This overview of the Practice of Open Space in face-to-face settings is at best a short description, not a how-to guide. Portions have been taken from Harrison Owen's Open Space Technology: A User's Guide (Abbott Publishing, 1992); "Open Space Technology" by Michael Lindfield, a 1994 paper compiled from notes taken at an OST workshop with Harrison Owen and Anne Stadler that we also attended as well as Michael's experience and insights in facilitating Open Space at Boeing; and from correspondence and articles by Anne Stadler who uses open space principles in meeting facilitation and education for organizations in the US and India.
Open Space (or Open Space Technology as it's also called) is most closely associated with Harrison Owen, but as he wrote in Open Space Technology: A User's Guide (1992):
"...[T]he creation of OST has been a collaborative project involving perhaps 1000 people on four continents over a period of eight years. Some were participants, some practitioners, and all were contributors. In addition, many of the basic ideas come from a small West African village, the Native American Tradition, and the Wisdom of the East. To this should be added the work on group dynamics done in many places, and the special contributions of many friends and colleagues....
First developed in 1984, it has now...successfully been utilized in India, South America, Africa, Europe, the United States, and Canada with groups of 5 to 500. The purposes have ranged from corporate redesign in the face of intense competition, to national redesign in the face of massive transformational forces as in South Africa. The technology is not magic, nor does it solve all problems. However, in those situations where highly complex and conflicted issues must be dealt with, and solved, by very diverse groups of people, OST can make a major contribution."
Open Space is based on four principles:
Whoever comes is the right people: If 50 people or just one person comes to your session, it's the just the right number. If you're the only person, use the creative thinking time yourself or find another group to join.
Open Space has one law: The Law of Two Feet. This means you are personally responsible for your own experience in Open Space. No one will tell you what to do, and there is no one to blame if things aren't going the way you want. You have the choice and the power to change things. If you find yourself in a group where you are neither learning nor contributing, vote with your feet and move to some other group where you can be more fully engaged. This helps circulate the passion and spirit of the group and generate the needed outcomes.
Whatever happens is the only thing that could have: It's the result of the choice, passion, and commitment of those participating.
Whenever it starts is the right time: You'll know when it's begun. It will just happen.
When it is over, it is over: Similarly, you'll know when it's over. It will feel complete.
Open Space employs four elements (details below):
the bulletin board
the market place
Open space runs on passion and responsibility. As Harrison says, "Without passion, nobody is interested. Without responsibility, nothing will get done. Obviously different people feel passionate about different things.... And it is quite unlikely that anybody will take responsibility for something they do not care about. It is therefore extremely important to declare, right up front, what the focus is."
Focus and Intent
For Open Space to work, it must focus on a real (business) issue which is of passionate concern to those involved. Determine what you want to accomplish in concrete terms and then state it as a question as the focus for the Open Space.
Open Space begins in a circle. The group gathers and sits in a circle. The facilitator creates the space by walking to the center of the circle and welcomes everyone. S/he often walks the inside bounds of the circle while stating the theme or focus. Anne Stadler gives an Earth candle to every group she works with and asks someone to light it as a way of invoking Spirit at the beginning of Open Space.
After a brief description of how Open Space works and the responsibilities of group conveners, the facilitator then invites those who have something to offer to come to the center of the room and write the title of their session and their name on a sheet of paper. After each person announces aloud what s/he wants to offer in terms of convening a session, s/he posts the sheet on the bulletin board. This is how the agenda is created.
As Michael Lindfield notes, "The circle is a natural shape that allows communion to take place. Other shapes and meeting formats encourage other dynamics." (See Council Circle Design Commentary for a graphic of this.) "The circle seems to be the most simple and natural setting for creative human interaction. The circle has played an important part in the social architecture of many native peoples for thousands of years and whether we look to Africa, North America, or Lapland, we see the circle as the forum for communion and decision-making. Open Space employs the circle because honest communication and creative work is easier in this setting."
Lindfield comments: "The breath is vital to life as it establishes a rhythm within the life-cycle of any project, person or organization.... Many of our business meetings do not breathe and therefore do not allow the possibilities present to be recognized and acted upon. The African village is built in a circle and all movement goes in and out of the circle. It breathes."
The Bulletin Board
Imagine a one (two, three) day meeting where the agenda is represented by a blank wall.
That's how the Open Space bulletin board starts out and then is quickly filled up with the topics of real interest to participants.
A time/space matrix is on the wall, with break-out rooms or locations and times for groups to meet. As each convener announces his or her topic, the sheet (or in some cases, a post-it representing the topic) is put up in one of the available "slots" on the growing and evolving agenda.
The Market Place
After all the topics have been announced in the circle and posted on the bulletin board, everyone goes to the wall at once and puts his or her name on those topic groups s/he wants to join. This market place is where everyone self-organizes into the groups and topics they care most about.
Conveners can negotiate with each other if there are similar sessions or if many people want to attend two groups meeting at the same time.
There is a lot of movement and energy in the market place.
Morning Announcements and Evening News
In Open Space, the community assembles twice a day -- in the morning for announcements and in the evening (end of the day) for the news.
The evening news is an opportunity for additional announcements and a few interesting stories about the day.
In both cases, they are opportunities for the whole community to assemble together.
Reports from Each Group
Each convener is responsible for writing a summary of his group's work and posting it on the News Wall.
Alternately, if some computers are available for simple report writing during the Open Space, instant proceedings can be available for everyone to take home. At one Open Space meeting, 225 people produced 150 pages of proceedings in two days, and bound copies were ready at the end of the gathering. Harrison Owen reports that for 200 people, 20 computers are enough. They are used for very simple word processing. No special technical skill is required.
At the Open Space on Open Space conferences, the format for such group reports includes:
Issue (the topic)
Resources on Open Space
"Open Space: Linking Interest and Responsibility," and "A Transformative Learning Cycle," by Anne Stadler, At Work, July/August 1995, included in the printed CIP Readings
Open Space homepage: http://www.tmn.com/openspace/index.html
"Open Spaces: Journal of the Open Space Institute," published by The Open Space Institute, a service of H.H. Owen and Co., 7808 River Falls Dr., Potomac, MD 20854; voice: (301) 469-9269, fax: (301) 983-9314
Books by Harrison Owen and a video by Anne Stadler on Open Space can be ordered from H.H. Owen and Co. at the address above. Call or write for descriptions and prices. Two books of interest: Open Space Technology: A User's Guide (1992) describes practical aspects of convening and facilitating an Open Space event. Tales from Open Space (1995) is a collection of sixteen stories from practitioners of Open Space in a variety of settings.
Training programs in the facilitation and use of Open Space Technology are available. Each is 4-5 days long and is conducted by Harrison Owen in conjunction with a local host.
OSONOS IV is October 26-28, 1996 at the Dulles Hyatt in Washington, DC. This is the fourth Open Space on Open Space meeting, open to those who are Open Space practitioners.
From the 1996 Awakening Technology Community of Inquiry and Practice (CIP)
Content and Groupware Design © 1996 Awakening Technology.
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