Expert Tips

Understanding Open Space Technology

Author: Chris Wignall, Lead With Catalyst

It may have been a while but think back to the last staff retreat or conference you participated in; when did the very best conversations happen?

My bet is that it wasn’t during the formal sessions, as good as they can be.

The best conversations happen during coffee or meal breaks, or at the end of the day, or when you skipped a session to connect with some people you really enjoy. They happen spontaneously, when we are free to talk about what is on our minds with other people who have common interests, and when we don’t have to force any particular outcomes.

That’s the key insight that inspired Episcopal priest Harrison Owen to develop Open Space Technology as a tool for generating and capturing these great conversations in the 1980s. Since that time thousands of events and organizations all over the world have benefitted from this format in group sizes from five to thousands, and in time frames from an hour to several days.

At the heart of Open Space is an overall theme or question that is of interest to every participant. From this, a simple set of rules enables the group to self-organize an agenda based on the particular aspects of the theme that they find engaging. Then, they self-manage the process both in groups and as individuals. Finally, the fruit of these conversations are shared with the entire group along with any commitments to action that flow from them.

If this seems a little soft and flighty to you, you’re not alone. Open Space is not like your regular well-scheduled and tightly directed conference. That’s what works best about it. It truly does rely on the group to find their way, and there are often wonderful surprises.

Having facilitated these sessions for more than twenty years I can assure you that the results are remarkable. I do suggest using an outside facilitator, particularly if this is a new approach for you and your team. It is different enough that you will need someone experienced guiding the way in the beginning. There’s lots of information online, as well as Harrison Owen’s excellent User’s Guide.

If your organization, or a network or community you’re involved in needs some creative and highly engaging thinking to move forward or to address complex realities, Open Space may be just what you didn’t know you were looking for.

Kentro will be using Open Space as part of both our Fall Workshops.

For more on Open Space:

Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide by Harrison Owen

Open Space World is the largest online resource on this approach

For more about how Chris Wignall and may be helpful to you:

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Chris Wignall, Lead With Catalyst

"Healthy Leaders, Healthy Organizations"

Catalyst provides practical leadership and strategic consulting to meet the needs of charities and not for profit organizations.

Chris Wignall, has earned a reputation for insightful questions and a range of effective resources for lead staff, executive teams, emerging leaders, and boards. His enthusiasm and optimism, combined with a direct and outcomes-oriented style, have been welcomed by charity leaders locally, nationally, and internationally.

Chris has served charities through leadership mentoring, board development, strategy sessions, systems review, and team building experiences. He is particularly interested in how human dynamics advance or hamper vision, the importance of organizational culture and the power of celebration.

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