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What is Open Space Technology? (Ultimate Guide)

In this guide, you will learn everything you need to know about Open Space Technology, including:

    So, if you are considering to use Open Space Technology, this guide is for you. Let's jump in.

    What is Open Space Technology?

    Open Space Technology (OST) is a methodology of running large group meetings or events around a central topic where participants create the agenda themselves. The process is designed to be highly participatory, inclusive and collaborative.

    Group of people sitting in a circle and raising their hand in an Open Space Technology event

    The benefits of Open Space Technology are two-fold:

    1. Scalability: Open Space Technology is inherently self-organizing and can be done with groups from 5 to 2000 people (providing you have a big enough venue, or run it online).
    2. Engagement: Participants are in full control of their experience and the outcome of the session. As a result, they are highly engaged in the collection of issues, group discussions and networking.

    The methodology was originally developed in the early 1980s by Harrison Owen and popularized by his book Open Space Technology: A User's Guide. Since then, it has been used by organizations of all sizes, including corporations, nonprofits, and government agencies.

    When do you use Open Space Technology?

    Open Space Technology is particularly effective when no one knows the answer, and when a diverse group of people with different perspectives is required to find a solution. It should not be used in situations where somebody in a position of authority already has a solution, or where that person needs to be in tight control of the process.

    To make this more concrete, let's take a look at examples for possible Open Space Technology themes for three types of organizations. The theme is a question or topic that is announced at the beginning of the event.

    Non-profit organization:

    • How can increase our impact and reach?
    • How can we better engage and maintain supportive relationships with our stakeholders?
    • How can we better tell our organization’s story and inspire others to support us?

    Technology company:

    • How can we reduce stress and promote a healthy work/life balance?
    • How to foster creativity and innovation in the workplace?
    • What does the future of data storage look like? How can we prepare?

    Public sector organization

    • How can we be more responsive to citizen needs?
    • How can we increase transparency and accountability?
    • How can we reduce bureaucracy?

    How does Open Space Technology work?

    1. Opening the circle

    At the start, the facilitator or one of the organizers welcomes everyone to the Open Space. Meanwhile, participants are seated in a half or full circle. The circle symbolizes, that this is a place for meeting and engaging with each other.

    Once the circle is opened its time to announce the theme of the Open Space. The theme helps the group to focus their discussion and to inspire participation. Therefore, it has to be clear and relevant to the group.

    At this point, the participants are more than a little curious to see what happens next. So as a next step, the facilitator should clearly explain Open Space Technology to the participants. This has four parts:

    1. Define what Open Space Technology is
    2. Explain how the agenda is created
    3. Explain how the group sessions will be conducted
    4. Walkthrough the four principles and one law of OST

    Optionally, you can also toss in the origin story of Open Space Technology. It's actually quite comical and can help to loosen up the atmosphere.

    2. Setting the agenda

    After opening the circle, there comes the first exciting moment in Open Space: Putting together the agenda. At this moment, the facilitator encourages the participants to come into the circle, take a piece of paper and to write down their issue, topic or question for the group sessions. If they do so, they are responsible to:

    • Host the group session
    • Make sure that the key points are documented
    • Write their name on the paper

    Once a participant has written down their topic, they can read it out shortly and then place it on the agenda. One after the other, participants will then come up to the agenda and fill up the empty space. This is a great moment, because you will very quickly go from having an anxiety-inducing empty agenda to a completely filled board with interesting group sessions in just 10-20 minutes.

    Group of people standing in front of flipcharts and adding group session ideas for an Open Space Technology event

    [.box-highlight]TIP: Brief one person before the Open Space with all the important details and instruct them to already brainstorm one of the group sessions. That person can then be your ally and be the first to propose a session. That way, the ice breaks quickly and people feel more at ease bringing in their topics.[.box-highlight]

    3. Group Sessions

    Give participants 2-3 minutes to decide which group session they want to participate in. After that, you can formally open the group sessions. It might be helpful to use a bell – or something similar – to give clear audio cue for the start of the sessions.

    The group sessions are the heart of Open Space Technology. Here participants gather to tackle the issue or topic at hand. The groups work on their own and also keep the responsibility to watch the time and document the results of their session.

    Open Space Technology group sessions taking place at multilple tables

    In theory, the group sessions should organize themselves as long as you keep a couple of things in mind:

    • Remind people when a group session ends and new one starts
    • Collect the documentation / report from group session
    • Ensure every group has enough material to work with (e.g. paper, sharpies)
    • Make sure it's easy to find, where each group session happens

    After every group session, you can hang the documentation / highlights from each session on to a dedicated wall in the venue. Then participants can easily glimpse into the ideas and actions from other groups in-between sessions. The further the Open Space progresses, the more this wall will be filled.

    4. Closing the circle

    After the group sessions have drawn to an end, everyone meets each other back in the circle to close the Open Space. That way, you start and end in the same place. The easiest way to close the session, is the give participants the opportunity to voice how they experienced the Open Space and what they take away from it. It's impossible to give everyone time if you have a large group. But since the experience is shared, it's sufficient to hear from a couple of people to get a good overview.

    Once you have the feeling everything has been said, you can close the session with a round of high-fives between participants to end on a high note and to create a clear ending point.

    Open Space Technology Principles

    There are four principles in OST to guide the participants:

    1. Whoever comes are the right people: Since people can choose what sessions to attend there has to be to trust, that the people that come are the right people. Even if a session only has two participants these two people might be exactly the right people to meet at that time to do something great together.
    2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have: Open Space Technology events have an emerging character. No one can possibly predict, how things might unfold. Therefore, participants are invited to concentrate on the moment with an open mind.
    3. Whenever it starts is the right time: Creativity moves on its own timeline independent of the meeting or event schedule. Therefore, participants should be attentive to when creativity arises. Whether that is as part of the group sessions or in one to one conversations at the lunch buffet.
    4. 4. When it is over, it is over: Getting the work done is more important than sticking to the schedule. When a group is in the perfect flow, then they can decide to continue their discussions. Or, if they finish their topic earlier, the can also close the session and do something else instead.
    Open Space Technology principles being hung on a wall

    The Law of Two Feet

    The "Law of Two Feets" is a keystone to Open Space Technology and its voluntary nature of participation in Open Space Technology. Therefore, it should always be explained to participants in the introduction. Here is how Harrison Owen defines it:

    "If, during our time together, you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet and go to some more productive place." – Harrison Owen

    You might assume that this is obvious, but let me prove you otherwise.

    In a traditional large group meeting a person or small group sets the topic, agenda and sends out the invites to relevant people. As a result, participants see themself per default as passengers.

    They will participate in the activities when asked, and hope that the chosen topics and agenda fit with their needs. And if that isn't the case, they often remain silent because they assume that can't do anything about it.

    This creates a dynamic, where the responsibility for everyone's experience is largely in your hands. The "Law of Two Feet" completely flips this around by placing responsibility for the quality of each person’s learning and/or contribution directly where it belongs — with that person.

    In addition, the Law of Two Feet adds two additional contributors to the world of Open Space.

    Bumblebees and Butterflies

    Bumblebees are participants who take the Law of Two Feets very seriously and constantly hop from session to session. Like their counterparts in nature, these people help to cross-pollinate the groups with new ideas and insights. They often help to bridge topics and also lead to more variety in the discussions.

    Butterflies are participants, that decide not to join a session because none of the topics sparked their interested. Butterflies create centers for non-action. In these places, however, groundbreaking things can happen: It is not uncommon for butterflies to put their heads together and discuss forgotten issues or evaluate their previous experiences. Insights from these discussions can then later flow into other working groups.

    How was Open Space Technology invented?

    Open Space Technology was developed by Harrison Owen, when he had an epiphany after organization the first international symposium on organization transformation. In his book, he lays out the story has following:

    "In 1983, I had occasion to organize an international conference for 250 participants. It took me a full year of labor. By the time I had finished with all the details, frustrations, and egos (mine and others’) that go with such an event, I resolved never to do such a thing again. This resolution was confirmed at the conclusion of the conference, when it was agreed by one and all (including myself) that although the total event had been outstanding, the truly useful part had been the coffee breaks. So much for one year’s effort to arrange papers, participants, and presenters. The only thing that everybody liked was the one thing I had nothing to do with: the coffee breaks. There had to be a message here. My question was a simple one: Was it possible to combine the level of synergy and excitement present in a good coffee break with the substantive activity and results characteristic of a good meeting?"

    So when he had to organize the symposium again, he tried to change it up in such a way, that the whole event feels like one big coffee break. And that was when Open Space Technology was created.

    Owen's experiment was so successful that the Open Space Technology format was used for the symposiums for over two decades. Participants from some of these symposiums started to use Open Space for their own work and from there the methodology found its way into more organizations and events.