Open Space Technology, The Unconference & Facilitating Solving Complex Problems

Have you ever been part of a coffee break talk at a conference when you missed the planned sessions? And you didn’t feel bad about it? You actually were enjoying your talk much more than attending the planned session. You talked and talked until you felt there is no more value you can get out of it and it’s time to move on to the next stage. And then, you pull out your phone to look at the agenda and find another topic to attend to. On the way there, you are looking to see if there are interesting talks are happening in the hallways or a familiar face to talk to instead of attending a planned session, which intuitively you feel you would not get much value out of it.

Holding Space

That’s basically the idea behind Open Space or the Unconference (or in more general term Holding Space). Open space has no agenda, to begin with. The participants built the agenda the first thing. It has four (or five) principles and one rule.

What is it good for?

You might ask yourself, what this is good for? When to have an Open Space? Open Space helps a lot if you are encountering the following or similar challenges:
  • When there is an urgency and the problem on hand is a complex problem to solve, Open Space can help. 
  • When you want to use your team member’s time to their best interest. Instead of having a set agenda, to help them with creating their own, exploring their own and growing the way they see fit.
  • When there are several ways to go about it, there are lots of option to consider, when one unique or small set of solutions won’t suffice. 
  • When the outcome is not anticipated, when the light at the end of the tunnel is not yet visible. 

How to Initiate Open Space?

At the start of the Open Space, an initiator invites everyone to Open Space and welcomes everyone. Note that it is called an initiator and not a facilitator. Usually, Open Space starts with a round circle with nothing in the middle, a symbol for no agenda planned for the participants. The initiator, usually walking in a circle, will address everyone and in a calm and peaceful manner. This highlights the space ahead and helps people become more present. 

An invitation to an Open Space starts with a circle

The Unconference 

The initiator then invites the participants to step into the center of the circle and build the agenda together. The participants then tell everyone what they want to talk about and fill out the marketplace wall. The marketplace is a wall or a whiteboard with time slots and space names. When one person proposes an idea/topic, they write it on a sticky note and post it on the marketplace wall. The wall then represents the agenda of the Open Space.

The initiator needs to make sure that everyone is aware of the logistics, space names, timing, snack, coffee, breaks, washrooms etc.

A marketplace in making

Let The Unconference Begin

When the building of marketplace is finished, the initiator invites people to start talking, if needed! By this time, there is so much energy in the room that you don’t need to invite people to start talking, some of them might have already started talking about the topic they want.

The initiator can take part in the discussions but is recommended to sit back and sense the space and help if there is anything needed, any facilitation or negotiation between the presenters, any new spaces to set up, any new initiatives to bring to the attention of others etc. By this point, the Open Space machine started and the initiator just needs to let the people drive it. 

Open Space in Action #1

Open Space in Action #2

Butterflies & Bumblebees

There is two distinct type of participants that can be found in Open Space. One is Bumblebee and the other one is Butterfly. The butterflies are the ones wondering around, most likely standing at a coffee table, talking to someone or even wandering around, they are not necessarily showing interest in the discussions. The Bumblebees, on the other hand, fly from one discussion to others, invisibly taking ideas and spreading the ideas to many groups and sharing the wealth. The Bumblebees and the Butterflies are the ones that are creating action-free-zone, which is completely allowed in the Open Space.

These personalities and any type of them are all welcomed to the Open Space. The whole point of Open Space is about each person maximizing the value they are getting out of and contributing to the session. 

Butterfly at Open Space

Bumblebee at Open Space

Principles & A Rule

Open Space has principles and rules, there are debates on the number of principles ranging from 4 to 5. However, there is one and only one rule to Open Space. 
Open Space Principles
  1. Whoever comes are the right people
  2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened.
  3. When it starts is the right time / When it’s over it’s over
  4. Wherever it takes place it’s the right place
Open Space Principles
The Law of Two Feet

  • If you find yourself in a situation where you are not contributing or learning, move somewhere where you can.
    The Law of Two Feet – Open Space

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