Open Space Sessions

Marketplaces for group discussions and knowledge transfer

I’ve spent hundreds of days organising and attending events, and lately it seems that there are more events than there is time to attend, yet I’m still often left wondering “Why do so many events fall short on our expectations?” — it doesn’t have to be this way.

From an event organiser perspective, you’ve done your best to create an event that will help the attendees. Everything from all the painstaking logistical details to curating a broad selection of speakers, experts and participants so that everyone can hopefully connect, be inspired and learn something new.

From an attendee perspective, you’ve just attended an event full of new people and inspiring, or perhaps not so inspiring, speakers/workshops, and afterwards you get home and realise that you still don’t have an answer to that question you had. Or that you’ve heard so much, your head is full and you have no idea what to do next. Additionally, it’s also possible that you didn’t feel like you were included enough, after all, there’s never enough time for questions and answers, and quite possibly had a different perspective that you’d gladly have offered someone, if only you had the chance.

Everyone has done their very best, and yet, so often it just doesn’t quite feel like everyone is satisfied. Whilst this might sound like an impossible situation, and certainly it is often true that you can’t please all the people all of the time — however, there is one way that we can collectively achieve so much more: Open Space is a perfect tool for interactive events.

There’s one element that is often overlooked at large, and in particular, community driven gatherings — the ability to use the wisdom of the crowd to deliver as much value to that very same crowd.

Open Space is a great facilitation technique which requires very little preparation and invites everybody present to contribute in whichever way they best can — regardless of how many people are present, and whether they have worked with Open Space before or not.

In short, the facilitator will assemble the group and explain the four principles and one law of Open Space.

The four principles are simple to understand:

- Whoever comes are the right people.
- Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened.
- When it starts it is the right time.
- When it’s over, it’s over.

The one law, is the so called “Law of two feet” — which means that as a participant, you take your own responsibility to make sure you’re in the best place to either contribute or learn.

The facilitator will then describe the easy to understand process, and invite members of the crowd to bring forward something they wish to discuss. That might be a very clear question, and abstract concept or just a topic about which they might wish to learn, or tell, more about. These topics are captured on paper or Post-It notes and allocated a time slot and location on a matrix, or marketplace board.

Once everybody has had the opportunity to contribute a discussion point, the law of two feet begins. Each participant chooses which topic they can either best contribute to or learn from, and heads to the designated location at the appropriate time, where the conversation can begin.

Should a participant find themselves in a situation where they are neither contributing nor learning sufficiently to be satisfied, they can use their two (or however many they have) feet to move to a different conversation.

The facilitator will be available to keep time as well as help anyone who is lost or confused, but shouldn’t need to do too much more until the of each time slot, and eventually the end of the session.

This might sound like the holy grail of interactive event sessions, but it’s effectiveness heavily relies on the quality of the input from the audience, and therein often lies a problem. If you’ve never been in an Open Space session, and you’re not expecting it, it can be quite daunting to suddenly come up with a good question or topic, especially when you’re put on the spot.

The common “rabbit caught in the headlights“ effect is also easy to avoid, if only we come a little bit prepared.

My four tips for getting the best out of Open Space — or any other interactive event — are to think about the following:

- why are you attending the event?
- what would you like to get out of the event?
- what can you best contribute to others during the event?
- what is the one thing that you are stuck on right now?

Whether you do this days in advance, or just a few minutes before the session, just being clear on these points will significantly increase the chances that you’ll leave the event feeling fulfilled and/or empowered to take the next step.

After all — what you bring to the event, is what you’ll receive from the event.

Feel free to contact me if you want to know more or experience an Open Space session.