What is Open Space?

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First published at the Caterfly Smarter Working blog

What is ‘Open Space’?

Open Space Technology, commonly Open Space, is a social technology, a tool for helping people to rally around a shared challenge, with minimum obstacles and maximum efficiency. It is used to organise meetings, gatherings, conferences, problem solving and summits in which everyone has the opportunity to participate on their own terms.

Photo: Transition Network - Conference Open Space

Photo: Transition Network – Conference Open Space

Open Space is nothing new. The process was developed by Harrison Owen in the 1980’s and it has been applied countless thousands of times, in at least 135 countries, in a variety of ways, with groups of just a few people to several thousands, from hours to days and longer. However, the basic process and principles perhaps reach back into ancient human history.

Open Space offers a clear framework for allowing us to achieve remarkable things. Open Space embraces complexity and chaos, yet it remains confoundingly simple while enabling creativity and productivity to flourish.

The results can not only be dramatic, but its effect on participants used to the confines of careful planning, hierarchy, telling others what to do and being told what to do, can be transformative and enriching.

“Everything the Power of the World does, is done in a circle.”
Black Elk, in Black Elk Speaks

How does it work?

The basic process is counter intuitively straightforward:

* Clearly define the challenge, and express it in a a few words. This is what you are inviting participants to get enthused about.

Photo: Stanley Park / World Open SPace on Open Space 2009

Photo: Stanley Park / World Open SPace on Open Space 2009

* Everyone sits in a big circle. A facilitator gives some basic instructions, then lets them get on with it.

* There is no prepared agenda, just a big blank board with available time slots and areas to use. Participants are invited to articulate what they really want to know, share, discuss or work on, and co-create the agenda with whatever sub topics they want.

* People then work out what seems most important, urgent or interesting to them, and go there. Some people will likely end up either flitting about from discussion to discussion, or getting a cup of tea and serendipitously having just the brainwave or interaction they need right there.

* Through the event people share what they’ve done, thus building a kind of ‘collective consciousness’ of the whole shebang.

* Toward the end of the event, everyone comes back together in a big circle and shares what they did, learnt, or what they want to happen next.

* Usually all participants get an anthology of the summaries of each session, perhaps with a plan of action, or key outcomes.

* Go home and let go, until the time comes to do something again.

The reason it seems to work

Leaders and facilitators allow people to work it out for themselves and get out of the way. No one is coerced, and no one has to be there. Opt-in participation devolves responsibility to individuals to choose to follow their passion. As such, boredom and disengagement is rare.

light bulbs sketched on chalkboard Many small ideas make a big oneThere are some basic principles to help people let go of trying to be in control, and embrace what is actually happening. A metaphor would be a surfer, who rather than trying to direct the waves, finds the right place to catch one and ride it.

There is just one firm rule, known as The Law Of Two Feet, although it is more of a playful hint than strict instruction. The Law says that ‘if you are neither learning nor contributing, it is your duty to find another place to be.’ Rather than choosing a session and being stuck in it or feeling obliged, participants are encouraged to move around, increasing impact and efficiency for the individual, for each sub group, and for the whole.

Rather than try to solve a problem with just one brain, perhaps the boss or just a management team, or trying to engage numerous individuals over a long period of time, Open Space harnesses the creativity and skills of everyone, all at once. What might take a dedicated team many months, gets accelerated over a very short burst, and results in more brilliant solutions that no one could have predicted.

Organising people is hard work and inefficient. Helping people to organise themselves is surprisingly easy, effective and energising. Meanwhile, it becomes easier for people to really engage, and those voices can be heard which often aren’t.

Relax nothing is under controlA part of how Open Space came to be discovered, was Harrison Owen’s experience while co-organising a conference. It took a lot of effort. People showed up, and sat passively in rows of chairs listening to experts. But when the coffee breaks came, the event came alive, buzzing with spontaneous conversation. The coffee break was the best bit. Open Space is an attempt to turn the entire experience into something like the coffee break. Some people started thinking of it as the opposite of a conference, and now the term unConference is often used.

Lastly, Open Space events can also be significantly greener, utilising human resources more than material. I often refer to them as ‘compostable conferences.’

And that’s it.

Turn up if you want to, do what feels important, let others do what they feel is important, let go and allow it to happen in whatever way participants conspire to make happen. 

“There is no order without chaos.”
Harrison Owen at TEDx, Dancing with Shiva: Are we working too hard? 


Wikipedia: Open Space Technology

Harrison Owen’s Brief History of Open Space

Open Space World resources

Jack Martin Leith’s Guide to using Open Space

How Caterfly is pioneering OS for Innovation and Kaizen

Chris Corrigan article, on using Open Space to solve complex problems

Huffington Post Business article, Opening The Space For Innovation

Martin Grimshaw’s Open Space facilitator’s checklist