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  • Writer's picturePJ Stevens

What is Open Space?

Updated: Feb 19

How will Open Space help improve my business?

If you want a powerful and dynamic way to run a meeting, try Open Space. In our experience, Open Space is a proven way to tap into the creativity and knowledge that exists in your business to solve problems, challenge the status quo, look at things differently and make commercial sense of opportunities. Open Space makes great business sense and offers incredible value for money.

Open Space Technology – more often called OST or Open Space – is a highly engaging and innovative method to help participants focus on, and solve, a specific task or challenge during a meeting or workshop. Open Space is driven by the participants, rather than the facilitator, and the agenda is created on the day by those who attend. This method has been noted as one of the top organisation development tools in early 2000’s, and is largely based on Harrison Owens work in the 1980’s.

We recommend Open Space for any situation where there is:

  • A real and current opportunity, challenge or issue that needs attention

  • Complex issues and matters involved

  • A good mix and diverse group of people

  • Real need, a passion or ambition, and may be even some conflict

  • Genuine need for a decision and action

Open Space is powerful and will work under all of these types of circumstances. However, it is not suitable for all meetings and workshops, and is simply not appropriate when the outcome of the meeting has already been decided or where the managers are just not prepared to listen, learn and act as a result of the information and ideas that arise. If you are a manager who wants control and to know the outcome before it happens, don’t waste your team’s time and our time running OST. OST is much better suited to leaders and their people who are happy to operate in the unknown.

To run Open Space, you need a nice big space for the group. Very large groups of 100-200 people might use an indoor sports hall for example, however, large conference rooms are suitable for the vast majority of groups (up to 60 people) that we work with. Whilst we prefer inspirational, light and airy spaces, budget may dictate a more practical room and space. Importantly, the room must have large blank wall spaces for the agenda to unfold and the day to be mapped out. The group will need lots of chairs, flip charts and so on, to create their work groups and break out into their own space.

We have found that Open Space Technology is useful in almost any context from high level strategic thinking and planning to consulting with stakeholders and partners, through to developing a view of the future and conflict resolution. Recently we have run sessions on: general Business Improvement and a specific Turnaround situation. Open Space works under four basic principles and one law. The four principles and the law combine to create an innovative day driven and owned by the motivated participants that will help to advance people and business.

The four principles are:

  1. Trust that whoever comes are the right people

  2. Whatever happens is the right thing and will be useful

  3. The day starts when it starts

  4. And the session finishes when it finishes

The Law that is mentioned, is simply the Law of Two Feet, and this means that if you find yourself in a situation or group where you are not learning, not interested or not contributing, then move on to where you can help yourself or others. The feeling this gives is one of ownership and responsibility and we see people become very much more passionate than in standard meetings, because they are primarily working on what they see as important.

The four principles do not always work in today’s world, and most clients prefer to set a time to start and finish, but within that, it’s OK to be flexible, to focus on what needs our attention, and I love not getting hung up on who is, and who is not, in the room. Over the years I have seen clients discover that incredible things happen in OST process, people connect in a very special way and come up with some startling insights and ideas. So we run OST with a modern take on the useful principles.

Participants will get a real sense of ownership in sessions and the outcomes are representative of the environment and engagement. Everyone can bring ideas and issues, and they will all be considered, before the group prioritises them, and then discusses what matters to them for as long as required, which means some get lot of attention and others get little or even none. Related issues often converge to find a solution that solves a number of matters and the group owns the actions to be taken, making this of value to the business. Open Space is a great way to hear from everyone and can reduce or manage some of the louder voices in the room, giving people a more equal hearing, and offering a much more balanced view of the topic or issues.

If you choose run a number of these Open Space sessions on a similar topic across the business or over a number of sites, then all the information can be gathered and shared to improve learning and development. I find it fascinating to watch themes emerging and being mapped. OST takes people out of the transact space into the transform space. We encourage some of our clients to invite customers and partners into their Open Space sessions to work together on issues such as sustainable business improvement, whilst other clients host industry based events, inviting managers and leaders with common interests such as HR, Engineering or Aviation.

OST cannot solve all your business issues, however it does offer a great environment for your people to problem solve, challenge and innovate.

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