Open Space Technology: A truly inventive meeting design

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Any leader wishing to bring groups of employees together (no matter the size) to address complex issues has to, at some time, draw on a process called, Open Space Technology (OST). This is a remarkable way to listen to people—tapping into the combined wisdom of the group.

I had never experienced such an effective meeting process prior to participating in OST during my doctorate studies at the University of La Verne. Since then I have had the fond opportunity to facilitate OST with two different organizations. Both staffs generated hordes of ideas and solutions that were, in turn, used to tackle difficult topics.

OST does not require extensive planning on the part of the leader. It is a self-organizing process wherein the participants actually construct the agenda, meeting times, and places.

“Hold on a minute,” ponders the traditional leader. “How can we expect to tackle complex issues during a meeting when there is no set agenda?”

Every leader has the same uneasy feeling the first time he or she practices OST. However, the hundreds of thousands of individuals who have been through this inventive process would offer the leader three words of advice: Trust the process.

Harrison Owen (1997), the originator of the meeting structure OST, worked on the topic for a twelve-year period with thousands of people from four continents. The conception of OST developed from Harrison’s observations of the indescribable energy during coffee breaks at an international conference in 1983. He posed the following question:

“Was it possible to combine the level of synergy and excitement present in a good coffee break with the substantive activity and results characteristics of a good meeting?” (1997a, p. 3).

Through his efforts, a simple, fun, and productive process was born—OST. Although uncomplicated, the method is designed to tackle major issues, which increase in complexity. It is also appropriate for urgent and important issues.

The initial meeting space for OST consists of all participants sitting in circles or in concentric circles for larger groups. According to Owen (1997a), the application of circles equaled the fundamental geometry of open communication. Following a brief opening, the leader introduces the Situation that Needs Attention (SITNA) or theme of the event. This sets the stage for the next step when employees are given the opportunity to take ownership in bettering the situation. Following an overview of the task-at-hand, the leader invites anyone to identify an issue surrounding the SITNA and to take personal responsibility for convening a brainstorming workshop on the issue to generate ideas and possible solutions.

It is truly surprising to see how many participants step up to the plate when they are given the opportunity to make a difference. Each person offering to convene a brainstorming workshop is asked to come to the center of the circle, write the issue on a large piece of paper, announce the issue, meeting time and place to the group, and post it on the wall.

Once each convener has identified and posted all issues, the leader provides direction or ground rules for the remainder of the process. Particularly, the leader talks about “The Principles of Open Space Technology” and “The Law of Two Feet.” Owen (1997a, pp. 95-99) described each principle and the law as follows:

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Principle #1: Whoever comes are the right people.

What counts are not how many people come, or even who comes (in the sense of status or position), rather the quality of the interaction and conversation make the difference. For good conversation, the convener and others only need one other person who shares their passion.

Principle #2: Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.

Real learning and real progress take place only when one moves beyond his or her original agendas and convention-bound expectations. If things turned out just the way everyone expected, life would be exceedingly dull, and learning, in any useful sense, simply would not occur. Growth occurs precisely in moments of surprise, large and small. It is important to cherish such moments and realize whatever happens is the only thing that could have.

Principle #3: Whenever it starts is the right time.

This principle serves as an important notice about the nature of creativity and spirit. Both are essential and neither pay much attention to the clock. They appear (or not) in their own time, which, by definition, means it is the right time. Thus, all parties need to be advised that just because a meeting is scheduled for 3:00 p.m., there is absolutely no guarantee anything useful will take place at the exact moment. Whenever it starts is the right time.

Principle #4: When it’s over, it’s over.

This principle offers a marvelous way to save time and aggravation. If a group gets together and it takes ten minutes to do what they wanted, congratulations. Move on and do something else. If on the other hand, they find themselves deeply engaged in what they are doing, they keep doing it until it is completed.

The Law of Two Feet

The only law states if, during the course of the gathering, persons finds themselves in a situation in which they neither learn nor contribute, they must engage their two feet and go to a more productive place.

Law of Two Feet

The next to last step—following the announcement of the principles and law—is for each participant to walk up to the wall and sign up for the issues they find of interest. From this point forward, the event is self-managing.

At the conclusion of the event, each convener shares the ideas and findings with the entire group. This is often in the form of handouts outlining ideas generated in the workshops. If time permits, these issues can be prioritized, possible “next steps” can be established, and perhaps can be presented to higher ups for more informed decision-making. Either way, an OST event brings about a slew of new perspectives and ideas to benefit the organization.

Anyone interested in OST should consider, Harrison Owen’s works titled Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide (1997a) and Expanding Our Now: The Story of Open Space Technology (1997b). Also, check out some other nice blogs on the topic: About Open Space Technology and open space technology by smoyle.

Cheers!

Dr. Perry Wiseman, author, Strong Schools, Strong Leaders: What matter most in times of change

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2 thoughts on “Open Space Technology: A truly inventive meeting design

  1. Pingback: Rethinking your own leadership « WiseFoundations

  2. Pingback: WiseFoundations » Blog Archive » Rethinking your own leadership

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