Three Reasons to Organize your Next Workshop in the Open Space Format

February 06, 2013 | bit-wartung | Methods & Tools |


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Are you planning a face-face meeting to explore key issues and design action plans? The Open Space methodology would definitively be an option. Read how the key elements of Open Space – the circle, the joint agenda setting, and the free discussion space – could create momentum to advance important issues.

By Nadia von Holzen, SDC

Base your next workshop or face-to-face meeting on Open Space. Are you hesitating? Have you already too many topics in an overfilled agenda? This might be exactly the right moment to consider Open Space!

My three reasons why I think Open Space could be your solution:

1. Listen to what matters

An Open Space workshop opens and ends in a circle. The circle is the invitation to listen what each has to say and to speak out what matters. Personal thoughts and viewpoints are expressed. This allows bringing ideas, concerns and hopes on the “table” and get ready to discuss the issues at stake.

2. Discuss the essential

Building the agenda jointly is a key moment; it’s done collaboratively in the circle. Everyone in the room has the opportunity to step into the circle and announce her/ his discussion topics. The space is open although not completely. The givens – defined in the preparatory work by the organizer and the facilitator – are the boundaries what is up for discussion and what not.

Trust the process; the issue you want bring a step further will be discussed. Framing only the discussion topic and leaving the agenda open is bit like two kinds of shopping lists: Let’s say you want to cook a green curry. You can jot down a detailed shopping list to the last gram of salt. Or you frame your cooking idea. In either case you will eat green curry. The curries won’t taste exactly the same. They will be creative varieties playing with ingredients and a touch of new flavor.

3. Engage participants – make them responsible

The principles and the one law of the two feet are at the heart of each Open Space. They are a message of freedom and responsibility and an invitation to self-organize. A careful introduction at the beginning of the workshop is inviting the participants to take responsibilities for their questions and topics, to engage and to bring forward.

One of the most profound impacts of the law is to make it exquisitely clear precisely who is responsible for the quality of a participant’s learning. If any situation is not learning rich, it is incumbent upon the individual participant to make it so. There is no point in blaming the conference committee, for none exists. Responsibility resides with the individual.
Harrison Owen

Open Space is an invitation to discuss AND to act. It’s the deeper meaning of OPEN SPACE that makes the methodology interesting. The method plays with the idea of space. It’s about the space for discussion and the room for manoeuver. It’s an offer to bring challenges forward AND to act upon them.

What’s your experience with Open Space?

Further links:

· [German only]
· [German only]



Comments to“Three Reasons to Organize your Next Workshop in the Open Space Format”

  1. I am a passionate Open Spacer. If we look to the roots of our professed beliefs about empowerment in development, it makes OS even more relevant in our field.

    There are a couple of things I’ve learned the hard way.

    Don’t convene an Open Space as a token of openness. “And to show we are participative, we have a two hour open space session.” Nope.

    Do use Open Space where there is something important/urgent/challenging to do. Meaning is what drives us forward. If there is nothing important, go for a walk!

    Finally, as a facilitator, stay out of the way as much as possible. Resist the impulse to suggest session combinations, title changes, etc. Your job was to open the circle, then let it happen. So go to a session. Go for a walk. Have a coffee or a beer, but don’t interfere and fall back into our habit of controlling. (It is SOOOO tempting!)

    But above all, the comment you wrote ‘Trust the process” is essential. Openness then can become a powerful force for forward movement!

  2. Reto Wieser says:

    Having moved to “the field” I can only underline your messages. Open space opens the doors in f2f events of the networks to the operational concerns Coofs may have and certainly re-inforces the relations among colleagues. I would say, a must for such events that last several days.


  3. Nadia von Holzen says:

    Thank you both of you for your valuable comments and reasoning. Open Space is opening doors; and it’s the meaning that makes people walk in and drive the discussion forward. Lovely!

  4. Ernst Bolliger says:

    Dear Colleagues

    I used Open Space in a thematic workshop for rural advisors in Switzerland. In the forenoon there were presentations of resource persons about different aspects of a livestock topic. Before lunch break we announced the rules of the Open Space session in the afternoon: Participants would be responsible for the topics to discuss in-depth.
    The collection of the discussion themes after lunch went rather smooth. The guiding question for the Open Space was: “And now: In how far do these new informations we got in the forenoon have an impact on our work? What am I going to change?” Within a quarter of an hour all participants had found their group to start the discussion – smaller and larger ones.
    A few lessons learnt from this workshop:
    – The Open Space method also works quite well for relatively short workshop periods (2-3 hours).
    – The facilitator needs to introduce the method as careful as for an Open Space of three days.
    – Participants must be very clear about their responsibility for the selection of topics and their learning).
    – Trust participants, that they make best use of time and available resources to learn something valuable for their practice; as facilitator concentrate on facilitating a learning environment (rooms, material, initial guiding question, drinks, and a decent form of sharing (and documentation if desired) at the end.

    All the best with Open Space. It can be fun and meaningful!

    Ernst Bolliger

  5. Babette Pfander says:

    Dear colleagues
    thanks for the inspiring blog… I have circulated internally in our office the blog in view of the planning for our international workshop with all our long-term delegates in 2013. And the response was positive, in the sense that it created curiosity about the OS and its potential. Let us see what finally emerges at the end of the day!
    with best wishes
    Babette Pfander

  6. Dear Babette and Ernst, thanks for sharing examples and carrying the Open Space idea further. Ernst’s story showes nicely that Open Space has great potential in the context of networked learning and practice transfer!
    Are there mote example from elsewhere to share?
    Best, Nadia


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