Time to Open Space

Updated: Dec 1, 2019

IMAGINE walking into a meeting that looks and feels like this. You arrive late and right away, you know there’s something different going on.

Industry, Science, Technology, Community, Education, Business ~ Typical setup for an Open Space. Starts with a large circle (or concentric circles for larger groups) and in the center blank white sheets of paper and markers on which to write topics. These are all posted on a Marketplace Wall and become your Agenda.

No podium, no stage, no speakers or presenters, and no theatre style set-up; just a large circle of empty chairs with sheets of white paper and markers in the middle of the floor. You’re guessing that those seats were filled earlier when the meeting started a little over an hour ago.

You can feel the energy in the room. It’s palpable. Rarely have you ever seen people this engrossed in conversations. And what’s most extraordinary of all is that no one seems to be in charge. In fact as you watch people huddled together, in hubs and groups everywhere, young and old equally engaged, there’s no way of guessing people’s job descriptions, roles, titles or status. Totally amazing!

Creating a Bulletin Board and Market Place Wall

It's your Shared Agenda!

Your eyes are magnetically drawn to the giant wall on one side of the room. At the very top, is a big sign that says Marketplace Wall and right next to it, a huge banner with the theme of the meeting. The words leave little doubt that what’s being discussed is important, complex, far-reaching and highly relevant to the future of the organization. It’s why you’re here.

So you walk to the Marketplace wall. There you see a haphazard collage of 50 to 75 giant white sheets taped to the wall, each with hand-written words, an individual signature at the bottom and a colored post-it note with location and time for breakout sessions. It looks chaotic and messy yet exceedingly inviting.

Participants create the agenda in real time. They identify topics and initiatives around the convening theme. People then self-organize into discussion groups based on their interest and where they want to contribute. Passion and Responsibility are all it takes.

You start reading. Wow! This is the most dynamic agenda you’ve ever seen. It’s brimming with insightful topics, igniting questions and ideas for action. You feel something stir inside of you – a passion and a desire to be part of these urgent conversations. This is a meeting you definitely don’t want to miss!

The Facilitator Explains...

Someone stops by and introduces herself to you as the facilitator. She describes how after the host of the gathering has welcomed the group, she will open the space by providing basic instructions while describing a few guiding principles. It's the compelling theme, she says, that is at the heart of each Open Space gathering. Around issues, challenges and opportunities that are complex, urgent and important. Invitation is extended broadly to everyone who has a stake in the matter at hand.

"We go beyond the hierarchy, breaking down silos. It's how you create engagement, commitment and high performance," she adds.

From Chaos to Order ~ People Self-Organize into Groups

She explains further: In Open Space you have a choice. You can initiate topics or join groups that will be working on something that matters to you. You can even choose to go to different breakouts or just hang out. In Open Space we call that the Law of Two Feet (or the Law of Mobility). If you aren't learning or contributing, move on. You can even hang out and chances are you'll strike up a really juicy conversation with someone who is doing the same. The only request is that these conversations must be documented, so that everyone gets the benefit of what's being discussed.

"Wow," you say, thinking out loud. How cool would it be if life at work could be like this. Go where you feel most energized and don't hold back...giving it your best. "Now that's the type of engagement I'd like to see," you respond.

It's SIMPLE...

Sit in a Circle, Create a Topic and Get to Work

The Newsroom ~ A Beehive of Activity

And then in the corner of your eye, you notice the News Room at the other side of the room. At least that’s what the sign on the wall says. You can see individuals furiously typing from scribbled notes and flip chart sheets strewn over long tables. Again, you feel the intensity, productivity and action-driven energy.

Productivity in the NewsRoom - People are capturing the highlights of their discussions in real time. These reports are immediately posted on the news wall for everyone to read. Later and very soon after the Open Space meeting, these will make up the Book of Proceedings—a document that includes the summary reports of every discussion (often with photos) along with the names of the topic initiators and participants in each group. Ideas for action are often included.


From Boston to New Jersey, Washington, Florida, Connecticut, Canada, Paris, China and Serbia, the above is how it happens, totally predictable. In the world of Open Space Technology, this is business as usual.

Harrison Owen, who started Open Space, doesn’t mince words when he talks about it: “Organizations can produce exhilarating performance while unleashing leadership across the board at every level. This 35-year natural experiment that is Open Space Technology (OST) has demonstrated no less than 300,000 times or more, in 149 countries with groups of 5 to 3000 that high play and high performance are not only possible but predictable and highly probable.”

"Self-organization and engagement in action are at the heart of this process. It’s what we need to see more of everywhere, at work and in life.”

So whether it’s a group of engineers re-designing a manufacturing process for making doors on airplanes, a shoe company stumbling onto new product lines which netted $18 million in their first year of sales, an international medical device company who wants to take the next leap in their business, technology folks interested in taking Agile to the broader world of work or national scientists dedicated to reinventing the way we do science, Open Space is an engagement process that works. What gets accomplished in days might have taken months and years. Strategy on Steroids!

Shifting the Effort-Reward ratio and Reinventing the way we do Science. Here one of three Ope Space gatherings by national scientists and friends of science.

In the World of Work where people are yearning to engage and be engaged, Open Space is a way to jumpstart a much-needed shift in culture and strategy. And it needs to happen fast if we are to have a fighting chance of bringing greatness back into our organizations and not lose the enormous multi-generational talent pool, passion and skills that are just waiting to be activated.

Yes it's time to Open Space in the Workplace. We urgently need to reverse the 80-20 employee dis-engagement-engagement ratio. It’s time to share leadership. It’s time to invite, include and engage customer service, engineers, accountants, supervisors, technology, new hires and so many others around the most important strategic issues in our organizations. It’s time to experience what true engagement in action in the workplace feels like and looks like. The Return on Engagement whether as a (ROI) Return on Investment or a (ROE) Return on Equity will be exponential, notwithstanding the huge increase in collaboration, performance and sheer joy of working with others.

Open Space is the Future of Leadership!

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