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Open Space Meetings

Sometimes risky, the unscripted format is popular, productive and powerful.

By Kate Burton



In 2005, the Girl Scouts of the USA were at a turning point. Proudly steeped in tradition, the organization also had to find ways to address the changing needs of girls and women in the 21st century while continuing to honor its fundamental mission. Under the leadership of Kathy Cloninger, who took the helm as CEO in 2003, change was already underway. The 2005 National Convention, which took place in October 2005 in Atlanta, was an opportunity to present a new mission statement and strategy — and also tap into the collective wisdom, needs, and ideas of leadership and membership to create new strategies going forward.

“Kathy Cloninger was looking for a different way for the delegates to have conversations and go deeper than they typically would be able to. She had heard about Open Space through some other work I’d been doing with Girl Scouts councils and approached me in late 2004 to see if we could do an Open Space event that was that big,” says Christine Whitney Sanchez, owner of the Phoenix-based company Collaborative Wisdom and Strategy, whose focus is techniques that lead to large-scale change and inner leadership.

The challenges were multifold: Not only was the convention space already booked in Atlanta, putting constraints on logistics, but the anticipated number of 1,700 delegates would make this one of the largest Open Space Technology (OST) meetings ever at the time. And the process was unfamiliar to most of the delegates. “There were some concerns about trying something so different because on the whole the Girl Scouts are a very traditional organization,” says Julie Murphy, senior director of strategy for the Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA), who worked closely with Whitney Sanchez to pull it all together. “Going into it, there was some negativity and some delegates clearly had doubts.”

But the decision-makers in the organization knew that the potential rewards were worth the risks. “It gave us a great opportunity for our membership to speak about what was really on their minds,” says Murphy. “Most of our meetings are talking heads at the front of the room so it was a completely different experience to invite members to come and tell us what they think.”

The results of that meeting were so powerful that the Girl Scouts brought the process back for their next convention, in 2008.

Creating the space

So what exactly is Open Space Technology? Designed to tap into that creative collective energy that a group of people can produce, the process of Open Space Technology was developed in the 1980s by Harrison Owen when he noticed that the coffee breaks at a meeting got higher praise than the actual sessions. The process itself is deceptively straightforward, but the results can lead in multiple directions. As Cloninger told the audience when she opened the 2005 GSUSA convention, “Trust the process — it’s going to be lively and messy!”

The key element is that there’s no pre-created agenda — in other words, it’s a chance for meeting participants to decide what they believe is truly important. The whole group starts together to create discussion points and then self-divides into smaller groups to further explore the elements that have come up.

To start, all attendees gather together in a circle and are presented with a focusing question that addresses a key challenge or question that the organization is facing. For example, in 2005, when the Girl Scouts were focused on overall strategy, they asked, “What would our governance structure look like on a national and local level if it met the test of being efficient, decisive and action-oriented?”

By 2008, however, the focus was moved inward, with the question: “As we approach our 100th anniversary, what can we learn from each other that will help us bring Girl Scouts to a record number of girls?”

The question can either be presented to participants before the actual meeting starts via a mailing or at the opening session. Once in a circle, the facilitator explains the process to participants: Anyone who has a thought about the focusing question is invited into the middle of the circle to announce the topic and write it on a piece of paper. The paper is put on the wall, along with a time and place for anyone interested in that topic to meet.

After all the agenda items are on the wall, participants choose which of the topics they want to further explore in smaller sessions, which can take place in anything from breakout rooms to a hallway. During the sessions, participants jot down whatever comes up so there’s a record to share with the group on the whole. If the meeting is long enough, results can be shared on the spot; if not, the notes can be gathered and distributed at a later time.

The “rules” of open space are short and to the point:

There’s also one “law,” called the “Law of Two Feet.” Lisa Heft, an Open Space facilitator whose company Opening Spaces is based in Berkeley, Calif., explains that means that each participant has a responsibility to ensure they’ve landed in the right group. “If you’re in a group and are neither learning nor contributing, it’s up to the attendee to get up and move to another group. It’s disrespectful to yourself to not use your best abilities,” she says. “If you don’t feel you have a voice in a group, if the group is going great, but you don’t feel you have something to add, if your mind is wandering, even if you’re just hungry or restless or have to use the restroom … by taking care of yourself and moving to another group, you’re actually taking care of the group. There’s a lot of movement in Open Space and that’s not only okay, but encouraged.”

Structuring the Space

Sounds pretty simple, right? While the process of Open Space is very unstructured, the physical space does need a certain structure to it. And although the logistics of Open Space are apparently straightforward, some of the set-up can provide challenges to planners simply because they’re different from other kinds of meeting set-ups.

“Logistically, it’s a little strange,” says Chris Corrigan, an Open Space facilitator and owner of Harvest Moon Consultants in British Columbia, Canada. “A lot of hotel staffs just aren’t used to this kind of set-up and they scratch their heads and ask if you know what you’re doing.”

Take the size of the space itself. The very circle formation that’s crucial to success in the initial gathering means standard meeting set-up numbers have little relevance. A rule of thumb is to book a space for double the number of people expected. For example, “if we’re expecting 200 people, we’ll book a room that can seat 400 theater-style,” says Corrigan.

Then there are the rules of the venue and sometimes a union to contend with. “In some situations, chairs are locked together and have to stay that way,” says Heft. “But we can work with that and make a kind of diamond shape that still has a wide-open center space even if it’s not the traditional circle.” By the same token, if a planner is not allowed to use the walls to tack up signs, Heft says she’s used the backs of chairs for posting signs. “If the physical space isn’t conducive to the process, sometimes I’ll ask a planner if this is really the best process for this group at this time. But if it is, you can’t let the logistics of the space dictate the process. There are ways around most potential issues.”

Where planners can get very flexible is in the breakout spaces used for the small group gatherings. “They can be anywhere,” says Corrigan. “I like the idea of letting people go all over the place, into all different kinds of spaces with nooks and crannies.”

In all, says Heft, “For a participant, the process is very simple. But there’s a lot of preparation that goes on behind the scenes.”

A Tale of Two Sessions

Preparation can be complicated when a group has booked meeting space before the decision to use OST. That’s what happened with the Girl Scouts, who, like many associations, book their space several years out.

“The convention center in Atlanta is massive,” says Whitney Sanchez, “so in 2005, we were able to find a hall to use and breakout rooms that the smaller groups could move into once the topics were set.” On the other hand, in Indianapolis in 2008, the group already had plans for the entire convention center so the Open Space session took place in a ballroom at the adjacent Marriott. “For the sake of time and simplicity, we also ended up having all the breakouts take place in that one ballroom,” explains Murphy.
“Having everyone in one room in 2008 created a palpable energy and a real sense of the ‘whole’ during the entire experience,” says Whitney Sanchez. “On the other hand, it was also noisy and some of the sessions ended up being pretty big so having their own space would have been nice. But in the end, it still worked, which is the important thing.”

Those constraints also had an impact on how many people could attend the sessions. Because of the nature of the session in 2005, the Open Space meeting was designed for “delegates,” elected representatives who numbered about 2,000 out of the convention’s entire attendance of some 14,000. Murphy estimates that about 1,700 of the 2,000 showed up for the session. The response was so overwhelmingly positive that for the 2008 convention, the Girl Scouts wanted to open it up to attendees at large. Space constraints, however, limited the number of attendees to about 700, meaning space was reserved on a first-come, first-served basis.

Folding a session into an existing schedule can also prove challenging. In both cases, the Girl Scouts opted to have their Open Space sessions as pre-convention events, but there was more available time in 2005 than in 2008. In 2005, for example, attendees gathered in the morning, broke for lunch, then reconvened for another session before a closing circle, while in 2008, the whole session had to be completed by 1:30 p.m. “We served lunch right in the room and carried on so we didn’t have to lose any additional time,” says Whitney Sanchez.

Follow-up actions can also vary depending on the question and how attendees respond. Both years, the resulting hundreds of pages of notes were put online for all convention attendees to access. “In 2008, because the focus was on shared learning, people took what they needed from the sessions and brought what they needed back home with them,” says Murphy. “But in 2005, we were actually very surprised by the results. The focus question was on governance, but it turned out that almost no one spoke about governance. That told us very clearly that it wasn’t a priority for them. The beauty of Open Space is that people can tell us what they really care about.” Murphy took those concerns and “wrapped their thoughts right into the final strategy that we had been developing.”

Another result of both sessions was the interest attendees had in bringing the Open Space techniques back to their home councils — so much so that the Girl Scouts later created packets to distribute to anyone interested in planning Open Space sessions on their own.

“There’s so much passion for this process,” says Murphy. “It’s really taken hold virally and we’ve heard from people all over the country who are using it in council meetings, annual meetings and even with the girls. When you ask people what their passion is and what they’d like to see happen, they get excited and end up being really touched by the experience.”

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