Open space is a method for running meetings where 5 to 1000+ participants create and manage the agenda themselves and take ownership for their ideas. It is a powerful way to catalyze effective working conversations.
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The Open Space Method
When and why?
The originator of the approach, Harrison Owen, founded this method in the 1980s out of a desire to “open the space” for people to self-organize around a purpose.
Open Space works well when the work to be done is complex and urgent, the people and ideas involved are diverse, and the passion for resolution (and potential for conflict) are high.
Thus, this method fits well at the beginning of change processes.
How does it work?
An Open Invitation
The process starts with an open invitation, which contains a compelling purpose.
The ideal invitation will frame a challenge that is urgent, important, and complex enough to require a diverse set of perspectives to solve (e.g. “What’s our strategic direction?”)
Create the Marketplace
In the beginning of the meeting, participants sit in a circle. An overall facilitator sets the topic with a theme or broad open question (e.g. What is our strategic direction?).
Participants are invited to think about ideas and issues they are passionate about.
They suggest topics for discussion by sticking post-it notes on a board or on the wall (so-called ‘bulletin board’).
In this fashion, all participants are invited to create an item for this ‘marketplace’, but no one is required to.
Those who post ideas should also be willing to host the discussion on this topic. If there are more topics than time, the facilitators can support the wider group to decide which discussions should be prioritised.
Creating the agenda in this fashion should take between 60 and 90 minutes.
The breakouts then begin, typically lasting 90 minutes per session.
Another area is set up close by –with several breakout spaces.
When all issues have been allocated a time and place, participants sign up to attend those individual sessions.
Participants are free to move from one discussion to another so that they can contribute or listen to different discussions in a fluid way.
Participants are asked to observe the one law of Open Space, and five guiding principles: The ‘Law of Two Feet’ states that if at any time during the time together you find yourself in a situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet and go someplace else. In this way, all participants are meant to move on as soon as they have contributed and shared all that they can.
Whoever comes is the right person, meaning you just need people who care.
Whenever it starts is the right time. This reminds participants that “spirit and creativity do not run on the clock.”
Wherever it happens is the right place. Space is opening everywhere all the time.
Whatever happens is the only thing that could have. No fretting, complaining or rehashing can change the outcome.
When it’s over, it’s over. Normally, you do not know how long it will take to resolve an issue, but when it is done, move on to the next topic.
What will happen?
All of the most important ideas and issues will be raised by the participants during the process.
Topics will be addressed by those participants most qualified and capable of getting something done.
All of the most important ideas, data, recommendations, conclusions, questions for further study, and plans for immediate action will be documented in one comprehensive report.
After an event, all of these results can be made available to a group of people (an entire organisation, department or community), so the conversation can invite every stakeholder into implementation.
The results can be implemented faster because participants have taken ownership of the developed ideas.