Open Space Technology

by | Dec 29, 2014 | Inside Out 3Ps | 0 comments

How do you engage an audience from different disciplines, different levels in the organisation and indeed from different organisations? The answer is to get them to do all the work with Open Space Technology!

So what is Open Space Technology?

It is an effective process for organisations and communities to identify critical issues, voice their passions and concerns and learn from each other. It’s an ideal way for a group to take collective responsibility for finding solutions.

In practice it is a methodological tool that enables self-organising groups of all sizes to deal with hugely complex issues in a very short period of time.

Who invented Open Space Technology?

Open Space Technology was first used by an American, Harrison Owen over 20 years ago when he realised that the best bit about conferences were the coffee breaks where most of the business was done! It’s been used all around the world for groups large and small, for as short as an hour and over 2 or 3 days in some cases. Both public and commercial organisations have used Open Space where it’s particularly effective to generate ideas and new ways of thinking.

Traditional Conferences v Open Space Technology

Traditional conferences are hierarchal in structure with a top table and delegates who listen (or not) to the various speakers very often speaking to wordy powerpoint presentations. Although this style has its place it doesn’t engage everyone and there is little opportunity for delegates to contribute. If you’re looking for predictable outcomes from conferences, then Open Space is probably not for you!

The difference with Open Space is that it actively encourages contribution from every layer of the organisation. It’s an effective process for organisations and communities to identify critical issues, voice their passions and concerns, learn from each other, and, when appropriate, take collective responsibility for finding solutions.

Using Open Space Technology with the Police

It was first used by Devon and Cornwall in 2005 by Jim Webster who was then head of The Crime Department. ‘We used it to debrief a complex double murder investigation and we wanted to use the case to review how we investigated major crime.’ The debrief took place over two days and involved 60 delegates from the investigation and resulted in recommendations for change to improve processes involved in major crime investigation. ‘The real joy was that everyone was able to contribute, from the most junior officer to the most senior including police staff.’ said Mr Webster.

Since then it’s been used at an event to capture ideas from practitioners involved in investigating volume crime and most recently it was used to debrief a group of transferees about their experiences in Plymouth and to reflect on how things were done in their previous forces. Learning was captured and is now being implemented.

De-briefing a terrorist explosion using Open Space Technology

Probably the most significant use of Open Space with Devon and Cornwall Police was to debrief the events following a terrorist explosion in Exeter and arrests in Plymouth in 2008. This took the form of three conferences, first in Plymouth and Exeter where police and partner agencies were drawn together to learn the lessons following the explosion at a busy restaurant. The final event allowed delegates from Gold level to work together to share ideas to improve contingencies in the event of future major emergencies.

Open Space facilitator, Stuart Newberry is a former detective superintendent and has run the events for Devon and Cornwall. ‘What I really enjoy about these events is experiencing the buzz and energy as delegates roll up their sleeves and join in the discussions. Delegates very often start from a place of uncertainty, then move through to lively participation, eventually to full blown involvement as they jump from group to group, contributing as they go.’

What does Open Space Technology look like?

It starts with a theme. Something inspirational will generate excitement, intrigue and interest making the delegates want to be there. They sit in a big circle and the facilitator invites them to consider what they would want to have discussed during the day in line with the theme. Sometimes there can be reticence to be the first to move but once the activity starts usually everyone wants a piece of the action and there’s a mass of movement as they write down the subject or issue they want to discuss.

‘It’s all about passion and responsibility,’ says Stuart, ‘Without passion, nobody listens, and without responsibility, nothing gets done.’ The delegates soon get into the swing of it and the agenda is created from the subjects raised.

The delegates then go off into breakout rooms to discuss the various rounds of items raised. Notes of the key points from the discussion are recorded with any recommendations, which are fed back to the whole group later in the day. As Stuart says, ‘The beauty of these discussions is that the smaller groups encourage contribution where even the shy delegate can make their point. Everyone has a voice and rank and seniority are less important than everyone being heard.’

about the author

Stuart Newberry is an experienced Open Space Technology Facilitator. He has used this technique working with clients including the Police, BBC and the International Chamber of Shipping. He is the Director of Newscott Coaching and Training (trading as Liz Scott Coaching), the co-founder of Coaching Connect.

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The Coaching Connect website is the ‘virtual’ meeting place for coaches on the internet. Leadership coaches, Liz Scott and Stuart Newberry, originally developed Coaching Connect for the UK coaching community, but it has grown over the years to include coaches from all over the world.

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