What is behind the “Open Space” concept – part 1

October 24, 2013

Harrison Owen was an ambitious person. In 1983, he tried to organize the best conference ever. After taking care of all details, making sure everything works perfectly and gathering the right speakers and the right people, the conference finally took place. The feedback from the attendees was: the conference was great, but the best thing about it was the coffee break.

Harrison Owen was an ambitious person. He took the feedback at heart and decided to organize a conference that’s only coffee break. That’s how the Open Space meeting format was born.

Open space represents the simplest way to run productive meetings in a room where people have a big interest and passion for the topics. It has no pre-prepared agenda or speakers.

Open space takes place in one or more rooms, where the chairs are arranged in circle so that everyone attending can see and move freely. Open space meetings range from 10 to 1500 people and from 3 hours to 3 or more consecutively days. It starts with the participants proposing topics for a specific time slot an to discuss them.

Why should we use this concept? Because:

  • People together, with diverse ideas could make quickly decisions.
  • We can clarify ourselves about what the outcome should be
  • There are conflicts or complex situations where the traditional formats failed

We used this concept for our UnconferenceI T.A.K.E. 2013, to co-organize the ALE2013 Unconference, for community events: Open Agile 2012 in Timisoara, Open Agile 2012 in Cluj-Napoca, Tech Hub Bucharest event. Diverse people discussed complex problems and opinions, allowing everyone to choose to listen and discuss the topics they considered interesting.

4 principles and one law guide open space meetings:

1. Whoever comes is the right people …reminds participants that they don’t need the CEO and 100 people to get something done, you need people who care. And, absent the direction or control exerted in a traditional meeting, that’s who shows up in the various breakout sessions of an Open Space meeting.

2. Whenever it starts is the right time …reminds participants that “spirit and creativity do not run on the clock.”

3. Wherever it happens is the right place …reminds participants that space is opening everywhere all the time. Please be conscious and aware. – Tahrir Square is one famous example.

4. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have …reminds participants that once something has happened, it’s done—and no amount of fretting, complaining or otherwise rehashing can change that. Move on.

5. When it’s over, it’s over …reminds participants that we never know how long it will take to resolve an issue, once raised, but that whenever the issue or work or conversation is finished, move on to the next thing. Don’t keep rehashing just because there’s 30 minutes left in the session. Do the work, not the time.

Law of two feet

Owen explains his one “Law,” called the “Law of two feet” or “the law of mobility”, as follows:

If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else.

In this way, all participants are given both the right and the responsibility to maximize their own learning and contribution, which the Law assumes only they, themselves, can ultimately judge and control. When participants lose interest and get bored in a breakout session, or accomplish and share all that they can, the charge is to move on, the “polite” thing to do is going off to do something else. In practical terms, Owen explains, the Law of Two Feet says: “Don’t waste time!”

Stay close for the next two parts of the blog post. We will tell you about:

  • The necessary tools for the open space – Marketplace, Facilitator
  • How an awesome Open Space works – the detailed description of all steps to follow

You can experience the open space within I T.A.K.E. Unconference.

The picture is from Open Space meeting at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

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