DO YOU LONG FOR WIDE OPEN SPACES?
Want to get some real work done? Forget meetings. Throw out the agendas
prepared in lengthy meetings that are never followed. Scrap the PowerPoints
and flowcharts and make your next meeting an "un-meeting" with open space
That's the advice of Harrison Owen, the originator of "open space
technology" and the author of Open Space Technology: A User's Guide
(Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 3rd Edition, Spring 2008).
Owen, along with 85 other "brave" souls, originated the open space concept
back in 1985 at the Third Annual International Symposium on Organization
Transformation, held in Monterey, California.
be put to work by trainers and managers within their own organizations -
either as an alternative to meetings or as an alternative to training
TEE: If trainers want to use their money wisely, should they spend less time
organizing, planning and designing instruction and more time gathering
employees together in open space environments?
Owen: I think so, and so would thousands of my colleagues, but I am sure
others would disagree. It seems that some people actually enjoy all the
organizing, planning and designing even though no meeting or conference ever
ran the way it was supposed to. Somehow or another, the schedule slipped,
the agenda was not followed, and that careful design had to be revised
multiple times during the course of the gathering. A worst case scenario,
which actually happened to me 25 years ago - after spending one full year in
the planning/design process, the great occasion occurred and everybody
(myself included) found the best parts happened in the coffee breaks. So
much for one year's effort! But I learned something. Forget all the rest --
just have one big coffee break. And that is precisely the genesis of Open
TEE: Say I want to try using open space at my company. Are there "right"
conditions for doing so?
Owen: Open space is appropriate in any situation where there is a real
business issue to be solved marked by high levels of complexity, in terms of
the issues to be resolved, high levels of diversity in terms of the people
needed to solve it, high levels of conflict (potential or actual), and a
decision time of yesterday. Given these conditions, open space is not only
appropriate, but always seems to work. I should also note that size is
irrelevant. Open space works with groups of all kinds, ranging in size from
five to 2,000-plus. Having said all that, it is important to specify what
"works" means. If "works" means that the group will create and pursue its
own agenda in multiple task groups without any facilitator intervention - I
have never seen a situation where that did not take place. If "works" means
the group will arrive at some useful conclusions, which usually have never
been thought of before - my answer would be the same. However, if "works"
means that 5 years after the event, everything is going swimmingly, I think
the jury is still out on that one.
TEE: How might these "right" conditions apply to determining whether open
space is an appropriate alternative to a given training program?
Owen: If the specified conditions are present, the decision to use Open
Space or some other approach (Future Search, Realtime Strategic change, and
to some extent Appreciative Inquiry, to name a few) seems to depend largely
on the style and comfort levels of the sponsor and the facilitator. If both
these individuals are prepared to fully trust the people involved to
responsibly pursue the issue at hand, and genuinely believe that the people
on the firing line are probably the only ones who fully understand that
issue and the best ones to find a solution - then Open Space is the obvious
choice, I think. On the other hand, if there are some reservations, small or
large, then some other approach would probably be in order. There is an old
mantra: Trust the Process! In the case of Open Space that trust would seem
to be warranted, given the global experience. But personally, I think there
is another mantra which is even more important: Trust the People.
TEE: What are the benefits of open space, in your estimation?
Owen: Open space creates an environment that allows diverse, often
conflicted groups of people to manage hugely complex issues in minimal
amounts of time, with no advance agenda preparation, and little, to no,
overt facilitation. Typically, by the conclusion of a gathering, the
following has been accomplished:
- Every issue of concern to anybody had been laid upon the table.
- All issues were discussed to the extent that anybody cared to do that.
- A full written record of all discussions existed and was in the hands of all participants.
- All issues were ranked in priority order.
- Critical "focal issues" had been isolated and next-step actions identified for their resolution.
TEE: Say I'm holding an open space gathering. How do I get participants on
board with the concept?
Owen: If by "get the participants on board" you mean how you get things
moving, the answer is almost ridiculously simple. Invite the people to sit
in a circle, post their issues of concern on a bulletin board (usually a
large wall), negotiate time, space, participant arrangement in a market
place - and go to work. And for the facilitator, it is time to get out of
the way. I usually go for a good walk or take a nap.
On the other hand, if what you mean is how to convince participants to use
the concept - my answer is - I never try. Prior to the gathering when
meeting with the client/sponsor, I am quite happy to describe the process
(see above) and outline the global experience (100,000+ iterations, 134
countries, 23 years, for purposes including designing buildings, peacemaking
in the Middle East, corporate strategic planning). But they will have to
choose if it is right for them. The simple fact of the matter is that what
happens in Open Space violates virtually every principle and practice I know
of in terms of the organization of meetings, indeed organization itself. It
is often perceived as counter-intuitive and wrong. Explanations under these
conditions usually make the situation worse. And I certainly make no
attempt to "explain" Open Space when starting an actual event. It usually
takes 15 minutes, or less, to bring the group from passively sitting in a
circle to overt, self-initiated action. From that point on, the role of the
facilitator is minimal to invisible. More to the point, explanations are no
longer necessary. Why explain when the people are already at work?
I grant that all of this may seem very cavalier, but over the years I have
discovered that most people, with the exception of strange people such as
ourselves (facilitators and trainers) - are not interested in process. They
want results. And when the results start to come in, they are even less
I must also confess that I have become profoundly interested in the
question: Why/How does Open Space work? In the beginning I had to admit,
there was nothing in my prior experience, or knowledge of the organizational
literature which suggested that it could work. But it did. More recently,
the Open Space experience has become a wonderful natural experiment into
which I have serendipitously fallen. The answer, I think, has everything to
do with what we are now learning about self organizing systems. I have
written a number of books on the subject, and for the curious, clients or
participants, I am always happy to share. If you want more information you
might check out my website www.openspaceworld.com of the website of the Open
Space Institute www.openspaceworld.org
TEE: Are there any absolute no-nos that those interested in doing something
like this should keep in mind?
Owen: Relinquish control: The only way to bring an open space gathering to
its knees is to attempt to organize and control it. Don't do it! Open Space
Technology works because self-organization works. Organizing a
self-organizing system is not only an oxymoron; it is also frustrating,
non-productive, and a real pain. So relax, and stop working so hard.
Harrison Owens letztes Buch "Practice of Peace" ist keiner Buchhandlung, sondern nur über das Open Space Netzwerk erhältlich. Die deutsche Übersetzung "Raum für den Frieden" können sie hier bestellen.