Running a short Open Space meetup
“Open Space is mysterious, chaotic — we are stepping into the unknown. How will we organize ourselves? What will we accomplish? We won’t know until it’s over, and maybe not even then.” I said something like this to a group of international development professionals, members of the Bond T4D and MEL communities of practice, on Tuesday the 27th of January, 2015.
I often say this sort of thing when introducing the Open Space method of organising events, and it is true. But in my experience, the chaos works very consistently to produce new ideas, new projects, and engaged, satisfied participants. Maybe my approach to Open Space (also known as Open Space Technology, and hereafter abbreviated OST) is too controlled: many OST facilitators emphasize the importance of conflict, and I am more interested in passion.
In any case, I’d like to share the format I use for running short OST events for professional “community of practice” organisations like Bond. The Bond T4D (Technology For Development) and MEL (Monitoring, Evaluation, & Learning) groups each meet regularly, and they have similar needs to other professional groups: sharing best practice, sharing learning resources, finding opportunities to collaborate on projects of various kinds. I find OST to be very effective for running meetings of such groups.
This will not be a complete manual of OST. If you have never encountered OST before, I recommend starting with the Wikipedia article for a basic introduction, and then if you want to run one I suggest buying the book “Open Space Technology” by Harrison Owens. You may benefit from participating in a few, and you can find classes on facilitating OST (I run them, the Art of Hosting people do, and you can find others). But as Harrison Owens suggests, the hardest thing about running on Open Space event is letting go of control. The words, the ritual: these are easy. You can do it!
All Open Space runs on what I call the three passion filters.
1) The invitation: you need to make it absolutely clear what’s at stake. What is the theme of the Open Space? What will people decide, get access to, or expect to accomplish by showing up?
2) Hosting sessions: Each session must be hosted by someone who really cares about it. Never let anyone put a session on the wall unless they put their name on it.
3) Follow-up: You’ll find out what impact your Open Space has had in part by what people do afterwards.
Do not try to use command-and-control to make the process work better. It won’t. Instead, use external budgets and other resources (space in a newsletter, etc.) to reinforce whatever emerges from the three passion filters.
For the 3-hour OST events I’ve been running for professional communities of practice, the invitation has been very focused on the subject matter of the community. The invitation for Bond was headlined:
JOIN US AT THE BOND MEL/T4D MEETUP ON JANUARY 27TH
to answer the question “How can technology support MEL?”
The text of the invite went on to make it clear that people would get out of the process what they put in — there was no additional budget available for driving projects or experiments launched during this meetup. This ensured that everyone’s expectations were aligned going into the event. As it happened, we got a higher than usual turnout, which is nice, but for OST it is better to get very few people responding to a very clear invitation than a lot of people coming to a vague invite for reasons which don’t align with the organiser’s purpose.
My introduction to the Open Space followed the usual formula, which I won’t reproduce here. I will say that in addition to the usual practice of each person who decides to host a session saying her name, the name of the session she will host, and a very short intro to that session, I also asked people to make name labels for themselves, and to color code them with markers to define whether they were tech specialists, MEL specialists, or NGO people. Since these three groups could learn from each other and build projects together, the coded badges helped people to mix. Letting people make and code their own badges reinforced the DIY, “you own your results” ethos of OST.
I also asked each Host to fill in a specific “reporting out” form. This form included the host’s name, the name of the session, the names of the people who attended, and some key points about what they learned or what projects were launched in that session. I regularly use forms of this kind to give structure to the outputs of the otherwise-unstructured open space sessions. In this case, these forms were ultimately written up and distributed to the mailing lists of attendees, making it easy for participants to follow up with one another, to look up resources that were shared during sessions, etc.
The schedule for the sessions was structured as follows:
- 15 minutes for “pre start” coffee and chat
- 20 minutes for intro to OST and setting up sessions (lead by the facilitator)
- 10 minutes for welcoming speech from the event organiser and introducing the facilitator
- 25 minutes for the first session
- 5 minute break
- 25 minutes for the second session
- 15 minute break
- 45 minutes for the third session (hosts were invited to use this one for longer topics, such as project planning)
- 30 minutes closing circle, in which hosts each reported on their sessions
This brings us to the follow-up “passion filter”. I know only a small selection of the impacts of that OST meetup we did at Bond — I personally have seen a project launch as a result of a conversation I had there, which I doubt I could have had in a traditional conference environment — but I heard from many participants that they were going away with resources or opportunities for collaboration which they had been hoping to find.
In another organisation where I’ve used this format, I’ve seen multiple businesses launched as a result of a three hour session. Your ability to track impact will vary substantially based on how connected you are to the participants, and the outcomes are likely to be non-linear. As we say, Open Space is mysterious, chaotic, a journey into the unknown. Often, a very productive journey.