few years ago I was asked to speak to a gathering of engineers of the
three western regions of the Federal Highway Administration. The 175
engineers were convened for a 5-day conference.
A few months prior to the event while talking with the conference
planners, I noticed that the agenda was made up exclusively of lectures.
It was immediately obvious that, without some opportunity for dialogue,
people would become "brain-dead" by about mid-week.
I suggested to the planners that we construct an activity that would
involve the participants in something useful to them. I would arrive the
day before my session (which was to be held on Wednesday morning) and
brainstorm discussion topics with the entire group. These would be
topics they would discuss in small groups during the four hours
allocated to me the next morning.
As we were discussing these ideas, the conference planners began to talk
about developing their own topic list. They were concerned that opening
up the discussions to just any subjects would be too risky. (I have come
to believe strongly that our basic mistrust of the human animal to do
what's right drives much of our control behavior, particularly in the
workplace.) After much discussion, and a guarantee of my entire fee if
it didn't work, they agreed to the open topic format.
At the conference on Tuesday afternoon, a list of 156 subjects was
developed during the 30-minute brainstorming session, filling one entire
wall of the hotel's ballroom. I then passed out strips of blue stick-on
dots (five dots to a strip) for participants to select the five topics
they wanted to discuss most. They had until 8:00 p.m. that evening to
make their choices. By 8:00, the list of 156 topics had narrowed down to
twelve that would become the basis of the next morning's discussions.
(The conference planners would later say that they were amazed that
almost all of the topics selected were those they would have chosen.)
That night, the conference coordinators assembled twelve groups of tables
with placards noting the appropriate topic. The next morning after my
scheduled talk, the engineers were given instructions on how to conduct
their discussions, then invited them to attend whatever discussion
interested them most. Their assignment was to discuss the topic, list
three to five key points about it, then offer some recommendations on
what to do next.
The energy in the room was incredible! People dove into their topics with
more energy than the planners had seen all week and, clearly, people
were discussing issues that were important to them.
We reassembled the entire gathering and each table presented its results.
In what amounted to a very short morning, they had arrived at some
enlightening conclusions about the issues facing their agency. Some of
the groups even volunteered to continue their work after the conference.
They were taking ownership of their issues.
A few weeks after the conference, I received a letter from the Regional
Administrator informing me that the attendees rated my presentation, the
brainstorming, and table discussions as "the most valuable session of
the conference." I am uncomfortable relating this last part because it
sounds so self-serving. My point, however, is to emphasize the enormous
power embodied in self-regulation. These people were energized by the
opportunity to have a meaningful dialogue on subjects of their own
The Concept of "Open Space"
Last weekend (just before the "Blizzard of '96" hit Philadelphia) I
participated in a two-day meeting of about 60 people who were gathered
to discuss the topic "Totally Fulfilling Business." The two-day event
had no agenda and no prepared speakers. It was conducted under a concept
called "open space."
In an open space meeting, the participants determine the agenda around a
predetermined topic. In our case, anyone who wanted to discuss a
particular topic pertaining to "Totally Fulfilling Business" would write
the topic down with colored markers on a 12-inch by 12-inch sheet of
paper. Then each would stand at a microphone and read the topic to the
gathering. Then they would go to a wall and place the sheet under either
the "Friday" or "Saturday" banner. Scheduled times and rooms were
already written on Post-it notes, so all they had to do was select one
(for example, 1:30-3:00 p.m. in meeting area "J") and attach it to their
Within fifteen minutes most of the agenda and schedule for the two days
was developed. After a few additional instructions, people simply went
to the discussions that interested them most. The only obligation of the
"convener" was to facilitate the discussion, keep notes, and then record
the important points in the computers provided. (The intent of
transferring the notes of the discussion immediately onto computers was
to have a complete record of the proceedings available to the
participants by the end of the conference.)
Try to imagine five, ten, or twenty people meeting spontaneously to
discuss a topic of great interest to each of them, and you can begin to
understand the power of the open space approach.
Open Space in Business
During the conference I had the opportunity to meet and talk with Harrison
Owen, one of the originators of the open space concept. Mr. Owen has
used this concept in a wide range of applications in many parts of the
world. What caught my attention were the applications to business. The
open space concept has been used to develop organization vision, design
products, solve serious problems, and generally address employee
In June, 1994, The New York Times reported on one of Mr. Owen's open space
meetings of a distribution center of the Rockport Company. Three hundred
and fifty employees assembled in a large circle of chairs wondering how
something like this could work. After describing the ground rules, Mr.
Owen invited anyone with a "passion" about any company-related subject
to write it on a large piece of paper and tack it to the bulletin board.
Others could then sign up for a discussion about it.
People listed topics from how to get suppliers to send shoelaces on time
to how to find out what their competitors were doing to how to help
Rockport's women succeed better. More than 100 signup sheets appeared on
the wall in less than 30 minutes.
Looking back, Rockport people are astonished at how many people did
suggest topics, attend meetings, and come up with ideas that have
changed how Rockport is run today. Meeting leaders typed the ideas and
proposed actions into computers that same day, and many took ownership
of their projects upon returning to work.
During our Philadelphia conference, Mr. Owen related other examples of how
open space meetings have been used in business:
Designing a pavilion for
75,000 visitors to an AT&T exhibit and initiating action plans, all
within two days.
How to get former
competitors to become colleagues in two companies that had merged.
How to solve operational
problems in a large western telephone company.
How to better use
resources at the World Bank.
I started this article with
the title "The Ability of a System to Right Itself." An organization is a system
of people and processes that produces an end result. Frequently, and for many
reasons, that system does not work well, and it is the primary job of management
to work toward its optimization. Involving all of the people of the system in
its correction is a powerful and natural process.
One might question the term "natural" in light of the difficulties we have
had implementing employee involvement concepts. But one has only to watch the
behavior of humans in an emergency to observe their tendency to "right"
themselves. People bond quickly in an emergency and develop instantaneous
actions plans with little regard for hierarchy and control. In fact, hierarchy
and control frequently only hinder the response.
The same tendencies are present in humans in the workplace. There is a
strong desire to make the system work. We see this over and over when employee
involvement concepts take hold.
The open space concept takes us to another level of involvement, where
unite around common issues, develop strategies, and take ownership of
their resolution. This, in essence, is a freeing of the system to right
itself---removing the controls that inhibit correction. Leadership in the
21st century will probably understand this better than we do today.