#141 from R&D Innovator Volume 4, Number 2          February 1995

R&D Meetings in Open Space
by Harrison Owen

Mr. Owen, of H.H. Owen & Company in Potomac, Maryland, consults in organizational development and developed the concept of "open space" meetings.  His books include Riding the Tiger:  Doing Business in a Transforming World (Abbott Publishing, Potomac, Maryland, 1992), Open Space Technology:  A User's Guide (Abbott Publishing, 1993), and The Millenium Organization (Abbott Publishing, 1994).

In many organizations, one of the more frustrating tasks is to enable diverse, talented people with different, even conflicting ideas, to focus on a common goal and then reach real accomplishment--without a prior agenda or plan.  Good decisions ultimately, and rapidly, must be made and implemented.  The quality and pace of such decisions can be responsible for the organization’s overall success.

Open Space Technology

Over the past ten years, we’ve developed a new approach called Open Space Technology to get quality and rapid decisions from diverse groups. Open Space Technology is a deceptively simple approach which honors diversity and enhances organizational function.  In essence, the main contribution is to add commitment to the brew.

Open Space Technology has worked in an enormous variety of human endeavors, and I see no fundamental reason why it might not make a substantial contribution to the R&D effort.

In a typical application, 225 individuals representing federal agencies, state and local governments, and Native American tribes gathered for two days to develop approaches for building roads on or near tribal lands. 

To make the whole thing interesting, $1.5 billion was available for the undertaking.  The potential for conflict was enormous, as all groups present were natural, if not historical, opponents.  The issues were multiple and complex, and the time available for resolution short, as federal authorization for the money was about to expire.  In less than an hour, this diverse group created and organized 65 self-managing task groups, all of which convened over the two-day period.  By 7:00 p.m. on the second day, the group prepared 150 pages of proceedings, which were printed overnight and given to all participants on their departure the following morning.  One facilitator was required for the event, and only six weeks elapsed from the meeting's announcement until the proceedings were delivered.

The above scenario has been repeated hundreds of times all over the world, with groups ranging in size from five to 700.  Polymer chemists have used it to search for new products; major corporations have used it to search for new missions; towns have used it to search for new approaches to education; professional societies have refined and expanded their knowledge base; and businesses of all sorts have sought closer working relationships with their customers.

What’s the magic?  Nothing except for the passionate commitment of individuals who take personal responsibility for getting something done, and who are given the space and time (open space) in which to do it.

Open Space has three fundamental mechanisms, four principles, and one law.  It runs on passion and commitment. 


The three mechanisms are: The Circle, The Bulletin Board, and The Market Place. 

The Circle.  All Open Space events begin in a circle.  No tables, no desks, no dais, no rows.  Just a circle of chairs (or concentric circles for large groups) with plenty of open space in the center.  The importance of the circle cannot be overemphasized:  it's the fundamental geometry of meaningful human communication (who’d talk of a "square of friends" or a "family rectangle")?  In a circle, there's no top or bottom, head or foot, just people gathered in pursuit of a common objective.

That common objective is articulated in a theme, issue, or concern, which all participants have voluntarily chosen to confront (Open Space never works with coercion).

The circle of participants is asked to identify any issue or opportunity regarding the theme, for which they have real passion, and are willing to take personal responsibility.  The requirement for passion differentiates Open Space from brainstorming techniques which often produce many good ideas for somebody else to do.  The requirement for responsibility makes it clear that the proposer  is that "somebody," and the proposer has responsibility to convene a discussion on the item.  When passion and responsibility are linked, effective action usually results.

The Bulletin Board.  On paper, the proposer writes a brief title for the issue, the time and place of the meeting, and a signature.  This and similar notices are posted on a wall, to become a bulletin board of pertinent items.  This activity shows participants that if their issue does not find its way to the bulletin board, they have only themselves to blame.

The Market Place.  Once the bulletin board is created, the market place is open.  All participants are invited to sign up for as many issues as they wish, and the whole event is organized.  Task groups, conveners, time, place, and participants are identified.  Even with large groups, the organizational process usually takes an hour or less.

The Four Principles

The four principles are:  1)  Whoever comes is the right people; 2)  Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened; 3)  Whenever it starts is the right time; and 4)  When it’s over it’s over.

Whoever comes is the right people’ reminds participants, particularly the conveners, that it’s not how many people come, or even who comes (in the sense of status or position) that counts; rather, it’s the quality of the interaction and conversation that make the difference.  For good conversation, you just need one person who shares your passion.

Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened’ is a reminder that real learning and real progress will only take place when we all move beyond our original agendas and convention-bound expectations.  If everything always turned out just the way everybody expected, life would be exceedingly dull, and learning in any useful sense simply would not occur.  It’s precisely in moments of surprise, large and small, that we grow.  It’s important to cherish such moments.

Whenever it starts is the right time’ drives managers crazy, but that doesn’t make it any less true.  The real impact of this principle is to serve notice about the nature of creativity and spirit.  Both are essential and neither pay much attention to the clock.  They appear (or not) in their own time, which by definition means it’s the right time.  So all parties need to be advised that just because a meeting is scheduled for 3:00 p.m., there’s absolutely no guarantee that anything useful will take place at that precise moment.  Whenever it starts will be the right time.

When it’s over it’s over’ offers a marvelous way to save time and aggravation.  Supposing, for example, that you’ve scheduled a meeting at 2:00 p.m. with the expectation that it should take about two.  As it turns out, all of the useful business is conducted in the first 20 minutes.  Common sense dictates that it’s time to move on.  However, some strange mechanism ties most of us to predetermined forms.  If we walk into a room and the chairs are set in a fashion unconducive to the performance of our task, it typically doesn’t occur to most of us to rearrange the furniture.  The same is true with time.  If the meeting is supposed to take two hours, we’ll stretch it out that long, which prevents us from doing other things we could have done.  Worse, we rehash things that we've done, to the point of undoing them and creating the need for another meeting.  Wouldn’t it be so much easier just to say, “When it’s over it’s over,” and be on our way?

The Law of Two Feet

Simply stated, the Law of Two Feet says, “Everybody has them" (or in the case of the ‘differently-abled'—the equivalent).  If anyone feels they are neither learning nor contributing, they can use their two feet and go somewhere more productive.  This law may seem blunt, but it’s helpful.  First, it’s death to egotists, who alone possess the truth, have the divine obligation to impart it, regardless of anybody else’s feelings or desires. These egotists rapidly receive a new and sobering message when half the room applies the Law of Two Feet.

Second, all too often we sit politely, but seething inside, as our time is being wasted.  Since lost time can never be redeemed, the anger pollutes the environment with negative energy.  How much better it would be simply to get on our way and do something useful.  The Law of Two Feet allows for that.  It also puts responsibility directly on our own shoulders: Should we choose to remain in a situation where we are miserable and nonproductive, that’s our choice.

 Benefits and Pitfalls

Open Space is simple by intention and design.  It’s worked equally well in third-world village environments and sophisticated corporate and governmental settings.  Experience has shown that virtually anybody with a good head and clear intentions can facilitate the process.  The critical element is total release of attachment to specific outcomes, and an absolute trust that the group can and will find the appropriate way.  Attempting to control either the outcome or the process will derail the effort. 

You probably complain about attending so many meetings, and it's true that most are a drag.  Consider using all or part of Open Space to make meetings a much more productive use of your own—and everybody else's—time.

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