Engage People with Open Space [Yes! And Blog 153]

“Float like a butterfly. Sting like a bee.”

Muhammad Ali, former World Heavyweight Boxing Champion

Large Group Conversations

Open Space Display Board

If you hold large gatherings for staff and clients, want to increase engagement and don’t want to create agendas, find speakers, obtain their presentations and run through time consuming rehearsals, Open Space might be the answer.

I was one of the organisers of the SOLWorld Conference at Oxford University. This is an annual gathering of Solutions Focused practitioners from over twenty countries. Conference is not the best word to describe the SOL World events.

My recollection of conferences is of speakers boring hundreds of people for thirty minutes with presentations that could have been read in five. Mind you, I did attend conferences on payments.

SOLWorld in contrast is, as someone fed back to us, “inspiring, stimulating and fun-filled.”  If you would like to experience a taste of it, you can download my photo diary here.

One feature of SOLWorld gatherings is the use of Open Space, a form of meeting in which people self organise and for which there is no predetermined agenda. Owen Harrison, an organisational transformation (OT) consultant, allegedly “discovered” this style of meeting after the attendees at his first two OT conferences found the coffee breaks the most useful aspect.

As he had no part in designing the coffee breaks, he decided to relieve himself of the burden of designing the event and hand it over to the participants. Open Space was born.

If you hold large gatherings for staff and clients and are looking for an alternative to creating agendas, finding speakers, obtaining their presentations and running through time consuming rehearsals, Open Space might be the answer. If you are seeking an easier way to identify the hot topics staff and clients want to discuss, Open Space is a good way to achieve it. You do, however, have to be prepared to hand a great deal of control over to the attendees!


Here is an explanation of how to organise an Open Space session as run at SOL (Solution Focus) events.

To Organise

An organiser announces the session, explains Open Space to the audience and asks for people who would like to lead a topic to come forward

  • A number of people offer to lead a topic for discussion
    • The number of topics is limited by the space available and to an extent by the number of people; you do not want to spread the audience too thinly. At SOLWorld we had one topic leader per room, ten rooms and an audience of around 200. We allowed one hour per topic and had four hours of Open Space over two days
    • To attract people to the discussion, the topic must interest the audience. It will quickly be apparent if it is not, as nobody will attend the discussion!
  • The topic leader writes the topic title and description on an A4 piece of paper and obtains a space and session start time from the organiser
  • Each topic leader gives a short verbal briefing on the topic to the entire audience and informs them of the start time and location of the session
  • The organiser posts the A4 sheet onto a chart that displays the time and the room in which the topic will be discussed
    • You can use a matrix with one axis showing rooms and the other axis showing time).
    • An additional sophistication is for someone to record it in a spreadsheet and display it on a screen
  • Individuals in the audience find the session they want to attend and the Open Space begins
  • The organising session typically lasts an hour. The topic sessions may last up to 90 minutes
  • The discussion can continue on line or through virtual meetings after the event
  • If needed, the leader prepares notes from the session and drafts these for publication either in note form or on a shared website


Principles for an open space session are:

  • Whoever comes are the right people
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened
  • Whenever it starts is the right time
  • Wherever it happens is the right place
  • When it’s over, it’s over. It doesn’t have to last the length of the session

As you can imagine, these principles mean that you may not get the perfect outcome in each session, but you often do.

The Law of Two Feet

A key aspect of Open Space is that people can choose to join and leave a session at any time. This has led to observation of two characters:

  • The Bee hops between sessions seeking cross pollination of ideas
  • The Butterfly can be found hovering over a cup of something. They may flit to a session or just hang out and have a conversation with another Butterfly

Ideal Conditions

In Open Space meetings set up to tackle issues, the sessions work best when the following conditions are present:

  • The issue is one people want to discuss
  • It has a reasonable level of complexity that needs more than one person to tackle
  • It needs a rich diversity of people to solve it
  • There is potential for conflict because people care
  • It is urgent to resolve it
  • It is not over organised

Small Action

Think about how you might use Open Space in your staff, client or supplier meetings. It offers you the opportunity to have them set the agenda and really build engagement.

To Close

During our SOLWorld event we had a mix of planned sessions and Open Space. This mix worked well. However, there is nothing to stop you from using all Open Space. You will be surprised at the energy and enthusiasm that can be sparked by the right topics. As mentioned, what you have to forego is control. What you gain may be priceless.

Enjoy your walk in space.


John Brooker I Yes! And. Think Innovatively.

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