Open Space Technology

                                     The circle is the fundamental geometry of open human communication
 Harrison Owen

Open Space is a large-group process that helps participants focus energy on issues or opportunities of interest, and collectively design appropriate courses of action. Although it works with as few as 8 participants, Open Space is considered a large-group intervention because it works equally well with hundreds of participants. The term "technology" can be misleading, because the process is anything but technical or linear. According to Harrison Owen, the originator, the "technology" term was added by the sponsors of a large event early on, and the name Open Space Technology has stuck ever since. Practitioners usually refer to the process simply as Open Space.


The process

The four principles

How it can be used


The one law

What happens

How it started


Open Space is a highly participative planning method in which participants self organize around an agenda they create and manage. Participants generate issues and topics, which become basis for discussion groups around which participants self-select. Finally, action planning groups convene around the final grouping of issues. The process is particularly effective at uniting diverse groups around a complex and contentious issue that requires immediate attention.

The process begins with a theme, usually in the form of a question for the group to address, but no particular outcome or solution is assumed in advance. In fact, there is no agenda at the start of the Open Space event. Participants create their own agenda by choosing topics, related to the focus question, about which they feel some passion and responsibility. Passion and responsibility are the key fundamentals of Open Space. Without passion, no one feels motivated. Without responsibility, nothing gets done. For these reasons, and in keeping with self-management principles, participation in an Open Space event should always be voluntary.

Open Space events have been conducted in as few as four hours, but typically last one or two days. Group size is limited only by the physical space available, and have been conducted with over a thousand participants meeting face to face. The event requires a main room that is large enough to allow the participants to form a circle, or concentric circles in larger groups, without crowding.

The process
During an Open Space event, participants form a circle and identify topics of interest related to the focus question. Participants are invited to come to the center of the circle, write down their topic on a note card, announce it to the group and post it on a schedule of discussion groups. No one can complain about a particular issue not getting discussed because everyone has equal opportunity to submit topics. If a topic is not raised, then no one felt enough passion about it to take responsibility for hosting a discussion group.

The one law
During an Open Space event the Law of Mobility prevails. Participants are responsible for their own learning, and this law requires them to move to a different discussion group any time they are in a situation where they are neither learning or contributing. Rather than remain in a situation where their time is being wasted, participants are encouraged to get up and move to a group that meets their needs. All too often, we sit politely in situations that aren't working for us, getting either bored or irritated. Better to get up and find a situation that works. This partially explains why so much dialogue and learning occurs during coffee breaks at typical conferences.


The four principles
The philosophy of Open Space is embedded in four principles that reflect self-management.

1. Whoever comes is the right people
In Open Space, the group size or stature of members doesn't matter nearly as much as having people who want to be there and engage in discussions about the theme. As a self-managed voluntary event, Open Space reduces the chances that negative disengaged people will attend and diminish the group's energy.

2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have
The outcome of an Open Space event is never pre-determined and often people are surprised by the results. Real learning happens when we suspend judgment and open ourselves to new ideas. Sponsors of the event must willing to trust the group's wisdom and to accept the uncertainty that accompanies Open Space.

3. Whenever it starts is the right time
Creativity and group energy is not governed by the clock. Groups get down to work at their own unique pace that may not correspond to the expectations of others. As a result, discussion group schedules are fluid and there is no pressure on people to "get down to work."

4. When it's over, it's over
Just because a meeting was scheduled for two hours doesn't necessarily mean a group needs that long. They should conclude when they feel finished with their work, which could happen in one hour. People often tend to stay in meetings until the appointed ending time, even if the work is already complete. By the same token, if a group is deep into productive work, the meeting should not stop because of an externally imposed time limit.

What happens
While the outcomes can never be predicted, there are results that are guaranteed to happen when people assemble in an Open Space event.

1. The issues that are most important to people will get discussed.
2. The issues raised will be addressed by the participants best capable of getting something done about them.
3. All of the most important ideas, recommendations, discussions, and next steps will be documented in a report.
4. When sufficient time is allowed, the report contents will be prioritized by the group.
5. Participants will feel engaged and energized by the process.

How it can be used
Open Space is best suited to situations where a diverse group of people must grapple with complex and potentially conflicting issues in a productive and innovative way. It is a powerful process to use when nobody knows the answer and the ongoing participation of the participants is required.
Conversely, Open Space should not be used whenever the solution or course of action has already been determined, such as when a sponsoring person or group, has a clear outcome in mind that the group must achieve.

The following are a few examples of situations in which Open Space has been effectively utilized.

  • Strategic planning
  • Community building
  • Establishing cooperative relationships among community agencies
  • Community involvement in social, environmental, or government planning
  • Issue clarification
  • Developing future scenarios
  • Problem solving
  • Board development
  • Staff development
  • Organizational change
  • Policy development

  • How it started
    Harrison Owen founded Open Space Technology in 1984. The catalyst was his frustration at spending a hard year planning a large conference only to find that participants found the coffee breaks to be the best part of the event. It was during coffee breaks that the most meaningful connections were made and important topics discussed. Harrison vowed to figure out how to capture the spirit of a coffee break in a large group process. His answer came from observing a tribe in West Africa. He found that almost everything important to the tribe happened in a circle. All important tribal issues were dealt with in open discussion held in a circle. Harrison recognized that there is power and magic in a circle. He decided to invite people to join in a circle to address an issue, and added some structure for creating topics for discussion (the bulletin board) and a method for the group to schedule the discussions (the marketplace).

    Back to Large Group Interventions