Open Space as an Effective Meeting Process

Talk to most people and they would agree with you that more time is lost annually in poorly run meetings than in strikes, downtime, travel, injuries, illness or any other causes that you can care to think of. The only problem is, lost time due to poorly run meetings never makes it into the  accounting records.

There are many tools for running effective meetings, yet most of them are so badly integrated into meeting processes, that they only result in worsening the situation.

That was the case until “Open Space” was developed. This approach to meeting management (if it could be called that) was first pioneered by Harrison Owen, who has written two books on the subject. Simply stated, this approach is based on the belief (and it turns out a true one at that), that people who voluntarily attend meetings, will do whatever it takes to make them work. At the same time, those who are “press-ganged” into attending will in many cases work to defeat the meeting purpose.

In running an Open Space style of meeting, there are no ground rules. You could be forgiven for thinking that this would create a recipe for meeting madness (especially if you have ever attended a Toastmasters meeting!).

Not so.

The approach uses what’s known as the Four Principles, One Law and Two Engines, and in my experience it works! It draws its power from the fact that all groups, if left alone, will become largely self-organizing…but only if they are allowed to be.

The Four Principles

These are:

  • Whoever comes is the right people
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have
  • Whenever it starts is the right time
  • When it’s over, it’s over

The One Law (or the ‘Law of Two Feet’)

During the course of the meeting, any person who finds him or herself in a situation where they are neither learning nor contributing, must use their two feet and go to some more productive place.

The Two Engines

These are:

  • Passion for the issue, bounded by the
  • Responsibility to search for and find solutions

A while back, I was challenged (at short notice) to facilitate a meeting of 200+ delegates to a conference, during which the possibility of conflict was relatively high. I chose to use the above elements of Open Space, in order to give the delegates the opportunity to ‘step up to the plate’, take responsibility and make things work. My role was to ‘open’ the space for them and then to keep it open. They did not let me down. The conference was a huge success.

Open Space is an effective, economical, fast, and easily repeatable strategy for organizing meetings of between 5 and 1,000 participants. It works because it brings out the best in people.

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