How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
Gather up to several hundred people in a large, open space, such as a conference center. You need at least half a day, although Open Space sessions can be up to three days long.
Explain the rules briefly and state the overall theme around which you want people to talk. This should be very general and enable many different interests and concerns.
Individual people stand up, explain briefly a subject in which they are interested (for a big room, give them a microphone), write their name and the subject on a flipchart page, then sit down again. This process is continued until no more people want to stand up.
The next stage is the 'marketplace', where the flipcharts are pinned up and people sign up for sessions. If people do not sign up for any session, then this is considered ok: it just happens that nobody there is interested in that subject that day. People with similar topics and small groups can also combine groups.
Session owners then go off to nooks, crannies and available rooms with the people who have signed up for their sessions. Within the sessions, they discuss the subject in any way they wish. They only request (not a mandate) is that they capture key points to feed back at the final plenary session.
Individuals can leave any session without excuse, for example to visit multiple interesting sessions (this is the 'law of two feet'). When a session ends is when it ends -- there is no fixed time, although of course the meeting cannot go on for ever.
At the end of the day, everyone comes together and each group summarizes their findings.
A company implementing a cultural change programme holds an Open Space session with the general theme of 'culture'. Groups start talking about belief systems, management culture, trust, national differences and so on.
'Open Space' (or, more fully, Open Space Technology, or OST) is a simple but very useful way of getting people to openly discuss issues that are of concern to them.
It started when Harrison Owen was running conferences and found that people preferred talking to others during the breaks than listening to speakers. He then began running conferences without speakers.
The underlying philosophy is that trying to control a naturally chaotic universe just makes things worse. If you want people to collaborate, the basic principle is to bring them together and then get out of the way. For managers and facilitators this can be a very difficult part of the Open Space process. Yet the most successful Open Spaces are managed with but a very light touch.
In change, this is useful for getting people talking together. For example, you can use it to get people to talk about their fears and concerns.