surface. I think you have allowed for this in making sure that there are spaces in the schedule for additional discussions. The other thing is that I would list the pre-identified topics in the market place for people to sign up to and then schedule – it may be that, even if they have been pre-identified, on the day, there is insufficient interest to justify a schedule slot.

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