Open Space Technology (OST) is an approach to purpose-driven leadership, including a way for hosting meetings, conferences, corporate-style retreats, symposiums, and community summit events, focused on a specific and important purpose or task — but beginning without any formal agenda, beyond the overall purpose or theme.
Seen by proponents as especially scalable and adaptable, the OST event format has been used in meetings of 5 to 2,100 people (in self-discovery work for smaller groups or even individuals). The approach is characterized by a few basic mechanisms:
- a broad, open invitation which articulates the purpose of the meeting;
- participants’ chairs arranged in a circle;
- a “bulletin board” of issues and opportunities posted by participants;
- a “marketplace” with many break-out spaces that participants move freely between, learning and contributing as they “shop” for information and ideas;
- a “breathing” or “pulsation” pattern of flow, between plenary and small-group breakout sessions.
The approach is most distinctive for its initial lack of an agenda, which sets the stage for the meeting’s participants to create the agenda for themselves, in the first 30–90 minutes of the meeting or event. Typically, an “open space” meeting will begin with short introductions by the sponsor and usually a single facilitator. The sponsor introduces the purpose; the facilitator explains the “self-organizing” process called “open space.” Then the group creates the working agenda, as individuals post their issues in bulletin board style. Each individual “convener” of a breakout session takes responsibility for naming the issue, posting it on the bulletin board, assigning it a space and time to meet, and then later showing up at that space and time, kicking off the conversation, and taking notes. These notes are usually compiled into a proceedings document that is distributed physically or electronically to all participants. Sometimes one or more additional approaches are used to sort through the notes, assign priorities, and identify what actions should be taken next. Throughout the process, the ideal facilitator is described as being “fully present and totally invisible”, “holding a space” for participants to self-organize, rather than managing or directing the conversations.
There are several desired outcomes from an Open Space event.
- The issues that are most important to people will get discussed.
- The issues raised will be addressed by the participants best capable of getting something done about them.
- All of the most important ideas, recommendations, discussions, and next steps will be documented in a report.
- When sufficient time is allowed, the report contents will be prioritized by the group.
- Participants will feel engaged and energized by the process.
Guiding principles and one law
In his User’s Guide, Harrison Owen has articulated “the principles” and “one law” that are typically quoted and briefly explained during the opening briefing of an Open Space meeting. These explanations describe rather than control the process of the meeting. The principles and Owen’s explanations are:
- Whoever comes is the right people …reminds participants that they don’t need the CEO and 100 people to get something done, you need people who care. And, absent the direction or control exerted in a traditional meeting, that’s who shows up in the various breakout sessions of an Open Space meeting.
- Whenever it starts is the right time …reminds participants that “spirit and creativity do not run on the clock.”
- Wherever it is, is the right place …reminds participants that space is opening everywhere all the time. Please be conscious and aware.
- Whatever happens is the only thing that could have, be prepared to be surprised! …reminds participants that once something has happened, it’s done—and no amount of fretting, complaining or otherwise rehashing can change that. Move on. The second part reminds us that it is all good.
- When it’s over, it’s over (within this session) …reminds participants that we never know how long it will take to resolve an issue, once raised, but that whenever the issue or work or conversation is finished, move on to the next thing. Don’t keep rehashing just because there’s 30 minutes left in the session. Do the work, not the time.
Law of two feet
Owen explains his one “Law,” called the “Law of two feet” or “the law of mobility”, as follows:
If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else.
In this way, all participants are given both the right and the responsibility to maximize their own learning and contribution, which the Law assumes only they, themselves, can ultimately judge and control. When participants lose interest and get bored in a breakout session, or accomplish and share all that they can, the charge is to move on, the “polite” thing to do is going off to do something else. In practical terms, Owen explains, the Law of Two Feet says: “Don’t waste time!”