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Published May, 2010 by Botswana-based Economic Express business newspaper

Open Space provides new platform for resolutions

Cheryl Ntumy

Imagine a meeting of 100 people where there is no agenda. Everyone shows up with only one thing in mind – a theme. There is no chairperson, no hierarchy, no separation between the speakers and the attendees. The reason for this is simple: there is no hierarchy because everyone in this meeting is equal. Welcome to Open Space Technology (OST).

“Open Space meetings begin with an invitation, a statement of a theme, purpose or central question,” said Michael Herman, founder of Michael Herman Associates. The company offers resources for planning, organizing, implementing and evaluating organisation development, learning and change. Herman facilitates OST meetings and maintains a website for the OST community worldwide. “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.”

OST began when founder Harrison Owen helped the Peace Corps set up in West Africa. He noticed the egalitarian and open way in which traditional ceremonies and rituals were held and adapted the concept for meetings back in the US. Although Owen continues to facilitate OST, he takes no credit for the concept, calling it instead “a World Product”. OST has been in use for over 20 years now.

“The invitation goes out to everyone who might care about or be needed for addressing the issue,” Herman explained. “When they gather in the designated location, at the time announced, they find a large circle of chairs with markers and sheets of paper in the centre. There is a brief explanation of the process and then everyone in the group is invited to come to the centre, get a marker and paper and write any issue or opportunity or question that they see as central to resolving the larger issue.”

The participants are also required to put their name on the paper, so that they take personal responsibility for the issues they raise. They then pick a space and time for the meeting from options prepared in advance by the facilitator, and 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 five to 2000+ people,” said Herman. “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.”

Open Space meetings can run from half a day to three and a half days. Each day there are morning and evening news sessions, where the whole group gathers in one circle. “In this way, Open Space invites a breathing movement, out into the forest of the details of the issues, and back into the centre of the whole community, and out again... until all the issues are resolved,” said Herman.

Rick Maurer, who advises companies on leadership and resistance to change, said “OST takes a lot of the resistance out of the equation because it invites people into the process of exploring issues that are important to them.” Maurer was part of an Open Space meeting for the IT department of a large US-based company. “People seemed to love it. The quality of the exchanges were high. Not all were great, but that's part of the beauty. If one session doesn't work out people can leave.”

Open Space provides exactly what it says – an open space in which everyone can contribute to resolving whatever issues are raised.

“I like the approach in that it allows people to set their own agenda, engage in work on topics that interest them, and leave the group if they aren’t getting what they need or feel that they aren’t offering much to that particular group,” said Maurer.

Everyone in the group is given a copy of the notes from the different sessions at the end of the meeting, so there is equal access to information. In situations where not all participants are literate, the meeting can be conducted orally, following the traditional practices on which OST is based.

“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 learning with others, and spreading the word in very personal ways,” said Herman.

OST works on the principle that people will produce inspired work if they care about and feel involved in what they are doing.

“It works because people know how to self-organize,” said Herman. “When people who care are invited and allowed to do something about whatever it is that they care about, the natural result is sharing, collaboration, high performance and successful outcomes.”

The benefits of OST for companies, provided the meetings are successful, include a sense of personal responsibility and community, which leads to a democratic system, inspiration, high performance, and, as Herman added, “just plain fun. These benefits seem to arise naturally when people are invited and encouraged to take responsibility for the things they love.”

There are potential pitfalls to the system, however.

“The leader needs to be excited about learning what people come up with during the discussion and planning meetings,” said Maurer. “If he or she fails to be influenced by what people report, the event fails and people become cynical about using OST again.”

A leader can also hurt the OST process by trying to control what goes on. “A heavy hand will stop candid conversations before they get started,” said Maurer.

On the African continent, OST has practitioners based in Ethiopia, Togo, Ghana, Uganda, Mozambique, Malawi, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. OST may be revolutionary in its appraoch, but in this part of the world it is more of a return to the ways of the past.

“About ten years ago, I facilitated an Open Space meeting for a global group of community leaders,” said Herman. “When it was all over, one man from a government organization in South Africa came to me to say thank you. 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.”

based on EconomicExpressInterview

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Last edited April 14, 2011 9:00 pm CentralTimeUSA by MichaelHerman
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