In the mid-90s I attended a conference that assembled about 50 members of the environmental conflict resolution field. Although mediators and researchers had been developing, testing and adapting the theories and methods of the practice for 20 years, it was still a young and emerging field, and there were constant debates about its best practices and its future. It was an expanding and exciting field absorbing new influences and meeting new challenges. We needed to refine our understanding of where it was headed.
The meeting was one of the most effective I had ever attended. The group was highly energized, and most left with renewed commitment and understanding. The method used to help us reach that point was Open Space Technology.
Open Space Technology, developed by Harrison Owen, is one of the many innovative methods of structuring large group meetings that came into use in the 1980s-90s. The ideas on which it is based go well beyond a technique to focus group decision-making.
They comprise a practical theory about how people can self-organize for action without centralized control of their efforts to address complicated problems. That’s a premise most leaders would probably not agree with since the absence of tight control over group action is often equated with chaos, inefficiency and an inability to make decisions.
Like other collaborative group processes, Open Space Technology cannot be used in all situations. Most institutional actions and programs are carried out through a system of hierarchical managerial control. This dominant paradigm has proven itself effective in countless organizations for implementation of straightforward programs and policies.
Open Space does not challenge this fundamental approach to managing routine activities. However, the normal systems of control are far less effective in addressing complex problems that involve highly diverse groups, ongoing or imminent conflict and issues that are not so clearly defined as to permit simple solutions. Above all, there is a need for immediate action to address the set of problems. The level of motivation, then, is quite high.
These are the situations in which Open Space Technology and other collaborative processes are especially effective. They create spaces for deliberation and decisions outside the typical institutional systems of control and require a different approach to group guidance. For Open Space, that guidance comes from the ability of groups to self-organize, shape their own agendas, provide their own leadership and reach decisions about commitments to action.
Such an approach is especially challenging to leadership accustomed to close control of meetings through selection of participants, choice of subject matter, preparation of agendas, use of facilitators to keep every session on track and definition of the type of desired outcome or product. Many will wonder how a meeting lacking these elements of tight structure could possibly accomplish anything.
The answer relates back to the type of situation that best suits the Open Space structure. It is one that’s already, to a degree, disruptive, resistant to the usual methods of management, and on the verge of breaking into open conflict.
Here’s a brief overview of how an Open Space meeting might unfold. The description is taken from The Power of Spirit and online writings by Harrison Owen, originator of this method.
- A large, diverse group of people, on the edge of conflict, gather to work on major issues regarding the future of their organization.
- The issues must demand immediate response, and there must be a high level of interest and committment by the group members to deal with those issues.
- A single facilitator greets the group, which is seated informally in circular fashion, and very briefly describes how the process works.
- Then group members compose the agenda by writing down the specific problems they want to address and posting these on a large wall space. Each person adds an issue she/he is strongly motivated to deal with and assumes the role of group leader. Each proposed session has a designated place and time, spread over the rest of that day and the next, or however long the gathering is scheduled to last.
- All members choose which groups they want to attend, often after negotiating over scheduling conflicts, and disperse to those designated rooms to meet and begin working on the posted issue. The groups can be as small or as large as interest dictates.
- An important principle is that each person actively contributes. If anyone is bored or dissatisfied, that person should move to a different group. Each session typically lasts for an hour or hour-and-a-half but should end as soon as the group is no longer making progress.
- Each group leader writes up conclusions and commitments to action. (Laptops can be available for this purpose.)
- At the conclusion of all sessions, there can be either a report-back process (this is often skipped as being too cumbersome and lengthy to focus the attention of the entire group) or a brief session in which the group leaders announce specific commitments for action.
- The final step is distribution of all the session write-ups in a simple binder to every person attending the event.
This rough overview leaves a lot of unanswered questions, but in a sense that is part of the reality of such a meeting. The group members have to take responsibility for making substantive progress and organizing themselves as necessary to get their work done. During the meeting that I attended, as I mentioned above, each participant needed and wanted to engage on the issues without delay and became energized by a structure that counted on their own originality and contributions. The lack of conventional structure was never a problem, and the outcome was a series of commitments that each person was capable of implementing. It was by no means the last word in addressing the issues, but it was a critical step that made further progress possible.
In the next post of this series, I’ll look at other assumptions underlying Open Space Technology – in particular, its reliance on a group’s spirit as the main driver of self-organization. In addition, I want to compare Clay Shirky’s ideas about the effect of the internet on the nature of organizations with the implications of Open Space.
In the meantime, it would be helpful to know if you have participated in an Open Space meeting and what your thoughts are about the experience.