You know Open Space – that extremely simple and inexpensive way to run meetings of almost any size that leads to real, tangible results for everyone concerned. And whether or not you ever use Open Space for a meeting of your own, the questions it raises about all meetings and agendas really must be looked at more closely.
The conference system was developed in the 1990s by Harrison Owen, a visionary organizational consultant who spent a lot of time with West Africans and Native Americans, as well as group dynamics specialists in the United States. He came to realize that there was no approach that combined the "results" orientation of the West with the collaborative, "talking stick" style of the South and East. That’s how he came up with Open Space—a technique that he launched as a book and then let thousands of others improve upon at meetings and online at www.openspaceworld.org.
I have used the technique, or versions of it, with religious groups, environmentalists, corporations and even competitors and have always enjoyed magnificent results. This is because the entire system is voluntary: participation is voluntary, all sessions are voluntary, follow-up is voluntary and, most importantly, conference content is itself volunteered, in real time, by the participants.
Open Space is so easy it’s a wonder some of us actually get paid to conduct these conferences. All you do is send out an invitation, asking people if they’re interested in working on a particular challenge. That’s the hardest part: developing the language for the challenge you’re hoping people will want to work on together. Within a company, it might be something as simple as "You’re invited to participate in a weekend workshop to explore how we can approach energy conservation" or "Increasing revenue." For a big conference, it might be something as general as "What will drive innovation in our industry?" or as specific as "What is our response to regulation 2021.3?"
The key is that it be open enough, yet specific enough for people to really know whether or not they want to attend. This is because attendance, like everything else, must be voluntary. People can’t be instructed to go. It can’t be obligatory. They come of their own volition.
The event itself consists of a series of conversations convened by the participants. The facilitator introduces guests to the process and then asks for volunteers to state the problem they’d like to work on. They just stand up in front of the group, explain in a sentence what it is they’d like to meet about and then post the issue or problem they’d like to address on a big board. That board is the conference agenda, and eventually the whole day’s meetings are scheduled in this fashion. People attend whichever meetings they want, conveners write up the results, groups report their findings and the process is repeated. At the end of a day or two, everyone is handed a notebook containing all the reports—a finished conference proceedings, created before their eyes.
But wait, there’s more. After reading the book, the whole group votes on which reports they want to follow up on, more meetings are held and plans of action are established. Then, people volunteer for which, if any, of the determined "next steps" they are willing to tackle as soon as they get home or return to work. Get it? The end of the conference is the beginning, not the end, of the trip.
From what I’ve seen, real movements have gotten started this way. After one meeting, a network of 20-somethings took it upon themselves to reinvent Judaism for the 21st century; five years later, they’re still going strong, and growing. Another group of unaffiliated electrical engineers worked together for more than a year to change some of their industry’s standards. I’ve seen international networks of computer programmers, graphic designers and real estate agents formed in the wake of Open Space.
Even if you decide not to set up meetings using the Open Space format, there are plenty of lessons to learn from it that can be applied to any sort of meetings. First off, consider just how voluntarily and enthusiastically attendees are approaching the event. If they’re coming because they’re commanded to, there’s almost no way for them to get anything great out of it. The TED Conference’s high fees may unnecessarily exclude the young and poor, but they sure do guarantee that the people who do make it feel special.
And why not set a real agenda for a meeting? Instead of coming up with some overarching, general theme that your marketing department thinks will attract customers, determine—through interviews or conversations—the real, immediate challenges that are facing your constituency. It’s only a lack of confidence on your part that would prevent you from claiming that your meeting will be the beginning of the effort to meet a very particular challenge.
Instead of just throwing speakers in front of people and then letting everyone kibbitz or go to breakout sessions to learn things, how about creating an agenda committed to creating new results?
The reason to meet—to spend the time, money and jet fuel—should be to accomplish something real, and the effort should extend long after the meeting is over. The only way to do that is to set the task from the beginning. In an era of less money and less time, the invitation to get something done is the one that gets accepted.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF speaks and writes about communication, values, culture and organizations. His latest book is Get Back in the Box: Innovation from the Inside Out. He can be contacted via www.rushkoff.com.
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