This issue we look at a technique known as Open Space Technology – another form of cooperative investigation that can be used to encourage students to engage actively with the issues that effect them

What is Open Space Technology?
Open Space Technology allows groups, large or small, to self-organise to effectively deal with complex issues in a very short time. Although, to my knowledge, the technique has yet to be applied in a school context in the UK, it has been widely used with youth organisations abroad as a means of helping young people to structure and lead their own youth conferences on matters that affect them and take ownership of the solutions. Participants create and manage their own agenda of parallel working sessions around a central theme of importance to all participants. What Open Space presents to us is, at the very least, a new way to hold better meetings. It can, however, grow to become a new way of organising that infuses entire organisations.

Harrison Owen initiated Open Space Technology in the mid 1980s. He had had several experiences of good to great conferences where the real highlights were the conversations outside of the formal agenda. This led him to wonder whether a different way of organising might not be possible. His question became how 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.

In seeking answers, he took some of his inspiration from witnessing a four-day long rite of passage for young men in a West African village in Liberia. Though there was seemingly no organising committee or formal structure, the four days ran smoothly with all 500 people managing themselves, the activities, events, food, music, and all the other aspect of the ceremonial process. From this experience, Owen took some of the fundamental principles that have come to shape Open Space today. In brief they are:

  • the circle as a centre from which organising takes place;
  • a rhythm or structure that people know and can organise around;
  • the ‘market place’ where connections are made around different offerings;
  • the bulletin board, where information is posted and shared.

Open Space has since become the operating system beneath some of the largest self-organising meetings the world has seen. The benefit of Open Space is that people get involved in contributing to, and working through, the areas that they are truly engaged in and committed to. The danger (to some) is that freedom is given to people to choose their response and involvement without being controlled by a planner or organiser.

How it works
An Open Space meeting can last from two hours to several days. When people gather they co-create the agenda of the meeting together, allowing it to be shaped by the particular interests of the participants. Every Open Space meeting begins in a large circle. One facilitator is all that is needed. After an initial welcome, she will open the space by introducing the theme, or burning question, that has brought people together. This would have been well advertised in advance to allow participants to gather their thoughts and prepare. She explains that, within the next hour, their agenda will be formed on the large, seemingly very blank, wall. She explains that all of the sessions will be posted and hosted by the participants themselves. People are invited to propose sessions and discussions on topics that they themselves are passionate about and willing to take responsibility for, in response to the theme or question at the centre. But before beginning the collective agenda-making, the facilitator still needs to explain the basic principles and one law of Open Space:

Four principles

  • ‘Whoever comes are the right people.’ This principle speaks to participants to let go of their need to have certain people join their session. Perhaps they would like the people in certain positions of influence or the experts in an area. Young people might also hope that people from certain friendship or age groups will join them. But with this principle people are invited to acknowledge that those who care enough to freely choose to join a conversation or workshop are the best ones to initiate work in that area.
  • ‘Whenever it starts is the right time.’ This principle recognises that while a session may begin at a certain hour, creativity and inspiration don’t always work according to our desired timing. Things really get started when they are ready.
  • ‘Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.’ This invites people to let go of expectations for how and where things should go. We need to learn to let go of these expectations or hidden agendas, and instead be present and pay attention to what is actually happening and emerging among us.
  • ‘When it’s over, it’s over.’ We don’t know how long it takes to deal with an issue. In Open Space, the issue is more important than the schedule. If we finish before the allotted time is over, then we move on to something else. We should not stay somewhere just because the schedule tells us to. It also works the other way. If we have not finished when our agenda slot is over, we can self-organise to extend it into another agenda slot, making sure we post it on the wall for others to know, and/or find ways to continue the work on the issue beyond the conference.

One law
The ‘law of two feet’ encourages people to take responsibility for their own learning, peace of mind, and contribution. If someone is in a place where they feel they are not learning or able to contribute, the law of two feet encourages them to leave and move on to another group, where they think they might add more value, and feel more engaged. They may also choose to do something else altogether. Most importantly, people shouldn’t be somewhere where they feel they are wasting their time. From this law follows that some participants will become ‘bumblebees’ – people who fly from one scheduled session to another, and just like bees, cross-pollinate what is going on between sessions – and/or ‘butterflies’ – people who choose at times to skip formal sessions and listen to their own sense of what they need to do in a given moment. Sometimes two butterflies meet outside of the sessions in informal conversation, and a new topic might arise out of that conversation. These principles and the law provide the container for the Open Space, enabling people to take full responsibility for their own learning and contribution. They create a context in which people can be focused and work hard, but remain flexible and open to surprise.

With these basic instructions, the group is now ready to fill their empty wall (see following example). The facilitator asks people to think about their idea or burning question in response to the theme. After a short period of silence she invites whoever is ready to come to the centre, grab a marker and piece of paper, and write down their idea or question, read it out loud, and post it on the wall – choosing one of several pre-arranged space/time choices. They will be the facilitator of the session they have created. Sometimes there are a few moments of quiet, but invariably people step up and begin to write and post sessions. Within a short period of time, the agenda is laid out. People go up to the wall to read the different offerings, signing up for the groups they wish to join.

   Main hall Library Room A Room B Sports hall
9.00 –
 Community meeting: agenda setting
10.00 –
 Break and signing up for sessions
10.30 –
11.30 –
12.30 –
13.30 –
14.30 –
15.30 –

Now the work can begin. During a longer Open Space, the group will come back together as a whole for a brief meeting in the morning and at the end of the day, to report on main breakthroughs, to post new sessions as they occur to people, and to help maintain a sense of the whole. The facilitator of each group needs to compile the report of their sessions. Typically, the outputs are typed and compiled during the duration of a meeting for people to go home with the final report.

Open Space is being applied around the world with both adult groups and groups of young people. It is being used in the townships of South Africa, in dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East, in many corporations and also in public sector hospitals, communities and youth organisations. It can be used with five people or 1,000. According to Harrison Owen, Open Space works best where a knotty problem or question that matters to a community has been identified, where there are no simple solutions, and where there is diversity among the participants, such as – in a school context – different age groups, interests and concerns, perhaps a mix of young people, teachers and members of the wider school community. What questions or issues need a creative response in your school community? The greater the diversity of participants, the higher the potential for real breakthrough and innovative outcomes. It works particularly well in the move from planning to action, where real action is facilitated by people stepping in and taking responsibility where they care.

Open Space can be run on its own, but works equally well and sometimes better when combined with other tools and processes, such as Appreciative Enquiry or World Café as described in the two previous bulletins. In this case, using Open Space towards the end of a gathering is most typically the norm, allowing an initial process of clarifying ideas and views to be followed by stepping into taking responsibility for exploring certain possibilities or actions.

As one school head teacher in South Africa commented: ‘I’ve spent two years attempting to get my students to be more engaged with their school and more involved in creating their future. Nothing worked. They sat like bumps on a log. Then I tried Open Space Technology, and my problem is reversed. They are getting involved and I have only one option – to get out of the way!’

Open Space works particularly well when passion, engagement and burning questions are present and where participants are genuinely invited to take ownership of the process. In such a situation, it truly helps a group move forward swiftly and clearly. On the other hand, it can fall flat when engagement or interest is low. People need to be present because they want to be, not because they have been told they must be. For these reasons, the focus of an Open Space process must be carefully chosen – ideally in consultation with the intended participants – and the chosen theme or question must be clearly expressed in any invitation to join an Open Space meeting or conference. With a clear focus, however, and in the presence of a real need, Open Space is a beautiful testament to how little organising is required by a planner when allowing people to self-organise their way forward as a group. In fact, the art of the planner, with most potent Open Space sessions, is learning to truly get out of the way.

Meanwhile, one of the reasons why it’s often important to combine Open Space with other processes (see above) is that a key risk is that an Open Space conference ends without convergence happening among the different groups. A lot of great conversations may have happened in small groups, but they haven’t been woven together adequately. Finding the ways to create this convergence and reconnection with the whole is an important challenge for organisers using this process.

Open Space is all about handing the responsibility back to people themselves. Two core questions characterising Open Space are:

‘What do you really want to do about this?’ and ‘Why don’t you take care of it?’

As with the World Café approach described last time, the real art lies in identifying the right calling question that truly draws people out of themselves and into a shared arena of thinking and acting together.

Where can I find out more?

This e-bulletin issue was first published in June 2010

About the author: Anne de A’Echevarria is the author of the award winning ‘Thinking Through School’. Previously a teacher, PGCE tutor and head of ‘Thinking for Learning’, a research and development team partnered with Newcastle University, she now works as a freelance education consultant and writer.