1. What is Open Space Technology?

Open Space Technology is a self-organizing practice that enables groups of any size to address complex, important issues and accomplish meaningful work.  It releases the inherent creativity and leadership in people by inviting them to take responsibility for what they care about.  Open Space establishes a marketplace of inquiry, where people offer topics of interest, reflect, learn and work together.  
It has been used all over the world in thousands of diverse applications. The Boeing Company has used it to improve the design of airplane doors.  The Italian foreign ministry and an Italian NGO manager from the Dionysia International Center used it to bring 25 Israelis and 25 Palestinians to Rome for 3 days in June, 2002 to talk about themselves, their future, and the possibilities of peace.

The essence of Open Space are four principles and one law:

  • Whoever comes is the right people
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have
  • When it starts is the right time
  • When itís over, itís over

The Law of Two Feet, also known as the law of personal responsibility, states that if youíre neither contributing nor getting value where you are, use your two feet and go somewhere else. It also says to stand on your two feet to express whatís important to you.  It is fundamentally an invitation for individuals to take responsibility for what they care about.

We should note here that Open Space can only fail for two reasons: if people show up with no passion and/or if somebody tries to control the process in order to achieve some sort of pre-determined outcome(s). And, the commitment to openness, passion and responsible self-organization begins with the invitation process itself.

Here's how Harrison Owen, creator of Open Space Technology, answers the question:

At the very least, Open Space is a fast, cheap, and simple way to better, more productive meetings.  At a deeper level, it enables people to experience a very different quality of organization in which self managed work groups are the norm, leadership a constantly shared phenomenon, diversity becomes a resource to be used instead of a problem to be overcome, and personal empowerment a shared experience.  It is also fun.  In a word, the conditions are set for fundamental organizational change, indeed that change may already have occurred.  By the end, groups face an interesting choice.  They can do it again, they can do it better, or they can go back to their prior mode of behavior.

 Open Space is appropriate in situations where a major issue must be resolved, characterized by high levels of complexity, high levels of diversity (in terms of the people involved), the presence of potential or actual conflict, and with a decision time of yesterday.

Open Space runs on two fundamentals: passion and responsibility.  Passion engages the people in the room.  Responsibility ensures things get done.  A focusing theme or question provides the framework for the event.  The art of the question lies in saying just enough to evoke attention, while leaving sufficient open space for the imagination to run wild.


2. Setting up a workshop

Staff: facilitator, staff to help with logistics

Participants and timeframe: between 5 and 2000 people meet for one or two days

Venue: one room large enough to hold a circle (or concentric circles) of chairs seating all participants, plus other smaller rooms for group discussion

Resources: enough chairs for everyone, not fixed to the ground; movable poster stands to post papers on; PCs and photocopiers; loose paper and markers; microphone (depending on room size); food and drink always available.


3. Phases of the workshop

  •          Preparation

- the focusing theme or question of the open space is selected and outlined briefly;

- participants are invited to take part in the workshop through a short, open invitation which is issued well in advance of the gathering date. The invitation itself should be very simple, probably just a page or two, maybe a short email or postcard, which explains plainly what the central theme or question for the workshop is. Itís clearly not an invitation to complain or even "solve problems," but rather to co-create some dimension of the organization, the community, or the world that we all really want to be a part of. This doesn't mean that it denies or in any way minimizes the importance of existing problems, only that it really focuses attention on strengths and assets -- and invited people to work together to create more of them. The simple, clear, broad and open invitation process assures that the people who show up have real passion for the issue and signals to them that the best outcomes are theirs to create. A good invitation lets everyone know, even those who can't or won't actually attend, that this meeting is intended to go beyond suggestions, beyond recommendations, beyond rubber-stamping, beyond past expectations. This meeting is for real responsibility, real learning, real action on the issue(s) at hand. Even if the number of attendees had be limited, for financial or other concerns, this could and should be done in ways that don't limit the passion and possibility of the work.

- the venue is prepared: all chairs are arranged in a circle surrounded by movable walls, with handwritten posters stating the four principles and one law of open space. Most of one wall is left blank under a banner that says, simply, "marketplace." Even if the circle has several concentric circles, the room is set, from the start, so that everyone can see and hear everyone else. The middle of the circle, even if it's very large, is empty and open. There are no tables or podiums, only perhaps a carpet with loose sheets of paper and markers on the floor. 


  •          Opening space

The facilitator welcomes participants, asking them to look at the people around them imagining that they are sitting in a circle of friends, colleagues and perhaps some strangers, too. The invitation was extended to a diverse group of stakeholders and clearly stated the parameters for work. And, to the greatest extent possible, everyone is participating voluntarily, because they have discovered that they have something to learn or contribute to the work at hand.

The theme is restated and briefly explained, perhaps a short story of how we got here, with the reminder that everyone you now see in the circle is here because they care about some aspect of this theme -- and have chosen to be here, to learn from and contribute to the work at hand. The facilitator also explains that the big empty wall is, in fact, our agenda. He acknowledges that it is a giant empty space, but reassures us that it will, within the hour, be filled with discussion topics related to the theme. He makes it very clear that all of these breakout session topics will be proposed by us, the people now sitting in the circle.

While the reality of this responsibility sinks in, the Four Principles are explained. "Whoever comes is the right people" acknowledges that the only people really qualified or able to do great work on any issue are those who really care, and freely choose to be involved. "Whenever it starts is the right time" recognizes that spirit and creativity don't run on the clock, so while we're here, we'll all keep a vigilant watch for great ideas and new insights, which can happen at anytime. "Whatever happens is the only thing that could have" allows everyone to let go of the could haves, would haves and should haves, so that we can give our full attention to the reality of what is happening, is working, and is possible right now. And finally, "When it's over, it's over" acknowledges that you never know just how long it'll take to deal with a given issue, and reminds us that getting the work done is more important than sticking to an arbitrary schedule. Taken together, these principles say "work hard, pay attention, but be prepared to be surprised!"

The one law is The Law of Two Feet. It says simply that you, and only you, know where you can learn and contribute the most to the work that must take place today. It demands that you use your two feet to go where you need to go and do what you need to do. If at any time today, you find that you are not learning or contributing, you have the right and the responsibility to move... find another breakout session, visit the food table, take a walk in the sunshine, make a phone call -- but DO NOT waste time.

This simple rule makes everyone fully responsible for the quality of their own work and work experience. It creates bumblebees who buzz from session to session, cross-pollinating and connecting pieces of the work. It creates butterflies who may not join any formal sessions, choosing instead to float at the edges. They create the space for everyone to appreciate the energies and synergies unfolding in the work of the conference. Sometimes the most amazing solutions seem to come out of nowhere -- so that's where butterflies tend to look for them.


  •          Setting the agenda

After a quick logistical review, the facilitator invites anyone who's ready to come to the center of the circle, grab a marker and a sheet of paper, and write down their burning question, passionate issue, or great idea. To the surprise of many, a number of people spring from their chairs and are quickly on all fours in the center of the circle, scribbling their offerings. As each one finishes, they read their issue(s) out loud. These aren't speeches; just simple announcements. "My name is _____, my issue is ______," and we're on to the next one, while they tape their sheet to the wall and assign it a place and a time (from a pre-arranged set of space/time choices). This is how even very large groups can create two or three days of agenda in just one hour. As the wall fills, those who were at first surprised, find words for their issue and grab a marker. And then, as fast as it started, it's done.

Having done the impossible in the first hour, the energy level is pretty high now. The facilitator gives a few more instructions and the whole group moves to the wall and signs up for the sessions they want to attend. Minutes later, the first sessions start without any announcement or instructions, because everybody knows where they need to be.


  •          Discussion sessions

Suddenly the large circle is many small circles, in the corners of the room or in separate breakout spaces, each working on some important part of the main theme. Every session has been proposed by someone who really cares about that item and has taken responsibility for making sure it gets addressed. In longer meetings, the convener is also responsible for recording the main points and conclusions reached in his or her session.

As the first sessions finish, at roughly the scheduled time, the second sessions begin. If the work isn't finished, it continues or a sequel is scheduled. Some people have spent the entire 1 1/2-hour session on one topic; others have bumblebeed or butterflied around, connecting different issues. Everything is moving -- people, ideas, resources, beliefs, relationships -- but it all revolves and relates to the intention stated in the invitation. This motion ebbs and flows, but the work continues, session after session.


  •          Announcements

In multi-day meetings, everyone also assembles in the morning and evening for short "news" sessions, where things like new sessions, major breakthroughs, and dinner plans can be announced easily.


  •          Reports

In some events, especially longer events, the proceedings are captured by computer. The person who convenes a session also takes responsibility for capturing the notes and typing them into the computer. The rule-of-thumb is that one day in Open Space will get you a lot of great discussion, two days will give you time to capture what happens in a typed proceedings document, and a third day (usually a half-day) will allow a more formal convergence to specific plans for immediate action.

In some cases, smaller groups might create handwritten proceedings to be typed up after the event. With larger groups and longer meetings, where follow-up and follow-through is critical, the typed proceedings can be dumped into an intranet format where future meetings can be announced and progress reports added onto the original proceedings. Over time, these proceedings on an intranet system also make a powerful orientation and training resource, at both project and organizational levels.


  •          Close

At the end of the time allotted to the group sessions, the facilitator reassembles everyone in the closing circle. Everyone in the room attests to the fact that, together, the group has done what most thought was impossible. The microphone is handed around the circle so that each person in turn is able to contribute their impression, give feedback, express thanks or say good-bye.


  •          Results

- all of the most important issues are identified, explored and addressed;

- new ideas, resources and people are gathered and connected to these issues;

- discussion and proposals are documented in somewhere between 5 and 500 pages of notes and next steps;

 - strategic themes, clear priorities, immediate actions steps are established;

- the information produced is distributed to a (re)energized and action-ready community of people;

- the participants feel empowered to tell that story to the rest of the organization, community, or world, seeding cycles of invitation that will continue to pull people into places where they can maximize their own learning and contribution.

Hailed for its utter simplicity -- and its power, Open Space starts with open-minded leadership, an issue that really matters, and an invitation to co-create something new and amazing. What happens in the meetings is high learning, high play and high productivity, but is never pre-determined.


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