What Is Open Space Technology?

by Michael Herman

Open Space Technology is one way to enable all kinds of people, in any kind of organization, to create inspired meetings and events. Over the last 30+ years, it has also become clear that opening space, as an intentional leadership practice, can create inspired organizations, where ordinary people work together to create extraordinary results with regularity.

In Open Space meetings, events and organizations, participants create and manage their own agenda of parallel working sessions around a central theme of strategic importance, such as: What is the strategy, group, organization or community that all stakeholders can support and work together to create?

With groups of 5 to 2000+ people — working in one-day workshops, three-day conferences, or the regular weekly staff meeting — the common result is a powerful, effective connecting and strengthening of what’s already happening in the organization: planning and action, learning and doing, passion and responsibility, participation and performance. See also Working in Open Space: A Guided Tour.

When and Why?

Open Space works best when the work to be done is complex, the people and ideas involved are diverse, the passion for resolution (and potential for conflict) are high, and the time to get it done was yesterday. It’s been called passion bounded by responsibility, the energy of a good coffee break, intentional self-organization, spirit at work, chaos and creativity, evolution in organization, and a simple, powerful way to get people and organizations moving — when and where it’s needed most.

And, while Open Space is known for its apparent lack of structure and welcoming of surprises, it turns out that the Open Space meeting or organization is actually very structured — but that structure is so perfectly fit to the people and the work at hand, that it goes unnoticed in its proper role of supporting (not blocking) best work. In fact, the stories and workplans woven in Open Space are generally more complex, more robust, more durable — and can move a great deal faster than expert- or management-driven designs.

How does it work?

Open Space Technology meetings begin with a broad invitation to work on something (big) that matters. At the appointed time, the participants come together, sitting in a circle, with no items on the agenda (wall). The program opens with an agenda setting exercise. Then the group self-organizes into smaller discussion groups.

The convener(s) of each discussion group are responsible for capturing notes from their session, which are immediately compiled into a book of proceedings. A participants receive a copy of the proceedings, including all of the discussion groups’ reports and whatever immediate next steps were identified. Everyone knows what they need to do and what they can expect from others.

Four Principles and One Law

At the start of the meeting, a facilitator usually explains four (or five) Principles and invokes one Law. These are offered as hints that make self-organizing feel better and be more productive, rather than rules that must be followed.

The Principles remind us how to think about uncertainty and surprises:

  • Whoever comes is the right people
  • Whenever it starts is the right time
  • (Wherever it happens is the right place)
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened
  • When it’s over it’s over

The Law of Two Feet (aka “The Law of Mobility”) says that “You, and only you, know when you are learning and contributing as much as you can.” It reminds us that “If you find yourself in a situation where you are neither learning or contributing, use your two feet, and/or whatever you use to get around, to go somewhere you can learn and contribute more.”

Almost anything is possible in a group that’s gotten very good at living these principles and maximizing their own learning and value creation. 

What will happen?

We never know exactly what will happen when we open the space for people to do their most important work, but we can guarantee these results when any group gets into Open Space:

  1. All of the issues that are MOST important to the participants will be raised.
  2. All of the issues raised will be addressed by those participants most qualified and capable of getting something done on each of them.
  3. In a time as short as one or two days, all of the most important ideas, discussion, data, recommendations, conclusions, questions for further study, and plans for immediate action will be documented in one comprehensive report — finished, printed and in the hands of participants when they leave.
  4. When appropriate and time is allowed for it, the total contents of this report document can be focused and prioritized in a matter of a few hours, even with very large groups (100’s).
  5. After an event, all of these results can be made available to an entire organization or community within days of the event, so the conversation can invite every stakeholder into implementation — right now.
  6. AND… results like these can be planned and implemented faster than any other kind of so-called “large-group intervention.” It is literally possible to accomplish in days and weeks what some other approaches take months and years to do.

The good news, and the bad news, is that it works. Good news because it gets people and work moving, bad news because that may mean lots of things are going to be different than before. Wanted things can appear, unwanted things disappear, and sometime vice versa — but that’s how life is. In short, then, Open Space brings life back to organization and organizations back to life.

Now What?

This website is full of success stories, practice resources, community connections and other good and helpful bits of information, all of which hold some part of the answer to the question: “What is Open Space?” Getting Started