Open Space Technology is probably the first Liberating Structure I experienced. Even though I didn’t know it was part of the Liberating Structures collection at that point in time. Open Space Technology was invented by Harrison Owen, and described in his book “Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide”. Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless defined the design elements of Open Space Technology and added it to the repertoire of 33 Liberating Structures.
In this blog post, we share our view on this Liberating Structure. We describe its purpose, the flow of the structure, and when you could use it. We also explain the big pitfall of Open Space Technology. Interested to learn what the pitfall is? Keep on reading, we’ll also give you guidance on how to prevent it from happening.
Within the Scrum community, Open Space Technology is a common practice. This post can be useful to make the most out of it!
The purpose of Open Space Technology
The purpose of Open Space Technology is to liberate action and leadership in groups of any size. It does so by bringing together a large group of participants who are committed to addressing a complex problem and giving them full freedom to determine the agenda, the topics, and participation.
In an Open Space, people go where they feel they can contribute the most. Its nature makes this structure a great way to boost self-organization within groups of any size. It has the potential to truly involve everyone in addressing a complex problem. Everyone has the freedom to bring attention to a topic they want to explore in more detail. And each person can raise questions, challenges, and ideas. Because the agenda is created by the participants, everyone will feel more engaged as a result. People will take responsibility for solving problems quickly, and move into action without the need for central control.
“Everyone has the freedom to bring attention to a topic they want to learn more about. And each person can raise questions, challenges, and ideas.”
Open Space Technology comes with one law and four principles. The “Law of Two Feet” encourages everyone to use their feet and move to where they can learn and contribute. The inverse is also true. Participants are encouraged to move elsewhere if they feel they have nothing left to learn or contribute in a session.
The four principles are:
- Whoever comes are the right people. There’s no upfront planning moment in which people are assigned to certain topics. Pitch your topic, and see who shows up.
- Whatever happens, is the only thing that could have. Encourage people to stay focused on the present. Embrace what emerges. Don’t push in directions you might have hoped for.
- Whenever it starts is the right time. Genuine creativity rarely pays attention to the clock. You can’t force the creation of good ideas. Give participants the time and space to create.
- When it’s over it’s over. Don’t waste time. Do what you have to do, and when it's done, contribute somewhere else. So, don’t stick to a 30-minute timebox, when you already achieved your goal within 15 minutes.
The rules of Open Space Technology visualized by Thea Schukken. You can download a high-resolution version here.
Steps to facilitate Open Space Technology
Here’s an abbreviated version of how to facilitate Open Space Technology. If you’re interested in a detailed version, check the book by Harrison Owen, or simply Google for the tons of other papers that are available.
- Invite potential participants to an Open Space session that lasts anywhere from a couple of hours to several days. The invitation for an Open Space should always be on an opt-in basis. Open Spaces work best in large spaces or venues with a lot of smaller rooms. Prepare by creating a grid for the marketplace and providing stickies, markers, flip overs, and chairs.
- Introduce the concept and mechanics of Open Space, and explain the “Law of Two Feet”, and the four principles for self-organization.
- Introduce the core topic for the Open Space. Broad topics like “What are current challenges we need to work on?”, “How can we make our organization a better place to work?” or “How can we boost the growth of our community?” work better than narrow topics.
- Open the marketplace. Participants are invited to propose challenges or topics they want to explore with others along with a time and location where the session is going to take place. Display the sessions on a prominent timetable. Session proposers are also the ones initiating it, but they don’t need to have experience with the topic.
- Sessions take place at the scheduled time and at the specified place.
- If it makes sense, you can ask the participants of each session to give a brief overview of the results or publish them on an online whiteboard.
When to use Open Space Technology?
Open Space Technology is in particular powerful when used with large groups. Groups that have at least one shared theme of interest. It’s possible to use it with even hundreds of participants simultaneously. We’ve experienced this structure at large public community events like XP Days Benelux, and the global Liberating Structures Learning Gathering in Seattle and Hamburg. But also during the annual Scrum.org F2F gatherings to share ideas with dozens of other Scrum trainers. And we’ve used it many times within organizations to start new initiatives, to create a shared understanding about a new strategy, or to engage with customers during a monthly knowledge-sharing session.
Whenever there’s a shared, broad topic of interest, and you’ve got a fairly large group (25+ participants), Open Space Technology quickly becomes a good idea!
An impression of the Liberating Structures Learning Gathering that was hosted in 2019. We used Open Space to explore various topics around Liberating Structures itself.
Potential combinations with other Liberating Structures
Open Space Technology can serve as a single Liberating Structure. However, we recommend combining it with other Liberating Structures. Structures that help people make connections, gather ideas, and debrief together. For example:
- Use Nine Whys at the start to help everyone identify a personal purpose. What do you want to achieve personally, with the Open Space? What does your ideal outcome look like? By answering these questions upfront, everyone can decide for themselves what needs to happen to achieve it.
- Start with Nine Whys to identify a shared purpose for the Open Space. In addition to a personal purpose statement, we also recommend creating a shared purpose statement for the Open Space itself. What do we want to achieve as a group? What would a successful Open Space look like? Again, this can support the group in making trade-offs on what to focus on.
- Gather topics for the Market Place with Impromptu Networking. Many Open Spaces start by simply asking the group to raise a topic they want to include. Chances are, you’ll only hear people with loud voices and/or strong opinions. An alternative is to use Impromptu Networking first, to give everyone the opportunity to share ideas for potential topics. It becomes progressively easier to share it with the entire group afterward.
- Run a quick TRIZ to identify and stop counterproductive behavior and activities. What would the worst Open Space possibly look like? What would need to happen to make this a terrible experience for everyone? As a group, identify the things that actually happened before, and work together to make agreements that prevent this from happening again.
- Share the outcome of the sessions with Shift & Share. Especially if you have a full-day or multi-day event, it’s useful to share the outcome of the different sessions with the entire group. Prevent boring presentations, and make this interactive by using a Shift & Share. Do quick rounds in which small groups present their key findings. Each round takes a max of 2 — 3 minutes.
- Close the event with 15% Solutions and Impromptu Networking. During the Open Space, participants gain many ideas, thoughts, and insights. This can be overwhelming. To prevent participants from getting stuck and not knowing where to start, we recommend closing the event with 15% Solutions. Ask everyone to identify their next steps, and share them with Impromptu Networking.
A common pitfall of Open Space Technology
A common pitfall of Open Spaces is that sessions devolve into unstructured group conversations where loud voices and strong opinions dominate. Or the session proposer takes the entire time slot to ‘broadcast information’ without tapping into the knowledge and experience of those present. In short: each individual session results in one-of-five conventional structures that are less engaging and liberating.
For example, sessions take shape in the form of a presentation, status report, or managed discussion. Only one person or a small group controls the content and is highly engaged and involved. Even when a large group joins the session, most only passively participate. It’s not that they don’t want to actively contribute, but the way the session is structured doesn’t give them the opportunity. The opposite can also happen with a themed brainstorm or an open discussion. Although control of content is distributed, chances are you’ll only hear the loudest voices and strongest opinions. Again, the majority acts as the audience, and many potentially great ideas are lost.
A common pitfall of Open Spaces is that sessions devolve into unstructured group conversations where loud voices and strong opinions dominate.
Use Liberating Structures to prevent this pitfall
This is an example of how common sense doesn’t mean common practice. We’ve often participated in Open Space sessions with many experienced Liberating Structures practitioners where most sessions still used conventional structures and thus failed to engage and liberate.
You can prevent this from happening by encouraging every participant to either use or suggest, at least one Liberating Structure for their session. For example, use 1–2–4-ALL to involve and engage everyone simultaneously in generating questions, ideas, and suggestions. Tap the wisdom of the group with Wise Crowds. Invent local solutions to chronic problems with Discovery & Action Dialogue. Create a give-and-get help session with Troika Consulting. Make sense of profound challenges with Conversation Cafe. Create shared understanding with What, So What, Now What. Rapidly share ideas with Impromptu Networking. And it’s always a good idea to finish every session with 15% Solutions. This is also a great way for everyone to practice with Liberating Structures and to help them see how easy they are.
You can use only one structure during your session, or even an entire string of multiple structures. A good idea is to support session proposers by having a group of volunteers ready to support them by facilitating the session. They can help you decide what Liberating Structure to use, or even support you in running the session. It’s also a good idea to make this approach known before the start of the Open Space. Ideally, the participants already know in advance that it’s recommended to use Liberating Structures during the session. As such, they can make preparations accordingly, and increase the outcome to involve & engage everyone during the session.
In this blog post, we described the purpose, and steps of Open Space Technology. It’s part of the collection of Liberating Structures and was originally invented by Harrison Owen. We also gave examples of how to combine Open Space Technology with other structures, and how to prevent sessions to devolve into unstructured group conversations where loud voices and strong opinions dominate. If you’ve got any other ideas or experiences with this structure: always feel free to share them. Let’s learn and grow, together!