The Newsletter of the Open Space Institute (US)
Issue 1, June 1999
Purpose of the Newsletter
The purpose of the newsletter is to make our stories available to each other
so that we continue to learn and grow. We hope they will serve you for
education, examples, connection and pleasure.
This newsletter is intended for the use of friends and members of the Open
Space Institute (US). It may be reproduced in any useful way with
acknowledgement. When copying, please include the author/contact/publication
information at the end of each story.
In This Issue
1--A High Stakes, Tight Time Open Space
2--OS Event Opens a Space for Children
3--Open Space and Strategy
A High Stakes, Tight Time Open Space
Jay W. Vogt, Peoplesworth
Imagine youre a consultant and the President of an urban community college
calls you and says, Ive been at my job for two months. Im the
president in eight years. The semesters almost over, but I want to involve
all 270 faculty and staff in setting goals for the College for next year.
We have four hours. Can you help me?
Tell me you wouldnt laugh out loud, or be speechless! Traditional
organizational development methods tell us theres no way to bring so many
people, who are almost certainly so demoralized, together to get so much
work done so fast. In my case, we begin to talk about Open Space.
Shortly thereafter, over two hundred faculty and staff assemble in the
college cafeteria. The President has invited everyone, saying simply:
Please come if you care about the future of the college. If you are not
coming, please cover for someone who is. Present are long time faculty,
copy machine operators, and everyone in between.
We adapt Open Space to fit this extremely tight time frame. In the first
half hour everyone eats lunch. In the next half hour the President speaks
briefly, and I set up the theme, process, and agenda. I welcome all
conversations, but remind groups that only those who complete a flip chart
template, listing a goal and a set of measures indicating its success, can
participate in the final goal-setting process. Participants post over
thirty topics for a single, two hour round. We gather in the final hour for an
informal, gallery-style review of proposed goals posted all around us on
walls. Individuals multi-vote for their favorites using adhesive dots.
People embraced the goal setting conversations with fervor. Twenty two
goals were ultimately posted. The multi-voting process produced seven clear
priorities. People stood and cheered as the goals were announced. They
spoke warmly, sharing their pride, and celebrating their renewed hope.
That next fall the President invited me back, reconvening the entire College
community in another half day Open Space to propose projects to realize the
six goals (one was already done). She demonstrated her resolve by
dedicating a substantial budget for this purpose. Participants proposed and
project ideas, which were, at a later date, refined, finalized in writing,
considered by the whole community, and voted by ballot. With money and
mandate, priority projects happened fast.
In the following fall, the College began an ambitious strategic planning
process. I returned to lead a Future Search Conference that reinvented the
vision and goals of the College, and built strong, new relationships with
external stakeholders. The President credits the Open Space forums as
giving her rapid credibility, mobilizing the community, and setting the stage for
lasting organizational transformation.
Jay W. Vogt firstname.lastname@example.org
for STORIES, the Newsletter of the Open Space Institute (US) email@example.com
OS Event Opens New Space for Children
BJ Peters, consultant, and Cynthia Krauss, consultant
Here is the story of an event we facilitated in February. We hope you find
Creating a collaborative design for our new environment and the way
we work together that will enrich the learning of children, the staff and
the community of Buckeye.
It was a combination of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) and Open Space.
Buckeye Elementary School District (a rural Arizona area)
The people involved were instructional aides, an occupational therapist,
speech/language therapists, a physical therapist, a special education
teacher, all of whom are involved in providing services for children with
Jane Hunt, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Director of Maricopa
Special Services Consortium, in addition to other responsibilities, is
responsible for overall management of the staff of programs for children
with handicapping conditions. She gave her permission to share this story with
Why did you and your client say "yes" to an Open Space event?
The client was seeking ways to develop collaboration among the diverse
service providers. The delivery model of services had been fragmented.
It was not clear who was in charge; services were not integrated; scheduling
was not coordinated; new staff members were not trained or oriented in
job expectations; there was not shared clear focus or synergy about vision
or direction of the program.
An underlying theme was that people wanted to feel connected, that they
mattered, that others recognized that they added value to the organization.
They wanted to have the necessary information they needed to do their jobs
and to see how that fit into the bigger picture.
The Open Space discussions resulted in two major passions:
Development of a Harmony Farm.
This was an incredible process to observe. The group working on this project
completed a farm design, a cost/benefit analysis, a funding proposal. I was
in the same room where this group was working, and I was only peripherally
aware of their work. Suddenly, they all got up and left the room. As an
afterthought, one of them came back to tell me they would be back. About an
hour later, they returned in high spirits. They had gone directly to the office of the
of Buckeye Elementary School District and shared their proposal. He
committed to them on the spot that they could have their Harmony Farm and that the
District would fund it. An interesting sidenote is that a new teacher
has been hired, one who has horses, has trained handicapped children to
ride horses, has just moved to the community and is excited to implement
and enhance this project.
Training and Learning
A yearning for training and information emerged from the other six
discussion groups. Since the event, a partnership is forming with the Campfire Girls
and Boys Organization. This partnership will result in staff training for
special education staff as well as development programs for regular education
students. The overall goal is to create collaboration among special
education and regular education to enhance the quality of learning for all.
We must be the change we seek in the world."
BJ Peters firstname.lastname@example.org and Cynthia
for STORIES, the Newsletter of the Open Space Institute (US) email@example.com
Open Space and Strategy
Every man is a particular kind of leader, no leader is a particular kind of
[Chinese proverb, adapted]
The following is an excerpt from Strategic Conversations as the Means for
Organizational Change; A Case Study, a paper that describes various
approaches to strategy, among them Open Space Technology. The paper is based on the
experience gained at a global provider of engineering software solutions
over a period of four years. In this excerpt only the experiences as they relate to
the use of Open Space Technology are described. The complete paper can be
requested from the author.
Since 1995, various approaches had been used to create a vision of who we
are and where we are heading." This vision had to serve at least two purposes,
to be of value to the companys customers and to enable the members of the
organization to develop a clear sense of purpose and direction. Processes and
methodologies that proved to be most successful were based on common sense and unorthodox
thinking. The pace of change in the company's markets required approaches
that were different from traditional strategic planning. The idea of "the plan"
was replaced with "Strategic Conversations"; i.e. the ongoing quest to find
answers to several key questions:
- Why are we in the business we are in?
- Where are we today?
- Where do we want to be in the future?
Openness and a systemic view of the company and its environment proved to be
valuable elements in this ongoing quest. Open Space Technology provided a
path to achieve our goals.
How It All Started
Early 1995 was a gloomy time in the history of the company. Within weeks,
our stock price fell to below $4, reflecting a loss of shareholder value of more
than 80% in less than 12 months. Financial overstatements caused a crisis
resulting in drastic consequences:
- A set of layoffs
- Suspension of the company 401K plan contributions
- Dismissal of the CEO and part of the executive team.
At the same time, one of the companys flagship products at that time had
severe quality problems. For the first time in its 25-year history the company
experienced a real threat to its existence. This threat proved to be the
beginning of a new era. Since then, the company engaged in multiple
initiatives to find a path to its future. Open Space Technology proved to be valuable in
most of them. Two examples demonstrate how we used it.
SMP (Strategic Management Process) was a corporate business strategy initiative
based on a process developed internally. SMP included insight from a variety
of sources among them strategic planning, business, leadership, science and
philosophy. CCSD (Customer Council for Strategic Direction) brought together
key customer executives, industry leaders, academe, and the companys executive
management team to jointly talk about the future.
Strategic Management Process (SMP)
In 1997 we decided to explore the world of strategic planning more
thoroughly before any initiative was started. We considered various sources to better
understand strategy, among them:
- Roughly 60 books on strategy, covering a wide span from ancient strategic
thought to recent understanding of strategy.
- Theme searches on the world-wide-web with focus on consultants and their
methodologies in the areas of strategy and organizational development. We
also looked at processes and methodologies used in strategy development, in
particular processes with an underlying holistic approach.
- Large scale group interventions including Open Space Technology (Owen,
1992), Systems Thinking (Senge, 1994), the Future Search Conference Model
(Weissbord, 1995) and Servant Leadership (Greenleaf, 1983).
Eventually, a set of key questions formed the underlying basis of SMP,
- WHY are we in the business?
- WHERE are we today?
- WHERE do we want to be in the future?
- WHAT are the opportunities?
- HOW do we seize the opportunities?
- HOW do we react to gaps between actions and plans?
The SMP process was designed for and used by the corporate strategy team,
which was composed of the CEO, his executive team, and some key business and
technology professionals. This small group, except for the Environment Scan, carried out
all SMP process steps. The result of SMP was a set of documents that covered the
territory described in the list above.
The SMP Environment Scan, the key event to gather information about the
companys internal and external environment was conducted as a two-day Open Space
event in which 85 people participated. This event was structured around the following
- The key question: What do we know about us and our environment today and
where do we want to be in the future?
- Twelve questions, developed by the executive team in a smaller Open Space
prior to the Environment Scan
After sharing the dimensions of the inquiry in the opening ceremony, the
event followed the principles and laws of Open Space. The initial twelve questions
were expanded to eighteen and the group self-organized into smaller groups to
answer the questions.
During the Environmental Scan each group documented its results in a very
simple form and presented them to the entire group at the end of each day. By the
end of the event a 120-page document was created and made available to all
participants within 24 hours. Within two days, the group had covered a wide area of
concerns, covering both internal and external areas. The document is still a valuable
resource today. Its usefulness would even be higher, had customers, industry
analysts and others taken part in its creation.
Customer Council for Strategic Direction (CCSD)
In early 1998 the company took a real leap of confidence. For the first time
we opened the conversation about the future of our markets and ourselves to the
participation of customers, academia and close business partners. A formal
business event combined with Open Space provided the framework. The latter
was imbedded inside the formal meetings with the intent that both forms would
not interfere with each other. Two days of the three-day event were totally
dedicated to Open Space. Only the Open Space event will be described here.
As is the case in all Open Space events, there was no preset agenda, except
for a trigger question. The question The Future Role of Information Technology in
Making and Moving Digital Product Information; Local and Global
Perspectives had been communicated in the invitation. After opening the space,
included the explanation of the process, the agenda was created by the group
in less than one hour. The group then self-organized in sub-groups, with all
participants attending the sessions that they felt most passionate about. It
is worth sharing that the group consisted of eighteen very senior industry
leaders from around the world.
In the sub-group meetings, the observation work happened in multiple forms.
Informal conversation, formal presentations of material that individual
members had brought in anticipation of topics they wanted to talk about, and
creative brainstorming were used at different times. The diversity of the groups
enabled the creation of a rich web of information. This was further enhanced by the
seniority of the CCSD members, ensuring that the groups addressed the key
areas of today business and technology challenges.
Each day we provided space to share results, insights and observations of
the different sub-groups. All sessions were recorded online using a laptop. This
provided the opportunity to share the results with all attendees directly
after the conference was over. We used a local overnight printing service to
provide draft copies of the results.
We used Dialogue sessions to end each day. Two techniques helped to make
these sessions very successful, the use of the Native American talking stick and a
rule, adopted from the Quakers, that one would only speak if one had to
something of significance to say.
The Learning Experience
The following describes the learning that occurred during these
interventions, specifically in Open Space. We use the following model to relate the
experience to different stages in our learning cycle.
- Observation Activities to record, without distortion, what occurs in the
whole system (inside and outside of the company.
- Understanding (insight) Processes to make sense out of what has been
- Planning Processes to create common mental models (vision) and shared
- Acting - Short or long-term action the organization undertakes in support
of its vision.
Open Space is very powerful, specifically in the observation and insight
The key positive behavior of the observation stage is the capability to
listen, based on:
- The ability to suspend assumptions (Senge, 1994), enabling a more complete
picture of reality to emerge;
- The ability to suppress the urge for instant response, enabling true
understanding (Peck, 1992); and
- The ability to express mutual empathy, enabling trust to be build among
the participants that partake in the conversation (Covey, 1990).
Equality of participants proved to be the leading prerequisite that is
required for these characteristics to emerge. The structure of Open Space and
Dialogue fulfilled these criteria naturally.
Meaning making is a human characteristic (Maslow). Collective
understanding (meaning) was best created when the following conditions were present:
- Diversity was valued and accepted as a prerequisite for rich
- Individual views were understood as important, but limited, means to fully
describe complex environments;
- Open sharing of individual thoughts, among non-judgmental peers, has the
potential for collective insight that can not be achieved on the individual
level (the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts).
Dialogue and Open Space proved to be powerful methodologies that enabled
collective insight. An important organizational element of these
methodologies is the circle. The seating arrangement in Open Space and Dialogue enables
equality of the participants and prevents individual domination because there is no
physical location in a circle that supports it.
Individual and Organizational Change
It is a tragic illusion to assume that we can change others without changing
ourselves. This misunderstanding seems to be related to a shift in the
fundamentals of our thinking more than 300 years ago. The mechanistic view
of the world, initiated by Newton and enforced by the industrial revolution of the
19th and 20th century, has created a mindset that separates planning from doing.
This mental model, aided by specialization, contributes to an unspoken reality,
where only certain people have to change, while others are exempt. But the
emergence of knowledge work, distributed worldwide and linked in a network fashion, is
challenging this model.
Any change in such a dynamic environment, where formal power and control are
undermined by dynamic realities, will depend on voluntary, individual change
first. One encouraging observation, across all initiatives, is that this
individual change actually happens.
Its Over When Its Over (or probably not)
Our journey of the past four years can be described as evolutionary, moving
from the hierarchical model of management to a more participatory model, where
plans and actions are done by the people based on knowledge and not on formal
status. This is consistent with organizational trends observed in highly successful
companies in many knowledge-driven industries. In particular the following
insights that shape our ongoing strategic conversations are encouraging:
- The diversity of environment and organization is best captured if the
whole system participates in the observation stage.
- Any constraints put on the observation stage results in bias.
Automatically these biases work like filters further reducing the capability to see what
- Insight gained while the whole system is present has the potential to
become part of the organizations culture. This makes resistance to follow-on plans
and actions less likely.
The experience of the past four years is changing the way we think about
what is important to sustain our organizational existence. Changes, impacting our
corporate identify, seem to emerge in several areas, among them:
- A shift from technology-centric to market-centric thinking.
- A broadening of our value system, from individual contribution to team
- An understanding of interdependence, within the organization and between
the organization and its environment
In summary, we are in a state of change. We are embracing the needs of our
markets, and allowing those needs to guide our innovative spirit. We are
broadening what we value, adding team recognition to the existing focus on
individuals. We are developing an understanding for interdependence, within
the organization as well as between the organization and its environment. And
finally, we are realizing that we can not walk away from our own insights.
By keeping the conversation about our identity and our future alive, actual
change is happening. This is not a bad place to be.
Uwe Weissflog firstname.lastname@example.org
for STORIES, the Newsletter of the Open Space Institute (US) email@example.com
Here are the upcoming OS events:
17th Annual International Symposium on Organization Transformation
Theme: Millennial Countdown II
June 29 - July 3
Cannon Beach, Oregon, USA
Contact: Harrison Owen at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 301-469-9269
Open Space onOpen Space VII
Sept. 25 -27
A gathering for experienced OS practitioners.
Contacts: Sheila Isakson at email@example.com or Michael Herman at
Here are the upcoming Open Space trainings:
Contact: Peg Holman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 425-746-6274
Facilitators: Harrison Owen and Peg Holman
Contact: Birgitt Bolton at email@example.com or 905-648-5775
Facilitator: Birgitt Bolton
Contact: Romy Shovelton at firstname.lastname@example.org or +44-171-229-7320
Facilitators: Harrison Owen and Romy Shovelton
Contact: Tom Thiss at 612-474-5172
Facilitators: Harrison Owen and Tom Thiss
Contact: Birgitt Bolton at email@example.com or 905-648-5775
Facilitators: Harrison Owen and Birgitt Bolton
near Birmingham, Alabama
Contact: Barry Owen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-356-2888
Facilitators: Harrison Owen and Barry Owen
New York, NY
Contact: Karen Davis at email@example.com or 212-595-9107
Facilitators: Harrison Owen and Karen Davis
STORIES is published online 3-4 times a year by the Open Space Institute
To subscribe, or to join OSI, contact Peggy Holman, firstname.lastname@example.org.
To submit your story, contact Joelle Everett, editor, email@example.com