Planning an Open Space Technology meeting
Before reading through this page, feel free to download a copy of the planning checklist in MS Word format. Also check the invitation and planning resources page for more forms and documents and help with creating invitations and getting ready for the event.
Where do I start?
Planning an Open Space Technology meeting is pretty straightforward, and much simpler than preparing for a traditional conference, although it can still be a lot of work. An Open Space Technology meeting requires minimal infrastructure, only one facilitator, no presentation scheduling problems and other logistical headaches and no pre-planned agenda. Costs are kept to a minimum and time spent planning the meeting is greatly reduced. Sponsors need only focus most of their time and attention at crafting and supporting an effective invitation.
Having said this, there are a minimal number of requirements that need to be met for a successful Open Space Technology meeting to occur. These include, choosing the right room, choosing a skilled facilitator, and ensuring that rigorous pre-planning occurs.
Ideally, your first step should be contacting a Open Space Technology facilitator, who can help you make the right logistics choices up front, which can save on scrambling around later. I provide a free initial consultation with groups who are considering using Open Space Technology. In this initial consultation, I cover the basics of planning the event to ensure that Open Space Technology is the right choice for the group, and that the logistics are dealt with properly early on.
Creating and supporting the invitation
The first thing to do when planning a meeting is to create the invitation. Invitations can be tricky to write, in a way that communicates the purpose of the gathering and creates the kiind of buzz that has participants arriving all charged up and ready to work. You can find many invitation resources at the Open Space planning resources page.
Once the invitation has been written, it needs to be supported. Invitation support can take many forms including:
- Email, fax and physical mail
- Posting on weblogs and websites
- Phone conversations with registrants and invitees to get them thinking before hand.
- Verbal presentations about the invitation in a variety of venues.
Supporting the invitation in a variety of ways will ensure that a diverse and active groups shows up for the Open Space event.
In order to provide enough room for an Open Space Technology meeting, you should secure a room that holds double your expected attendance, theatre style. This means that in general, if you are expecting 50 people, you need a room that is rated for 100 “theatre style” at a minimum. This is a minimum; the bigger the better. If you cannot get a room big enough, a room rated for at least the number you are expecting can do in a pinch, provided that you have a variety of breakout spaces available. These could include other rooms, nooks and crannies, gardens, restaurants and other meeting places.
It is essential that the room have one large blank wall that posters can be affixed to in some way. It pays to check this out in advance, as some facilities will not allow groups to stick things to the wall. It is also essential that the room be free of tables. Tables are not used in Open Space Technology meetings, even small ones, so it’s important to find a room without a board room table in the middle. This is especially important for smaller meetings.
For meetings with large groups a quality sound system is important, as is a cordless microphone.
Non-essential, but useful room characteristics include:
- A squarish shape – the more square a room is, the easier it is to form a circle inside it.
- High ceilings – these help to reduce “cross talk” between groups.
- Windows – natural light helps to create a relaxed atmosphere.
- A door to the outside world – if your room has doors that lead outside, it is easier for people to take breaks in the fresh air. Also, groups may be tempted to use the outdoor space to meet if the weather is co-operative. This is a good thing!
Setup for an Open Space Technology meeting requires the following:
- Chairs in a circle in the middle of the room. One ring of chairs is ideal, concentric rings can be used if space is tight, but one should avoid more than two rings of chairs. Make sure there are lots of spaces for people from the back rows to get to the middle of the circle.
- A couple of 6 or 8 foot tables along one wall for laptops, if you are using them for recording the proceedings.
- A couple of tables either in the room or outside for food to be served on.
- One large blank wall kept free of obstacles so that people can reach it to post their agenda items.
- Breakout rooms should be free of tables and should have smaller circles of chairs arranged in a circle.
There are a few pieces of equipment that are required to run an Open Space meeting. These include:
- At least 20 flipchart markers
- Several pads of 3×5 inch post it notes, preferably in different colours
- One pad of flipchart paper
- A few rolls of masking tape
- A sound system (for groups of 50 or more)
- Laptops or other computers for recording discussions, if you are using them, and a portable printer with plenty of 8.5×11 inch paper. These can sometimes be more trouble than their worth, especially for events that run for a day or less. If you are running a 1.5 or 2.5 day Open Space and there are a lot of people, having laptops is useful. Plan on about 5-7 per 100 people. Instead of renting laptops, invite people to bring their own and share them or offer to take notes.
- Forms for recording discussions on. These don’t have to be complicated.
- Something to use as a “talking stick” for the closing circle. If you’re stuck, then a flipchart marker makes a good piece. But it is worth trying to find an object that holds some importance for the group.
In addition to the above, you may wish to include the following:
- Name tags
- Pens and pads for participants
- A sheet with the theme and the principles and the law of two feet on it.
- A “timetable” form for people to fill out as they choose sessions. These are especially useful for very large groups meeting over the course of one day.
- Access to wireless internet connections to use online spaces for proceedings.
What about food?
Ideally I like to encourage groups to eat and work at the same time. This means that at 12:00 or so, a buffet should magically appear which can stay out for a while, allowing people to grab food when they can. The food should be somewhat portable and not too prone to spills. Soup can sometimes work, but it can also be a problem. Sandwiches are ideal. Provide coffee and tea and snacks in the morning and more in the afternoon.
Hiring a facilitator
Although an Open Space Technology meeting is fairly straight forward to run, it is important to work with a facilitator that understands the process, and can work with you before and after the event to ensure that it will be successful. I recommend working with a facilitator that has taken Open Space Technology training from a credible trainer. You can find a list of trained facilitators through the Open Space Institute of Canada or the Open Space world web site. If you are stuck, email me and I’ll help you find a trained facilitator.
A facilitator should be able to provide you with complete support for your Open Space Technology meeting. For example, I provide the following services for my clients:
- A free initial consultation
- Background interview with key organizational or community leaders
- A pre-meeting to clarify the theme and the givens for the meeting
- Help with invitation design and support
- Assistance with sorting out logistics and setting up the room
- Facilitation of the meeting
- A post-event debriefing to help understand what has happened, what it means for the group and how to move forward.
One caveat: Open Space Technology is not a proprietary process, and therefore there are no certification rules about who can use it. This is as it should be. However, this also creates the occasional problem with people calling a process “Open Space Technology” when it is not really Open Space Technology. It can be combined with other process as long as it stands alone, but it is not possible to “modify” Open Space Technology and still achieve the results one would expect to achieve in a true Open Space Technology meeting. You will get something but it won’t be Open Space Technology and you probably won’t get the results and benefits described on this site.
Deciding on Open Space Technology
If you have read this far, you probably already have an idea about whether or not Open Space Technology is appropriate for your group or event. In my experience, Open Space is almost always appropriate for almost any type of gathering, but a number of considerations often apply. If you have lingering doubts, feel free to contact me and we can discuss possibilities. I never charge for this service. I believe that Open Space Technology is a useful and extremely powerful process which should be used wherever it can, and therefore I do everything I can to ensure that it is the right thing at the right time for groups wishing to use it.
Setting the theme and givens
A crucial step in planning a successful Open Space Technology meeting is setting the theme and the givens. In short the theme is the statement or question that you will use to harness the passion of your group. The givens are those things that are essentially non-negotiable for the group. In other words, Open Space Technology meetings are held around themes but bounded by givens. Deciding on an appropriate theme and nailing down the givens (and working to reduce them) is not always easy or straightforward. It is important to leave yourself at least a half day (a whole day is better) to plan the theme and the givens.
As you arrive at the theme and the givens it will become clear to you who you should invite to the meeting. As soon as the theme and the givens are decided upon and the invitation list is clarified, you can send out invitations.
What does the facilitator do during the meeting?
The role of the facilitator is twofold. First, the facilitator opens the meeting by explaining the process and inviting people to come forward with their issues for the agenda. Once the meeting is running, the facilitator “holds the space.” What this means in practice is ensuring that the space that has been opened is safe and open for creativity, interaction and problem solving. It means getting out of the way of the group and allowing people to do things for themselves. This role is crucial to the success of an Open Space Technology meeting.
During an Open Space Technology meeting, I usually spend my time keeping the room clear of debris (like coffee cups and plates), managing the discussion reports as they come in and answering questions. Ideally, an Open Space Technology facilitator is neither seen nor heard, but his or her presence is “felt.”
One thing I definitely do not do is facilitate in the traditional sense of the word. The power in an Open Space Technology meeting comes from the participants self organizing and generating the appropriate process for their groups. Each thing the facilitator does for the group is one less thing that the group cannot do for themselves. Inviting people to experience that freedom and take responsibility for themselves supports the true empowerment that arises in an Open Space Technology meeting. Intruding on that freedom is disempowering and dispiriting.
As the meeting draws to a close, I will convene a closing circle
The post-event meeting
Amazing things happen in Open Space. For this reason I always provide clients with a post-event debriefing to provide an opportunity to reflect on what happened during the event and to make sense of next steps. This meeting is crucial because it initiates the follow-up to the event, ensuring a positive legacy of the event.