Open Space Technology

By Lain Ehmann

Most business meetings, in our culture, involve a unidirectional transfer of information. Even if the purpose of the meeting is to work out issues and come to a joint decision on a topic, there is little openness and true listening. This approach has changed over the last few years into a more “we-centric” model, says executive coach Judith Glaser, author of The DNA of Leadership: Leverage Your Instincts to: Communicate, Differentiate, Innovate (Platinum Press, 2006). To make this shift within your own organization, Glaser recommends incorporating some elements of “Open Space Technology” (OST). Here’s how:

1. Create a safe space. Invite team members to a specific location and set aside a block of time to meet. These get-togethers are not meant to replace your regular sales meetings. They are times to discuss hot topics and to share opinions, thoughts and ideas creatively and interactively. Encourage attendees to listen to each other and suspend judgment, recommends Glaser.

2. Principles–OST was developed by Harrison Owen, who listed four principles for the model: Whoever attends are the right people; Whatever happens is the only thing that could have; Whenever it starts is the right time, and When it’s over, it’s over. Contrast this “anything goes” approach with the typical agenda-ized, organized, time-regulated guidelines you’re most likely used to, and you’ll see that the focus is more on letting things evolve organically rather than focusing on the details of the process.

3. Obey the law. Glaser offers one more guideline, which is listed as “The Law of Two Feet:” “If you find yourself in a situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet. In other words, take yourself to a session where you can make a contribution or have an interest in participating.”

4. Open your mind – and open the doors. Choose a topic to discuss – future challenges, strategies for dealing with those challenges, goals for the upcoming year, etc. – and open the doors. Following the OST guidelines, the best attendees for a meeting are the ones who want to be there.

5. Identify a facilitator. Although an OST meeting is much less structured than a typical business meeting, there’s still a need for a facilitator. Glaser says the meeting typically begins in a circle with the facilitator inviting participants to identify issues – related to the topic of discussion – “for which they feel a great deal of passion and for which they are willing to take responsibility.” The issues are written down on large sheets of paper posted around the room, and then the person who raised the issue leads a discussion of interested parties and documents the results.

6. High expectations. Even though the process is quite open, the expectations are high; the topics are thoroughly discussed and documented; and action steps are prioritized and assigned for completion.

One of the most important outcomes of the OST approach is that it allows everyone to take part in setting priorities and implementing results, says Glaser. “It creates leaders,” she says.

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