Open Space Technology
By PJ Stevens
Open Space Technology
Open Space Technology (OST) is a high value, collaborative and participatory meeting format that allows groups of people to self-organise and address complex issues, explore ideas and generate creative solutions together. OST is participant led, very engaging and offers a high degree of ownership in the meeting, conversation and outcome.
Open Space works so well to bring the old adage to life: ‘give people problems to solve, not jobs to do’. If you want to tap into the collective brilliance of your people ( or network), help them connect and solve problems and opportunities, Open Space is certainly for you.
Today, OST is a wonderful way to get people together to connect, share and learn, and to upload some of the wealth of knowledge and creativity that exists in people, but which the team and business cannot access. In this work-from-home world many of us operate in, much knowledge is isolated or siloed. Open Space is, in my experience, a powerful way to connect people and ideas.
It was developed by Harrison Owen in the 1980s as a way to facilitate productive and inclusive discussions in groups. I have used Open Space with groups of 25-100, whilst I understand OST has been delivered for hundreds of participants.
The fundamental principle of Open Space Technology is the belief that the participants themselves have the knowledge, expertise and energy to find solutions to the challenges they face. OST provides a safe structured framework for participants to create their own agenda and engage in meaningful conversations about things they want or need to discuss.
Here's a basic overview of how Open Space Technology works with some terms you may hear when attending an OST session:
The session begins with an opening circle, where the facilitator introduces the purpose of the meeting and shares the principles of Open Space. Participants are invited to suggest topics or issues they would like to discuss. Often OST starts with a high level question or theme which participants are interested in, from here they run with it, providing specific questions and themes.
The facilitator creates a marketplace or scheduling board with time slots and locations or group numbers around the room. Participants write down their proposed topics on sticky notes and place them on the board, indicating the time and location for the discussion. Often the group will see themes and group the sticky notes together so clear discussion groups are formed.
Participants then review the marketplace and decide which discussions they want to attend. They are free to move between discussions throughout the session, rather like a Bee buzzing between flowers. There is an Open Space law called two feet, which means participants can leave any discussion that does not meet their needs and join another. This is unlike facilitator led sessions where people are often put in groups and told to discuss a particular topic, which may not interest them.
Participants gather in small groups to discuss the chosen topics. These discussions are self-facilitated, allowing for open dialogue, knowledge sharing and exploration of ideas together. In many ways OST really does engage many of the genuine DE&I requirements. So much knowledge and creativity that exists in businesses remains siloed and this format opens up communication, sharing and collaborative learning and understanding.
Each group is responsible for note taking. As discussions progress, participants are encouraged to take notes or capture key ideas. These notes can be shared and documented to create a record of the conversations and outcomes. If you hold a number of OST sessions and collate the data, you may find interesting themes, concerns and wonderful solutions that you may wish to act upon.
The session concludes with a closing circle, where participants come together to reflect on their discussions and share any insights or actions that emerged. This allows for collective learning and the identification of next steps.
Open Space Technology is known for fostering creativity, collaboration, and engagement among participants. It is proven to help close the knowledge gap in businesses and enables more knowledge to be ‘uploaded’ that might ordinarily be hidden away. It promotes self-organisation and empowers individuals to take ownership of the issues they care about. It has been widely used in various settings, such as conferences, organisations, community gatherings, project groups, supply chains and team meetings, to tackle complex problems, generate innovative ideas and build trusted relationships among participants.
If you would to talk about having an Open Space meeting for your team or employees, please get in touch. The Business Improvement Network has a number of experienced facilitators who can work with you to deliver an OST event.
'We find that Open Space suits us, our culture and needs really well. OST meetings help us live our values and behaviours, meets our EDI agenda and importantly for us it closes the knowledge gap between new and old employees and greatly improves probldm solving' Chief of Staff.
About the author
PJ Stevens is an expert in organisational change, performance and improvement, with 20 years experience. He is chair of the business improvement network.
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