Open Space Technology

Many unconferences are based on the open space technology method. I believe churches and Christian organisations could learn a great deal by adopting some of this theory at events.

Open-space technology (OST) is an approach for hosting meetings, conferences, corporate-style retreats, and community summit events, focused on a specific and important purpose or task—but beginning without any formal agenda, beyond the overall purpose or theme.

The Law of Two Feet:

If at any time you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing: Give greetings, use your two feet, and go do something useful. Responsibility resides with you.

Highly scalable and adaptable, OST has been used in meetings of 5 to 2,100 people. The approach is characterized by few basic mechanisms:

  1. a broad, open invitation that articulates the purpose of the meeting;
  2. participant chairs arranged in a circle;
  3. a “bulletin board” of issues and opportunities posted by participants;
  4. a “marketplace” with many breakout spaces that participants move freely between, learning and contributing as they “shop” for information and ideas;
  5. a “breathing” or “pulsation” pattern of flow, between plenary and small-group breakout sessions.

The approach is most distinctive for its initial lack of an agenda, which sets the stage for the meeting’s participants to create the agenda for themselves, in the first 30–90 minutes of the meeting or event. Typically, an open-space meeting will begin with short introductions by the sponsor (the official or acknowledged leader of the group) and usually a single facilitator. The sponsor introduces the purpose; the facilitator explains the “self-organizing” process called “open space.” Then the group creates the working agenda, as individuals post their issues in bulletin board style.

Outcomes

Whatever happens, there are some outcomes or results that can be 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.

Ideal initial conditions

According to open space technology: A User’s Guide and other books by Harrison Owen, open space technology works best when these conditions are present:

  1. A real issue of concern, that it is something worth talking about.
  2. a high level of complexity, such that no single person or small group fully understands or can solve the issue
  3. a high level of diversity, in terms of the skills and people required for a successful resolution
  4. real or potential conflict,which implies that people genuinely care about the issue
  5. a high level urgency, meaning the time for decisions and action was “yesterday”

Further, the recognition of these conditions by leadership typically implies some level of letting go of control and opening of invitation. In different ways and to varying degrees, leaders convening open-space meetings acknowledge that they, personally, do not have “the answer” to whatever complex, urgent and important issue(s) must be addressed and they put out the call (invitation) to anyone in the organization or community who cares enough to attend a meeting and try to create a solution.

In a different text he talks about preconditions for open space

The essential preconditions are:

  1. A relatively safe nutrient environment.
  2. High levels of diversity and complexity in terms of the elements to be self-organized.
  3. Living at the edge of chaos, in a word nothing will happen if everything is sitting like a lump.
  4. An inner drive towards improvement, hence if you are an atom it would be useful to get together with another atom to become a molecule.
  5. Sparsity of connections. This one is a little hard to visualize and was a real surprise to me.
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