Things to Consider if you are contemplating an Open Space Meeting or if you are contemplating transforming your organization to operate as an Ongoing Open Space Organization

What is an Open Space Technology meeting?

Open Space Technology is a meeting methodology that helps individuals and groups become more effective in work environments that are rapidly and constantly changing by developing their skills as lifelong learners and collaborative problem solvers. It creates the conditions so that the maximum potential of the individual and the organization to be realized. Open Space Technology captures the knowledge, experience and innovation in the organization that is not captured through less open processes.

What are the benefits of using Open Space Technology?

What is Open Space Technology best used for?

Almost any business issue including strategic direction setting, envisioning the future, identifying the issues and opportunities to realize the desired future, conflict resolution, morale building, organizational transformation to a high performing and high learning organization.

When is Open Space Technology the best meeting format to use?

Any organizational situation in which there is:

To learn more about whether Open Space Technology is what you would like to use for your organization

  1. Review some of the articles about the use of Open Space around the world. These can be found on the website that is currently under construction for the Global Open Space Institute at (note that this is the location of the site until initial construction is completed at which time it will be located at replacing the site that is currently there. I refer you to the one under construction because it has over 200 articles and is content rich).
  2. Go through Harrison Owen’s Open Space Technology, A User’s Guide (Berrett-Koehler, 1997) to give you some insight into the basic principles of Open Space and how it has worked in a number of settings.
  3. Read the appendices attached to this document. They have been carefully selected from the available materials to give you a quick overview of why large systems interventions are critical as the means for achieving organizational change in these times; description of Open Space Technology; and selected articles giving you examples of the successful use of Open Space Technology.

    4. Determine whether Open Space is appropriate. (Consider Critical Success Factors 1 and 2.)

    5. Create the conditions for success (Plan your strategy for meeting Critical Success Factors 3-10)

10 CRITICAL SUCCESS FACTORS for Using Open Space Technology:

(developed by Diane Blair, Manager of Meta Learning, Bank of Montreal, Institute for Learning. Diane developed this for circulation at the Bank, where Open Space Technology has been used both at senior levels and across entire divisions. Diane has put this together with a large organization in mind. As well as her role at the Bank, Diane is an active member of the Open Space Institute of Canada. Diane can be reached at


1. OUTCOMES: Do you have pre-set outcomes for your meeting ?

If you already have an agenda that must be addressed or an issue with a solution already in mind, Open Space is not the approach to use; choose a structured process that will best get you to those goals. Open Space is an opportunity to get at what’s really important about a particular topic for those who are already "passionate" about it and are committed to doing something about it.

* An Open Space meeting should declare issues and opportunities and should NOT pre-determine outcomes.

* Choose only the topic and create the "space . Let the participants create the outcomes.

2. PARTICIPANTS: Is the invitation "Open"?

Traditional meetings tend to focus on transferring knowledge: they begin by teaching content, usually by educating participants about a particular vision and understanding the rationale behind it, then motivating them to help make it happen. Open Space meetings focus on leveraging knowledge: they begin with what people are already "passionate" about and provide space to capture the passion and take responsibility for doing something about it. The effectiveness of Open Space depends on engaging the right people: an Open Space invitation is open to anyone who has a passion about the issue and challenges them to take responsibility by sharing that passion. Hints:

  1. EXPECTATIONS: How focused is your issue? How much time can be allocated?

a) The more focused the question or topic the more tangible the outcomes. A broad topic, such as "What are the challenges and opportunities to enhance our productivity? " will attract a very broad collection of issues and could take several days of discussions before common understandings begin to emerge. Where as, a more focused question, such as, "What are the challenges and opportunities to enhance customer service scores of our flagship in the next 12 months?" will attract a much more specific audience and a more specific set of concerns.

* If the intent is simply a sharing meeting or "idea gathering," the topic question can
be very broad in scope

* If more specific solutions are desired, make the topic question more focused and
allow more time to come to a deeper understanding and to solutions

    1. The longer the Open Space the greater the discussion and more focused the resolutions. Open Space is a learning process. Discovering, reflecting and resolving issues needs time. The general rule is: One day of Open Space produces good conversation;

Two days - common understanding; Three days -Tangible results ...issue resolution, emerging leadership and action planning. However, to some degree, groups can achieve more tangible results in less time by focusing on a more specific topic and ensuring the stakeholders or hosts of the Open Space are well prepared (see Stakeholders).


4. THE "RIGHT" QUESTION: How well does your topic match your target audience?

It clearly doesn’t make much sense to bring people from all over the Bank to discuss how to improve customer service scores for one flagship in Alberta. Similarly, it would be just as inappropriate to invite only sales representatives to address how to improve product-to-market time for the Bank’s new financial products. Successful Open Space meetings tailor the topic to the target audience OR engage the right audience for the topic.

*Ensure you include any group that may have a potential interest in your topic OR

*Size the issue to suit the audience you are serving.

5. STAKEHOLDERS: Who are the leaders and are they prepared to lead differently?

If Open Space is to be more than a "brainstorming" session, participants must have the "space" to take responsibility for the issues they are passionate about both during open space and after. In any organization, most issues will involve more than one stake holder group. Each of these stakeholders has its own leaders and change agents that play key roles in getting things done. Tapping the potential of all participants in an Open Space cannot be achieved with out leaders who both understand the issues and are committed to using an Open Space approach to address them. The messages leaders send about the issue and the process can greatly support or inhibit Open Space results, even when they say nothing at all! A successful Open Space has leaders who are able to create the space for shared leadership to emerge (out of passion + responsibility), recognize it and support it.

Successful Open Space leaders not only agree to Open Space as a meeting process, they are committed to the topic and to resolving it as a shared responsibility, including giving up control of the agenda to get there!

issue and its outcomes. Reinforce this commitment in all your communications.

6. CRITICAL MASS: Do you have enough "critical mass" for this issue to move forward ?

While it is possible, its a lot tougher and a lot slower for one person to go back to work as the only supporter of a new idea or approach to a problem. When two people work in the same area, or can impact different aspects of the same division or department, they can not only support each other better, they are more likely to create a ripple effect that’s large enough for others to notice.

* Focus the open space target audience so that participants are more likely to establish
connections they can draw on after the Open Space.

7. PARAMETERS: What are the parameters for your issue?

Despite popular opinion, having "no parameters" around an issue does not necessarily mean more freedom. In fact, Open Space parameters are not limitations at all, they can be the key to unlocking some of the old barriers that keep people from taking responsibility for their good ideas. Setting parameters is a very tangible way for the leadership to reinforce their support for an issue and their confidence in their staff in resolving it.

*Some parameters to consider....

Budget - any project within $X

Schedule - any project within Y time

Structure -any project within the domain of the

Bus. Plan - any project within the vision, mission, objectives

- or, supports our current business plan priorities

Other... - commitment to discuss any proposal for this issue outside

  1. SUPPORT: How can I best support what can happen next?

Open Space invariably produces innovations that don’t always fit with the current way of doing things...How can I best create the "space" for participants to move forward with their issues in the daily work? Consider:


  1. COMMUNICATION: Keep up the communication.

In Open Space, even though the meeting comes to an end the issues continue to evolve. The on-going
learning and discovery are important benefits that need to be nurtured.

  1. ASSESSMENT: Be prepared to be surprised.

By having the freedom and capacity to think about issues differently and work differently,
opportunities will emerge in different ways and at different times. Some issues will take shape and be
ready to happen right away , others may percolate for even a year or two before taking shape. Still
others may never take a concrete form but will impact the way groups begin to think and work together
in many ways. The impact of Open Space is best measured with a long term approach that can take
into account the on-going learning and activity generated by the Open Space.

*Create a means of assessing where your ideas and new competencies are coming from. How can you increase these opportunities? Can open space techniques help in other ways?

Other Helpful hints...

Preparing Stakeholders:

If Open Space is new to the audience, it is important to prepare them to be successful. Hold a Small Open Space to introduce the technology and to help the stakeholders discover how they can best provide support. Focus the small space on the role of leadership in moving forward with the issue.


When possible, all stake holders should actively participate in the Open Space meeting. Open Space is a much more powerful learning tool and change agent when it is truly a "round-table" meeting where the whole community is represented and all idea and concerns are valued equally.


If you are a stakeholder you should plan on participating in the open space rather than facilitating. It is generally advantageous to have an objective facilitator so you can focus on the issue and they can focus entirely on the process and on coaching the stakeholders without bias.

Note: above section reproduced with permission; Diane Blair, Bank of Montreal, 1997


Making a Decision About the Ongoing Open Space Organization

Open Space Technology was originally created to enable better meetings and to capture the potential of individuals and the organization. Over the last five years, as well as being used for meetings, it has been used as an ongoing way of organizational life with great success. The "givens" or "non-negotiables" in the organization need to be well attended to and clearly understood throughout the organization and not just by a few people at the top. Givens are to be authentic and kept to a minimum. The givens provide the boundary within which there is room for innovation, creativity, spirit, high play, genuine ongoing community. The formal leadership in the organization "holds the space" or ensures the conditions continue for this means of staying highly productive, highly creative, and inspired. If this is what you would like to create in your organization, you will create a leading edge organization that is able to maximize the potential of all involved and to ensure that the organization sustains itself as a learning organization. This cannot be achieved if there is a high desire to "control" the organization. In today’s times, we know that control does not achieve the type of organization that is leading edge, on the forefront for success in the world. The role of the senior leader in the organization is the critical role in seeing the organization through the transformation to operating in this highly spirited way. There is a great deal of resistance to the transformation which Harrison Owen calls "freedom shock". No other large organization has yet made the decision to become an ongoing open space organization, although many large organizations use Open Space Technology to do critical components of their business. A number of small organizations (up to 100 employees) are operating in ongoing open space with successes that are greater than their original aspirations. Interestingly, all leaders who have taken the risk to try operating in a different way have been women. The risk is high; the payoff is high; but it does require a totally different way of managing than our business schools have taught us. The role of the external consultant/facilitator is to develop the plan for implementation; to focus on executive coaching with the formal leader; to train the internal organizational development team and senior management in leading open space events and in managing the open space organization; and to conduct the initial open space meetings. Total external consultant time is about 40 days. Beyond that, the senior staff and organizational development team can continue with both developing the new organization and creating the conditions to sustain it at peak performance.


Contributed by:

Birgitt Bolton
Dalar Associates
head office: 55 Ravina Cres., Ancaster, Ontario, Canada L9G 2E8
phone: 905-648-5775
fax: 905-648-2262