Open-space technology

Open-space technology

Open-space technology (OST) is an approach for hosting meetings, conferences, corporate-style retreats, and community summit events, focused on a specific and important purpose or task—but beginning without any formal agenda, beyond the overall purpose or theme.


Law of two feet

If at any time you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing: Give greetings, use your two feet, and go do something useful. Responsibility resides with you.


Open Space Meeting at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Highly scalable and adaptable, OST has been used in meetings of 5 to 2,100 people. The approach is characterized by few basic mechanisms:

  1. a broad, open invitation that articulates the purpose of the meeting;
  2. participant chairs arranged in a circle;
  3. a "bulletin board" of issues and opportunities posted by participants;
  4. a "marketplace" with many breakout spaces that participants move freely between, learning and contributing as they "shop" for information and ideas;
  5. a "breathing" or "pulsation" pattern of flow, between plenary and small-group breakout sessions.

The approach is most distinctive for its initial lack of an agenda, which sets the stage for the meeting's participants to create the agenda for themselves, in the first 30–90 minutes of the meeting or event. Typically, an open-space meeting will begin with short introductions by the sponsor (the official or acknowledged leader of the group) and usually a single facilitator. The sponsor introduces the purpose; the facilitator explains the "self-organizing" process called "open space." Then the group creates the working agenda, as individuals post their issues in bulletin board style. Each individual "convener" of a breakout session takes responsibility for naming the issue, posting it on the bulletin board, assigning it a space and time to meet, and then later showing up at that space and time, kicking off the conversation, and taking notes. These notes are usually compiled into a proceedings document that is distributed physically or electronically to all participants. Sometimes one or more additional approaches are used to sort through the notes, assign priorities, and identify what actions should be taken next. Throughout the process, the ideal facilitator is described as being "fully present and totally invisible" (see Owen, User's Guide), "holding a space" for participants to self-organize, rather than managing or directing the conversations.

Hundreds of open-space meetings have been documented (; Open Space Institute US, STORIES Newsletter;; Tales from Open Space, edited by Harrison Owen, Abbott Publishing). In "Open Space Technology: A User's Guide," (and seven other books about open-space), Harrison Owen explains that this approach works best when these conditions are present, namely high levels of (1) complexity, in term of the tasks to be done or outcomes achieved; (2) diversity, in terms of the people involved and/or needed to make any solution work; (3) real or potential conflict, meaning people really care about the central issue or purpose; and (4) urgency, meaning that the time to act was "yesterday".

According to Harrison Owen, originator of the term and the approach, open-space works because it harnesses and acknowledges the power of self-organization, which he suggests is substantially aligned with the deepest process of life itself, as described by leading-edge complexity science as well as ancient spiritual teachings.[1]

Origin and ownership

The history of open-space technology is detailed in the Introduction to "Open Space Technology: A User's Guide", by Harrison Owen.[2]

In the early 1980s, Harrison Owen wrote a paper on what he called "organization transformation". He presented this paper at a traditional management conference. It was well enough received that a number of people urged Owen to organize a conference to specifically address the issues and opportunities he identified in his paper. Owen hosted the first annual Symposium on Organization Transformation in 1983, in a traditional conference format, in Monterrey, California. The event was a success, inasmuch as it was generally agreed that it should happen again. The second annual symposium (OT-2) one year later, but still in a traditional conference format.

Harrison Owen agreed to organize OT-3 for the following year, but by his own account, did not relish another year of work to manage all the details. Upon volunteering to host the third symposium, he retreated to the bar, where he consistently claims to have discovered what he later called the "open-space" approach to meetings and events, at the bottom of his second martini. His plan for the following year's symposium was informed by his experience as a biblical scholar, associate pastor, peace corps organizer in the villages of west Africa, and federal government staffer and organization development consultant in Washington DC.

The following year, he sent out a simple, one-paragraph invitation, and more than 100 people showed up to discuss Organization Transformation. In his main meeting room he set the chairs one large circle and proceeded to explain that what participants could see in the room was the extent of his organizing work. If they had an issue or opportunity that they felt passionate about and wanted to discuss with other participants, they should come to the center of the circle, get a marker and paper, write their issue and their name, read that out, and post it on the wall. It took about 90 minutes for the 100+ people to organize a 3-day agenda of conference sessions, each one titled, hosted, and scheduled by somebody in the group.

Participants at OT-1 and OT-2 said that the best part of the events was the coffee breaks, which Owen always pointed out was the one part of the event that he didn't plan and couldn't take credit for. His inspiration to articulate the theme, the larger purpose for the work of the symposium, in an invitation and then a brief opening comment, and then simply "open the space" for participants to self-organize around the issues and opportunities they saw as essential to that purpose, was a conscious decision to make "more of what works". His martini-based plan sought to minimize the grunt work by leadership (him) and assign responsibility for maximizing productive learning and contribution to his participants (everyone else).

The approach worked well, in the 3-1/2 days symposium, where it was repeated annually through OT-20. Soon after the first "open-space" event at OT-3, however, Owen tried the same approach with a consulting client, a large chemical firm and a group of polymer chemists. When it worked there, too, the participants of OT began trying it out with their clients, in a variety of different kinds of organizations, to address many different kinds of strategic and community issues, in countries around the world. They returned to the OT symposium each year to share learnings.

Owen never trademarked or patented or certified "open space" in any way. He always claimed to have discovered, rather than invented, it. He said it could be practiced freely by anyone with a good head and good heart. From the beginning, he said only that those who used the approach and found it valuable, should share their stories and learnings as freely, as well.

Twenty-five years later, Harrison Owen estimates that more than 100,000 different "open-space" meetings have taken place. The Open-Space World Map ( documents that these events have taken place in more than 160 countries. In December 2009, the OSLIST email listserve (hosted by Boise State University at for practitioners worldwide had 660+ members in 39 countries and more than 26,500 publicly searchable messages, relating to all aspects of practice. Information about open space is now posted in 21 different languages at Open Space World ( There are at least five different government-chartered associations or institutes (France, Germany, Portugal, Sweden and USA) promoting Open-space practice around the world, and also active, but informal, organizations in several other countries (including Canada, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand, and the UK). The German-language Yahoo group started February 2002, had 233 members at year-end 2009, mostly from Germany, Austria and Switzerland and also from France, Spain, The Netherlands, Poland and elsewhere, with 3497 messages in its archive. At year-end 2009, the Australian email group was more than 500 strong.

Harrison Owen originally used the term "open space" for his "self-organizing[3] meetings". One of the earliest implementations of the approach was for a conference theme of "The business of business is learning," in Goa, India. The organizer of the conference was interviewed by the local media and described the simple process. When asked what the process was called, he embellished it a bit, with the more important-sounding "open-space technology". The story was picked up by The New York Times (need date, c. 1985), and so "open space" became "open-space technology".


What happens, there are some outcomes or results that can be guaranteed to happen [4] when people assemble in an open-space event.

  1. The issues that are most important to people will get discussed.
  2. The issues raised will be addressed by the participants best capable of getting something done about them.
  3. All of the most important ideas, recommendations, discussions, and next steps will be documented in a report.
  4. When sufficient time is allowed, the report contents will be prioritized by the group.
  5. Participants will feel engaged and energized by the process.

Ideal Initial Conditions

According to open space technology: A User's Guide [2] and other books by Harrison Owen, open space technology works best when the conditions are present:

  1. A real issue of concern, that it is something worth talking about.
  2. a high level of complexity, such that no single person or small group fully understands or can solve the issue
  3. a high level of diversity, in terms of the skills and people required for a successful resolution
  4. real or potential conflict[5], which implies that people genuinely care about the issue
  5. a high level urgency, meaning the time for decisions and action was "yesterday"

Further, the recognition of these conditions by leadership typically implies some level of letting go of control and opening of invitation. In different ways and to varying degrees, leaders convening open-space meetings acknowledge that they, personally, do not have "the answer" to whatever complex, urgent and important issue(s) must be addressed and they put out the call (invitation) to anyone in the organization or community who cares enough to attend a meeting and try to create a solution.

In a different text[6] he talks about preconditions for open space

The essential preconditions are:

  1. A relatively safe nutrient environment.
  2. High levels of diversity and complexity in terms of the elements to be self-organized.
  3. Living at the edge of chaos, in a word nothing will happen if everything is sitting like a lump.
  4. An inner drive towards improvement, hence if you are an atom it would be useful to get together with another atom to become a molecule.
  5. Sparsity of connections This one is a little hard to visualize and was a real surprise to me.

Kaufmann[7] is suggesting that self-organization will only occur if there are few prior connections between the elements, indeed he says no more than two. In retrospect, it seems to make sense. If everything is hardwired in advance how could it self organize?

Typical meeting process

At the beginning of an open space the participants sit in a circle[8], or in concentric circles for large groups (300 to 2000 people and more).

The facilitator will greet the people and briefly re-state the theme of their gathering, without giving a lengthy speech. Then someone will invite all participants to identify any issue or opportunity related to the theme. Participants willing to raise a topic will come to the centre of the circle, write it on a sheet of paper and announce it to the group before choosing a time and a place for discussion and posting it on a wall. That wall becomes the agenda for the meeting.

No participant must suggest issues, but anyone may do so. However, if someone posts a topic, the system expects that the person has a real passion for the issue and can start the discussion on it. That person also must make sure that a report of the discussion is done and posted on another wall so that any participant can access the content of the discussion at all times. No limit exists on the number of issues that the meeting can post.

When all issues have been posted, participants sign up and attend those individual sessions. Sessions typically last for 1.5 hours; the whole gathering usually lasts from a half day up to about two days. The opening and agenda creation lasts about an hour, even with a very large group.

After the opening and agenda creation, the individual groups go to work. The attendees organize each session; people may freely decide which session they want to attend, and may switch to another one at any time. Online networking can occur both before and following the actual face-to-face meetings so discussions can continue seamlessly. All discussion reports are compiled in a document on site and sent to participants, unedited, shortly after.

In this way, open-space technology begins without any pre-determined agenda, but work is directed by a "theme" or "purpose" or "invitation" that is carefully articulated by leaders, in advance of the meeting. The organizers do outline in advance a schedule of breakout times and spaces. The combination of clear purpose and ample breakout facilities directly supports the process of self-organization by meeting participants. After the opening briefing, the facilitator typically remains largely in the background, exerting no control over meeting content or participants, though possibly supporting the compiling of whatever sort of document is produced by participants.

Small groups might create agendas of only a few issues. Very large groups have generated as many as 234 sessions[1] running concurrently over the course of a day and longer meetings may establish priorities and set up working-groups for follow-up.

Guiding principles and one law

In his User's Guide, Harrison Owen has articulated "the principles" and "one law" that are typically quoted and briefly explained during the opening briefing of an open-space meeting. These explanations describe rather than control the process of the meeting. The principles and Owen's explanations are:

  1. Whoever comes is [sic] the right people ...reminds participants that they don't need the CEO and 100 people to get something done, you need people who care. And, absent the direction or control exerted in a traditional meeting, that's who shows up in the various breakout sessions of an open-space meeting.
  2. Whenever it starts is the right time ...reminds participants that "spirit and creativity do not run on the clock."
  3. Wherever it happens is the right place. ...reminds participants that space is opening everywhere all the time. Please be concious and aware. – Tahrir Square is one famous example. (Wherever is the new one, just added[9])
  4. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have ...reminds participants that once something has happened, it's done—and no amount of fretting, complaining or otherwise rehashing can change that. Move on.
  5. When it's over, it's over ...reminds participants that we never know how long it will take to resolve an issue, once raised, but that whenever the issue or work or conversation is finished, move on to the next thing. Don't keep rehashing just because there's 30 minutes left in the session. Do the work, not the time.

Owen explains his one "Law," called the "law of two feet" or "the law of mobility", as follows: If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else. In this way, all participants are given both the right and the responsibility to maximize their own learning and contribution, which the Law assumes only they, themselves, can ultimately judge and control. When participants lose interest and get bored in a breakout session, or accomplish and share all that they can, the charge is to move on, the "polite" thing to do is going off to do something else. In practical terms, Owen explains, the Law of Two Feet says: "Don't waste time!"


  1. ^ a b [|Owen, Harrison] (2008). Wave Rider: Leadership for High Performance in a Self-Organizing World. Berrett-Koehler. p. 75. ISBN 978-1576756171. 
  2. ^ a b [|Owen, Harrison] (2008). Open Space Technology: A User's Guide (3rd ed.). Berrett-Koehler. ISBN 978-1576754764. 
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ Emerging Order in Open Space by Harrison Owen
  7. ^ Kaufmann, Santa Fe Institute (2005) At Home in the Universe (Oxford)
  8. ^
  9. ^ Barry Owen

External links

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