Running anything event or organization as an unpaid volunteer always presents unique challenges. But trying to re-invent a major two-day non-profit fundraiser—one with no chairperson, 60 unpaid volunteer committee members and more than 200 unpaid volunteer support people—seemed insurmountable.
There was a lot of love and dedication to the status quo. There were more opinions than committee members. There was an unquiet contingent who wanted to scrap the whole event and start over. What to do? What to do?
As the presiding member of a large group passionate volunteers, I decided to run an “open space technology” meeting. “Open Space” evolved from the notion that the most productive and creative stuff happens during the coffee break or over drinks, not during the planned meeting. Open Space technology works best for situations with complexity, diversity, conflict, and urgency. My “little” volunteer program had all of these in spades.
In an open space meeting, there is a central strategic theme, but no set agenda. Participants create and manage the agenda, and they run parallel working sessions. The design of the meeting and the “rules” help to keep everyone highly engaged and productive. The greatest challenge, in my opinion, is at the beginning, where there is likely to be skepticism and confusion. Once the meeting gets rolling, it all falls into place.
Here’s how it works:
The meeting begins with participants sitting in a circle—not behind tables or in rows; just sitting in a circle around an empty space in the middle. Feels weird.
People write out topics that they’d like to explore on a piece of paper. Whoever proposes a topic that “sticks” is responsible for chairing the breakout session on that topic. Each person goes around the circle and shares their topic.
Building the Agenda
People then claim a designated time and place on an “Agenda Template.” People can choose to cluster related or duplicate topics. They may also choose to run similar topics during different timeframes. The group has ownership of the agenda. This is what a template with space for 8 breakouts might look like:
|Front of Auditorium||Breakout
|8:30 AM – 10:00 AM|
|10:00 AM – 11:30 AM|
The breakout groups meet, the discussion is documented, and the results are preserved for later follow-up.
There are four rules for the Open Space breakout sessions:
- Whoever comes are the right people
- Whatever happens is the only thing that could have
- Whenever it starts is the right time
- When it’s over, it’s over
In other words, just go with it and don’t grouse about what didn’t happen or what could have been.
The Law of Two Feet
The “Law of Two Feet” is the only law in an Open Space meeting. It states that “if, during the course of the gathering, any person finds themselves in a situation where they are neither learning nor contributing, they may use their feet to go to some more productive place.”
That means that people are free to go to another breakout group whenever they want. Note that the law includes “learning” (which means that a person is actively listening and absorbing), or “contributing” (which means that the person is adding to the dialogue). If the breakout group leader is talking too much, being to bossy, or pushing his/her agenda excessively, it stands to reason that the people in the group may not be learning or contributing, and may choose to invoke the “Law of Two Feet,” leaving the motor-mouth all alone. Perfect, right?
For More Information
If you are looking for a methodology that requires a lot of up-front planning, a lot of audio-visual aids, creative toys to play with, and focus on the facilitator/moderator, the Open Space method isn’t for you. If, on the other hand, you want an easy-to-organize, flexible forum that maximizes engagement and productivity, check this out. For more information, see: