The Open Space process was devised by Harrison Owen. It is a way of a way of organising a meeting or conference so that there is maximum participation, self-management, enthusiasm and focus. Open Space is used for consultation, organisational development and planning as well as routine meetings. Any number of people can attend and Open Space meetings last from a couple of hours to several days, depending on what is needed.
Open Space meetings use a question as the focus and starting point. The key to an outstandingly successful Open Space event lies in asking the right question. A good question will be open, clear and speak directly to the interests and concerns of participants. It will inspire interest and provoke discussion and debate. Usually the facilitator works with the sponsor/host and some of the potential participants to devise the question well in advance of the meeting.
How it works
Open Space meetings start with everyone sitting in a circle, or concentric circles. Although distinguished experts may be present there are no platform speeches or presentations. The sponsor/host of the meeting briefly welcomes participants and introduces the question that will provide the focus for the day.The question is posted on the walls around the room for everyone to see. If necessary the sponsor describes any constraints or limiting factors and then introduces the facilitator.
It is the facilitator's job to explain how Open Space works - this is best done with energy, clarity and at speed. The facilitator's aim is to hand over the meeting to participants as soon as possible.
The facilitator walks around the circle, talking directly to people as she goes, repeating the question for the day and drawing attention to the banners that read 'Agenda' on one wall, and 'Recommendations' on another. She points out that the Agenda wall is divided into time slots, one for each discussion session. Numbered post-it notes in each session slot refer to numbered break out spaces around the room. Typically a discussion session lasts for an hour and a half - a one day event might have 3 or 4 discussion sessions.
The facilitator invites everyone to think about the question/focus of the event - what interests them, what topics do they have some passion for, why have they come? She explains that shortly participants will be invited to come to the centre of the circle, pick up a pen and piece of paper, write down their topic and name, read out the topic and then post it in a time slot on the Agenda wall with a numbered post-it note to denote their break out space. In this way everyone present has the opportunity to contribute to the Agenda for the meeting.
Whilst participants think about the topics that they might like to discuss during the day the facilitator explains the importance of the 'Law of 2 Feet'. The "Law of 2 feet" gives participants the freedom to move between groups as their interest dictates. The facilitator may also refer to one or more of the '4 Principles' that lie behind this kind of meeting (describing them all isn't necessary and takes too long). The 4 Principles* are usually posted on the wall for people to read, alongside pictures of butterflies and bees to suggest the creativity and cross pollination of ideas that can come from moving between groups.
The facilitator then 'opens the space'. She invites participants to write their topics on a piece of paper along with their name and to introduce them to the group. The facilitator then moves out of the way as participants create the agenda for the day, reading out their topic and choosing a time slot and breakout space for the discussion group that they will then lead.
When everyone who wants has posted a topic on the Agenda wall, the first discussion session starts. Those who have posted topics in this time slot go to their allotted breakout space whilst everyone else looks at Agenda wall and chooses the discussion groups they would like to join.
Each group is given a pro-forma to make notes of their discussion and any conclusions or recommendations. At the end of each discussion session the notes and recommendations are posted on the Recommendations wall and typed into laptop computers to provide the basis of a report of the event.
After the last discussion session has finished, the whole group comes together again in a circle. The facilitator offers everyone a strip of sticky dots. She invites participants to walk around the room and read all the recommendations that have emerged during the day and to put a dot against those ideas they think most answer the question posed at the start of the meeting. This prioritising exercise provides a rough and ready idea of what matters most to the group.
If wanted, the meeting can then go on to create an Action Plan. The recommendations are converged to bring similar ideas together. Participants are then invited to work in groups to identify the next steps, who will lead on each one, who else needs to be involved,
timescales for action and any costs.
At the end of the meeting the whole group comes together again and a talking stick/microphone is passed around with the invitation to those who want to make a concluding remark, ending with the sponsor/host of the meeting who thanks everyone for participating.
The notes of the event are sent to all participants immediately after the meeting.
Whenever it starts is the right time.
Whoever comes are the right people.
Whatever happens is the only thing that could happen
When it's over it's over.
Here are some images of Open Space in action.
For further information on Open Space contact Annette at:
Tel: +44 (0)207 226 2768
Mobile: +44 (0)7951771466