Four Years of Open Space

(NOTE: This is a guest post from my friend Jay Vogt, author of RECHARGE YOUR TEAM: The Grounded Visioning Approach.)

Rex and Bruce, two managing directors at Cyrus Innovation, had planned their big quarterly company meeting down to the last detail, but they still weren’t happy with it. They went back and forth, trying to find better ways to cater to employee needs, and really engage them. Finally they said, why don’t we just let them decide what they want to do? Let’s toss the whole agenda, and meet in Open Space.

Open Space is a self-organizing meeting method that allows participants – in this case the whole company – to meet without any preset agenda. Participants, guided by a few simple principles, create their own agenda, convene their own discussion groups, and produce their own proceedings. Participants use their time as they see fit.

Cyrus, with twenty employees, held its first company meeting using Open Space, and it went well; after that people asked for it. It became a company standard, and they’ve been doing it consistently, once a quarter, for the last four years. Today Cyrus has nearly fifty employees.

Cyrus maintains an open climate. Any topic in Open Space is fair game. “No one has ever put anything on the table that made me wince,” says Rex Madden, Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer. “It has run the gamut. From policy-type things – like the receipt and expense process is too hard – to how we can keep attracting top talent, to technology-specific things, to client-specific stuff, like how we can convince this client to do X. Even pay scales got raised, and after that, we opened them up. We have always believed in transparency. Open communication is one of our core values, and Open Space reinforces that.”

How has it changed our culture? We tried to move toward getting teams to be more autonomous, giving people more responsibility to do things. Our attitude has been, ‘Go forth and do it, and let us know how it goes, and what you need.’ There is part of that embedded in Open Space. We are following the employees.”

Doing Open Space gives us a sense of what people are interested in, what they want to do now, and how they want to approach something. You can learn a lot about people. When we see people are interested in something, we support it. One time, a guy went to a conference, and wrote up great notes. We said, ‘This is great, let’s share this with our clients.’ A gem of an idea grew into a marketing piece. This guy was really passionate about it. There is a lot of that. We have learned to recognize what people are interested in – where they excel – and we nourish it.”

My advice to other companies? Read Harrison Owen’s book (Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide), get a facilitator, pay for some decent space so you can leave the office, and do it. Invest a full day, and be sure you follow up on action items. Retrospect it to improve it, and add value. On the first one, you will uncover a lot of stuff – better be listening for that. You will find out anyway, through other mechanisms, what the problems are, so you might as well get it straight, deal with it, and move on. Whatever it was we used to do, that came up as stuff at our first meeting, we don’t do anymore, because we fixed it.”

It takes some courage to throw your whole company into a day long meeting with no preset agenda, but Open Space, also known as Open Space Technology, rewards the brave. It challenges participants to connect with what they really care about, and are willing to make happen. It challenges managers to trust their people, and let them step up. The folks at Cyrus would say that a company that meets in Open Space over years enjoys a more open climate, with more autonomous teams and more passionate people.

Jay W Vogt is president of Peoplesworth, and author of Recharge Your Team: The Grounded Visioning Approach and Board Roles to Board Goals: Creating an Annual Board Workplan. Jay has facilitated hundreds of meetings with at least a hundred participants, and regularly facilitates meetings in Open Space. To see a four minute video of Open Space in action, visit: