Earlier this Year, as Meeting Professionals International's Professional Education Conference came down to its final hours, attendees streamed into a ballroom in New Orleans' Ernest N. Morial Convention Center for what they thought would be a typical general session to close the conference. What they got was anything but typical.

The massive ballroom was set in dozens of open circles, with a stage in the center for a moderator. Huge blank sheets of paper hung along the walls, with markers nearby. A microphone stood in each corner of the room.

Then Lisa Heft, a Berkeley, Calif.-based moderator, took center stage. She encouraged people to be bumblebees and “buzz” around the room until they found a place to land. She urged them to take breaks for food and drink whenever the spirit possessed them to nourish their creativity. “If you find yourself contributing nothing after 20 minutes or so,” she said, “it's your responsibility to get up and leave so you can find the topics that truly interest you.”

How It Works

Known as Open Space Technology, this meeting format was developed in the mid-1980s by organizational consultant Harrison Owen. (See box at right.) Heft describes it as “a meeting with no agenda and little facilitation.”

Participants convene with a basic theme to focus their efforts. The facilitator explains the few ground rules, which include those above. Attendees are then asked to identify issues in which they are interested and about which they are willing to lead a discussion. Those issues are written down and posted on sheets containing the topic, time, and place where they will be discussed. Attendees pick sessions that interest them, and the breakout sessions begin.

Unlike most meetings, the discussions are recorded, issues discussed are prioritized, and groups even come up with their own action plans and timelines. The goal is for the dialogue to continue until the discussion is over, which might not always coincide with the point at which the meeting ends.

Open space meetings can last from half a day to 2.5 days, according to Heft. For example, a corporate meeting with a high probability of conflict might best be handled in a two-day meeting. The first day might be spent framing the issues, giving attendees the chance to think about and process the information that they have received that first day overnight, leading to a second day in which enough progress can be made that action planning can proceed.

Connecting Corporate Cultures

Scott Stillinger, director of human resources for Carmel Valley Ranch, a 144-room luxury resort in Carmel, Calif., is working on a project team focused on the service culture and leadership for Luxury Resorts & Hotels — which has a portfolio of 34 properties. Years ago, he attended an organizational development conference in San Francisco that used the OST format, and he met Harrison Owen there. Stillinger quickly became an OST enthusiast. He has used it for a different resort in Carmel, when he facilitated a meeting to deal with issues relating to a partnership that resort was forming with another resort and management company.

“We were creating a brand-new corporate culture,” Stillinger says. “The meeting was designed to look at the future and come up with a shared vision.”

The conference lasted two days, which is an optimal period of time for open space, according to Heft, and was held off-property. Attendees included everyone from the new organization's management team to the housekeepers. It was a typical open space setup, with the circular room and breakouts, and computer stations were used to record the discussions.

“It was very high-energy and produced a lot of positive enthusiasm,” says Stillinger, who adds that the meeting resulted in action plans for issues ranging from staff training to service. “And it was completely unintended, but I found out that I couldn't have designed a better way for people in different organizations who didn't know each other to make connections.”

A Tough Sell

If you're thinking of introducing the OST format into your meeting mix, be prepared for some resistance, says Stillinger. “Management usually has a message that it wants to get out during a meeting,” he says. “And it wants to make sure that everyone receives that message. That's not necessarily how open space works.”

Heft acknowledges that, and explains that “if you want to deliver a one-way message, open space is not the tool to use. Just as you wouldn't use the same tool for every part of a gardening, cooking, or construction job, you wouldn't use open space for every kind of meeting.”

But, she adds, if you are willing to tap into the wisdom and experience of a cross section of people, and invite divergent and emergent thinking, “even if you aren't comfortable not controlling the conversation,” then “open space may be the tool to use.”

Another key selling point for OST is that it gives internally motivated meeting attendees a chance to take leadership roles on issues that they are truly passionate about.

“How often have you seen meetings in which people just check out — they don't engage?” asks Stillinger. “With open space, you can let the guy who has his hair on fire about advertising talk about advertising.”

The only real way to comprehend the value of a meeting like this is to attend one. “You really need to just do it,” he says. “It's hard to understand until you've really experienced it.”

Ost's Origins

In the early 1980s, organizational consultant Harrison Owen made a simple but keen observation: In his brief history of Open Space Technology, Owen writes that the most exciting, energetic, information-driven periods of most meetings were the coffee breaks, which “weren't really planned at all.”

At that time, Owen was planning symposiums on organization transformation in Monterey, Calif. He decided to change the format of the 1985 symposium. Attendees knew only what time it began, when it ended, and the general theme. There was no agenda or planning committee, and the facilitator stuck around just long enough to get things started.

“Much to the amazement of everybody, 2.5 hours later we had a three-day agenda totally planned out, including multiple workshops, all with conveners, times, places, and participants,” he writes.

4 Principles of Open Space Meetings

  1. Whoever comes is the right people.
  2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
  3. Whenever it starts is the right time.
  4. When it's over, it's over.