Open Space Technology
THE PATH OF LEAST RESISTANCE
Both Bill Gates and Walter Chrysler have, rightly or wrongly, been accredited with saying ‘choose a lazy man to do a hard job because the lazy man will find the easiest way to do it’.
Believe it or not there’s some scientific fact behind this, but its pertinence relates to the origins Open Space Technology.
Created by Harrison Owen in 1984, he had reluctantly agreed to run a management conference for the third consecutive year known as the Symposium on Organisation Transformation.
A little despondent at the thought of all the additional work he would (yet again) be burdened with, he maintains that he thought of the concept for Open Space Technology whilst drinking his sorrows away in a bar.
This is not to say Harrison Owen is a lazy person, but he thought up this new meeting style as a consequence of his reluctance to do the work required for a standard format conference – instead he found a way to still organise the symposium, but shifted the onus onto the attendees themselves.
WHAT IS OPEN SPACE TECHNOLOGY?
Open Space Technology is a meeting format you’ve probably not heard of - but it is such a departure from what is considered to be the norm, it promises to be unlike any meeting you’ve ever experienced before.
Despite the slightly misleading name, Open Space Technology doesn’t involve much technology at all. In fact it strips things back to an almost base level – at least at first – combined with a communal approach to problem solving. Issues are given over to the group to be solved by those best equipped to do so.
That’s not such a big a change in itself, but what really mixes things is up is the group also decides on what problems need to be solved in the first place.
The basic premise of Open Space Technology (OST) is that the content of the meeting will grow organically from the thoughts of those attending instead of the content being set for them and being told to form their thoughts around it.
Attendees don’t have a completely free reign as to what they suggest as a discussion point - there does still need to be a little focus. All topics raised should relate to the theme of the meeting which will be explained from the outset or communicated before-hand to allow preparation. Themes should be broad enough to ensure they encompass all the issues that might need addressing, but not so broad that it’s hard to generate momentum and gain traction on a subject.
The meeting begins with everyone sat in a circle, no matter if the group is small or large – this format has been used on groups as small as five, and as large as over 2000 attendees.
The sponsor of the event explains its purpose or ‘theme’, and a facilitator gives instructions on how the meeting will work to the group, as well as explain the guiding principles of OST, as given by Harrison Owen:
- Whoever comes is the right people ...remind participants that they don't need the CEO and 100 people to get something done, you need people who care.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Once the facilitator is finished they step back almost entirely as the group goes on to organise and govern itself.
Any member of the group is then free to voice topics for discussion they feel are important, with every topic then becoming a separate meeting in its own right. The caveats is they themselves then take responsibility for that meeting, naming it, convening it and taking notes from it.
Each meeting is given a specified time and space, recorded on a bulletin board or wall, and this establishes the agenda. The space can be something as rudimentary as ‘the corner by the window’ within a large room or hall, or in separate rooms if they are conveniently close to the central area.
There are no real limits to the number of topics that can be raised except the time and space available to you - and there being at least one topic to discuss naturally. These meetings can last for days if necessary, depending on their size and complexity of the problems faced and the largest meetings can generate topics numbering in the hundreds.
Once this stage is complete and the agenda is set the entire venue turns into a marketplace where participants ‘shop’ each meeting. Everyone is free to roam from space to space dipping in and out of different discussions as they please. If someone feels they are not contributing or gaining anything from the meeting they are in, they can move on.
Participants fall into three types of role during this period, curiously named; Birds, Bees and Butterfly’s.
Birds are those who volunteered topics during the circle and have thus become owners of their specific discussion. They remain in the space the entire time taking the lead, and are in charge of notating and feeding back the outcome of the meeting.
Bees are those who join the birds in a specific topic having become particularly interested by it. They work and support the bird typically until the end of the meeting.
Butterfly’s drift from meeting to meeting as they want to experience many topics of discussion. They still contribute, but aren’t particularly vested in a subject until such a time they become bees. Butterfly’s help share ideas observed in other groups, and compliment the graft of the bees.
It’s not uncommon, particularly if a large number of topics were put forward, for some meetings to go unattended by anyone other than the individual whose idea it was. In this instance the owner of the meeting, or ‘Bird’, can either continue to work on the topic alone and feedback their thoughts afterwards, request to join another bird on a related topic to cover both, or disband the meeting entirely. As long as the action is marked on the bulletin board the marketplace can continue without pause.
The ultimate objective for the entire exercise is to try and solve the issue in question, and where this type of meeting excels is in addressing extremely complex or difficult problems that are beyond the expertise of any one person. The free flowing nature of the meetings allows those who are best equipped to deal with specific aspects of a problem to gravitate towards discussions relevant to their areas of knowledge.
All the notes and thoughts collated from each meeting should provide a significant body of work towards solving all aspects of the event’s focus or subject, with the collaborative efforts of all those most concerned and most able behind every single point discussed.
It’s quite a departure from a traditional meeting and the experience alone must surely be worthy in itself and although not all businesses would be suited to it there are many who could benefit immeasurably.
A set of ideal conditions has been identified that should exist in order for a meeting of this type to be suitable.
- The existence of a real business issue people care about and will want to discuss.
- An extremely high level of complexity that no single person or group can solve.
- High degree of skills diversity amongst those attending.
- The potential for conflict over an issue people are genuinely passionate about.
- A sense of urgency.
If all these circumstances are present the meeting type will work best, but not all of these conditions need to be met for it to be successful.
Similarly, there are some considerations that can help to facilitate proceedings and assist those who may be unfamiliar with such a new way of exchanging ideas and information. A safe and neutral environment to help make attendees feel more comfortable in expressing thoughts and ideas is useful, and meeting spaces should close to each other and/or easy to find - you don’t want attendees wandering from place to place trying to find the right meeting.
Dedicated conference centres are usually perfect for hosting this type of event as they provide spaces that are comprised of larger conference rooms or halls, combined with numerous adjoining meeting rooms.
Lane End is no exception, and each of its five conferencing suites is more than capable of hosting meetings of varying sizes. If you are interested using Open Space Technology for your next company meeting, why not explore everything Lane End has to offer.
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