The Electronic Discussion on
Open Space Technology
From the Electronic Discussion on Group Facilitation
Sent to me by Doug Reeler ([email protected]>
Harrison Owen, the developer of Open Space, based this method on 2
observations: It became clear to him (as it is to many people I have
spoken to about this) that often the most valuable thing about conferences
or large formal gatherings, is not the formal programme of dry speeches and
patchy question and answer sessions, but rather it is the tea-breaks,
lunch-breaks and the after hours get-togethers. This informal, open time,
is a space where issues that individuals really feel strongly about can be
raised and dealt with amongst similarly interested though not necessarily
like-minded people, who naturally gather together and who want to be there
and listen and contribute. This is usually the opposite of the formal
programme. Lesson: people are better at raising issues relevant to them
than experts, in the time and place of their choosing.
A village in West Africa has developed a social mechanism to deal with
village issues, where anyone is free to place in the public forum issues
that are urgent or burning for them. A social "market place" of a particular
kind then operates which gathers people around those issues and deals with
them. This provides a mechanism to shape and direct Open Space towards a
On the basis of these observations, Open Space Conferencing has been
developed by Harrison Owen, tried and tested in forums all over the world
and has an impressive reputation.
The Methodology of Open Space
Open Space operates on the principle that to gain maximum contribution and
commitment, people must be given the free space and time to deal with issues
that they feel passionate about and with people who wish to be there with them.
A typical Open Space would open in the following way:
A major theme must be identified to give some definition to the process.
This must be carefully done to ensure a focus that enables the important and
pressing issues to be raised. There are no specific guidelines for how this
should happen - it could be derived from a number of prior processes,
participative or not. But as J. Heron (1989) maintains, at the very
beginning someone must, take some lead or initiative, giving some direction.
Stakeholders should be invited, encouraged, inspired to attend. It is
important that all stakeholders are considered or given the opportunity to
attend because participation can be undermined by the absence of people.
However people should not be forced as this would undermine the whole
principle of free participation and any coercion would contaminate
No speeches, no agendas, no caucusing, no preparations must happen other
than determining the theme, inviting the people and hiring the venue. Any
inputs may serve to direct the process and could undermine free
participation. If any inputs are deemed necessary these should occur before
Open Space begins and be seen as separate from Open Space.
The venue should have big blank walls, enough space for all participants to
sit in a circle or concentric circles and several smaller spaces for small
group discussion, depending on the overall group size.
Participants gather, taking their places in the circle(s). The circle is an
obvious choice, with no head, no focus but the centre of the circle, which
is symbolic of the collective intelligence. In the centre lie sheets of
paper and kokie pens of some sort.
The facilitator begins the session with introductions, clarifying the major
theme and purpose of the conference and spelling out the groundrules and
principles. The principles are:
- whenever it starts is the right time,
- whoever comes is the right people,
- whatever happens is the only thing that could have and
- when its over its over.
These are largely philosophical (and quite amusing for most), but are
important to clear away preconceptions and any commitments to particular
outcomes, apart from those inherently in the major theme. It focuses
responsibility on the people attending for the process and the outcomes.
At this point give a potted overview of the process (eg how people will put
up issues for others to sign up for - the people who put the issues up will
be the convenors and are responsible for starting the discussions on time
and for taking notes - this is very NB.)
The "Law of Two Feet" should also be explained here: if in a discussion
group you have heard what you want to hear and said what you want to say,
you are encouraged to quietly withdraw and become either a Butterfly or a
Bumble Bee. A Bumble Bee joins another group, perhaps fertilising it while
a Butterfly flits around, possibly the tea-table and joins other Butterflies
for informal discussion - encourage Butterflies to note their learnings for
everyone else. The Law of Two Feet is also an effective antidote to
egotists who dominate discussion as people who feel excluded can simply
depart, leaving the egotists to talk to themselves - or at least get the
This opening sets an important tone and must be handled with patience, peace
The facilitator then invites participants who have a burning issue they want
to be dealt with (under the major theme), to come forward into the centre of
the circle and to write up the issues on a sheet of paper and if they would
like to, to motivate why they feel it is an issue - if they like they can
ask someone else to do this. It must be an issue that the individual feels
strongly about and wants to do something about - not something I put forward
because I think you feel its important. This is the source of
responsibility and serious dialogue.
It may appear that asking people to physically come forward and to be so
bold as to put forward own issue in front of everyone is hardly a way to
encourage the participation of people who usually lack the confidence, but I
have been amazed, as have many people, how the process does encourage people
to be brave. I have asked several people what it is that distinguishes this
process from others in encourage this coming forward and the replies have
spoken about the fact there was no predetermined agenda, that people appear
to be genuinely on an equal footing, that the process makes individuals feel
very respected. There is of course always a degree of chaos behind which
people can take cover so they do not feel too exposed. These observations
are beginning to touch on what I would call the essence of Open Space, which
will be explored in more depth below.
The issues posted by participants, which will become the basis of group
discussions are at the same time posted onto the wall into a venue/time grid
by the participants themselves.
This process takes between thirty to forty-five minutes regardless of the
number of people present or the topic under discussion. It would be
interesting to find out why.
Once all the issues have been raised and put on the wall, the participants
are invited to go to the wall and sign up to participate in any of the
discussions (that will be based on the issues posted there). AT THIS POINT
THE FACILITATOR MUST WITHDRAW ALMOST COMPLETELY! Yes, get out the way, let
chaos happen - it is necessary if you want participants to take control.
Perhaps be around to tackle the odd question but don't interfere or you will
spoil the process...
Chaos does ensue as participants are encouraged to sort out clashes and
re-adjust the timetable. The chaos here is interesting because it is
invariably good-willed, very engaging and somehow works.1 The person who
raised the issue must then convene the group (not necessarily chair it) and
is responsible for taking notes of the discussion. THIS MUST HAVE BEEN
STRESSED VERY STRONGLY BY THE FACILITATOR BEFORE. The note-taking is
critical because it is an important vehicle for sharing the learnings as
there are no plenary report-backs.
The group can decide how to run their discussion, large groups may feel the
need for a chair, whilst smaller groups may find more natural dialogue, as
in informal gatherings, more appropriate.
But this is one area that I feel needs more exploration as the smaller
groups can often fall back into old patterns of domination by a few. There
are two factors encouraging participation: firstly, people have chosen to
attend groups whose issues they also feel passionate about and so they are
more likely to have something to say. Secondly, if any person feels the
discussion is dominated by a few or intimidating then the "law of two feet"
comes into operation and that person may leave, return to the marketplace
and join any other group. Free movement is encouraged. This is discussed
below in more depth. But even these factors do not guarantee creative
dialogue and perhaps more thought need to go into this.
The sessions are often timed for 1 or 2 hours, with tea being provided on a
continuous basis at the marketplace, for people to take in between. However
participants may choose to extend the discussion at will, except for anyone
who has chosen to convene a following discussion and as long as they are in
or can find a space not booked by another group.
The convenor, who has been taking notes, must, as soon as there is a space
in the programme and with the assistance of any staff on hand, write up or
type up and print out their notes and then stick these up on the village
market place wall. All participants are then invited to read them and write
in any comments they choose to. These comments should be incorporated into
the final published proceedings.
At the end as a final session, all participants get together and a
resolution session is held - not a plenary, not a report-back - but a
symbolic session where any input is entertained and where paths forward may
be proposed. This session pulls together the spirit that has developed.
If it can be arranged each participant should leave the conference with a
copy of all the updated proceedings or receive one shortly after.
My personal experience with Open Space has been that it is a powerful method
for opening up participation and indeed in the 5 sessions that I have
facilitated I witnessed and was told of people who normally never speak in
meetings or workshops, who had not only engaged in the discussion groups
actively, but had also been bold enough to put forward their own issues as
Tobin Quereau (via the Internet!) has suggested that Open Space is a process
that is "open to what emerges from the group rather than attempting to shape
the group effort into an outcome that is predetermined...that validates the
notion of a systemic "field" of knowledge, energy, and insight which can be
accessed when the conditions are appropriate." (1995). These "conditions"
are, I would argue, contained in a participative culture that is created in
the design and the early unfolding of Open Space. I say early unfolding
because responsibility for the process is handed over by the facilitator
usually within the first hour of Open Space after which s/he has a very
small role to play until the final symbolic convening.
A critical motivating aspect of Open Space is that it supports and
encourages the use of personal choice and interpersonal interaction both in
the creation of the agenda and in the choice to attend or disengage from
discussion groups (the Law of Two Feet). I suspect that it is because of
this respect for personal choice that I witnessed very little
"irresponsibility", in other words people using the Law to disengage
entirely from the workshop or in any way to disrupt or derail the process.
In other types of workshops it may appear that such freedom could lead to
chaos but Open Space does show that, if carefully designed, it is possible
to hand over responsibility for process in a fairly straightforward way.
Fully trusting the people and the process is difficult for many leaders or
facilitators but is a risk that can be taken with careful design.
I am interested in the chaotic elements of Open Space because it is through
the conscious and unconscious use of chaos that many workshops find their
creativity. Chaos, the opposite of control, implies a freeing up which
participants find attractive and thus workshops often begin with
"brainstorming" of some kind, sourcing lateral thinking. What is
interesting about Open Space is that so much of the process is chaotic,
relying on free association which encourages lateral thinking and engagement
throughout. Chaos is also a challenge to participants not only to think as
they see fit but also to take personal responsibility.
Of most interest to me is the possibility that some of what makes Open Space
work could be woven into the design of some other kinds of workshops,
thereby enhancing their participative potential. Whilst Open Space, in its
classic form as presented above, is excellant for "opening up", it can also
be used for focussing in by setting the theme appropriately and perhaps
adapting the design a little. For example, four of the Open Space workshops
I ran (it was about deciding the future of an organisation in crisis) had
the first day for "opening up" using the method described above and on the
second day I asked people firstly to individually read the typed up
discussion notes from the day before (to remind themselves) and then to
discuss with their neighbours (chaotically please, and for as long as they
needed) what were the most important outcomes of the first day that needed
to be focussed in on. These were then listed (on a big wall!) and people
were given 8 sticky dots to vote for the ones each felt were most important.
We added these up to see what the group prioritised, decided to choose say
10 topics and then Open Spaced these into a series of discussions - ie
people signed up to take these further, they decided when the discussions
would take place and sorted out their clashes. The Law of Two Feet still
applied of course. (Give a group a big wall, lots of cards or paper, plus
sticky stuff and they will organise a workshop better than anyone and all
will be satisfied) We agreed before going into focus groups that out of
these focus groups should emerge concrete proposals. There was a
report-back this time and this led to a concrete way forward.
The essence of Open Space and its learnings for other kinds of participative
processes lie in the following:
All stakeholders must be invited, but none must be forced to attend.
The more the agendas are designed by participants the more participation is
likely to ensue.
Expert inputs must be very carefully and clearly separated from
participative processes. In other words participation must not follow the
lead of experts who define the nature and scope of issues, however subtly
done. Expert input can be a resource to participative processes but should
not serve to define them.
Both a flexible structure and a complimentary culture of participation must
be created in the process through the physical design (eg seating in
circles, use of chaotic association around walls etc.) and through
participative principles based on personal choice, free association (eg Law
of Two Feet) and personal responsibility for both process and product.
As a whole Open Space does, in my opinion, break new group, challenging some
of the limits we set to how far people and processes can be trusted to run
without direction or guidance. But certainly these are not all new ideas,
but rather serve to confirm many preceding theories and practices.
Open Space demands a complete belief in the potential of people, which is
healthy and necessary, although Open Space must also be seen as only one of
the tools available and not a magic wand for all processes.
Doug Reeler <[email protected]>
Books pertaining to Open Space Technology
(Note: All of the following books are by Harrison Owen and are
available from Abbott Publishing. To order single copies in the US,
send check or money order for the price of the book to Abbott
Publishing, PO Box 56, Cabin John, MD 20818 Phone: 301-469-9269
Spirit: Transformation and Development in Organizations, Intro to the
world of Spirit and Open Space in Organizations. 247 pages, $20
Leadership Is, Describes in practical terms the rights, duties,
obligations, and opportunities of the new leadership which
is us. 159 pages, $20
Riding The Tiger: Doing Business in a Transforming World, proposes
a new organizational life form is coming which he calls the
Interactive Learning Organization. 207 pages, $20
Open Space Technology: A User's Guide, Everything you ever wanted
to know about facilitating an OST event. 145 pages, $20
The Millennium Organization, a description of the organization that will
emerge in the next millennium. $20
Tales From Open Space (the latest publication) is a collection of
experiences edited by Harrison Owen. $20