Open Space Methodology

The principles on which the ‘open space’ parts of FairSay’s ‘Forum’, events are organised.

Why Open Space?

What do you find the most valuable time at events (excluding the eCampaigning Forum)? Is it listening to speakers? Watching panel discussions? Talking with others in the breaks/meals? For most people, the breaks and meals are the most useful part of most events because we get to talk to our peers about real issues we face. What if events were organised as a series of semi-structured ‘breaks’ and with few/no speakers? What you’d have is an innovative form of gathering called Open Space.

What is Open Space?

Open Space is a well established (30+ year old) methodology for facilitating people to get the most out of coming together. It has been successfully run for only a few people or for thousands. Duane Raymond – the eCampaigning Forum event organiser, has been running events like this for over two decades.

Over the last decade, events have increasingly adopted and adapted the open space principles. You may have heard them called un-conferences or birds of feather sessions. It works best when the other people in the room are peers with something to give as well as get. That is why FairSay Forum events ask you to ‘apply’, and not to ‘register’: so that only those with something to share are actually accepted.

Open Space operating principles

  1. Whoever comes are the right people
    • You don’t need lots of people; just people who care
    • Only one? Maybe use the time to reflect on what you’ve learnt so far
  2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have
    • About letting go of expectations: coulds, shoulds; whatever is, is; work with it
    • You’ve got your objectives for the event – find a way to achieve them
  3. When interesting stuff starts is the only time it could have started
    • Creativity does not happen according to a schedule
  4. When it’s over, it’s over
    • Done in 10 minutes? Great! Move on.
    • When its not over, keep going until you’re done

The Law of 2 Feet: Move when it is right for you

  • Move when you are neither learning nor contributing
  • Its up to you to take a stand get your own needs met
  • If someone is hogging air-time, vote with your feet
  • Bumblebees: Cross-pollinate ideas
    • OK to sign up for multiple topics occurring at the same time; its possible to be in multiple places at once
  • Butterflies: look delicate; deceptive impact
    • May never participate in a session or they hang out in the cafe
    • Sit down and have a quiet, reflective talk with one of them; a chance remark may impact you’re thinking and you take it back into the larger group and it affects others
    • Irritated by people who never participate in sessions? Know they do serve a useful purpose. You’re one of them? Don’t need to feel guilty about it – in open space you’re valued.

Be prepared to be surprised: Never before and never again will this group be together.

How does it work?

  1. Everyone can suggest topics during the event. This occurs in a large group and the open space agenda will be organised on-the-spot by the facilitators.
  2. Each topic has a convenor (and a space). Convenors ensure the group starts and that participants know how to self-facilitate (including splitting the group in smaller sizes, documenting it and decide when the discussion has finished)
  3. Explore the topic as a group. There is no pre-set agenda or format for a topic group. You can brainstorm, each present your experience, pose a question to answer… it’s up to you.
  4. If the discussion is finished, end, even if it is before the scheduled time. If it’s still going at break time, reconvene in the next time slot or during the break. If there is too much ground to cover, diverging interests or the group is too large, split.

Why does it work?

We are social learners: we all learn best by connecting and sharing with experienced peers. Actively connecting and sharing with experienced peers stimulates success and innovation. Passively listening to speakers doesn’t. FairSay’s Forum events focus on convening the right people to boost fundraising success and innovation.

Thus every participant must have relevant experience to be accepted. The agenda is self-organising small-group discussions. Participants find this methodology refreshing and rewarding, enables great learning and is excellent for connecting people and ideas.

Learning with other experienced participants

Most events tend to be large impersonal gatherings with a full agenda of speakers and a silent ‘audience’. Organisations respond by sending their new staff to get ‘trained’ and their experienced staff to ‘speak’. But these ‘factory’ events put little thought or time put into helping people connect with others who share their interests in a structured, purposeful way – only random meetings with new people and catching up with existing contacts.

The most interesting conversations are with experienced practitioners sitting beside us, actually connecting on topics of mutual interest is random and must be squeezed into breaks and lunches. Yet sustained success happens because experienced staff continually learn from peers and improve. To achieve this, an event organised on fundamentally different principles is required: one where all participants are experienced and they are the focus of the event, not the speakers.

by Duane Raymond