The Electronic Discussion on
Group Facilitation
Process Expertise for Group Effectiveness
Moderator: Sandor P. Schuman



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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

particular objective.


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 orconcentric 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

and grace.


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


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


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

FAX: 301-983-9314)


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



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