An Example of Using Open Space Technology for Innovation and Problem Solving
What is open space technology?
Open Space Technology (OST) is a technique for organizing and running a meeting or multi-day conference. Participants create the agenda and lead mini-meetings to discuss topics that matter most to them.
Meeting organizers select (and announce) the topic in advance. Attendees determine the topics in real-time by participants at the beginning of the conference.
Grounding Principles of Open Space Technology
Three [rinciples and a “law” that ground open space technology. As a facilitator, you announce these at the start to empower participants to lead and run their mini-meetings.
- Whenever it starts is the right time
- When it’s over it’s over
- Whatever happens, happens
- “Law of two feet”:
Essentially, this means you have power over the meetings you run and attend. You can move between meetings. And, when the discussion is over, it’s over. No need to linger.
A Bit of Context
Note: I wrote this article in 2012 when I was an executive at Verizon leading a large person customer service team. I’ve kept it here to help you run your own open space technology meeting. I think you will love it as I did. With that said, I didn’t want to confuse you as you are reading it, “wait, what? Doesn’t she run a leadership development company?” You can learn more about my journey from Verizon executive to founding Let’s Grow Leaders here.
I’ve left the writing the same so you can experience it as I did. And, I hope it will encourage you that you can do this with your teams.
With that said, I’ve learned a great deal about psychological safety and encouraging ideas.
Our latest book, Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates is full of researched-based tools and techniques that will help. You can download the first few chapters for FREE here.
You might also enjoy learning about our fishbowl competitions and team innovation programs.
Open Space Technology in Practice (an Example from My Verizon Days)
I love using open space technology with a large group to generate ideas. It’s an amazing, high-energy, low-cost way to hold a powerful meeting. Participants essentially create their own agenda and self-organize into groups to discuss topics that matter to them. Although it’s useful to have a trained facilitator help with the effort, I have found it works just fine with the leader serving both as host and organizer.
Last week, I held an Open space technology meeting with over 100 participants discussing the topic: How Can We Be More Influential Leaders?
We started in a big circle, set up the process and guiding principles and we were off (see resource links in the post for more how-tos). Within 15 minutes we had generated 18 fascinating topics to be discussed throughout the next 3 hours in concurrent sessions. Team members stepped up to own and facilitate topics. Participants could move freely from session to session. The conversation was robust. We then ended back in the circle where each participant-turned facilitator shared highlights from the conversation and next steps.
The topics were an interesting mix of leadership development, business processes, how-tos, and best practice sharing. Some topics were inspired by challenges, others by success. Some chose to teach and share, while others chose to facilitate through lots of questions. We ended with many ideas and actionable next steps.
The spirit and the energy in the room were palpable. This was a group inspired to change things.
Why it Worked
I asked the team why it worked. Here’s some of what they shared about their open space technology experience.
- I had a chance to think about the topic I would share in advance, and I came prepared with some ideas on how to facilitate the discussion
- I chose a topic that I was passionate about it was cool to see how many others shared that same interest
- We got to talk about exactly what we needed to, with the people we needed to
- It was intriguing to see where the interest was which topics attracted the biggest following.
- Now we know what matters most to our organization for future work
- It was cool to see how many people in our remote group are all sharing the same experiences.
- I found kindred spirits
- I was heard
- Some fantastic ideas were shared that I can take back and use immediately
- Even though only a few people showed up to my session, we got started on some important work and I have already set up a follow-up conference call to build on our actions
A Leader’s Perspective
Our topic of “Influence” lent itself well to this technique.
By stepping back as the leader and providing space for the conversation to emerge, I could model some of the most important parts of influence– listening and understanding. The team became the teachers. The spirit of this exercise can be translated in other ways as they go back to their daily work and provide influence in those environments.
We also set this up in advance as an important developmental opportunity for the team. Open-space sessions are a gentle and friendly way to practice facilitation and public speaking. I was delighted with the preparation and delivery of the team.
I was inspired by the opportunity to travel freely from session to session as a participant. It’s great to experience such inspired thought leadership from people at all levels and roles within the organization. If I had built the agenda myself, I would have overlooked some of the most popular topics.
This is my leadership style.
I’ve always said salespeople oversell, parents over parent, and leaders over lead. Less is more.
Thanks, Steve…. that is how I have been experiencing you. You ask great questions and help people to self-discover.
The open space exercise was so valuable; it allowed GREAT ideas to be talked through and next steps to be identified. For me this activity also renewed relationships, allowed me the opportunity to connect with new members and experience fresh eyes in the channel.
I am anxious to see actions come from this activity!
Nancy, Thanks so much for joining the conversation and for this great feedback. It was so fun for me to see all of the creative ideas and enthusiastic work on topics that mattered deeply. I too am looking forward to the magic that will come from this.
Hi Karin, I truely enjoyed and learned a lot from the Open Space. I was truely energized by the fact that others had the same views and opinions about a number of issues. Working through those issues help me to step up my development and leadership skills. The Open Space was a freeing of fears, doubts, rejections and places where it was cloudy. Thanks for the experience, I may C.A.S.E. it (Copy And Steal Everything) as we saying training, in the future.
Awesome! I am so glad it was a useful exercise for you. CASE away! Namaste.
Fantastic approach to best practice and idea generation. I agree that the autonomy to join sessions best aligned with your interests is a tremendous benefit. Thanks for sharing, Karin! Best, Essra
Fantastic approach to best practice sharing and idea generation. I particularly appreciate the autonomy to choose topics based on interests and freely move between the groups. Thanks for sharing, Karin!
Essra, Great to have you join the conversation! Yes, I think choosing the topics is a significant part of what makes this work.