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April 27, 2006

OpenSpace for Collaborative Conferences

For the life of me, I can't recall how I heard about OpenSpace... as far as I recall, my first OpenSpace was the one I sponsored in Toronto in 2004! OpenSpace is a way to facilitate an unconference, created twenty years ago by Owen Harrison, who now uses it for The Practice of Peace.

It's an amazing way to put people in motion fast... they arrive with nothing but their burning passion to discuss the theme topic... and within an hour they've created an agenda containing all the topics closest to their hearts and are already sitting down, talking to strangers with similar interests!

How does it work? Half of the OpenSpace facilitator's work happens before the event - crafting a provocative Theme and producing the Invitation. It's not as easy as one might think - OpenSpace works best when there are multiple points of view in the room, even outright conflict, which means the Theme must be neutral to draw people from all camps, otherwise it's just a mutual admiration society! The facilitator works with the Sponsor to make sure the venue is suitable, and that there will be nutritious snacks available to fuel the intense conversation that will fill the day.

Then, on the day of the event, the Facilitator comes in with some signage, and puts the chairs in a single big circle. The Sponsor invites participants to sit in this democratic arrangement and sets the theme. Then the Facilitator starts the process by inviting them to leave their preconceptions outside - asking them to adopt the 4 principles and 1 law of OpenSpace:
  • 1. Whoever comes is the right people!

  • 2. Whenever it starts is the right time.

  • 3. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have! and

  • 4. When it's over, it's over

  • and The law of mobility: If you find yourself neither learning nor contributing, MOVE ON! which means that people are free to attend the sessions they signed up for, or not... sometimes the best session happens in the coffee area, which is intentionally set up to invite conversation!

The facilitator then helps the group collaboratively create an agenda - anyone can stand up and name the topic they want to discuss... and in about 30 minutes the group will organize the topics into a schedule on the wall and sign up for items they like. And now they are ready!

The rest of the day is run by the participants - they start their respective sessions and bring notes back to the faciitator, who photographs or collates them or helps them enter their notes in a wiki... so that participants can have a record of all sessions by the next day!

It's amazing the connections that get made - simply because people follow their passions. Likeminded people meet and spawn new ideas, plans, business relationships... it's wonderful to watch, and memorable every time.

At the closing circle, participants are invited to share their reflections - what will be different for them, going forward from this event? OpenSpace is simply a jumping-off point... it galvanizes groups to resolve long-standing issues or move into new avenues of action.

Note: No A-V equipment required! No banquet to plan! (food is kept buffet style in case sessions run over). No expensive keynote speaker! Computers optional, if you want a wiki.

We've heard Regis say: "ask the audience, it's never wrong!". OpenSpace harnesses the wisdom of crowds and simply gives permission to create and act back to the crowd. Hurray!
(one day, we will no longer need permission... oh, that's a "fourth" thing! :-)


Here's a terrific video of OpenSpace at recentchangescamp
And a report from OpenSpace at XPday Montreal 2006

Read more about OpenSpace, on Larry Peterson's site.
Resources for creating an OpenSpace Event: from Chris Corrigan, and Michael Herman.

Reflections on facilitating Open Space by Chris Corrigan: The Tao of Holding Space [pdf]

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