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Open Space Technology

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Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide is just what the name implies: a hands-on, detailed description of facilitating Open Space Technology (OST). OST is an effective, economical, fast, and easily repeatable strategy for organizing meetings of between 5 and 2,000 participants that has been used in thousands of organizations in 134 countries and just keeps growing in popularity. Written by the originator of the method, this is the most authoritative book on the rationale, procedures, and requirements of OST.

OST enables self-organizing groups of all sizes to deal with hugely complex issues in a very short period of time. This step-by-step user’s guide details what needs to be done before, during, and after an Open Space event.

Harrison Owen details all the practical considerations necessary to create Open Space. He begins with the most important question—should you use Open Space at all?—and examines what types of situations are appropriate for Open Space Technology and what types are not. He then goes on to look at nuts-and-bolts issues such as supplies, logistics, and who should come and how you should go about getting them there.

This third edition adds a survey of the current status of Open Space Technology around the world, an updated section on the latest available technology for report writing (a key aspect of the Open Space process), and an updated list of resources.

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12 Chapters

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Chapter I: Open Space Technology?

ePub

On 21 April 1992, a group of about 225 people gathered in Denver, Colorado, for a two-day meeting to develop cooperative arrangements for the effective expenditure of $1.5 billion designated for highway construction on tribal and public lands. Roughly one-third of these people were Native Americans, one-third were federal bureaucrats, and one-third were from state and local governments. On the face of it, the prospects for a peaceful, let alone productive, meeting seemed less than bright. The participants were all natural, if not historical, enemies. As a matter of fact, the results were rather surprising.

When the people arrived, it was clear that this was not business as usual. To begin with, there was no advance agenda. People knew only when the meeting would start, when it would end, and that somehow (as yet undefined) they would accomplish the task before them. Needless to say, there were more than a few skeptics, whose disbelief was not lessened by the physical appearance of the room in which they were to meet. What they found were two large concentric circles of chairs, with nothing in the middle and a blank space of wall behind.

 

Chapter II: Preparation

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So you have decided you want to try Open Space–the fact is, it is simple and easy to get started. Nevertheless, some careful preparation is necessary. Not the sort of preparation you may be used to, with months of committee meetings devoted to agenda development and participant selection. But preparation nonetheless.

The first item to look at is the basic decision of whether to use Open Space Technology or not. In the wrong situation, OST may create more problems than it solves.

Open Space Technology is effective in situations where a diverse group of people must deal with complex and potentially conflicting material in innovative and productive ways. It is particularly powerful when nobody knows the answer, and the ongoing participation of a number of people is required to deal with the questions. Conversely, Open Space Technology will not work, and therefore should not be used, in any situation where the answer is already known, where somebody at a high level thinks he or she knows the answer, or where that somebody is the sort who must know the answer, and therefore must always be in charge–otherwise known as control, control, control.

 

Chapter III: Proceedings and the Electronic Connection

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The possibility of creating instant proceedings during the Open Space meeting has been mentioned in passing. You will recall our opening story about the 225 people who produced 150 pages of proceedings in two days and had bound copies ready to be carried home. If it all sounds very high tech, you have been misled; the actual process is nothing more than a mundane use of a standard word-processing program. Yes, you need access to computers, and it would probably be a good idea to know something about them. But a PhD in computer science is not required.

The notion of on-the-spot proceedings, like Open Space itself, grew out of the frustration generated from dealing with meetings as they are usually done. My experience was that by the time I would get proceedings they were so old they were useless, or else the significant parts had already been published in a dozen other places so I didn’t need them anyhow. What would be useful, and what nobody seemed able to produce, was an immediate, take-home package that provided all the goodies, albeit in a rough-and-ready form. I thought there had to be a way, and if it were going to work in Open Space, it had to fit with that approach.

 

Chapter IV: Personal Preparation for Open Space

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The unique and critical role of the facilitator in an Open Space event revolves around two functions: creating time and space and holding time and space. Observably, in performance, this means doing less rather than more. Under the best of circumstances, the facilitator will be totally present and absolutely invisible.

If this assertion appears paradoxical, even contradictory, rather like the sound of one hand clapping, I have to confess that Open Space thinking and practice have more in common with Zen and the Eastern martial arts than with a straight, linear application of a cookbook technology. Two stories may serve to compound the contradiction, or possibly make things a little clearer.

On one occasion, during the course of an Open Space event, I overheard my client remarking to a friend that while everything seemed to be working quite well, he could not see that I actually did anything. Inasmuch as he was paying me a rather large amount of money, this was a matter of some concern to him.

 

Chapter V: Site Preparation

ePub

Before the event begins, the large room in which it will take place must be prepared. This is not a complicated task. It rarely takes more than an hour or two even with very large groups, presuming that the staff at the facility has done the basics, as in providing the appropriate number of chairs along with the necessary tables for the computers and the coffee.

For me, site preparation is not so much about doing things. Although a number of physical things must be taken care of, my main concern is to become comfortable in the space before all the folks arrive. To this end, I will typically show up at least two, and usually three hours before the official start time. My first act is to walk the space and get a feel for it. I previsualize what it will be like when everybody arrives. This is not about thinking out what the agenda will look like or the nature of the specific interactions and/or accomplishments. All of that is for the group to determine, and they will do that with style. My concern is to place myself in the midst of the energy or Spirit that will shortly fill the hall. Call it an invocation if you like, but I am quite clear that the event begins the moment I walk into what is usually a very dark, silent hall. In the silence, I welcome the people yet to come and prepare an expectant place for them in the space, and perhaps most importantly in my heart. At some point, I find it useful to sit in the very center of the room, on the floor, in the middle of the Open Space. Before any specific details can be taken care of, I must continue my self-preparation to be fully present for what comes next.

 

Chapter VI: Creating Time and Space

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The preparations have been made and the people are assembled; everybody is sitting in a circle. The middle is open space except for a small pile of markers, masking tape, and quarter-sheets of flip-chart paper. It is time to get started.

The initiatory activities of an Open Space event are designed to move people as quickly as possible into active, synergistic co-creation. This is not the time for speeches, lengthy explanations, or acknowledgments. What transpires is the absolute minimum necessary to get the show on the road. Over the years, operating under the principle that less is more, I have found it possible to reduce the opening ceremonies to something close to one and one-half hours. By the end of that time, people will know what they are doing, will have created their agenda (task groups, discussion groups, and the like), and will be heading off to work.

Initiation consists of the following six stages:

STAGES OF INITIATION

What follows is my usual approach, but please note, there is no one right way. My way works for me and is dependent on my style, chemistry, and relationships with the groups, along with a host of other individual factors of which I am not aware. What you do will have to be tailored to your idiosyncrasies and those of your group. Having said this, I also believe there is a logic to what I do, and as minimal as each stage along the way may appear, there is a reason for its shape and form. I suggest, therefore, that you try it according to the book once or twice, and then throw caution to the wind. There are certain principles you would be well advised to keep in mind, and I will do my best to point them out as we go along. As for the details, this is strictly a “do your own thing” party.

 

Chapter VII: Holding Time and Space

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From the moment the village marketplace opens, the facilitator takes on a new role. No longer responsible for creating space and time, the facilitator now holds space and time in trust for the group as they journey down the particular road they have chosen. The job of holding space and time does not fit neatly within a precise job description or linear specification of tasks. It is an opportunistic role, depending upon a close reading of the meeting environment, a clear sense of self and purpose, and a capacity for sensitive and innovative response. Done well, the role manifests what I see as the essential qualities of a good facilitator: total presence and absolute invisibility. Some examples follow.

Another word for holding, as in holding space, might be caring, to which we might add cleaning, clearing, or even honoring. I suppose there are big things that can, and should, get done under this heading, but for the most part I find it is the little things that count–like picking up coffee cups and trash.

 

Chapter VIII: Movement to Action

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There is no guarantee that definitive action will take place just because Open Space has been utilized. But the same can be said of any other approach. In the final analysis, meaningful action emerges when people accept responsibility for getting it done, whatever “it” might be. Open Space does, however, appreciably raise the probability that action will be taken because all participants have been put on notice from the very beginning that they and they alone hold the necessary keys to get the ball rolling. This is not to suggest that all necessary power and resources are available to them for the accomplishment of the task. This may or may not be the case, but it is very clear that the power of initiation resides with them. If they do not take the first step, it is highly questionable that others will.

In addition, Open Space raises the probability that meaningful action will be taken because the perception of need and the desire for action has emerged from the group itself. There is no “lay-on” from higher authority, no predetermined plan of attack. Those who saw the need to move are themselves the movers, and they above all others should be motivated to take the first step. I say should because there is no guarantee, it is just that the probabilities are higher.

 

Chapter IX: Endings and New Beginnings

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All good things, including Open Space, must come to an end. This ending may be just an end, which usually leaves a strong sense of incompleteness and certainly doesn’t take advantage of all the findings, feelings, and growth that typically happen during an Open Space event. An ending with dignity and intention can supply the necessary closure, while at the same time provide a jump-off point for the next round of activity that the organization or group may wish to undertake.

As you construct the closure for an Open Space event, it will quickly become apparent that the more-or-less standard ways of bringing a program to conclusion simply will not do. Whatever is done must be done in the same spirit as the rest of event. So, for example, having the “leader” stand up and deliver an impassioned speech about all the wonderful things the participants are now going to do will be experienced as dissonant to the synergy and collegiality that have evolved. Following one such (abortive) attempt, I overheard a participant saying, “He (referring to the leader) is a nice guy with a nice speech, but we don’t need him, or anybody else, to tell us what we must do. The experience of the last several days demonstrated, if demonstration was necessary, that collectively we have the resources, the will, and the power to do what needs to get done. Somehow he missed the point: he is playing the new game by the old rules.”

 

Chapter X: Follow-Up

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After a great meeting–what next? By the conclusion of a typical Open Space, the people involved find themselves excited, energized, and ready to move forward–wherever “forward” might lead. To be sure, there are occasions when the results are less than stellar, but in my experience such occasions are rare, and never occur if the necessary conditions for Open Space are present (real business issue, complexity, and so on) and the “procedure,” simple as it is, is followed. As far as I know, Open Space always works. But whether the event will remain an isolated instance, just a flash in the pan, or become the beginning of something truly useful depends in large part on what happens next: the follow-up.

The central question is how do you sustain the energy and bring the various action plans to some useful fruition. In some cases the question is less than pertinent if only because the event was one of a kind with no particular expectation that further action will be taken. Such is the case in gatherings of peers and colleagues where the sole purpose was to engage in a stimulating and productive interchange. But that sort of situation is doubtless in the minority, and certainly for a business or other organization, implementation and follow-through are essential.

 

Chapter XI: Unexpected Gifts: Leadership, Performance, Peace

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When first I created Open Space Technology in 1985 my intention was only to find a way towards meetings that had the energy of a good coffee break combined with the substance of a carefully prepared agenda. The eighty-five brave souls who initially experienced Open Space while attending the Third Annual International Symposium on Organization Transformation in Monterey, California, appeared to confirm that the objectives had been achieved, but nobody seemed particularly impressed. Open Space was effective and fun, but beyond that, not much of note.

Now, some twenty years later, with thousands of applications in multiple countries it remains true that Open Space is effective and fun. But the production of better meetings may well be the least of the benefits. Unexpected gifts have appeared over the years: leadership in a new key, high performance, and perhaps most remarkable– peace when you might least expect it. I have called these unexpected gifts for the simple reason that there had been no special effort to find or produce any of them, and indeed the fact of their arrival only became clear after a number of years opening space.

 

Chapter XII: What Next?

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After twenty-two years and counting, I cannot deny a deep sense of wonder and gratitude for this curious thing we have called Open Space Technology. More particularly I am profoundly thankful for the multitude of people who have seen fit to join me for what has turned out to be a marvelous adventure. It is said that I am the creator of Open Space Technology, which I suppose is literally true, but in all honesty it has never really felt that way. In fact OST is the product of collaborative creation with thousands of people involved. We have all learned from each other as we pushed the boundaries and shared the experience.

Earlier in this book I attempted to give an accounting of the experiences and sources which led me to Open Space Technology (see page ?). My debt to the people of Balamah and their appreciation for the circle is a deep one, and there is no question that the days I was privileged to spend as their guest left a profound impression. However, I have to admit that the account given of the genesis of Open Space was done with all the wisdom of hindsight, and that in the moment, the experience was rather different. It might be assumed that Open Space Technology emerged from my mind by way of deep study and careful design. In fact it came all in a rush, assisted no doubt by the several martinis I was enjoying on an early spring evening as I was considering what we might do when the Third Annual International Symposium on Organization Transformation convened. I was very clear that I had neither the time nor the patience to build the conference in the traditional way with speakers and panels, breakout groups and plenary sessions, all planned with careful exactitude. Especially after it had become clear from the first symposium that the most engaging parts were the coffee breaks. I had no clarity, however, about what we would do for the third iteration–until it just became obvious. Sit in a circle, create a bulletin board, open a marketplace, and go to work. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and besides the gin had run out. All the rest is history.

 

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