Submitted by Barbara Markoff October 1993
Imagine a long rectangular room with only chairs around the perimeter. Attached on one long wall is plain poster paper and in the middle of the room is a small table covered with notepaper, markers and tape.
A meeting has been called and soon everyone files in and takes a seat. Often people are feeling a bit nervous about the lack of structure or skeptical about whether this is going to be worth anyone’s time. The leader of the organization welcomes everyone, states why this event is occurring and encourages broad participation. Absent is any statement about expected outcomes. Then the facilitator moves into the center of the room and gives the instructions that are to shape the next one to four days.
We are talking about a new meeting methodology called “Open Space.” It is an alternative to the typical meeting or conference for which the agenda has been painstakingly laid out, often months in advance. With “Open Space,” the actual agenda is developed on site with all the participants creating it “just in time.” The only advance planning an event such as this requires is setting a meeting or conference time, inviting the right people to come and arranging the logistics.
Harrision H. Owen, the originator of “Open Space,” credits part of the idea for this methodology from his frequent observation at conferences. Owen found the most creative and often spirit-filled time was during coffee breaks and between sessions. He decided to experiment with designing conferences that could produce the good, intense interaction that occurs during a coffee break, while achieving the output and performance that results from a meeting.
The entire conference agenda can be created within one hour even if there are 400 or more people attending. Participants are invited to think of a topic or issue that relates to the conference theme that he or she is interested in initiating. The issue is given a title, recorded on a piece of paper, announced and then attached to the wall. The posted topics are arranged in immediate, late morning, and afternoon time slots and are given locations by the volunteer convener. Then the participants are invited, en masse, to come to the “village marketplace” to sign up for the session they wish to attend.
It has been said, “Structure happens.” What may seem like a chaotic process soon transforms into a fluid structure. People negotiate with conveners if there are simultaneous sessions they wish to attend and new sessions are added throughout the event as new ideas occur to people. There may be personal computers available on site for the recording and printing of notes so they can be posted for the benefit of the whole community.
While some management systems are designed to boost productivity by reorganizing and controlling, this process edges on chaos, promoting it as a potent, creative force. “Open Space” is a bit like the “Stone Soup Story.” The minimal guidance offered is like the rock in a pot of water; everyone offers their ideas to the soup and in the end the group is well fed.
“Open Space” technology is effective when real learning and innovation are required and using familiar methods will not likely spur that result. It would assist any organization that knows it needs to make some fundamental changes, but is unsure about the direction in which to go or how to get there.
Who would agree with this assertion? Major corporations, government organizations and communities on five continents have used this innovative approach from polymer chemists at DuPont to the U.S. Forest Service. Most were highly skeptical that the approach would “work for them” and were surprised and delighted when they saw the results. Many now use “Open Space" for many of their meetings.
You cannot do much better than convene such an event with almost no planning time and expense, and walk out with pages of ideas and plans to a highly motivated group.