The Disadvantages and Advantages of Open Space
By PJ Stevens
The advantages of using Open Space can be significant, but there are disadvantages - here's why.
Open Space Technology (OST) can be a very powerful and valuable way of running business meetings and problem solving sessions. OST really helps to connect people and ideas, which is a growing need on many organisations agenda. Open Space offers a number of benefits to businesses when applied well and in the right context. Here are some key advantages that you could be benefit from:
Open Space is highly engaging and empowers participants to take ownership and and focus on what really matters. OST sessions create an inclusive and participatory environment where all individuals have the opportunity to contribute and take ownership of the discussions. This fosters a sense of engagement, empowerment and longer lasting ownership and understanding among participants, which is likely to increase motivation and commitment.
The process encourages collaboration and knowledge sharing within the group. OST allows participants to self-organise and choose the topics they are most interested in, therefore OST promotes collaboration and knowledge sharing naturally. It enables diverse perspectives and expertise to come together, closing the knowledge gap in teams and businesses, and leading to richer discussions and the exchange of valuable insights and ideas.
Open Space is known for helping clients to generate creative and innovative solutions through the knowledge sharing. OST is designed to tap into the collective intelligence and creativity of participants in the room. By creating an open and free flowing space for dialogue, it encourages the exploration of new perspectives and the generation of innovative solutions. Having a group of participants with diverse backgrounds and experiences is more likley to lead to fresh and unconventional approaches to problem solving. And problem solving is a highly prized activity in many businesses. Indeed the degree to which we problem solve, learn and grow at work, is often a differntiator in whether businesses win or lose.
Addresses complex and emergent issues: Traditional meeting formats can struggle to effectively address complex and emergent issues. OST provides a flexible and adaptive framework that allows for emergent discussions and the exploration of multifaceted challenges. It enables participants to navigate complex problems, surface underlying issues, and find comprehensive solutions.
Builds relationships and networks: OST creates opportunities for participants to connect with one another, build relationships, and establish trusted networks. Through informal interactions and shared experiences, individuals can develop a deeper understanding of one another, forge collaborations and enhance teamwork within the organisation. The greatest reducible cost in business is in relationshps, and equally some of the most wonderful potential to deliver change exists in this space too.
Increases efficiency and productivity: By allowing participants to self-select the discussions they find most relevant, OST optimises the use of time and resources. It avoids the common pitfalls of traditional meetings, such as irrelevant discussions or disengaged participants, leading to increased efficiency and productivity. There is a huge wealth of knowledge and experience in the business, and harnessing this saves time and money - not just in meetings, but in the business itself.
Enhances organisational learning and adaptation: OST promotes a culture of continuous learning and adaptation within businesses. The documentation of discussions and outcomes allows for the capture and dissemination of knowledge, enabling organisations to learn from past experiences, refine strategies, and adapt to changing circumstances. New challenges cannot be solved with old thing, and so linking the OST sessions to the future strategy and vision for the business will better abable adaptation and 'future proof' the business.
It is important to note that while Open Space Technology offers many benefits, it may not be suitable for all situations. The nature of the challenge, the size of the group, and the desired outcomes should be considered when deciding whether to use OST in a business setting.
Whilst Open Space Technology (OST) has numerous advantages, there are also some potential disadvantages or challenges to consider before engaging in OST style of meeting facilitation. In my experience, here are a few potential disavantages to consider:
Disadvantages or challenges
Lack of control over the agenda: In OST, participants have the freedom to choose the topics they want to discuss. This can lead to some businesses feeling a lack of control over the agenda, making it challenging for organisers or leaders to ensure specific outcomes or address certain priorities. It requires a level of trust and acceptance of emergent discussions, which may not align with pre-defined objectives. Having a good OST facilitator helps as they know and trust the process. Leaders may need to learn to let go and trust in the collective knowledge in their staff.
Potential for uneven participation: Despite the inclusive nature of OST, some participants may be more vocal or dominant in discussions, while others may be less inclined to actively participate. This can result in uneven participation, where certain perspectives or voices are overrepresented, while others may be marginalised. Facilitation techniques may be needed to ensure that all participants feel comfortable contributing or you may like to encourage different participants to 'host' the conversations around the room.
Uncertainty and ambiguity: The open and self-organising nature of OST can create uncertainty and ambiguity, especially for participants who are accustomed to more structured meeting formats. Some individuals may feel uncomfortable with the lack of clear guidelines or predetermined outcomes, which can hinder their ability to engage fully or make decisions. If businesses have a management heavy culture, particupants may be concerned by a new open approach to meetings run in this very creative fashion. With time, this is often over come through the appreciation and successes that come from OST sessions.
Potential for unproductive discussions: While OST aims to promote meaningful and productive discussions - as mentioned above - there is a possibility that some discussions may not yield the desired outcomes or may become unfocused. Without a formal facilitator or predefined structure, there is a risk of conversations veering off track or failing to generate actionable solutions. We have seen unproductive discussions because participants were not really engaged in the topic and didnt feel it was useful. The rule of 'two feet' applies well here - if the conversation isnt right for you, leave, and join another group.
Time management challenges: OST sessions can be seen as time-consuming, especially if there are numerous topics and discussions taking place simultaneously. Balancing the time allocated to each discussion and ensuring that participants have ample opportunity to explore ideas while maintaining a sense of progress can be a challenge. Efficient time management and clear communication are critical to avoid sessions running over schedule. A good OST facilitator will help keep you on track whilst ensuring the OST structure is respected.
Resistance to self organisation: Some individuals or organisations may have a hierarchical or top-down approach to decision making, which may clash with the self organising principles of OST. Resistance or skepticism towards participant driven discussions and the notion of shared leadership can hinder the successful implementation of OST, especially where 'leaders' are directive or feel they must 'know it all'. Open Space can conflict with some business cultures and management styles but as the old saying goes 'give people problems to solve, not tasks to do' and it will elevate their thinking and behaviours. Have faith, people are amazing.
Limited structure for follow-up actions: While OST can generate a wealth of ideas and insights, it may not provide a clear structure for follow-up actions and accountability. Without a formal mechanism to track and implement the outcomes of discussions, there is a risk that the energy and enthusiasm generated during the session may dissipate without action plans and tangible results. Whilst the conversations themselves can be enormously powerful for the individuals and their develomdent, its worth thinking about how you will capture and action the wonderful ideas that might emerge from the day so the organisation can learn and action the opportunities.
It is important to be mindful of these potential disadvantages and assess whether OST is the appropriate approach for yoir event given the context and desired outcomes. Adapting the process and providing skilled facilitation can help mitigate these challenges and maximise the benefits of Open Space in your organisation.
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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