What is Open Space? Open discussions, informal, inclusive, led by participants

‘Open Space’ is a technique for conference sessions that allows the attendees to set the agenda, and manage the sessions themselves. It’s a hugely vibrant, enjoyable and effective way to do peer learning, and we regularly use this technique at Digital Charity Lab events. I first learned about this format at the Campaigning Forum conference, and it’s been one of the most valuable forms of learning in my career.

How does it work?

  1. All conference participants gather in a central space
  2. People propose topics for discussion
  3. Attendees decide which discussions they’d like to join
  4. Multiple groups convene at the same time in breakaway rooms or spaces, each one discussing a different topic
  5. A few takeaways are noted from each discussion, and shared with the wider group afterwards

What skills do you need to have to participate in Open Space?

You don’t need any skills at all, or even any prior knowledge of the discussion topic. They’re informal conversations, you just need to be there, and willing to ask questions and share what you know.

Each discussion does need a ‘convener’ to start the conversation, but you don’t need to be an expert in the topic to do this. All you have to do is ensure the conversation gets started, and capture a few key takeaways on a sheet for people who can’t come to your session.

Why does it work?

  • The informal, friendly set up means that people are usually very open to sharing, and the conversation can go in unexpected, interesting directions
  • Open Space allows the attendees at a conference to add their own topics to the agenda – it’s a great way to zoom in on specific topics that aren’t covered by the conference speakers
  • Having Open Space sessions also really helps to energise attendees, and allows them get to know each other better and build connections

What makes for good Open Space topics?

It can really help to define the topic and direct the conversation, if you frame the topic as a question. Some examples of excellent Open Space sessions I’ve attended in the past:

  • What are the key skills that digital teams need now?
  • How are we reaching and retaining younger supporters?
  • What’s the next big thing in digital fundraising?
  • How do we prevent burnout in our digital teams?
  • Which charities are best at innovation in digital campaigns?

Where did Open Space come from?

The Open Space technique was originally developed in the early 1980s, by Harrison Owen. He was inspired to create the format when he noticed that during conferences, the most interesting and productive conversations often happened during the coffee breaks. The Wikipedia article on Open Space says: “Open Space was his way of making the whole of the conference one big coffee break, albeit with a central theme…that would guide the self-organization of the group.”

Principles

Harrison Owen developed the following principles for Open Space:

  • Whoever joins the session, are the ‘right’ people
  • Whatever happens, is the only thing that could have happened
  • When it’s over, it’s over

Code of conduct

Open Space sessions are by their nature very informal and friendly, there’s just a few things to be aware of:

  • Open Space follows the Chatham House Rule – i.e., don’t share information from the session that identifies people, without their permission
  • Use the law of two feet – if you don’t feel the Open Space session you’re in is right for you, you’re free to get up and switch to another session
  • Treat others with courtesy and respect, try to ensure that everyone who wants to contribute is given an opportunity to do so

Want to give Open Space a try?

If you’re interested in testing out Open Space at your own event, the website Open Space World has lots of information on how Open Space works, and how you can get started.