Open Space Technology

Over the past few months, I’ve been hearing more and more about Open Space Technology, a simple and powerful way to organize meetings and conferences. Open Space Technology encourages passion, commitment, and personal responsibility, and taps the capacity of a group of passionate, committed, responsible people to self-organize to address complex issues.

A few months ago, the Extreme Programming mailing list had a brief conversation about Open Space Technology. Wanting to know more, I asked people who had experienced Open Space Technology to share their experiences. My friend Cem Kaner said, “Dale, you already have lots of experience. Consultants’ Camp is Open Space Technology.”

Consultants’ Camp community of consultants who meet yearly in Mount Crested Butte, Colorado to share ideas and support. Consultants’ Camp was started in 1988 by Jerry Weinberg. I first attended in 1995, and Camp is now the one event that I most look forward to every year.

I’ve always loved the format of Camp, which I’d thought was unique. Two or three dozen consultants come together on Saturday evening with no pre-defined agenda. Our first task is to decide what topics we want to address over the coming six days. Each person with passion for a topic proposes a session, and, often, checks to see whether other members have an interest in the topic. A session might be a topic that the convener wants to teach others, or a topic that someone wants to learn more about from others. A session might be an learning exercise that someone wants to test, or a sticky problem with which someone wants help. Sometimes people see synergies between two or three proposals, and consolidate them into one. Other times, someone is stimulated to split a topic into two sessions, so that we can delve into the details of a complex issue. After we have proposed all of the sessions, we quickly (in about five minutes) fit them into a schedule of time slots and meeting places. The entire process of creating the schedule takes about an hour and a half.

Several years, I have wondered, before arriving at Camp, whether we’d have enough interesting topics this year. I need not have worried. Every year, my biggest challenge is choosing among the two or three fascinating and helpful sessions scheduled in each time slot.

The day after I’d asked people on the Extreme Programming mailing list to share their experiences, and the day before Cem replied, I read “Opening Space for Emerging Order,” an article by Harrison Owen, the originator of Open Space Technology. Several weeks later, I read Owen’s book Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide. Owen’s writings confirmed what Cem had said. Consultants’ Camp is an example, with minor variations, of Open Space Technology,

Earlier today, I had my first experience of Open Space Technology outside of Consultants’ Camp. A number of people took the initiative to revive the dormant local (Sacramento, California) chapter of the Organization Development Network (ODN). Today, 45 of us held our first planning meeting, using Open Space Technology as the format. This was a two-hour meeting, and I was intrigued to learn how Open Space Technology would work in such a short timeframe.

The meeting was wonderfully energizing. In 15 minutes, we created an agenda of nine half-hour sessions, focused on such topics as training, OD and music, mentoring each other, sustaining a group, and engaging the spirit at work.

One of the principles of Open Space Technology is that whoever comes is the right people. The one law of Open Space Technology is The Law of Two Feet: If you aren’t getting what you need from a session, use your two feet to move to a more productive place. These two tenets ensure that the people who attend any session are passionate about the topic, and take responsibility for their own learning and participation. In this ODN planning meeting, as in every Camp session I’ve ever attended, passion, commitment, and responsibility combined to create a great deal of energy, and at the same time a great deal of respect and mutual support. I left the meeting energized and excited about the Sacramento ODN.

Given my experience today, I am starting to see the possibilities for using Open Space Technology in organizations. For example, Open Space Technology would be a very valuable way to begin a process improvement effort. I’m imagining that it would be a wonderful way to kick off a technology project, bringing together every stakeholder who has passion for the project. I can see possibilities for defining an organization’s strategy and vision, or for planning a re-organization.

I highly recommend Harrison Owen’s book Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide. Though no book can give you a vivid experience of the power and simplicity of Open Space Technology, Owen’s book does describe how to make Open Space Technology successful.

Experiment: Attend or convene a meeting or conference based on Open Space Technology. In what ways could you adopt or adapt Open Space Technology to your organization’s or team’s work?

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