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Open Space Technology: A New Perspective for Organizing and Perceiving Change

by Linda Olson
Organizational Effectiveness Consultant
Hewlett-Packard Bay Area Personnel Services
(408) 553-7983

1998, Linda Olson

Organizations are experiencing unprecedented changes in their environment. They are facing a dramatic transition to a global economy, accelerated competition, shifts in government regulations, and nonstop technological innovations. There is a need to explore new ways of organizing that will allow companies to successfully compete and thrive in the twenty-first century. Current management literature suggest that perspectives for understanding change continue to be rooted in a machine metaphor of control and predictability that grew out of seventeenth-century, Newtonian physics. Meeting the demands of a rapidly changing environment calls for innovative approaches to the way organizations are understood and developed. At a minimum, it involves challenging current assumptions about ways of thinking and acting towards organizations and the people in them.

Today we need companies and the people in them to be adaptable, flexible, and to have the capacity to change. While living systems have these characteristics, we continue to use non-living, mechanical models to guide the design of organizations and how we perceive change. Companies attempt to transform themselves through a variety of "re" programs, yet the majority of these efforts are merely Band-Aids for symptoms. Organizations seem unable to make fundamental shifts that would create adaptive structures and processes for sustainability. The management paradigm of command, control, and predictability counteracts efforts to change. Our current organizational perspectives do not adequately address managing and organizing in conditions of turbulence and uncertainty. We need to explore dynamic models that capture the unpredictable, chaotic aspects of organizing confronted by today's organizations. We need to understand the context that allows companies to maximize opportunities to thrive.

Discoveries from the emerging science of complexity theory provide a new perspective for organizing and understanding change. The ability of companies to self-organize to successfully meet the requirements of the current environment is now a core competency as well as a new organizational paradigm. Meeting the demands of a rapidly changing environment calls for innovative approaches to the way organizations are understood and developed. If self-organizing processes are considered a new organizational paradigm, it is important to understand their characteristics and the implications they would have on the way work is performed in organizations. Theorists are finding that autonomy, redundancy, diversity and learning are essential characteristics that create conditions for self-organization. These characteristics provide a new lens for understanding the nature and direction of change as it unfolds in organizations and offers ways of working that enable the development of sustainable work communities and the emergence of structures and processes responsive to current and future needs.

Most companies use meetings as a primary method for connecting people to get work done. Typically, meetings have pre-set agendas, a fixed structure, and a designated process to follow. There is a need to bring individuals together quickly in ways that remove the constraints of inappropriate structure and control, and provide the environment to work creatively and productively on tasks critical to the organization.

In 1983, Harrison Owen, an international business consultant, came to the conclusion that the most significant and valuable part of an international symposium, which he had spent a year organizing, was the coffee breaks, the open spaces. He was interested in combining synergy and excitement present in the coffee breaks with the substance and productivity of an effective meeting. Open Space Technology (OST) evolved from this quest. OST meetings offer a way to move from a mechanistic to a more organic way of organizing.

Most meeting agendas lack the unique interests of the participants and the ability to create a timely and flexible design. In contrast, OST meeting design preplanning is creating a theme that is broadly conceived, simply stated, and critical to the organization. The theme should stimulate participant interest and provide focus for the work. Engagement and commitment in an OST meeting are high because they are based on the two underlying fundamentals of Open Space; passion, without which no one cares, and responsibility, without which nothing gets done. The focus on what is important and interesting significantly increases the creativity and level of participation of participants. The invitation to attend the Open Space meeting establishes personal responsibility, explicitly implying a choice regarding meeting attendance. The voluntary nature of participation insures the right level of interest and energy will be present in the meeting.

An Open Space meeting is held in a room large enough for participants to sit in a circle. The Four Principles and the Law of Two Feet as developed by Owen establish the structure of the meeting. The first principle, "whoever comes is the

right people," reinforce the need to focus on the people in attendance at the meeting rather than those that are not at the meeting. The second principle, "whatever happens is the only thing that could have," keep attention on the present. The third principle, "whenever it starts is the right time," remind people that creativity cannot be controlled. The fourth principle, "when it is over, it is over," allow individuals an appropriate amount of time to be productive. The Law of Two Feet emphasizes the voluntary nature of participation and the importance of individual responsibility. Participants not learning or contributing anything in group sessions are encouraged to move to another meeting where they can be more productive. It is interesting to note that the principles and law create a meeting context that is the antithesis of most meeting management techniques.

The participants at the meeting determine the content, structure, and design of the meeting. Participants consistently create an agenda more complex, comprehensive, and challenging than could ever be designed prior to the meeting. Yet, for most organizations pre-planning is considered a prerequisite to an effective meeting. The agenda for the OST meeting emerges from the participants' passion and willingness to take responsibility. Participants identify an opportunity or issue related to the meeting theme for which they have real passion and then take responsibility for conducting a session. The agenda items are written on a large piece of paper, announced to the group, and posted on the wall. After all the agenda items are identified and posted participants get the opportunity to sign up for as many meetings as they wish to attend. Sessions are held in breakout rooms or in areas within the large room. The meeting convenors facilitate the discussions and are responsible for insuring the proceedings are recorded. Computers are available to summarize meeting discussions, recommendations, and action items. Completed summaries are posted for others to review. The proceedings are a significant outcome of the OST meeting. They are combined and distributed electronically to participants for review and to prioritize. They serve as the vehicle to move the work forward based on the group's willingness to spend time and energy on an issue.

OST works best in situations characterized by a high degree of complexity, conflict, diversity, uncertainty, and a sense of urgency. It does not work in situations where the answer is known ahead of time. For an Open Space meeting to be successful, it must focus on a real business issue, which is of passionate concern to those involved. The facilitator reminds participants to be prepared to be surprised, acknowledging the uncertainty and the novelty of the meeting outcome.

Participants act autonomously in Open Space meetings, as they do not need to consult with others not in attendance at the sessions to discuss topics or make recommendations for actions. They come together based on their mutual interest and willingness to contribute their knowledge or insights to the issue at hand. The ability to be free to make choices allows for cooperative and collaborative behaviors to emerge. OST can serve as a team building experience. The freedom to choose your work for the day allows participants to transcend their normal silos and approach the topics from a team versus an individual perspective. The meeting creates the space for people to come together in new ways and experience being a team. Having an experience is very different than talking about cross-functional teams or participating in a team development program. Team behavior emerges from the Open Space meeting without any instruction. Boundaries that previously separate participants disappear in the Open Space meeting, as new connections are developed based on mutual concerns and interests.

In Open Space meetings, there is usually overlap in the meeting topics. Similar topics are approached from various perspectives and produce different outcomes. The redundancy of meeting topics builds learning capacity as people moving into different groups transfer information shared in one meeting to another. This information sharing creates a common ground for ideas and facilitates the transfer of knowledge. Listening to others and sharing ideas leads to new possibilities for action. As the levels of access to information increase, new connections are formed that create new networks for communications and cooperation.

An explosion of leadership capacity results from the fact that no one is in charge of the Open Space meeting. Leadership shows up in a variety of ways. It is shared among the participants and varies from meeting to meeting. Authority and decision-making capability are distributed among the participants during an Open Space meeting rather than being reserved for management. The meeting creates the time, space, and safety for the intuitive processes to flourish and be open to new insights. The generation of information in the meeting provides openings for innovation and creativity. Participants come together in new ways that allow for the articulation of all the information they have around a particular agenda item. Knowledge is generated from connections not there previously.

Other large group meeting or conference models are currently in vogue and being used by major public and private organizations. Although they are more participatory and democratic than other change interventions, they are designed and facilitated from a Newtonian control model. Typically, these conferences are very structured with detailed agendas, group exercises, and scheduled presentations. In contrast, Open Space meetings eliminate any control features from a meeting design that would inhibit innovation and creativity. Under the direction of the meeting theme, participants in an Open Space meeting create their own agenda and develop the appropriate structure and leadership to match the task. The fact that these large group meetings include significant numbers of employees and stakeholders disguise the control exhibited in the complicated methods of meeting planning and facilitation utilized. Open Space appears to be the only large group intervention that currently exists outside of the management paradigm of predictability and control. In Open Space, no one is in control; while in the other large group interventions, the design team (management) creates the plan (agenda) and the facilitator manages according to the plan.

Global competition and unprecedented technical innovations have created the need for new social technologies. Organizations need to find new ways to deal with tremendous rates of change, uncertainty, and complexity that global competition and technological advances have created. OST may be one of the new social technologies that creates the conditions for companies to self-organize in novel and innovative ways in response to ongoing change. Shifting from using OST as an event to using the underlying concepts to create companies that will thrive in the twenty-first century is a critical area to explore. Understanding how a few simple guidelines can act as a catalyst for innovation and creativity and the emergence of appropriate structure and control for a particular task will provide us with a new perspective for understanding change. Optimizing the self-organizing characteristics of autonomy, redundancy, diversity, and learning may enable us to create a more dynamic model that can capture the unpredictable and chaotic aspects of change and organizing confronted by today's organizations.

Linda Olson works as an Organizational Effectiveness Consultant at Hewlett-Packard Company. The focus of her work is to enable individuals, teams, and organizations to develop and contribute to their fullest potential. She helps clients design and implement strategies that engage people’s vision and passion to create productive and sustainable organizations. She can be contacted at 408.553.7983.

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