Photo: Ron Mader, Open Space Technology in Estonia (Some rights reserved)

Open Space Technology (OST) is a creative re-imagining of relationships.

OST was developed in 1985 by organizational consultant Harrison Owen. The third edition of his book was published in 2008 and highly recommended for anyone wishing to organize groups of people in ways that are respectful and engaging.

Among the advantages of the OST format are that events are easy to organize, extremely interactive and require very little lead time. It is best used for groups that need re-energizing and are need creative planning. Workshops last from one to three days.

The facilitator’s job the first day is to explain the format and rules of Open Space. The opening meeting takes place in a room large enough for all of the participants to sit in a circle. Chairs may be used, but tables aren’t so that participants can fully engage each other on a personal basis.

Writing on Walls
One other characteristic of the primary meeting room is that it uses a large wall. After the meeting is opened to the group, individual participants announce a topic of interest to the group and puts his or her topic on a sheet of paper, and assigning room spaces and times for the topic. After everyone has had a chance to post a topic of discussion, the facilitator opens this ‘marketplace of ideas’ and asks for individuals to sign up for the topics that interest them.

If this is a multi-day conference, the group begins each day with a re-opening of the marketplace. Throughout the event, the group self-manages their discussions and produces a report of the proceedings available at the end or beginning of each day. The OST workshop concludes again in a closing circle in which participants reflect on the experience and identify their commitments for future activity.

Says one facilitator, “The OST is simply a vehicle to gather ideas, unleash real passion and responsibility. Often leaders find they need to ‘get out of the way’ — not control everything — which of course is another way of saying their leadership is likely never to be the same. The process teaches everyone that they lead by asking the right questions, listening, and using structures that facilitate the use of this ‘wisdom.'”

There is no charge to conduct OST workshops and facilitators do not require formal training. “Nothing is required but a good head and a good heart,” said Harrison Owen.

Recommended Reading
Harrison Owen, Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide, Berrett-Koehler, 2008

Expanding Our Now: The Story of Open Space Technology, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1997

For a conference idea that originated from the observation that the most useful portions of formal conferences take place over the coffee breaks, the OST format utilizes both unorthodox and creative guidelines.

One of the more interesting rules is ‘The Law of Two Feet’ which states that if people find themselves in situations where they are neither learning nor contributing, they are responsible for moving to another place — using their two feet to find a place where their participation is more meaningful.

This simple rule keeps the participants engaged in making the conference interesting. OST workshops also employ the following four principles which are posted in the main room:

1. Whoever comes is the right people
This reinforces the wisdom to achieve solutions is present in the room.

2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have
This keeps the attention on the best possible effort in the present, instead of wondering endlessly about what should or could have been done.

3. Whenever it starts is the right time
This reminds people that creativity cannot be controlled.

4. When it is over, it is over
This encourages people to continue their discussion so long as there is energy for it. This may result in a short session not filling the entire time allotted, or it may result in a session longer than the time allotted.

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