About Open Space Technology


Just before the participants arrive...

Below is a report Áine Ivers wrote about the OST training week that happened in Belfast in 2008. It was published in the Jan/Feb 2009 issue of The Visual Artists Ireland Newsletter.

A Report on Interface Summer School: Open Space Technology Training, Belfast, 10th – 16th of September 2008.

Last September Interface of the University of Ulster hosted an Open Space Technology training week. I attended, and found it an interesting and rewarding experience. This is a report on Open Space Technology and the training week. It contains ideas from a conversation with Susanne Bosch and Cherie Driver of The University of Ulster, who initiated, organized and participated in the training.

Open Space Technology (OST) is a process for facilitating complex meetings. It is people-centred and result-orientated. OST allows people to broach difficult subjects together and address conflict. Participants in Open Space meetings are empowered by being made responsible for their own interests, desires and actions. OS meetings have involved anything between 5 and over 2000 participants. Based on the philosophy of self-organising systems, OST invests in the concept that people do best when they represent themselves. Developed by American facilitator Harrison Owen in the nineties, OST has four tenets. They are; ‘Whoever comes is the right people’; ‘When it’s over it’s over’; ‘Whenever it starts is the right time’; and ‘Whatever happens is the only thing that could have’. There is one law; ‘The law of two feet’; anyone can walk away from any discussion at any time. The tenets are designed to foster a relaxed, inclusive atmosphere, and to encourage engaged group-work and cross-fertilisation of ideas. The law affords the individual responsibility for his or her presence, open-mindedness and actions.

A need for OST facilitator training in Northern Ireland was identified by Cherie Driver and Susanne Bosch. Driver works with the school of art and design at the University of Ulster. Bosch is course director of the Masters of Art in Public there. Both have independent art practices. It was Bosch who first became familiar with OST. She thought it a valuable facilitation technique absent from the island of Ireland. She explained the technique to Driver who was immediately intrigued. Interface approved the training project and Bosch and Driver organised it with The Berlin Open Space Co-op. Partial funding was received from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council. Twenty-five people, mostly from Northern Ireland, attended.  Some came from Germany, Latvia and Scotland. Two came from the Republic of Ireland, one being myself. Participants worked in areas such as arts, consultancy, youth-work, community care, community relations and sustainability.

Michael M. Pannwitz and Jo Töpfer led the training, supported by Yaari Pannwitz and assisted by Belfast-based MA students Chrissie Cadman and Eleanor Phillips. It took place over seven days at Connswater Community Centre in East Belfast. It was an intense week of group exploration through experiential learning. There were no lectures. Participants were encouraged not to take notes so as to be fully present in the process. Knowledge was generated through discussions between participants in Open Space meetings. Facilities included a ‘library’ of publications and audio material about OST, a ‘cinema’ of video recordings of OS meetings, a ‘cyber-room’, and a canteen where an all-day buffet was laid out each day. The buffet contributed greatly to the success of the training. Food organisation is considered a vital component of OST, based on the fact that food-sharing encourages formative conversations. Participants could eat whenever hungry, and take coffee breaks whenever it suited.

Different aspects of the training process dominated conversations throughout the week. A sense of personal exploration, discovery and sharing was top of the list. The role, the motivations and personal well-being of the facilitator were issues well explored. Passion was the most central issue of the week; discussions explored and critiqued ideas about the passions that drive individuals and communities. OST itself and its potential applications became more prominent conversation topics as the week progressed.

I was intrigued by the concept of self-organising systems in OST.  Bosch understood OST as a process that eliminates the search for role-models or scapegoats by individuals within groups, referring to the idea that a collective only works if individuals are conscious of their individuality within the collective. During the training week each participant represented his or her own interests only. People who shared similar interests gravitated towards each other for discussions on those topics, and drifted towards other groups once those discussions concluded. This is self-organisation in action; it occurs naturally within groups but is not often trusted as an order-generating structure, as it is in OST.

OST breaks down power dynamics that occur within groups. Self-representation, the absence of agendas and chairpersons assist in this. But there are other forces at work here. During the week of training I explained OST to a friend. She then told me a story of an advocacy organisation that disbanded as it failed to resolve internal conflicts and bullying issues, despite mediation efforts. The breakdown was a result, she contended, of societal power structures being reflected, replicated and unwittingly played out amongst the group’s committee members. It was a minor tragedy, as the group had initially formed to lobby for its members against societal oppression and discrimination. These are the kind of dynamics that OST actively interrupts and dispels. OST directs people to focus on issues rather than engage with and navigate power structures. The facilitator’s role is crucial; rather than mediate, he or she facilitates direct communication between people. OST deems all participants equal in a meeting and rejects top-down power structures.

Those who attended the training developed a sense of community and inclusiveness through the process. It seemed that, to encourage this, the facilitators incorporated into their presence a sense of exclusion, through their impartiality and their lack of input into discussions. They worked without offering comment or opinion, and avoided investing in issues or answering questions. By embodying the idea of exclusion in their presence, they tightened the sense of inclusion between participants. As participants, we discussed such strategies, and how they are found in religious and commercial organisations. Similar community-forming concepts are evident ideas of nationalism, patriotism and consumerism. A striking correlation between OST and organised religion is the reinvention of the Christian perception of ‘free will’ in OST, in the way the facilitator creates and holds a ‘space’ in an ever-present but non-intrusive fashion, while participants have ‘free will’ within the ‘space’ through the ‘law of two feet’. Although initially wary of these parallels, I found that the goal-orientated process of OST resulted in practical, action-based outcomes that mitigated religious overtones. These concepts function as temporal structures in OS meetings that allow people to share ideas and communicate.

Arts practitioners who attended the training week were primarily interested in OST as a way of thinking and sharing useful in the context of participatory art processes. I was struck by the contrast between the removedness of the facilitator and the presentness of the participant in OST, and wondered how that would impact on artist-facilitators using OST in their work. Bosch saw OST as a way to foster collective decision-making processes, and suggested that it might be an excellent tool to address what happens when an artist finishes working with a group, as this is often a residual issue of collaborative projects.

Driver succinctly described the training experience; over the course of the week she found herself challenged to realign her intentions, motivations and goals in order to be able to receive the methodology of OST. I suspect others at the training had similar experiences. OST can be seen as a constructive process of critical engagement with oneself through honesty and transparency about one’s motivations for one’s actions. Driver explained the aims of the training week to me. “A key thing was that there would be people trained in Open Space in Northern Ireland. People would be able to go out and facilitate other groups, we would be able to have these large collective meetings, to create Open Spaces, to talk about issues, whatever they might be. That’s caught on quite quickly! There have been a few suggestions of Open Spaces in the future, and people, particularly in Northern Ireland, have met and we’ve had an Open Space sense. We’ve already facilitated an Open Space!”  An all-Ireland OS facilitators network has been established since. In the arts, an OS meeting on digital technologies and cultural practices hosted by Interface in collaboration with The International Symposium of Electronic Arts 2009 in Belfast. Chrissie Cadman is using OST to reframe the way information is disseminated amongst members of the University of Ulster Students’ Union. Theatre Forum Ireland scheduled an OS meeting in December, and Create aims to sponsor a meeting of collaborative artists in 2009 in Dublin. An OS learning exchange is being planned. I am organising an experimental OS meeting for members of The Market Studios. Whenever it happens is the right time.

Below is a description of Open Space Technology written by Juliane Ade, of BOSCOP, Berlin Open Space Co-operative. Thanks Juliane for letting us post this on our blog!

Open Space Technology
Be prepared to be surprised!

Open Space Technology offers a new paradigm – regarding theory, practice, terminology and approach – for conflict resolution, organizational development, organizational transformation and facilitation. Emerging in the late 1980s, Open Space manifested the revolutionary shift from organizational development to organizational transformation as a result of the analysis by just a handful of consultants and facilitators.
Based on Chaos Theory, the Theory of the Self-Organizing System and the Concept of Complex Adaptive Systems, Open Space Technology stands out from and surpasses all other approaches in the realm of transformation. It is particularly characterized by the “invisibility” of the facilitator, the absence of a prefixed agenda, its apparent lack of structure and control, its welcoming of both conflict and surprise and its reliance on the individual’s responsibility and participation based on passion. In fact, Open Space Technology meetings turn out to be very structured and controlled – by the people involved. In this way they meet the needs of the participants infinitely better than any pre-planning could ever achieve. Open Space unleashes all the potential of groups and systems.

1. What is Open Space Technology?

In conferences, important things happen during the coffee breaks. Participants discuss what really matters to them in small groups. They exchange ideas, make contacts, network and plan projects. This is the phenomenon that Open Space Technology is based on. In other words, Open Space captures the spirit of one big break – with all its characteristics: energetic, self-organized, adapted by participants to their needs, unpredictable, chaotic, spontaneous and very productive.

“Open Space Technology (OST) is (…) a deceptively simple approach to better, more productive meetings in which groups of from five to one thousand [recent event: 2108 participants ] people quickly self-organize to deal effectively with complex issues in a very short time.”

Open Space events last from several hours to several days, depending on the circumstances and the pursued goals. People might gather for a one-day workshop, a three-day conference or a weekly staff meeting. The optimum length and design of an event requires 16 hours spread over a three day period, preceded by a half day preparation meeting and followed by a half day next meeting.

2. How did it all start?

In 1983, Harrison Owen organized a conference resulting in a consensus: The most important part of this conference were the coffee breaks.  Harrison asked himself, how to link the informality and vividness / aliveness of a coffee break with the commitment / seriousness and result orientation of a work meeting. This led him to the prototype of human communication:

•    The Circle – Real things happen in the circle, where there exists no above and below, no “we” or “them”.
•    Breath – When people are “Out of Breath“ good things cannot happen. We first have to slow down and get back to our very own rhythm for cooperation and learning to unfold.
•    Bulletin Board – People share their passions and their concerns with each other.
•    The Market Place – People offer, choose and bargain.

Open Space Technology was „re-discovered“, a new-old practice revived, as Harrison Owen puts it. He – and by now many others – tried it and it works!

3. Who uses Open Space Technology?

Public and private organizations, small businesses, large corporations, associations, cooperatives, community based groups, communities, governments and families meet in Open Space to enhance the quality of collaboration.

Today Open Space Technology is being used in more than 91 countries. Boeing developed a new design for airplane-doors, AT&T designed a pavilion for the Olympic Games in Atlanta, the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) planned its future, the Deutsche Bahn AG planned the process of a merger …and all that happened in Open Space.

4. How does it work?

Open Space Technology increases effectiveness and commitment. Participants leave with new insights, energy, a sense of direction and the tools to forward.

No prefixed agenda

People come together related to a central theme that is meaningful to all of them (Such as The Future of our Cooperation, -our Company, -our Health System – What can we do?). They sit in a circle and everybody has the opportunity to post issues and questions they care for. Within the first hour of the meeting, with a clear purpose in mind, all participants create an agenda and design self-organized parallel working sessions.

Space to participate, communicate and cooperate

Every issue of concern can be addressed. In order to move forward, there is no better way than to start from what a person is passionate about. All those who share the same or a similar passion, interest or concern get together to work on it. The environment helps participants to communicate constructively without outside intervention. Team learning and cooperation take place; the potential for commitment is increased because participants take ownership of issues and procedures. That way, most hidden resources of the system are being activated.

Outcome and Documentation

Open Space Technology is an action-oriented approach. Already during the event the participants start taking responsibility for putting the next steps into practice.

During the process, outputs are published on the Documentation Wall. So everyone can follow what happens in all other groups. Towards the end the participants develop an action plan and create action groups. On the last day, everybody receives the complete documentation containing short reports on the issues explored, actions that are planned and the names of the participants in each group and a contact list of everybody. This information supports the development of rich and diverse networks and the sustainability of further steps (the action planning).

Six to twelve weeks after the Open Space-gathering there is a “Next Meeting” for stocktaking and the planning of further next steps.

5. What is the role of the facilitator?

In the beginning the Open Space facilitator supports the opening of space. Afterwards it is the facilitators’ main task to hold time and space, so people can get their work done most effectively. The facilitators’ job is it to be present and invisible at the same time. By not intervening the facilitating person stays away from closing space, thereby strengthening the power of the participants and the system. The facilitator knows that the participants have all the competencies and the abilities to handle the situation – even when there is a lot of conflict. When the facilitator succeeds in this art of facilitation (which is always simple but not easy), the result can be powerful, effective learning, connecting, planning, decision-making and acting. It strengthens what is already there: passion, participation, responsibility and performance.

6. Prerequisites for Open Space Technology gatherings

Open Space Technology is not a recipe for every situation, but it always works. It is a great approach for exploring issues, planning for the future, to set-up quickly, to build and support teams, to improve communication and to re-energize an organization. It is not useful in situations in which people think they know the answer already. Leaders who initiate Open Space must be ready for the unexpected and open to change. Their intention should be transparent. The theme for the meeting should represent a real issue of interest.

Open Space works best when people showing up reflect the whole system. In that case it does not matter how many there are: The ones who participate combine all the knowledge and all the possibilities of the group and they are sufficient to initiate change.

Given the following preconditions Open Space “rocks”:

•    Work to be done is complex,
•    Answer(s) unknown,
•    Passion for resolution (and therefore the potential for conflict) is high,
•    matters are urgent, time to act was yesterday and
•    people that show up reflect the whole system.
Links to further information:

Website of the berlin open space cooperative, boscop eg. The site of the coop, registered under the German Coop Law, presently shows the work of its 10 members practicing as Open Space facilitators and trainers in Europe and worldwide.

Open Space World Map presently showing 424 resident Open Space Workers in 70 countries (working in a total of 126 countries worldwide)

Data base presently showing 300 Open Space events with details to sponsor, date of event, number of participants, title, length of event, facilitator and a number of other details. This site grew out of the Berlin Open Space Landscape that depicted Open Space events that had taken place in Berlin (150) searchable by facilitator and field.

Website for the worldwide Open Space movement. Information, contacts, training, annual worldwide OSonOS meeting…. simply everything to Open Space in 16 languages. The site is maintained by Michael Herman from Chicago.

Website of Harrison Owen, the discoverer of Open Space Technology. Here you find information referring to his books, trainings and articles.

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