Open Space

Results without a given program

Structure: The conference focuses on a central topic. Within a few minutes participants have named the aspects they consider essential and thereby defined the agenda of the event. The following phase of the conference is characterized by a large number of parallel work groups. Everybody is free to join the work groups they are most interested in. Results of the individual workshops are documented and immediately made available to all participants. Topics are then prioritised in a plenary session and action plans are developed.
Duration of the event: 1-3 days with a number of participants ranging from 10 to 1,000 people.
The particular advantages of this method: There is no planned agenda for the event nor does anyone provide structured facilitation or give speeches. Participants decide spontaneously on work topics and agenda. Only the main subject is pre-determined.
Open Space is so successful because participants have time during the whole conference to work with others on whatever aspects most interest them, to develop ideas and to plan how they can be implemented. Participants do not have to listen to anything they are not interested in. Everyone contributes whatever they find essential or what they want to change. Each person is responsible for the success of the conference. Participants’ involvement is supported by a “rule book” consisting of four principles and one “law.”
The “Rules” of Open Space:

  • Whoever comes are the right people.
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened.
  • When it starts is the right time.
  • When it’s over it’s over.
  • And the “Law of Two Feet”

The Order of Events: Normally an Open Space event lasts three days if it is used as a change process. During the first two days participants exchange views on the main subject. On the third day the results of the work groups are recorded.
At the beginning of the event participants fill the empty time and space board with topics relevant to the main subject. Thus, the time and space board forms the “skeleton” of the event’s agenda, developed from the topics chosen by participants. Anyone who wants to suggest a topic comes to the middle of the circle, writes it on a large sheet of paper and pins it to the time and space board.
When the list is completed, the “marketplace” is opened. Those present sign up for the work groups they are interested in. Everybody decides for her/himself. Everybody is responsible for her/himself. For the following two days, participants work in small groups. The size of the groups ranges from 5 to 25.
The third day is reserved for securing results. By the morning of the third day output of each group work will have been recorded. These are read and issues are prioritised using a point system. Topics obtaining the highest number of points are identified as most important and are therefore addressed first. Action planning groups are formed. This day paves the way for the implementation of the conference results in the organisation. Everybody again freely chooses which action planning groups to join. First actions and steps are defined at the conference.

When should Open Space be applied?

Open Space is used by companies, institutions or communities, and can be applied:
  • to launch a change process by the use of conference
  • to carry out mergers
  • to increase and develop the efficiency of a company or an organisation
  • to re-orient a company or organisation, a department or a branch office
  • to optimise customer service
  • to improve cooperation between partners, departments, employees, etc.
  • to develop ideas for new projects, products, services, processes etc
  • to plan unconventional events

An Example: At the Olympic Games in Atlanta, 1996, companies were given the opportunity to present themselves to the world in their own pavilions in the Olympic Village. Among them was AT&T, which was first given a location at the outskirts of the site. When AT&T presented a very attractive concept, the company was assigned a site at the centre of the village. However, there was one problem: The concept was designed for only 5,000 visitors per day. At the new location, the expected number of daily visitors was 75,000. Thus, AT&T had to change its concept. There were only a few months left to make the necessary adjustments—too little time to be successful with the previous working method.

The design team gathered in an Open Space conference. Within two days they hammered out a totally new concept. The level of the new design was, at that point, even more sophisticated than the first concept, which had taken the same group almost one year to develop.