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Blog Author:
Ashka Wirk
Architect. Builder. Crystal Gazer.
Ashka is a management consultant focussed in Berlineaton's strategy practice. Ashka also is an experienced private sector leader, with an extensive background in the health care and biotechnology fields. She worked with the management consulting subsidiary of StemCell Technologies in Vancouver for eight years, and led the company through years of unprecedented growth as its CEO from 2008 to 2012. She draws upon her breadth of experience and passion for business strategy to help Berlineaton clients develop blueprints to build bolder futures for their organizations.
5 Lessons We Have Learned from Delivering Open Space Conferences - A Fast and Effective Way to Truly Engage Your Stakeholders and Tackle Your Organization's Most Important Issues
Does your organization have a complex, important – even urgent – question, issue, or opportunity that you are grappling with, one where your perfect solution includes input from many, but you don’t have a lot of time to get that input?  An Open Space Conference might be the right solution for you.  It is fast, engaging, and succeeds in obtaining an enormous amount of input, leveraging the collective wisdom of your stakeholders, in a very short period of time.

What is an Open Space Conference?

An Open Space Conference, also called Open Space Technology or an “Unconference”, is a fun and interactive event where participants provide ideas and set the agenda based on those ideas.  It is designed to be engaging, promote creative thinking, and can help you, your team, and your stakeholders co-create the future of your organization together.

How does an Open Space Conference Work?

1. First, craft a powerful statement or question for the Open Space Conference.  This powerful statement or questions should frame the higher purpose and widest context for your discussions in a positive way. The statement or question has to be a big, challenging and complex issue – something not easily solved – a true challenge that participants are truly interested and passionate about.  Some examples from Conferences we have delivered include: 

  • “For our school to make its finest contribution to girls’ education and to inspire our girls’ to excel, to reach, to lead, we need to…”
  • “In order for young people to build and benefit from the opportunities of the green economy we must pay attention to…”
  • “To ensure that BC’s natural resource sector thrives into the 21st century, we need to…”.

2. Room set up is key. In an Open Space Conference, a circle is created by setting up chairs in a circle or concentric circles, leaving space in the center with flip chart paper, markers and masking tape. A blank wall is used to post the agenda topics and for sharing summaries of the discussions.

3. The next step is called “building the agenda”where the facilitator invites participants to respond to the powerful question, step into the middle of the circle, announce it and post it on the ever- changing “agenda” wall — one sheet per topic — with as many topics as desired. 

4. Next, participants spend time “shopping the wall”– reviewing the various topics on the walls, noting which one or ones s/he is interested in discussing further.  Several discussions then ensue, with recorders posting brief summaries of their discussions on the wall.

5. The Open Space ends with a “closing circle” where all participants reconvene and vote on priorities before the closing where highlights and key learnings are shared. A record of the event is created, with the analysis of themes and priorities, and sent to all who participated.

As part of the Open Space orientation and explanation, participants learn the Four Basic Principles and the Law of Two Feet to help them navigate through their experience:

Principle 1: Whoever comes are the right people: Whoever is attracted to the same conversation are the people who can contribute most to that conversation—because they care. 

Principle 2: Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened. This principle acknowledges that the focus of discussion groups is to do your best focused on the NOW – the present time and place – and not get bogged down in what could have or should have happened.

Principle 3: When it starts is the right time: The creative spirit has its own time and doesn’t run on the clock.

Principle 4: When it’s over, it’s over. This 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, it’s time to move on to the next thing. 

The Law of Two Feet: If you find yourself in a situation where you aren’t learning or contributing, go somewhere else. This means you take responsibility for what you care about — standing up for that and using your own two feet to move to whatever place you can best contribute and learn. 

5 Lessons We Have Learned from Open Space Conferences

At Berlineaton, we’ve had the opportunity to facilitate over 20 Open Space Conferences over the last 20 years – with clients as diverse as financial institutions, independent schools, and public sector organizations.  Here are 5 lessons that we’ve learned.

1. The powerful statement or question has to be just that – powerful. To be successful, design your Open Space Conference around a topic that people are passionate and get fired up about.  Want to update that vacation scheduling policy?  Do a survey. Want to redefine your organization for a leading and lasting impact on your sector, your clients, or even the world? Run an Open Space Conference.

2. Messiness is part of the design. As the organizer of an Open Space Conference you will need to set aside your preconceived ideas about the way sessions are conceptualized and structured. You also need to let go of absolute control and trust your participants – hard to do, but the benefits of doing this will become obvious. Finally, you need to be comfortable with a little ambiguity and uncertainty along the way. It’s worth it!

3. Be prepared to be surprised. Without fail, in every Open Space Conference there will be surprises:
  • Who shows up – and sometimes who doesn’t. But, as Principle 1 states – whoever comes are the right people.
  • The conversations that take place.  We’ve had clients say they were certain that idea X would be brought up and instead the conversation went in a completely different direction – often more constructive, collaborative, and creative than they expected.
  • The sense of camaraderie, connection, and community that is created during the Open Space Conference and continues long after. Many of our Open Space conferences kick off a broader strategic planning process – the energy and enthusiasm (not to mention the invaluable input and feedback) are vital to driving and sustaining the work that follows.
4. An Open Space Conference is democracy at its finest. Open Space Conferences allow people to participate in various ways and accommodate various operating and learning styles.  You can propose a topic, participate actively in discussions, listen in on discussions, or quietly vote for those topics that resonate the most with you.

5. You can go to bold places – if you want to. The most important lesson that we have learned from Open Space conferences is that depending on how you craft your powerful question, how open you are to the ideas that are generated during the conference, and how rigorously you take those ideas and feed them into subsequent strategic or tactical plans – you can take your organization to new heights.

To find out more about how to host an Open Space conference with your organization, contact us at info@berlineaton.com.
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