#141 from R&D
Innovator Volume 4, Number 2
Meetings in Open Space
Owen, of H.H. Owen & Company in Potomac, Maryland, consults in
organizational development and developed the concept of "open
space" meetings. His books include Riding
the Tiger: Doing
Business in a Transforming World (Abbott Publishing, Potomac,
Maryland, 1992), Open Space
Technology: A User's
Guide (Abbott Publishing, 1993), and The
Millenium Organization (Abbott Publishing, 1994).
organizations, one of the more frustrating tasks is to enable
diverse, talented people with different, even conflicting ideas,
to focus on a common goal and then reach real
accomplishment--without a prior agenda or plan. Good decisions ultimately, and rapidly, must be made and
quality and pace of such decisions can be responsible for the
organization’s overall success.
Over the past ten
years, we’ve developed a new approach called Open Space
Technology to get quality and rapid decisions from diverse groups.
Open Space Technology is a deceptively simple approach which
honors diversity and enhances organizational function.
In essence, the main contribution is to add commitment to
Technology has worked in an enormous variety of human endeavors,
and I see no fundamental reason why it might not make a
substantial contribution to the R&D effort.
In a typical
application, 225 individuals representing federal agencies, state
and local governments, and Native American tribes gathered for two
days to develop approaches for building roads on or near tribal
To make the whole
thing interesting, $1.5 billion was available for the undertaking.
The potential for conflict was enormous, as all groups
present were natural, if not historical, opponents.
The issues were multiple and complex, and the time
available for resolution short, as federal authorization for the
money was about to expire. In
less than an hour, this diverse group created and organized 65
self-managing task groups, all of which convened over the two-day
period. By 7:00 p.m.
on the second day, the group prepared 150 pages of proceedings,
which were printed overnight and given to all participants on
their departure the following morning.
One facilitator was required for the event, and only six
weeks elapsed from the meeting's announcement until the
proceedings were delivered.
scenario has been repeated hundreds of times all over the world,
with groups ranging in size from five to 700.
Polymer chemists have used it to search for new products;
major corporations have used it to search for new missions; towns
have used it to search for new approaches to education;
professional societies have refined and expanded their knowledge
base; and businesses of all sorts have sought closer working
relationships with their customers.
magic? Nothing except
for the passionate commitment of individuals who take personal
responsibility for getting something done, and who are given the
space and time (open space) in which to do it.
Open Space has
three fundamental mechanisms, four principles, and one law.
It runs on passion and commitment.
mechanisms are: The Circle, The Bulletin Board, and The Market
Circle. All Open
Space events begin in a circle. No tables, no desks, no dais, no rows. Just a circle of chairs (or concentric circles for large
groups) with plenty of open space in the center.
The importance of the circle cannot be overemphasized:
it's the fundamental geometry of meaningful human
communication (who’d talk of a "square of friends" or
a "family rectangle")?
In a circle, there's no top or bottom, head or foot, just
people gathered in pursuit of a common objective.
objective is articulated in a theme, issue, or concern, which all
participants have voluntarily chosen to confront (Open Space never
works with coercion).
The circle of
participants is asked to identify any issue or opportunity
regarding the theme, for which they have real passion, and are
willing to take personal responsibility.
The requirement for passion differentiates Open Space from
brainstorming techniques which often produce many good ideas for somebody
else to do. The
requirement for responsibility makes it clear that the proposer is that "somebody," and the proposer has
responsibility to convene a discussion on the item.
When passion and responsibility are linked, effective
action usually results.
Bulletin Board. On
paper, the proposer writes a brief title for the issue, the time
and place of the meeting, and a signature.
This and similar notices are posted on a wall, to become a
bulletin board of pertinent items.
This activity shows participants that if their issue does
not find its way to the bulletin board, they have only themselves
Market Place. Once
the bulletin board is created, the market place is open.
All participants are invited to sign up for as many issues
as they wish, and the whole event is organized.
Task groups, conveners, time, place, and participants are
identified. Even with
large groups, the organizational process usually takes an hour or
principles are: 1)
Whoever comes is the right people; 2)
Whatever happens is the only thing that could have
happened; 3) Whenever
it starts is the right time; and 4)
When it’s over it’s over.
comes is the right people’ reminds participants,
particularly the conveners, that it’s not how many people come,
or even who comes (in the sense of status or position) that
counts; rather, it’s the quality of the interaction and
conversation that make the difference.
For good conversation, you just need one person who shares
happens is the only thing that could have happened’ is a
reminder that real learning and real progress will only take place
when we all move beyond our original agendas and convention-bound
everything always turned out just the way everybody expected, life
would be exceedingly dull, and learning in any useful sense simply
would not occur. It’s
precisely in moments of surprise, large and small, that we grow.
It’s important to cherish such moments.
it starts is the right time’ drives managers crazy, but that
doesn’t make it any less true.
The real impact of this principle is to serve notice about
the nature of creativity and spirit.
Both are essential and neither pay much attention to the
clock. They appear
(or not) in their own time, which by definition means it’s the
right time. So all
parties need to be advised that just because a meeting is
scheduled for 3:00 p.m., there’s absolutely no guarantee that
anything useful will take place at that precise moment.
Whenever it starts will be the right time.
it’s over it’s over’ offers a marvelous way to save time
and aggravation. Supposing,
for example, that you’ve scheduled a meeting at 2:00 p.m. with
the expectation that it should take about two. As it turns out, all of the useful business is conducted in
the first 20 minutes. Common
sense dictates that it’s time to move on.
However, some strange mechanism ties most of us to
predetermined forms. If
we walk into a room and the chairs are set in a fashion
unconducive to the performance of our task, it typically doesn’t
occur to most of us to rearrange the furniture.
The same is true with time.
If the meeting is supposed to take two hours, we’ll
stretch it out that long, which prevents us from doing other
things we could have done. Worse,
we rehash things that we've done, to the point of undoing them and
creating the need for another meeting.
Wouldn’t it be so much easier just to say, “When it’s
over it’s over,” and be on our way?
Law of Two Feet
the Law of Two Feet says, “Everybody has them" (or in the
case of the ‘differently-abled'—the equivalent).
If anyone feels they are neither learning nor contributing,
they can use their two feet and go somewhere more productive. This law may seem blunt, but it’s helpful.
First, it’s death to egotists, who alone possess the
truth, have the divine obligation to impart it, regardless of
anybody else’s feelings or desires. These egotists rapidly
receive a new and sobering message when half the room applies the
Law of Two Feet.
Second, all too
often we sit politely, but seething inside, as our time is being
wasted. Since lost
time can never be redeemed, the anger pollutes the environment
with negative energy. How
much better it would be simply to get on our way and do something
useful. The Law of
Two Feet allows for that. It
also puts responsibility directly on our own shoulders: Should we
choose to remain in a situation where we are miserable and
nonproductive, that’s our choice.
Open Space is
simple by intention and design.
It’s worked equally well in third-world village
environments and sophisticated corporate and governmental
has shown that virtually anybody with a good head and clear
intentions can facilitate the process.
The critical element is total release of attachment to
specific outcomes, and an absolute trust that the group can and
will find the appropriate way.
Attempting to control either the outcome or the process
will derail the effort.
complain about attending so many meetings, and it's true that most
are a drag. Consider
using all or part of Open Space to make meetings a much more
productive use of your own—and everybody else's—time.