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Cheryl Ntumy from Botswana-based Economic Express business newspaper sent along these questions about OpenSpaceTechnology for a story she was working on. I had fun answering them, and they make a pretty good intro to OST. Will post her finished story when it's published.


1. Where did the idea for OST come from?

africa. harrison owen was involved with the setting up peace corps activities in africa. while there, he noticed tribal celebrations and other rituals. some years later, he organized a traditional conference on "organization transformation." when it was over, people asked him to do it again, but said the best part was the coffee breaks. so he organized succeeding conferences, for about 20 years, to be more like the celebrations he'd seen in africa, or alternatively, to be one long coffee break.

2. Please explain the concept briefly.

open space meetings begin with an invitation, a statement of a theme, purpose or central question. open space works best when that purpose or question is complex, will take a diverse group to address, has real or potential conflict (meaning people really care), and has some real urgency to it. the invitation goes out to everyone who might care about or be needed for addressing the issue. when they gather in the designated location, and the time announced, they find a large circle of chairs with markers and sheets of paper in the center. there is a brief explanation of the process and then everyone in the group is invited to come to the center, get a marker and paper and write any issue or opportunity or question that they see as central to the resolving the larger issue. they put their name on the paper, too, because open space runs on passion for the issues but also on personal responsibilty for those issues. they assign a space and a time for the meeting, from options prepared in advance by the facilitator, and then post their issue on the "community bulletin board." in this way, in 60 to 90 minutes, these issues become the working agenda for the group, from 5 to 2000+ people. then all the issues raised are addressed in small group working sessions, with everyone given the same charge: learn and contribute as much as you can to all of the work going on. these meetings run anywhere from 1/2 to 3 1/2 days, with morning and evening news sessions on each day, where the whole group gathers as one big circle again. it this way, open space invites a breathing movement, out into the forest of the details of the issues, and back into the center of the whole community, and out again... until all the issues are resolved.

3. How did you get involved in OST, and what is your role? Do you facilitate Open Space meetings?

i met ost's original storyteller, harrison owen, in an open space meeting back in 1996. i'd already read his book called "open space technology: a user's guide." i joined an online conversation among some practitioners and soon started hosting trainings with harrison owen in chicago. after 9/11, i traveled around the world for a couple of years teaching open space and facilitating meetings. since then i do more coaching that workshop trainings, but still do facilitate meetings for corporate and community groups. i also maintain a website for the open space community worldwide, at www.openspaceworld.org.

4. Why do you think OST works?

open space works because it puts something important in the middle of the circle, an important piece of work, the big question, the real issue, an urgent need or opportunity. it invites anyone who cares to come forward and do their best work, however they understand and discover that. it gives everyone equal access to all the people who attend and all the information generated, first via the community bulletin board where all issues are posted, and then everyone receives a copy of all the notes from all the sessions. it works because people know how to self-organize and when people who care are invited and allowed to do somehting about whatever it is that they care about, the natural result is sharing, collaboration, high performance and successful outcomes.

5. What is required to make the system work, and what sort of challenges can get in the way of a successful OST meeting?

open space meetings require an invitation, the articulation of some important piece of work. then the invitation needs to be distributed to anyone in the organization or community who might be needed or caring to resolve the issue. a meeting place and time need to be included in the invitation and some basic materials, usually markers and papers and tape are required, though in haiti and other places, meetings are often conducted entirely in an oral tradition, because many do not read and write. for longer and larger meetings, there is often some arrangement made for capturing notes and publishing proceedings. in those cases, whoever posts an issue for a small group breakout session also takes responsibility for capturing and typing up the notes from that session.

6. How do people benefit from OST?

the benefits reported over the last nearly 25 years have been described as high performance, genuine community, real democracy, personal caring and responsibility, high learning, successful projects, inviting and inspiring organizations, and just plain fun. these benefits seem to arise naturally when people are invited and encouraged to take responsibility for the things they love.

7. How has the response been so far?

there have been thousands and thousands of meetings and events run this way worldwide over more than two decades of practice -- all of which has been supported entirely by individuals experimenting with it, sharing their learnings with others, and spreading the word in very personal ways. there is no central certification, training or marketing organizaiton of any kind.

8. How involved in Harrison Owen with OST now? Do you work together at all?

harrison is still opening space. he is a member of the community of practitioners and comments frequently in conversations we have online, via an email listserve (OSLIST) where we've posted about 27,000 messages in conversations over the last almost 15 years. www.openspaceworld.org/oslist

9. Do you know of anyone in Botswana, Southern Africa or Africa at large who has used OST?

i've done work with a large south african corporation. harrison did work there too, right after apartheid ended. there have been more conferences and meetings in ost in africa, and facilitator trainings, too, that anyone could count. see the www.openspaceworldmap.org for facilitators who've registered there as living and/or working in africa.

10. Anything you'd like to say that I forgot to ask?

i don't think so, but maybe one more story that brings us back to the beginning here. about ten years ago, i facilitated an open space meeting for a global group of community leaders. when it was all over, one man from a government organization in south africa came to me to say thank you. "...and you know," he said, "open space has been happening in africa for a very long time. we used to call it meeting under the trees. now we don't do that much anymore. what i learned here, in these last few days, is that we could be doing government in this open space way, under the trees, again."


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Last edited May 14, 2010 10:06 am CentralTimeUSA by Mherman
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© 1998-2017 Michael Herman and www.michaelherman.com, unless signed by another author or organization. Please do not reprint or distribute for commercial purposes without permission and full attribution, including web address and this copyright notice. Permission has always been granted gladly to those who contact me and say something about themselves, their work, and their use of these materials. Thank you and good luck! - Michael