Open Space facilitation

Open Space is designed to help groups process complex issues. It challenges each participant to take responsibility for their experience and supports lively and engaging conversation.

It's an approach to facilitating meetings that I often use - sometimes on its own, sometimes in combination with other methods. I have worked with this process for a range of organisations including educational institutions, public service broadcasters and commercial companies. Clients have included:

Blaenau Gwent Council
Channel 4
Johnson & Johnson
Lambeth College
National Public Radio

I'd be happy to discuss the process with you. Please email me or call me on 0800 822 3282.

A 3 minute talk about Open Space:

More About the Open Space process

Open Space was designed by Harrison Owen in the 1980s and is now practiced thousands of times a year across the world.

Every open space is different, and I have used versions of the format for events as short as one hour to as long as two days, with audiences from less than 20 to over 300.

The process begins with all participants gathered together, often seated in a circle. Everyone is reminded of the theme and purpose of the day and the facilitator explains the overall structure. During this plenary session, the audience creates a list of the topics that need to be discussed in the process and these are then organised into rounds of conversations which take place through the day.

Depending on the time available, there may be one or several rounds of conversations, and an opportunity to add to the agenda as the session continues.

Participants have a free choice of which conversations to join and may also choose to rove between different conversations. There may be a plenary session at the mid point, especially in a longer version of the process (for example if the event is being held over two days).

At the end of the process, everyone gathers back into a large group where there’s an opportunity to share experiences and learnings from the smaller conversations. The format for this, and the ways the conversations are recorded, will vary from one event to the next and according to the needs of the organisers and participants.

This YouTube video is a 30 second time-lapse film of an open space session I ran over one day for the BBC. You can see the simple process of self-organisation at work.

Self organising

The essence of Open Space is that, once the framework is explained, it’s in the hands of each delegate to co-create the detailed agenda and to select which topics to start or engage with.

During the agenda setting, the floor is opened to any participant to propose a conversation related to the theme. Some proposals are likely to be provocative, others reflective or a mixture of both. Because everyone has the chance to shape the agenda, more engagement is created. The intelligence of everyone in the room is used to create a roster of conversations that allow many different angles to be considered.

Because the conversation topics are not created in advance for participants, there is a sense of spontaneity about this process which usually gets people more alert. And they are reminded that if something important is not on the agenda, they have the power, and responsibility, to do something about it. In my experience, this process often brings up unexpected ideas for useful conversations - ideas that get don't get airtime in more conventional formats.

The facilitator does not attempt to organise the conversations for the audience. The process is permissive – there is no limit on the number of conversations, and no central effort is made to amalgamate related themes, though the proposers of conversations may choose to do so.

Crucially, participants are then encouraged to choose for themselves the conversations which most engage them. There are no rules about the size of groups, and participants in large groups may well split into smaller ones, just as some smaller conversations migrate to form larger ones. And some people simply have intense two person chats around the theme that most concerns them.

Participants are welcome to move between conversations – although many will choose to stay in one place. Essentially, each participant takes cares of his or her own engagement, and in this way there is less likelihood of tokenism or boredom. This freedom can have a galvanising effect: no participant will be able to take an audience for granted. In my view, Open Space greatly reduces the risk of individuals hijacking conversations

Emergent action

Open Space avoids what I call “pseudo-agreement” where a large group is “facilitated” towards an “agreed” set of outcomes. Often that sort of agreement is half-hearted and the action points fail to materialise.

In Open Space, participants who feel moved to act in response to their conversations do so, without having to be nudged into it. I find that these emergent actions are usually more inspired and motivated.

The impact of the session may be felt on the day in terms of a general sense of engaging conversation, but may be better judged by the changes that emerge afterwards. Typically in open space, relationships are strengthened and creative projects find breath in the space itself, and more happens later.

This video shows feedback from participants in an Open Space hosted by radio station WOSU in Ohio. It gives an idea of the level of engagement it can generate.

People take responsibility

Jimmy Wales said of Wikipedia that it doesn't work in theory, it only works in practice.

Open Space is like that, I think. Until you’ve seen the process in action, you may wonder how it can possibly work. You may fear that it will descend into chaos, or perhaps simply create a talking shop that doesn’t lead to practical action.

My own experience is that Open Space usually creates far more lively participation, and leads to richer and wiser actions, than most conventional meeting formats.

I think that’s largely because it allows everyone to work on what matters most to them, whilst seeing what matters to others, with each taking responsibility for their part in the process.

Also, Open Space is designed to allow people to work in a style that most suits their own learning and communication style. No one is forced into sessions they don’t want to attend; those who like to think out loud and be active have free rein to do so, and those who are more reflective can take their time and engage in a way that feels good for them.

Further information

If you'd like to know more, please email me or call me on 0800 822 3282.