Open Space Technology
In my experience open space is based on the belief that we
humans are intelligent, creative, adaptive, meaning- and fun-seeking.
It sets the context for such creatures to come together knowing
they are going to treat each other well. When this happens there
is no limit to what can unfold.
Alan Stewart <email@example.com>
Open Space Technology was created in the mid-1980s by organizational
consultant Harrison Owen when he discovered that people attending
his conferences loved the coffee breaks better than the formal presentations
and plenary sessions. Combining that insight with his experience
of life in an African village, Owen created a totally new form of
Open Space conferences have no keynote speakers, no pre-announced
schedules of workshops, no panel discussions, no organizational
booths. Instead, sitting in a large circle, participants learn in
the first hour how they are going to create their own conference.
Almost before they realize it, they become each other's teachers
Anyone who wants to initiate a discussion or activity, writes it
down on a large sheet of paper in big letters and then stands up
and announces it to the group. After selecting one of the many pre-established
times and places, they post their proposed workshop on a wall. When
everyone who wants to has announced and posted their initial offerings,
it is time for what Owen calls "the village marketplace":
Participants mill around the wall, putting together their personal
schedules for the remainder of the conference. The first meetings
Open Space is, as Owen likes to say, more highly organized than
the best planning committee could possibly manage. It is also chaotic,
productive and fun. No one is in control. A whirlwind of activity
is guided from within by a handful of simple Open Space principles.
The most basic principle is that everyone who comes to an Open Space
conference must be passionate about the topic and willing to take
some responsibility for creating things out of that passion.
Four other key principles are:
1) Whoever comes is the right people.
2) Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
3) Whenever it starts is the right time.
4) When it is over it is over.
My favorite Open Space principle is The Law of Two Feet: "If
you find yourself in a situation where you aren't learning or contributing,
go somewhere else." (To me, this includes the possibility of
moving to another level of awareness and participation, as well
as the more obvious one of moving to another activity.) This law
causes some participants to flit from activity to activity. Owen
rejoices in such people, calling them bumblebees because they cross-pollinate
all the workshops. He also celebrates participants who use The Law
of Two Feet to go off and sit by themselves. He dubs them butterflies,
because they create quiet centers of non-action for stillness, beauty,
novelty or random conversations to be born.
Open space conferences can be done in one day, but the most powerful
go on for two or three days, or longer. Participants gather together
briefly in the morning and the evening to share experiences and
announce any new workshops they have concocted. The rest of the
day is spent in intense conversation. Even meals are come-when-you-can
affairs that go on for hours, filled with bustling dialogue.
After a few days of this, an intense spirit of community usually
develops that is all the more remarkable considering that participants
are all doing exactly what they want.
Open Space conferences are particularly effective when a large,
complex operation needs to be thoroughly reconceptualized and reorganized
-- when the task is just too big and complicated to be sorted out
"from the top." On the assumption that such a system contains
within it the seeds of everything that needs to happen with it,
Open Space provides it with an opportunity to self-organize into
its new configuration. For this to work, however, the system's leaders
must let go of control so that true self-organization can take place.
Open Space Technology is also a delightful, useful tool for any
group of people who are really interested in exploring something
that they all care deeply about. I look forward to its broad use
in organizing communities and exploring public issues.
Open Space is one of the simplest, most brilliant combinations of
order and chaos that I have yet found. It has been applied in thousands
of meetings around the world with between five and one thousand
participants. It can be effectively used by virtually anybody. Owen
has provided excellent instructions in his books, below.
(For a story of Open Space, see You'll
Never Know Who will Bring In Your Next $20,000,000.)
Harrison Owen, Open Space Technology: A User's Guide
Harrison Owen, Expanding Our Now: The Story of Open Space
Technology (Berrett-Koehler, 1997)
Harrison Owen, The Millenium Organization (available
for $20 ppd. from H.H. Owen, below)
H. H. Owen and Co., 7808 River Falls Dr., Potomac, MD 20854, (301)
469-9269, fax (301) 983-9314. Print and video resources, training
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