Open Your Mind to Open Space

I’m freshly returned from the third annual Collaborative of the Treatment Professionals in Alumni Services, a great group of dedicated addiction treatment colleagues who are strongly committed to a model of care that values a continuum of services over a long term to build a community of recovery. One of the slogans of TPAS is “Shift the Paradigm”, and since the very first collaborative gathering, they have been doing that.

One evident way in which this is happening is in how the meetings themselves are structured. In each of the three gatherings to date, TPAS has used Open Space Technology as the structure for the collaboration. If you are not familiar with this innovative way to bring bright minds together and address critical issues, you should be.

Hardly a new idea, Open Space Technology was first presented over 30 years ago by Harrison Owen, a proponent of organizational transformation. His practice of “self-organizing meetings” has never been patented or copyrighted and is available for any group to use. Owen himself has estimated that over 100,000 Open Space gatherings have occurred since he first discovered the approach could work.

Owen states in his writing that Open Space Technology works best when certain conditions are present. First, there needs to be a real business issue or issues involved, otherwise no one will care. Second, there should be a level of complexity, such that no single person or small group can easily understand or solve the issue, or else there is really no reason to have a meeting at all. Third, it is important to have real diversity among the participants so that there will be sufficiently rich points of view that will generate novel solutions. Fourth, it is important that real passion and even conflict exists among the participants – it’s the juice that keeps things going. Finally, there should be a sense of urgency about the issues at hand, so that focus is retained throughout.

Open Space Technology allows group – large or small – to create a full agenda for a day or multi-day conference that can address multiple issues. A common result of the process is that each participant realizes he or she knows more than he thought about solutions, and that the collective group knows a lot more than any individual can. I’ll get to the practical steps in a moment, but it is important to also review five guiding principles and an important “law” associated with OST. The principles are:

Whoever attends are the right people

Whenever it starts is the right time

Wherever it is, is the right place

Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened

When it’s over, it’s over

The principles remind us that you don’t have to have experts or power brokers at your meeting, just people who care enough to participate. Although some time limitations may need to be in place to create a little order, hewing to tightly to a schedule overlooks the fact that creative thinking is not a schedulable element. The setting is not the most important thing, the people are, so groups can meet almost anywhere. Doing the work (and not the time) is the key – when your conversation is finished, move on.

The “law” is important too, and it is the Law of Two Feet, reminding everyone that if you find yourself at any time in a situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, you should get up and move to some other space. This is also sometimes called the Law of Mobility.

So how does this work in practice? The organizers divide up the available time into blocks and make multiple spaces available for each time period. In the case of the TPAS group, we started with eight time blocks over two days, and each block of time had four sections for content. This was gridded out on a whiteboard that was available for everyone to view throughout the Collaborative. Attendees were invited to suggest topics to fill these blocks. One at a time, people would stand up, announce a topic they would like to discuss, write the topic and their name on a post-it note and stick the note into one of the blocks of the grid. This process took about 30 minutes until all of the blocks were filled, each with a topic and a volunteer group leader. In some cases, you may find that topics are similar and can be combined. Once all of the available time blocks were filled, all of the participants were invited to come up to the board and choose groups in which they were willing to participate. Because of the principles discussed above, it was not important that a group be necessarily large or small. Having multiple meeting spaces is important, as the groups are concurrent and you want each group to have sufficient space for the size of their group and adequate separation so that the conversations don’t interfere with one another.

In our case, there were a couple of people who expressed a desire to attend groups on two topics that were co-occurring. Fortunately, this was accommodated by swapping some of the topics to different time blocks.

Each person who suggested a topic took the responsibility for being at the time and place selected for their session, and at least nominally leading the group. The main point was to stimulate conversation – unlike in a traditional business conference the activities are not generally designed to be lectures or teaching moments, but more collaborative discussion. For the sake of the entire group, and for the overall value of the event, notes and attendance should be taken and these written summaries made available to all participants. In some cases, this process was facilitated by taping the sessions and/or by taking photos of any notes written on flip charts or whiteboards in the meeting spaces. There should be at least one (TPAS had two) daily recap sessions in which all of the participants reconvene to discuss how the process is working, or to talk about important issues that everyone could benefit from . In our case, this took the form of organized “conversations” in which groups of 3 or 4 people sat in a small circle and discussed something that was cued by the organizers.

The participants in Open Space Technology don’t always solve problems on the spot, but everyone goes away from the experience with more energy and creative ideas than they had when they arrived. The experience also fosters much more interaction than traditional conferences, so you will find yourself with great contact lists of colleagues with whom you can continue the conversations after the conference is over.

There is a wealth of information on the tools and techniques that make for successful Open Space Technology events available on the Internet, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. For TPAS, the event attendance has essentially doubled each year it has been held, and the positive ideas that have been generated have helped set the agenda for the organization’s activities each year.  Try it for yourself, you may (like me) be astounded by how successful your next conference will be.