Better Meetings — Openspace Technology

Twitter Summary:  Improve the quality and the outcomes of all your meetings through the use of Openspace Technology and its principles.

I was introduced to Openspace Technology (OST) at Amazon.com and have used it at subsequent organizations with great success.  OST is not “technology” as in gadgets that surround us. It is a process to create meetings that takes minimal work from organizers, and pushes the responsibility for success to the participants who are encouraged to take ownership and solve the issues. The best summaries of OST are the wikipedia entry and the user’s guide hosted at OpenspaceWorld.org.

Rather than highlight how OST works, which is already detailed in the above links, I want to highlight the impact on the participants.  It can best be described in there phases:

  1. Introducing OST —  When first introducing Openspace Technology to a group of people, I typically see  incredulity that this could be a successful way to run a meeting.  The expectation from other presenters that it can’t be successful without having a detailed  agenda and preparing powerpoint slides to lead the group. The expectation from attendees is that it is too fluid to capture what was really important.  Fortunately, those impression change once everyone realizes that this is an opportunity to contribute their critical issues. By stating aloud what they think is important, they can hear other people come up with  issues and help determine the relative priorities.
  2. Meeting Sessions — The self-organizing nature of the meeting becomes apparent as everyone offers session ideas.  As  ideas are contributed, they spawn more ideas that are added to the pool of potential discussions. As more important issues are made known, some ideas are tabled for future discussions.  The impact on the group is they realize that with the limited number of people in the room, they either need to take ownership of an idea, or contribute to an initiative they believe will make the group successful.  The participants become energized as the process makes it clear that some issues won’t be resolved unless someone (a) states there is an issue, (b) takes ownership of fixing that issue, and (c) finds others who think the issue is important and can help resolve it.
  3. After-effects — The after-effects of running an OST meeting can be great and frustrating. The impacts of running a meeting is that it energizes the participates, distributes ownership, and creates buzz around the important issues. Really important issues get lots of support and can enlist help from a broad base. Frustrations that emerge stem from either (a) having a long list of remaining tasks that may not get addressed, and (b) the team feeling the company is not pursuing the priorities as generated from the meeting.  Frustration can be managed by capturing and prioritizing the future work and ideas generated at the meeting.

The principles of OST work in smaller non Openspace meetings. I often would run my weekly engineering meetings much the same way.  I would send out a minimal or blank agenda prior to the meeting,  soliciting the team for topics that they wanted to share in the group setting.  If a team member knew of a topic that should be discussed, there was a regular forum where they had the responsibility to surface issues.  If we had an empty or light agenda the meeting would be skipped or shortened. If the agenda was full we would need to decide what was important for that week and re-schedule other issues for another time.

Having a shortage of time or resources is a fact of life in most organizations. Using OST prinicples to manage the list of things to do helps focus on getting the most important things done in the time alotted.

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