At New Paradigm we have used Open Space effectively in a number of settings. In one example we started the day with about sixty very angry and demoralised employees and finished with a room full of energy with lots of people volunteering to take responsibility for practical projects to improve things at work.
Open Space was invented by Harrison Owen in the 1980s. It is a process which enables large numbers of people (anything from 20 to 500 participants) to engage with one another around a topic of mutual interest. The process is emergent and participative, with the ‘agenda’ being created on the day by those who are present.
The first part of an Open Space has people seated in a circle with a large ‘open space’ in the middle. Having agreed an overall topic, people come into the open space and volunteer to host a conversation on an aspect of the topic which most energises them. Hosting includes taking responsibility for ensuring that there is some kind of record of the conversation. The space remains open as long as people want to come forward and suggest conversations. The facilitator will assign a room and time for each conversation.
Conversations are then held simultaneously in different parts of the venue. Owen proposes a number of principles which express the philosophy of Open Space:
l Whoever comes is the right people.
l Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
l Whenever it starts is the right time.
l When it’s over, it’s over.
In other words, don’t worry about what happens or doesn’t happen; it just reflects the energy and focus of the group at that particular time. If you held the Open Space six months earlier or later you would get a completely different set of conversations and participants.
In addition to the principles there is one rule, the ‘Law of Two Feet’. According to Owen, this says that, if, during the course of the gathering, any person finds him or herself in a situation where they are neither learning nor contributing, they must use their two feet go to some more productive place (1997:98). Or, more simply: If you are neither learning nor contributing, move on.
Some people will stay for the whole of a conversation session (typically about an hour) while others will flit from one to another, ‘cross-pollinating’ the group (these are sometimes known as ‘bumble bees’). Some people (often known as ‘butterflies’) don’t participate in any of the scheduled conversations but opt out. Nevertheless they usually get engaged in profitable exchanges with other participants and can provide a useful perspective on the proceedings.
When all the individual conversations are done, it is usual to reconvene as a whole group and for reports from each group to be made available. The Open Space format is very simple and those with no experience of the process are often sceptical at first. However, the results are nearly always significant enough to convert the doubters. At the end of an Open Space (which ideally lasts for two days but can quite comfortably accommodated in a single day) the energy is high and people are committed to taking the initiative for implementing changes.
More can be found at the Group Facilitation archives and at the Open Space Technology site.
A useful and very practical book on Open Space is Open Space Technology: A User's Guide by Harrison Owen, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1997.
Owen's later Expanding Our Now: The Story of Open Space Technology, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1998, offers a bit more background and theory.
A number of accounts and reports of Open Space workshops have been published. Below are some links to a few:
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