Open Space Technology, a new way to find and create solutions
and the way forward
What is Open Space Technology ?
Open Space Technology (OST) is a new method for working effectively with large groups
(8 - 2000 participants) which has already used more than 100 countries to date, particularily with complex issues concerning the future. A simple, but very powerful framework creates the right conditions for a dynamic process of discussion and cooperation. Every single participant who contributes with his knowledge and experience influences the end result.
Because participants in an Open Space Conference all participate actively, and talk to others regardless of function or background, OST creates a high level of commitment among participants and much networking across boundaries, usually resulting in a much deeper understanding of the issues as stake well as new ideas about the way forward
Four principles and a Law
- whoever comes are the right people
- whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened
- whenever it starts is the right time
- when it’s over, it’s over
|- and one law, the Law of the Two Feet:|
If, during the course of the gathering, any person finds him or herself in a situation where they are neither learning nor contributing, they must use their two feet and go to some more productive place.
As a result of this Law, participants who like to hear themselves talk, risk finding themselves alone after 10 minutes …… the others have gone ! Discussions which are not productive enough stop quickly.
OST was first described by Harrison Owen in the 80-’s. Meanwhile there are several thousand facilitators who have been trained to use the method. When he found that participants to a conference he had organised found the coffeebreak by far the most interesting part of the program, he perfected a meeting method where the “coffeebreak” became the key element.
Harrison Owen realized after a conference he had organized, that his participants felt the best part of the conference had been the coffee breaks …….. The really important conversations had happened “in between” the offical program.
The secret of the success of the coffee break lies in the fact that you talk to those you enjoy talking to, about topics you care about, and for as long as it’s interesting enough – and if that’s no longer the case, you leave ….
OST is a method in which a simple, powerful structure provides a framework in which the “coffeebreak” has been perfected to achieve impressive results.
OST is een methode die de kennis en ervaringen van deelnemers mobiliseert en waarmee grote groepen complexe problemen in 1-3 dagen kunnen oplossen: één dag voor een oplossing in grote lijn, 2-3 wanneer een volledig uitgewerkt, gecoördineerd en realistisch actieplan de doelstelling is.
The capaciteit of organizations and systems is only partially with its leadership: it is usually spread across a large number of persons or stakeholders. The time available to reach a solution is shortening, the need to create a support base for complex solutions and implementation strategies is growing.
For this reason, the popularity of Open Space Technology as a tool to quickly find solutions to complex issues where many are involved, has been rising.
OST is based on the belief that participants will contribute effectively in solving problems, if the problem is clear and important to them, and if there is an “Open Space” to organise themselves within the given framework.
It is based on the notion that participants in the meeting will work energetically and effectively to find solutions, when the challenge is clear and held to be important by all; and a clear framework has been created in which they can organize themselves. All Participants influence the agenda and the end result:
an opportunity as well as a responsibility for all.
Conditions for using OST
Other methods to work with large groups have been developed, and it is important to select the right one. OST is by far the most effective if four conditions are in place - but only then ......:
- there is a clear and important problem/question
- which is complex, either contentwise, there are different views/interests - or both
- the solution is unknown
- there is a certain time pressure.
If these conditionas are not met, select another approach !
There are 3 types of results of OST
- contentwise, all relevant issues are identified and discussed - as many groups work
in paralel, many can be dealt with in a short time. All conclusions are processed and
copied to all immediately, which makes follow-up easy and quick
- intensive networking takes place, participants talk to others they normally would not
- participants feel very responsable for the results, and motivation and energy to carry
on are created.
How does it work ?
The central issue is identified in a preparation meeting. Both the issue as well as the invitation are formulated in such a way that those who are invited are inspired and focused. The invitation also clearly signals that the meeting will be unlike other meetings.
At the start of an Open Space, participants sit in a circle without tables. The host, usually the highest ranking person, makes a brief opening statement indicating the focus of the meeting and asking participants for their help. The facilitator then creates the Open Space and explains the framework.
Participants then make the agenda, posting those items which they feel are most important to them personally. These can be ideas, proposals, problems, questions, solutions, hopes and worries, technical and practical issues and so on.
When the agenda is ready, participants decide what issue they want to discuss, sign up and start. After all discussions have been finished, the report is handed out to all, a report which provides a good basis for later decisionmaking and follow-up. After the Open Space this report is analysed and follow-up actions are planned, as far as this has not been done yet during the Open Space itself.
When the Open Space lasts more than one day, prioritisation and action planning are done by the whole group.
Examples of recent themes of Open Space meetings
“Our company is growing explosively: how can we grow and a the same time focus on our personal development and joy in our work”
“We must close our hospital: how do we handle this as well as possible?”
“Is our profession a dying race or the profession of the future?”
“Our new organizational structure is in place: how do we make it work ?”
“Our product development is slower than our competitors’: how to we cut it into half?”
“What does a good Work-Life-balance look like, and how do we create this in our company?”
:What does the library of the future look like, and how do we create it?”
“How can we combine agriculture, recreation, nature and other functions in the best way in our
“How do we utilize the crisis to strengthen our position towards the competition?”
At the start of an Open Space meeting, participants sit in a circle of chairs – or several concentric circles.
The host, usually the CEO or Chairman of the Board, makes a brief and powerful opening statement to:
(1) state the issue to be solved and why it is important;
(2) ask participants to contribute with their knowledge and experience;
(3) to announce that the conclusions of the meeting will play an important role in defining
the way forward.
The facilitator ensures participants focus, opens the space and explains the process.
Participants post topics which they feel are important to the issue to be solved, on the agenda –
These may be ideas, problems, proposals, technical or practical issues or solutions.
After the agenda has been made, participants go to it and discuss which discussions they want to participate in, and write their names next to the topics. Groups which have been formed then get to work.
At the end of each conversation, results of the discussion are entered into a computer by one of the participants.
At the end of all discussions and a plenary closing session, the Open Space ends with providing each of the participants with a copy of the full report., which is a good basis for planning the necessary follow-up activities.
In the case of a one day Open Space (or a long afternoon), a smaller group – for example the Management Team – analyses results, and decides which follow-up activities are indicated.
In a 2 day Open Space, organizing material, prioritizing and making action plans are done by the whole group. In 2.5 – 3 day Open Space events, there is additional time for reflection, coordination, and to start implementation.
The role of the Faciltator in Open Space
Fully present, totally invisable
An experienced Open Space-facilitator is essential. Prior to the event, the facilitatir
Een ervaren Open Space-begeleider is van groot belang. Voorafgaand decides whether Open Space can be used for the issue as formulated. If this is not the case, he/she can suggest another design for the meeting.
The faclitator also assists in creating an effective invitation, identifying who should be invited and how to motivate them to come, and to plan the preparation process. The faclitator provides checklists for all practical and logistical issues.
During the event itself the facilitator’s main task is to create the open space, and to keep it open.
Fully present and totally invisible – after all, in Open Space, participants create the solution.
Regardless of the number of participants, only one facilitator is needed.
Open Space Technology, a new way to find and create solutions and the way forward
If you wish more information about Open Space Technology, contact the Open Space Institute,
Phone: (+45) 21269621, mail:
Gerard Muller has facilitated more than 300 Open Space events in various countries, for – among others - Alfa Laval, Astra Zeneca, AKZO-Nobel, Canon, Ely Lilly, Fujitsu, Merck, Microsoft, Price Waterhouse Coopers, various ministries, provinces, cities and hospiutals, but also for NGO’s such as the World Wildlife Fund. He has also facilitated some 400 events with other interactive methods.