Open Space Flexibility

koos de heer koosdhr at
Tue Jul 27 08:35:01 PDT 1999


Last week I had a request from someone who visited
my website about an Open Space gathering he is
planning. He gave me permission to share his question
and my answers with you. The quoted text (with > in
the margin) are his questions, the rest are my answers.




Sorry it took me a few days, just have been very busy.
Here is an attempt to answer your question.

At 15:51 21-07-1999 -0500, you wrote:
>Hi!  I am working with a relatively small national group that has
>experienced open space several times.  Participation has been limited to the
>CEOs of the associations we all work for.  Now, we are taking the open space
>model to a conference for staff who only meet once every two to three years.
>All the associations are small with most people wearing multiple functional
>hats.  As a result we think open space will help us to have a number of
>conversations about how we do our work in the future (our theme) in a way
>that will help us include everyone, rather than forcing people into
>functional areas, when we all cross many of those areas.

Right, Open Space is a good tool to do just that.

>Here is the problem.  We want to initiate the open space (market place) on a
>work group conferencing system in advance of the conference.  We feel that
>by doing this through technology we are afforded the opportunity to become
>more skilled with technology and we are including every participant.  (All
>are on-line with this system.)  We have  been told by a OST trained
>facilitator that this violates the principles of open space.

I am curious in what sense the facilitator thinks there would be a
violation. I don't see a problem with pre-opening the space in an
electronic format ahead of time, as long as it is clear that this
is just preparation, meant to include people who might not be able
to attend and to get some discussions going so people can warm up
and start thinking about the themes of the conference. The real
physical Open Space has to be opened at the start of the real
conference in the normal way. I would make it clear at that point
(and maybe also in the invitation) that, even though there have
been some preliminary discussions through internet that were very
worthwile, the space is still open and we do not have to stick to
the topics of the preliminary discussions. I would also not honor
claims to topics or breakout groups that have been made beforehand.
If a topic is created at the market place that fits with or is a
continuation of a topic from the on line discussion, that is fine
of course. But if someone has initiated or taken part in an online
discussion, he does not have to commit himself to the same discussion
in the real conference.

Another thought though. You write that it is an opportunity
to become more skilled with the technology. That may be a
side effect, but I don't think technology should be a goal
in itself. People will start using technology when they see
a purpose for it. So if you feel that the virtual open space
will provide a meaningful and helpful addition to your
physical conference, by all means do open a virtual space.
If you are interested in familiarizing people with technology,
consider offering a workshop about it in the conference instead.

>I think it enhances OST.  While nothing will be finalized prior to the
>conference, it gives us a chance to start with some topics in place, so that
>people who want to bring samples of their work, or prepare there thinking
>have that chance.

Be careful here. It is fine to do some preliminary thinking, but
I would start with a completely empty market place. People who want
to bring forward topics from the virtual conference can do so, but
if no one shows up, that is fine too. After all it is still open

>We plan that there will be the traditionally market place
>opening for the first 45 minutes to hour of the second day of the
>conference.  We will start with all of the topics that people listed

I would leave that to the people. Start with an empty wall
and see what comes up. And I notice that you do not open the
market place untill the second morning. What are you planning
to do on the first day? Would there be a possibility to do
the things you want to do on the first day in an OS format
as well?
Experience shows that it does not work very well to make
people sit and listen for a day and then change the format
to open space. It can be done, but once people are in the
passive mode, it is more difficult to get them moving and
have them take the responsibility that you have just been
taking away from them.

>add any topics that emerged as a result of the first day of the
>conference and go through the process of sifting and sorting and assigning
>times and rooms.
>Can you see anything wrong with this approach?  It seems the facilitator we
>are working with may have a narrowly defined view of what OST can be.  I
>would appreciate your advice.

For me, the essence of Open Space is that everything is open. So a
preliminary virtual conference will be fine. I would encourage that.
But I would not let this fill in (part of) the market place beforehand.

>In addition, we will be doing this in Chicago in October.  Could you
>recommend any trained facilitators in that area who might thrive on working
>with us on this experiment?

Yes, I think you should speak to Michael Herman <mherman at>
his website is

>Sorry to be so long winded.  In advance, thank you.

No problem, you are very welcome. I hope this is helpful for you
and if you have any more questions, feel free to ask.

>Mark Your Calendars
>Plan to Join us on November 1 & 2, 1999 in Duluth
>Fall Conference For Grantmakers in the Upper Midwest.
>William R. King
>Senior  Vice President
>Minnesota Council on Foundations
>phone:  612/335-3557
>fax:  612/337-5089
>e-mail: bking at

Would you object if I post your question and my answer to
the Open Space mailing list? I am sure the folks there
will be interested.

Good luck
Koos de Heer

koos de heer
auryn management advies
simon bolivarstraat 67
3573 zk utrecht
the netherlands
mailto:koosdhr at

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