Open Space

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Summary

Open Space is a conferencing method, which builds on the realisation that self-organised communication and informal exchange is often much more fruitful than centralised, structured communication. The method activates participants’ creativity and builds on their motivation and self- determination – there is no agenda or pre-defined content, just a transparent set of rules and a clear schedule.

Open Space therefore consists of detailed steps that have proved to provide ample room for participants to bring up their own topics and concerns and then work on them collectively, including concrete follow-up planning.

An Open Space can be held with groups as small as 15 to 20 people in a 1–2 day setting, but has also been successfully applied with up to 1,000 participants.

Goal/Learning Objective/Expected Output

Enabling a group of people to organise themselves in bringing up the issues they care about, and develop self-organised solutions.

Way/level of dealing with subject

Actively engage in solving burning issues and create ownership over processes.

Application in moderation cycle

Divergence to convergence.

Duration

A minimum of one day up until 3 days (if following the ‘classical’ model).

Group size

A minimum of 15–20 people, open ended.

Level of difficulty

Difficult

Facilitator

The ideal Open Space facilitator is ‘fully present and totally invisible’, ‘holding a space’ for participants to self-organise rather than micro-managing activity and conversations.

The role of the facilitator is to invest a lot into detailed preparation, convey a spirit of empowerment, guide participants through the different steps and let the process unfold.

Materials needed

The ‘bible’ of Open Space (see below) provides a detailed list of materials needed. This includes:

  • pinboards
  • flipchart stands and paper
  • markers
  • moderation cards, etc.

Additional resources:

Process description

Preparation

The Open Space host identifies a central issue beforehand and invites participants accordingly. The title best represents a future-oriented open question, which is relevant and exciting for the participants. As participants need to be drawn to the event by the title and their individual interest, the quality of the title and the invitation is crucial.

Coffee Break

One focus of Open Space is to ensure that relationship- building between participants can take place. Therefore, before the official opening there is supposed to be plenty of informal time to connect and chat, and for people to meet new or known colleagues.

Collecting Issues

The Open Space itself starts in a circle with an introduction to Open Space – what it is and how it works – by the Open Space facilitator. The general structure is to:

  • Collect issues proposed by the participants that will be put up for discussion and to have.
  • At least three rounds of small group discussions of 45 to 120 minutes covering the issues collected from the participants so that everyone is able to participate in a number of different working groups.

Based on the amount of participants and the available space, time slots together with an assigned location (such as separate rooms or designated circles of chairs) for the
different working groups are marked on small post-it notes. For a group of 40 participants, for instance, there should at least be 4 to 6 locations available to hold parallel working groups. This would allow for a total of 12 to 18 time slots.

Then the facilitator opens the so-called ‘Market Place’: She/he invites anyone who cares about an issue to step into the middle of the circle and write the topic and his or her name on an A4 sheet, choose a post-it with a time slot, announce it and post the offering on a pinboard. They will be convenors who have the responsibility for facilitating their session(s) and seeing to it that a report is made, using a prepared report template.

Discussions

The participants decide, according to their interest, to join an individual working group. The groups are working in parallel. Different from usual working group processes,
participants are encouraged to change groups during the rounds of group work – in case they realise they can neither benefit from nor contribute to the current group (‘the law of two feet’). Key arguments and outcomes are documented using a one-page template. These reports are later copied for all participants and a specific time slot after the third rounds of working groups is reserved for reading all the groups’ results.

Action Planning

After a short outcome review follow up activities and projects are decided upon – again in small groups. Their implementation can be monitored and supported by follow-up measures.

The most important aspect and condition for the success of an Open Space is thorough preparation. You need to meet the interests and aspirations of the target group. Then they will a) come and b) participate by actively asking their questions and showing interest. If expectations are not met, the exercise will be a lame duck, as the key – self-organisation – requires selfinterest, which will not be generated.

Options for modification

A fully-fledged Open Space takes 3 days as outlined above. However, the general principle of self-organised working groups based on proposed issues from participants can also be done in a more condensed version.

Debriefing options

At the end of every Open Space, there should be a final debriefing of how participants experienced the process and what they took from it in term of personal encounters, discussions or follow-up agreements.

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