by Lisa Heft
|What is Open Space Technology?
This is a way to format a group meeting, retreat or conference that generates communication, collaboration, innovation, and other solutions to challenges and transitions. When your organization or community has a complex problem, you are completely out of ideas regarding a solution, you have a diversity of people that you can bring to the process, and the time for resolving this situation was yesterday — this is a great time for Open Space Technology (OST). Group members emerge from the process invigorated, refreshed, and proud of their individual and collective accomplishments.
Committees, task forces and design teams can take weeks, months and even years to accomplish their goal – or in some cases simply to define their goal. Much of this same work can be accomplished by holding an Open Space. A half- or one-day Open Space can help people to quickly bring forth emerging issues and opportunities and to build mutual understandings and networking; a 2.5 day Open Space includes issues, opportunities and action planning, resulting in a complete written report of the proceedings for all participants plus identification and prioritization of next steps.
Open Space is an interactive process — participants meet in concurrent and overlapping mini-discussions around a theme or an issue, across departmental, hierarchal or historically opposite lines. The cross-pollination of moving from group to group and topic to topic in a non-linear way allows participants to jump quickly from familiar ways of thinking into innovation and action.
The use of Open Space Technology has been effective since the mid-1980’s in a diversity of settings, cultures and countries. The method has been used by communities working towards peace, chemists designing new polymers, tribal and governmental leaders planning land use, community advocates and local government designing literacy programs, conference organizers holding conferences in this format, architects designing pavilions for the Olympics, an entire town having a simultaneous discussion town meeting, and community workers helping communities rebuild and heal after times of war. This tool can be utilized by groups of 5 to over 2000 and the dynamics and the results are always the same: input from stakeholders at all levels, new ways of thinking and working, large amounts of work done rapidly, bringing perceived competitors together on issues and projects, organizational flexibility, interdepartmental or intercommunity teamwork, a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of passion and energy for the challenges ahead.
Guidelines for an Open Space Meeting
The rules are simple, although setting up the parameters for a meeting or conference in Open Space is based on the theories of complexity, self-organization and open systems. Do you know how sometimes when you go to a conference or a meeting, the best ideas, networking, brainstorming and deal making happen during the coffee breaks? Open Space Technology is designed to simulate that natural way people find each other and share ideas in all different cultures and countries. It is also based on the understanding that there is a great amount of wisdom and experience in any gathered group of people – that we are all ‘experts’ and can all contribute – a true democratic process.
It all starts with a circle of chairs, without a pre-designed agenda. The group sets their own agenda by identifying issues and topics that have heart and meaning for them; topics for which they have passion and interest and for which they are willing to host a discussion group. Small group discussions happen throughout the day, with participants moving from group to group whenever they feel that they can no longer learn or contribute to a discussion, or when they feel drawn to another topic.