The shortest open space how-to that could possibly work

A friend of a friend asked me: How do I prepare for my first open space event?.

surprised to prepared be...

Here is my zeroth draft answer to her:

Short answer: Decide what the theme for your meeting is, book a room and invite participants. Then create a context that gets everyone into creative flow, and at the start of the meeting explain the mechanics of open space. This way, your meeting is very likely to generate useful results for everyone and … be a lot of fun.

Open space is the simplest meeting format that could possibly work.

It is based on (un)common sense of what people do naturally in productive meetings.

Long answer:

A clear theme is important, as are the principles. For me the principles are the most important, I’ll explain the open space conference format ‘by the book’ after the principles. If you understand the principles and have some experience running open space, you can adapt the format to fit more situations.

Principles (from Wikipedia on Open_Space_Technology):

While the mechanics of Open Space provide a simple means to self-organize, it is the underlying principles that make it effective both for meetings and as a guidepost for individual and collectiveeffectiveness.

The Law of Two Feet — a foot of passion and a foot of responsibility — expresses the core idea of taking responsibility for what you love. In practical terms, the law says that if you’re neither contributing nor getting value where you are, use your two feet (or available form of mobility) and go somewhere where you can. It is also a reminder to stand up for your passion.

From the law flow four principles:

  • Whoever comes is 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

And finally, the open space rallying cry:

prepare to be surprised

Since the meeting is supposed to be self-organising, the conveners put their energy _not in running the meeting_ but creating a setting that gets everyone’s creative energy flowing.

before-meeting preparation, on-site preparation, Opening, marketplace of ideas, break-out sessions, closing, (optional action planning session).

Before-meeting preparation:
Decide on the theme. Possibly appoint someone to be a sponsor (the person that introduces the theme of the meeting) and facilitator(s) – the people who create the context before and guide participants during the meeting. Book a suitable venue, decide on size etc. (room/rooms). Invite people. You may or may not have formal registration, sometimes having people sign up on a wiki can be enough.

Preparation on the (first) day:

Put chairs in a circle for the start of the meeting. If you have more than seven participants, make a big circle for the start and create circles of chairs elsewhere for the break-out spaces.
Break-out-spaces are where the bulk of the meeting, after the theme setting and creation of the agenda takes place.


Have bold markers and pieces of paper ready. Prepare a wall where people can post their issues for break-out-sessions. Divide the wall into a matrix of timeslots and break-out spaces.


If possible, have food and drinks on-site, so that people don’t have to wait or go elsewhere for that. This helps the attendees gel more. Also, try to have a space for your group only.


  1. Show the timeline, how the event breaks down into Opening, Marketplace of ideas, break-out-session, closing.
  2. Sponsor introduces the theme. Briefly. One or two minutes max. Long openings drain the energy of the meeting quickly. Get participants to work ASAP.
  3. Facilitators introduce the principles and the format. Explain how the marketplace of ideas works.

Marketplace of ideas:

  1. Participants write ‘issues’ on pieces of paper. Preferably with bold markers, so they are easy to read from a distance.
  2. Participants choose a timeslot for their topic on the agenda wall.
  3. One by one, participants explain their issue to the others, with the aim of drawing the right people to their break-out-session.

Break-out sessions:
Once people do not come up with new issues (wait a little bit, and ask ‘are we done?’. I find the silence that often happens at the beginning and end of the marketplace the scariest. However, this silence seems to be very productive.
You may ask people to put their name on sessions they want to attend. More than one session per slot is OK… (law of two feet :) ). This gives conveners an idea of how busy their session is going to be. It gives participants an image of how the break-out session is going.

People may shuffle sessions around, or merge sessions as they are deciding where to go.
Have a wiki where people can record outcomes of sessions, or provide paper forms for note-taking during sessions (recording who attended, a summary of the session and outcomes/questions for further work) that you
can collect into a ‘book of proceedings’.

The facilitators’ role in this bit of the conference is to answer questions, and make sure everyone has the materials they need to run their break-out session. They do not (in principle) intervene in the sessions – the participants are supposed to self-organize.

Have everyone back in the circle. A simple and effective way to close is to have the participants pass a ‘talking stick’ around, and let them (briefly, e.g. in a sentence or a word) say what they feel about the day.

Optional: action planning.
Have a bit where people can convene around flipcharts to plan actions for things that came out of the break-out sessions. This uses a mini-marketplace (since there is just one timeslot). I’m not entirely convinced this works wel, although I’ve seen it work well recently at Agile Open Northwest. Maybe more on this later.


The book Open Space Technology by Harrison Owen uses more text to explain open space. I’ve left some things out, to make this howto short – some people may feel that this is stripped beyond the bare necessities… :) Oh well, I believe this is enough to get started. I may pontificate on subtleties and my experiences later… Or I may find a way to make the how-to even shorter.

surprised, prepare to be...

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One Response to “The shortest open space how-to that could possibly work”

  1. Willem van den Ende Says:

    After writing this, I found “a brief users’ guide” by Harrison Owen :