Open Space Technology (OST) is an approach to organize and run large group working sessions with as initial input a theme. Surely, there is no detailed agenda as participants will start the workshop by defining issues they are eager to work on. Then, the large group will split in sub-groups over the sessions planned for each issue and self-organize to think about them.

Benefits of Open Space Technology

Open Space Technology makes it possible to reflect on complex and potentially conflicting topics in a self-motivated, synergistic and creative way. It can address all topics except when the answer is already known by the management or when they want to remain in charge. Furthermore, Open Space Technology generates passionate discussion and commitment.

Harrison Owen claims that Open Space Technology always works. But sometimes the result disturbs the participants.


The Open Space Technology follows the following steps: Preparation (Theme, Group, Time, Space, Food and beverage, Logistic for report typing, Supplies, Management onboarding, Invitation), Kick-off (State the theme, The OST context, The 4 principles & 1 rule of OST, The issues and opportunities about the theme, The Village Market Place), Holding Space (Empowering the group, Morning Announcements, Evening News) and Ending (Closing, Celebrating).

Preparation for Open Space Technology

The theme

Open Space Technology does not require a detailed agenda but a theme, an objective about what you want to accomplish. Clearly it is better when stated as a question. In addition, the theme must trigger passion. In other words, the theme must focus on a very business issue which is a passionate concern for those to be involved.

The group

The group is people who care about the topic. Really, this is the reason they will come, commit and be passionate about the theme. As a consequence, voluntary self-selection is the mandatory in OST to ensure that the right people are the one who comes.

In addition, to commitment and passion, OST needs diversity to create opportunities for learning and growth. So, make sure to have participants fairly representing all point of views.

At last, OST enables and requires a large group. It can manage up to 500 people. But it also needs to have a minimum size to ensure diversity. Indeed, in a 5-people group, one person stands for 20% of the total resource either regarding knowledge, thinking and energy. In a 100 people group, it falls to 1%. Therefore, a fair minimum size is 20 people.

The time – The duration

There is no optimal time for Open Space Technology. Truly, it depends on the topic and the size of the group. But 3 days may be relevant for large groups with complex problems and an ambition for deep investigation. It will be at the same time the optimal and maximum time:

  • The first day allows exploring through intense discussions.
  • The second day makes it possible to build the results.
  • The third day permits reflection and revision hard to have the 2 first busy days.
  • At last, after 3 days the participants have no more energy so an extra day will be inefficient.

The space

Large groups require large room. For participants to have space, divide the theoretical capacity of the room by 2. For instance, book a 200-people room for a 100-people group. The room should:

  • be free and unobstructed by doors, curtains, or pieces of furniture.
  • have a large wall for display.
  • have break-out spaces and break-out rooms for people needing them. Each time think about chairs, tables and whiteboard. For formal break-out rooms, count 5 per 100 participants.
  • have optionally other type of space like hallway, lobby or even gardens.

Prepare seats for participants to be organize as a circle or semi-circle if you want the speaker to face all the participants all the time. You may have to set up to 3 (semi-)circles.

The food and beverage

Beverage and snack food should be available all the time. And for lunch consider a buffet over a large time period for a smooth transition, so constructive discussions are not suddenly stopped. In addition, buffet is of great help if people come are from different countries with different lunch times and potentially the effect of variety of time zones.

Logistic to support report typing

Open Space Technology relies on participants especially owners of issues to type learnings and recommendations in one report for each issue. So prepare the logistic to support them:

  • Computers or an area to work comfortably with laptops.
  • A shared virtual space to collect reports with related norms to structure this space.

In addition, it is a good practice to propose format to structure reports. A typical format is:

  • Short title of the issue.
  • Owner of the issue.
  • Short description of the issue.
  • List of participants to the workgroup.
  • Report should make sense for a person who did not participate to this workshop but who is part of the OST then has knowledge about the theme.
  • Guidelines about the size of the report: typically several pages but less than 10 pages.

The supplies

OST requires classic workshop supplies for the main circle and for all break-out areas: tapes, ink markers, flip charts and post-its.

Onboard the management

Open Space Technology has a non conventional approach where let go is essential. So make sure to brief the management so they feel comfortable. In addition, management is an important part of the group and their contribution is required so make sure they will be part of the action.

The invitation to the group: format

The theme

Open Space Technology has no agenda as the group prepares it upon arrival but it does have a theme. Its objective is to stimulate the imagination of the potential participants, so they see the issue as relevant and appealing. It is a little bit like writing a story: tell enough for readers to be hooked, but not too much for them to want to read more. Leave space for imagination!

The logistic information

Like all invitations, there is the need for location, time, and other logistic information if any, like the need to bring a laptop (for typing the report on their workshop).

Disclaimers

There are 2 disclaimers to highlight about OST’s unconventional format to prepare people:

  • Open format diverges from the traditional that is planned in detail.
  • Success depends on individual and collective responsibility.

The invitation to the group: reach your audience

In order to reach and mobilize your audience:

  • Make sure that relevant participants are aware about the event and understand why their participation is in their best interest.
  • Enable them to understand the consequence of their absence.
  • At last, to increase their attention to the invitation: make it personal.

The checklist for Open Space Agility preparation

  • Appropriateness: is OST the right approach for our purpose?
  • Theme: is it clear, focused, but still open enough to let the imagination grow?
  • Time: have we allocated enough time to reach the objective?
  • Space: is our main meeting room large enough so that all of our participants may sit comfortably in a (semi-)circle with spare spaces and rooms? Do we have a large wall for display? Are we able to stick on it cards and posters?
  • Break-out spaces and rooms: do we have sufficient break-out rooms (5 rooms per 100 participants)? Are there any areas where our people should not go?
  • Food and Drink: do we have all day beverages and snacks? Do we have a large time-period buffet for lunch?
  • Supplies for main circle and all the break-out areas: do we have, tapes, ink markers, flip charts and post-its?
  • Management: is management briefed about the let go approach of OST and the need of their contribution?
  • Invitation: is the invitation clear about what is at stake, the outcomes and about the logistic for all participants to arrive at the right place, at the right time and ready to go to work?

The facilitator role in Open Space Technology

The facilitator creates the space and time during the kick-off phase that we will review just after. Then he or she holds the space and time. Surely, the facilitator supports all the OST process during all phases with a step back after he or she has initiated the workshop for the group to self-organize.

During the self-organization phase, the facilitator has to let it all go and should mind not to have attachment to fixed outcomes. Nevertheless he or she should remain present.


Kick-off the Open Space Technology session

Overview of the OST kick-off

The OST session starts with a kick-off. This first part should take less than 1 hour and aims at introducing the theme then the Open Space Technology approach with the historical context, the principles and an overview of the process.

By the end of this hour, participants should:

  • know the workflow of the session.
  • understand the expected outcome.
  • have build their agenda, in other words, the list of issues planned with for each a work group.
  • at last, start to work on the issues.

State the theme

  • State the theme and purpose a way that energize the group: be more evocative and provocative than descriptive or prescriptive.
  • Explain the expectations in terms of the end product of the OST session, the format of this end product and how it is going to be used.

Short historical context of the Open Space Technology

Open Space Technology will be for many of the participants a disruptive leap of faith, so it is a good idea to show them than it exists since the 80s and that it proved relevance on large groups and complex issues. For instance, Harrison Owen illustrates than one of the OST gathered 225 people who self-organized a 53-workshop conference in less than one hour. After 2 days of self-managing, they produced a 150-page report with thinking and recommendations on those 53 issues. If it happened there, then it can happen here too.

The 4 principles and the 1 rule of the Open Space Technology

Present the 4 principles and the1 rule of the Open Space Technology to the group as they structure all the event. In addition, you want to display them on the main wall with a reminder for the group to embrace surprising things that will happen.

The 4 principles and the 1 rule of the Open Space Technology: Whoever comes is the right people, Whatever happens is the only thing that could have, Whenever it starts is the right time, When it is over it is over and the Law of Two Feet.

Open Space Technology’s principles 1: “Whoever comes is the right people”

Surely, it is not not how many people come or even who comes (in the sense of status or position) that counts but the quality of the interactions and conversations. It is the passion that people share about the topic that makes the difference.

Tips for coach

For a given issue that a participant opened and owns, there may be nobody showing. To help, the owner of the issue to go beyond frustration, you may share this thinking:

  • Firstly, may be it was not that good an idea in comparison of the other open topics.
  • Secondly, may be it was indeed a good idea but that came at the wrong time.
  • At last, may be that great idea came at the right time but the owner is the only person skilled to address it.

Open Space Technology’s principles 2: “Whatever happens is the only thing that could have”

Open Space Technology is a disruptive and emergent approach: learning and true progress only happens when the group moves beyond its first agendas and convention-bound expectations. Growth comes with moments of surprise even small ones. Therefore, it is important to welcome those moments and understand that whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened.

Open Space Technology’s principles 3: “Whenever it starts is the right time”

OST leverages creativity and spirit. Clearly, by nature they appear or not in their own time therefore that is the right time.

Open Space Technology’s principles 4: “When it is over it is over”

There are 2 cases to illustrate this principle:

  • During OST relatively to the workshop for an issue: if the work group has discussed all the matter and has consolidated the recommendation in the first 20 minutes, then close the workshop.
  • At the end of the OST for instance with a series of speakers: this would break the precondition of voluntary self-selection and in addition, it is not compliant with the level of energy of the group at the completion of the exercise. Thus, if you want a large audience to be a part of it, plan it before the OST.

Open Space Technology’s Law of Two Feet

If during a working session in sub-group a person considers he or she is neither learning nor contributing, then they can use their two feet and go to another work group where they think they will be more productive. Truly, this also has a side benefits to saving time: preventing participants from becoming polluting when a discussion is not constructive.

Tips for coach: bumblebees and butterflies

Harrison Owen identifies 2 kind of participants using a lot this Law of Two Feet:

  • Bumblebees: participants who take the freedom of the law very seriously and go from a workshop to another workshop. As a result, like their counterparts in nature, they cross-pollinate work groups, providing richness and variety to the discussions.
  • Butterflies: participants who rarely get into any workshops. As a matter of fact, you may find them at resting places like the patio, the bar or in the garden if any. Nevertheless, they still have a side benefit: they create spaces of non-action for silent self-reflection or where some new, unexplored issues may emerge.

The issues and opportunities about the theme

Describe the process to build the agenda and identify the issues and opportunities around the theme that participants will take responsibility and work on:

  • On voluntary basis, participants think about issues relevant to them they are eager to work on.
  • Note that the participant who proposes a topic does not have to be an expert and that no formal presentation will be given.
  • Responsibility is about planning time and space of the session, support it and type the report before the end of the OST event.
  • Then they write their issue with their name on a card and come in the center to present it. Clearly, this builds commitment to invest on and lead the work on the related issue. At last, they plan it by sticking it on the main wall in an area that OST calls the Community Bulletin Board.

The Community Bulletin Board

It is a planning chart that displays available times and dates for the break-out rooms. Typical duration for workshops is 2 hours.

The format of the issue card

  • Short title.
  • Name of the owner.
  • Short description.

The ritual to present the issues to the group

  • The owner presents the issue to the group by saying: “My issue is . . . and my name is”.
  • This introduces passion and builds commitment.

Tips for coach:

  • In case of slow start:
    • Participants may go through an hesitating time period because they can’t believe that there is no agenda somewhere. Really, you can never tell how fast people will react, but finally they do.
    • Furthermore, to boost them, you may have to say something like “I really have no Plan B” and “I am prepared to stand here all day until something happens.”
  • Guidelines when participants present their issue to the group:
    • Sharing the issue prevents duplicate in addition to triggering commitment.
    • Hearing the names of those posting the issues that are also on the issue card supports participants to subscribe to a work group. Everybody knows who is doing what.
    • Groups of 25 to 50 will generate about 30 issues. Groups of 100 to 200 about 75 issues.
  • Placing issue cards on the Community Bulletin Board:
    • As participants go to the main wall to stick their issue card, they may need your help to place it on the schedule chart.

The Village Market Place

Explain the Village Market Place where participants choose issues they are going to work:

  • When the Village Market Place is opened, participant leave their seats and move to the Community Bulletin Board on the wall so they select issues to work on and subscribe to related work group.
  • Definitively, participants should sign for as many workgroups as they have interest in, even if they are conflicting in the agenda. Indeed, many times work groups are cancelled or merged. In addition, they can attend more than one group in a single time slot by leaving early or coming late.

Scheduling adjustment on the Community Bulletin Board:

  • Conflicts: when a participant wants to contribute to 2 work groups with conflicting schedule, he or she must negotiate with owners of the related issues, either to combine their sessions or sequence them. If not, he or she will have to choose or assist part of each session.
  • Duplicate issues: the sharing step of issues to the group does not always remove all the duplicate issues. Depending on how close are the issues and the size of the related work group, you may consider merging them or keeping both of them. Surely, it is better to have two sessions on the same subject, than a single one with a group too big, and frustrated participants because they did not have time to talk.

Tips for coach

  • When you open the Village Market Place, the group may just rush to it. Therefore, before opening the Village Market Place, invite the group to free up the space in front of the Community Bulletin Board from all seats and personal belongings.

Holding the Space of the Open Space Technology session

When the Village Market Place opens, the facilitator takes a step back. To illustrate, now that space and time are created, the mission is to hold them and let the group make its journey through the path it has chosen. Therefore, the role of the facilitator is more in support even for small things like collecting coffee cups and trash, so the space remains compliant with creativity and productivity. But not just that, as in extreme cases, if the group does not self-regulate, the facilitator may have to deal with inappropriate behaviors.

Empowering the group

In the OST session, the facilitator must constantly turn the freedom and the responsibility back to the participants to reinforce self-organization and ownership. To do so, say little and do less. For instance:

  • Firstly, if participants have a question about what they should do, you could answer them back what would they like to do. Usually they already know. But if not, they will benefit from taking a little time to figure it out. Of course, keep an eye to make sure they do not spend to much time. If too long, then support them.
  • Secondly, if participants have a request about the organization of the OST, you could ask them why they don’t take care of it. Here also, it is the same, deal with extreme cases when they happen.

Morning Announcements and Evening News

The OST group gathers twice a day. In the morning for announcements and in the evening for the news:

  • The morning announcements are the opportunity to announce changes in meetings (additions, cancellations, and mergers) and some other small pieces of information.
  • The evening news is the same with in addition sharing of fun stories from the OST event.

For morning announcements and evening news, the group gathers in the (semi-)circle configuration and participants with information will come in the center to share on voluntary basis.

For sure, what is shared is of little importance. Clearly, what matters is that these announcements and news are the opportunity to gather the group and reconnect participants all together.

Bell Ringing

Harrison Owen wisely suggests the use of Tibetan temple bells to call for group start. Surely, this will prevent from calls with loud shouts, hand clapping, or strident bells.


Endings and New Beginnings in the Open Space Technology

Closing

Closing is an important time to acknowledge all the collaborative and creative energy from the group and reflect about the experience. Note that this is not a debrief about the findings and learnings on the issues but on the OST experience itself. Nevertheless, it is a good practice to have the full report about all issues learnings and recommendations ready as a take away for participants before leaving. To save the planet, it does not need to be printed. Clearly, a digital format sent by mail will do the job.

Regarding the configuration of the closing, the OST ends as it began: sitting in a (semi-)circle.

This closing will also support the transition to next round of activities that the organization or group will undertake.

Tips for coach:

  • A talking stick can help to make sure only one person speaks at the same time.
  • Harrison Owen recommends to let participants without time guidelines about the time they are expected to speak. Usual total time for a group of 50 to 100 people is around 3 hours.

Celebrating

The last part of the OST is the celebration as a group for all the work and the successes. This will also support the transition and refill the energy of the participants.


What’s next? Learn more about Change Management and discover Coaching

  • Check my post about a similar approach to the Open Space Technology: the World Café.
  • Find all the posts about Change Management here and about Coaching here.

Do you want to learn more about the Open Space Technology? Here are some valuable references from the creator of this approach, Harrison Owen

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