Gavin’s Friday Reads: Open Space Technology by Harrison Owen

How can we facilitate more meetings that don’t, for lack of a better term, suck? A solution lies between the covers of this book. Open Space technology is a gift to the world, and one I have brought inside of US manufacturing plants to engage employees and solve thorny problems. But let’s back up.

I am sure you have been to at least one or possibly two 🙂  long boring meetings where nothing really gets done and you wished that you did not have to be there. These meetings have a pre-set agenda designed to constrain the discussion and avoid emotionally charged issues. Unfortunately, those tend to be the issues we really need to talk about.  It is not unusual for the boss to simply want to dictate what occurs, and the meeting becomes a way to “perform” getting everyone’s buy-in.  Weeks or months later, it will be as if nothing has changed.

The reason most meetings fail to provide maximum benefit is that they are not aligned with our internal human operating system.

It turns out, humans don’t like to be told what to do or how to do it. Instead, we want to choose who we are going to be working with.  As a team, we prefer to figure things out for ourselves.  We also believe – and latest entrepreneurial science will back this claim up – that those closest to the work know better than management what the real issues and pain points are and are generally well-equipped to get them sorted. 

Open Space Meetings are like meetings from another planet. A completely new breath of fresh air in which the agenda emerges during the course of the meeting. Participants hold space together in order to express their views candidly to build up the intelligence in the room so that complex issues can not only get addressed, but solved.This is not for the faint of heart, (or control obsessed) but it works and feels amazing to be a part of.  ·        ·        Open Space meetings work because, as Owen tells us, “human systems are self-organizing and naturally tend towards high performance provided the essential preconditions are present and sustained.” The technology or facilitation-style he invented serves to unleash human beings’ natural drive to self-organize effectively.

To further illustrate the contrast, let’s look at how the typical business meeting scenario unfolds.  

Suppose you, the CEO of a company, see a problem that needs to be addressed.  It involves several departments so you will need to schedule a meeting and write up an agenda.  You will need to decide who to invite to the meeting.  Manager X,  Manager Y, HR, Accounting etc….  You probably already know what the outcome is that you want.  The purpose of the meeting is really just to get everyone on board and agreeing with your strategy. Meanwhile, there is a lot of time and energy wasted among these so-called team members jockeying for position and not wanting to lose ground, power or face in the organization. This creates covert obstacles to change. 

Whereas, this is how an Open Space meeting unfolds instead:

Maybe you are the CEO or, if you have a Conscious Culture, you can be anyone in any position in the company who senses there is a problem/opportunity that needs to be addressed. Rather than researching and preparing all the information ahead of time, you call a meeting to discuss the emerging situation.  Anyone in the effected department(s) or any other group in the company (internal stakeholders) may self-select to opt in if they feel they have something to contribute.   If you are a Conscious company and the issue is large enough you could invite other stakeholders outside the company.  Your key suppliers or customers for example might want to help if you extend the invitation.

The goal is to get people together to figure it out. You post the problem/opportunity and you post a time, and location for a meeting.  That’s it!

Whoever comes are the right people.  Whenever it starts is the right time  Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened.”


When the time comes around, people gather at the location.  People were not told to be there. They were invited to come if they wanted to.  Maybe some people that you didn’t even think of show up.  This is a group that has a common interest.  People who don’t care won’t show up.

When people get there they will find a room – or virtual equivalent – with a circle of chairs.  It’s a circle – in spirit and in form – because it is non hierarchical.  Everyone has equal opportunity to contribute.

In the middle of the circle is a small table with some paper and markers on it.

On one side of the room there is a wall space.  This wall has a grid showing times on the vertical and places on the horizontal axis.

When you think it feels like the right time to start, you stand in the middle of the circle and reiterate the problem or opportunity that brought everyone here.

You invite people, if they like, to come to the center of the circle and take a piece of paper and write down an idea they have related to the problem (or more than one if they have several ideas each on a separate sheet).  They then stand in front of the group, and briefly state the idea and they go post it somewhere on the grid on the wall.

Each of these posts on the wall represents a meeting on that idea in time and space.

This process continues with some people briefly sharing their idea and posting it until no one else is standing up to do it.

When this is done we take a break and during this break people peruse the wall of ideas which Owen calls the “Market Place”.  They can grab a pen and sign up on that sheet for a session that they want to participate in.

Then the small meetings start.  During these small meetings someone takes notes on what was discussed and decided.  These notes are posted on another wall the “NewsRoom”  People who were not able to attend a session can read the notes there.  

Notice the group itself created the agenda and the group self organized into smaller groups to effectively talk about things that those people really care about.

There is only one law.  “The law of two feet”.  If you are in a meeting and you feel you are not contributing or not as interested as you thought, you can use your “two feet” and go join another meeting or discover some other soul in the hall and have your own spontaneous meeting.

We held Open Space meetings at my family’s former company on a regular basis. If something new came up that we needed to work on, we added another one. 

One meeting was about the fact that we were close to capacity in one department and sales was predicting significant new business.  We posted an Open Space meeting about this.   Around 20 people from that department and other departments came to the meeting.  Sales spoke for a few minutes sketching out the opportunity and answered questions to clarify what they needed more of.

We then started the meeting.   

Around 10 people brought up ideas.  Some were about ways to speed up the manufacturing process,  some were about ways to change over products more quickly.  Some were about clarifying the directions on the batch sheets.  Some were about parts and tools.  Some were about raw materials.  Some were about doing some steps concurrently instead of sequentially.  Some were about improvements we could make to the equipment.

Few of these people were managers or supervisors.  They were the people who did the work each day.  They split into groups.  R&D people self selected to go to the meetings that involved changing processing directions.  QA people naturally went to the meetings that were about cleaning faster and more effectively between products.  

At the end of the day we had lots of actionable items on to do lists and lots of decisions already made.  

“I find that my intuition basically closes down, or at least functions less than optimally, when I am trying to follow an argument or make sense (analyze) some particular situation.  It is not that analysis or logic are wrong, bad, or not to be used. But they definitely get in the way of the intuition.  … represent a level of complexity that boggles my mind. …I know I will never reach my goal by thought and analysis.”


Just think about the difference.  Everyone who came wanted to be there.  The group generated its own agenda in just a few minutes, held meetings, made decisions and got stuff done.  No one directed anyone.  Instead of one person doing the thinking and directing everyone else, everyone is thinking and collaborating together, coming up with many more ideas than any individual ever could and then just going ahead and doing it.  Everyone is now highly engaged to see it get done and keep the gains they made.

That’s where Open Space officially ends.

For us the process continued 

We then switched to a self managing, modified Scrum process.  (Scrum is a highly productive way of running projects. More about that in another post!)

The “To do lists” that were self generated during the Open Space meeting were on large poster size Post It paper.  We posted these lists in the hallway outside the department that needed more capacity.  People were encouraged to get a teammate or two and pick an item on one of the lists and sign up on that sheet to get it done.  When it was done they just wrote DONE! next to the item.  This was a way to make it easy to see who was working on what so you could join them if you wanted or what things still needed doing that you could take on.  It also made it easy for me to see who was doing what so I could help remove obstacles for them.

In case you are wondering, there were plenty of improvements made and we had no trouble meeting the new customer’s needs.  

I look forward to hearing from people who have also used Open Space Technology, particularly as I work on ways to deliver this in a virtual environment, for the benefit of remote and hybrid (partially remote and partially co-located) teams. 

Cheers for Friday,

Gavin Watson, Chair, Conscious Capitalism Connecticut Chapter

Gavin Watson & Associates

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