Opening Space for Conversation (and Eating Croissants)

I wonder if Harrison Owen knew, back in 1989 when Open Space Technology “escaped” (as its put in the Open Space history), that it would become a facilitator’s favorite? Not only because it helps groups identify the most meaningful topics at the moment (rather than speculating on that weeks in advance without the main beneficiaries in the room), to take ownership and responsibility for the running of those salient conversations (and implementing any outputs), and also gives time for facilitators to take a long break and think about the next steps in their programme.

We used Open Space Technology yesterday, as a part of a 2-day workshop focused on peer learning and workplanning. We picked OST (as it is called in short hand) for a few important reasons, which had to do with timing in the workshop and the kind of results needed.

First, it was the morning of the second day of the workshop and we had invited 6 external partners to come into this particular session. Each came in with a variety of viewpoints and ideas on how this team could interact with their agencies, and suggestions for the team’s future work. We could have had them make detailed presentations and then have a traditional plenary Q&A.

However, the core team members came from all over the world and their contexts and length of experience in implementing the shared programme were incredibly diverse. In order to foster this diversity of interests and needs in the room, we wanted to take the discussion out of a plenary session, where only a few quick people would get their issues heard sequentially, and into a format where people (participants and speakers) could tailor their own discussions. And because there would be a lot of these, we needed to be able to cover a lot of ground and get many questions answered and themes discussed in a short period of time. So for both efficiency and respect to the multiple objectives in the room, OST was good choice.

Second, because this was the last day of this group’s work together, we needed to start to put this back into the group’s hands. The final hours of any facilitated intervention is time in a group’s process when they need to take back the content, as well as the responsibility for follow-up. No longer do they need or want a loud facilitator’s voice mediating their every action. While this might be appropriate when the group is just forming, and many people are quiet and finding their voice and role in the group, this external direction is not necessary or even particularly helpful when the team needs its internal leadership to (re-)emerge, and to take full commitment for outputs and next steps. OST is a good choice for this situation as the structure is set up front, and after that there is no intervention needed by an outside facilitator.

For anyone who might be tempted to try this interesting technique, here is how we set up and ran our Open Space Technology session, which we adapted as a part of a longer workshop, and what we learned.

Getting Some Input: Normally OST sessions are not preceded by presentations, they start with the people in the room, they identify their own questions around the announced theme and the agenda is set based on these topics. For us, we needed to integrate some new information that people could use as a part of their conversations, so our 6 invitees were each invited to make focused 5-minute presentations using only 5 slides, on their priorities, how and where they work, opportunities for collaboration and some questions for the group. In spite of the immediate reaction prior to the workshop to a 5 minute rule (what can you say in 5 min??) we found that the speakers did an excellent job synthesizing and keeping the background to a minimum, and easily made it within their 5 minutes (which we strictly enforced by tight timekeeping from the back.) We did not take any questions at the time, instead we then invited the participants, AND the speakers, to put their questions and areas to further explore on cards, which we then clustered and popped into our time schedule.

Make Time for Scheduling: We ended up having many ideas for parallel discussions, some of which seemed to go logically together. We scheduled theme collection just prior to a coffee break and then while participants were out we did the clustering exercise, grouping like questions, and then when there was more than one question, we assigned two hosts for that discussion. In our coffee break we programmed a series of twelve conversations; three sessions of four parallel conversations for 30 minutes each. This clustering process produced some additional learning – scheduling on your feet takes time. In the agenda we didn’t commit to the length or number of sessions, giving only approximations (e.g. 30 min or 40 min sessions, with either 2, 3, or 4 in parallel), as we were not sure how many suggestions of topics we might get. Allowing ourselves this flexibility enabled us to see the number and diversity of questions submitted and decide on our feet how many conversations we would need to schedule, and whether we would achieve this by adjusting the session length and or number of parallel conversations.

Adding value through grouping: You often get more questions/themes than you have time or slots for, so you’ll need to cluster these. This takes time. We made 12 slots available and received 20 questions. We used 25 minutes to cluster and make the schedule (this was 10 more than the coffee break, but we let people come back late!) We found it useful to have someone familiar on/hand to validate our clustering, as we were not content experts. And next time we would schedule a long (30 minute) coffee break between collecting the questions and beginning the Open Space Technology session. This extra time could be used to clarify the meaning of any questions with the writers if necessary. For this reason we had everyone write their name on their cards.

Inviting self-facilitation: We find this process useful as it distributes responsibility for balanced participation to all members of the group. In an OST process, the small group conversations don’t come with a facilitator, although each session might have a host (the question-raiser), so everyone is invited to ensure time is spent listening to everyone present who wishes to contribute. The context is conducive to this: people are seated at tables (in our case) and there are no flipcharts (though we did provide “graffiti sheets” on the tables – paper and markers). This produced nice conversation circles with people speaking to one another, instead of group orientation towards a flipchart and someone tasked with writing or leading

And also welcome from the Facilitator’s point of view…

Refreshing yourself: OST provides a nice opportunity as the Facilitator to take a few moments to relax and grab a tea, croissant and some precious fresh air. In this process, participants come up with the questions (not you or the client), so they in their conversations can answer clarifying questions about these. They are also free to determine the desired outcomes of the conversation, even the length of time. The posted schedule helps them even take control of the time and close one conversation and open new conversations according to the designated time. We found we could easily leave them to it and take the opportunity to refresh ourselves, eat our croissant, and think strategically into the next steps and stages in our workshop process.

Note: We found some useful tips from the OST website on openings and closings which would be useful for framing and wrapping up a session.

1 reply
  1. Nancy White
    Nancy White says:

    Hi Gillian

    Great storytelling. Would you be open to us including this story in a learning module I'm working on for the UN?

    Please let me know



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