Many years ago, when I was CEO of the first technology company I founded, we started having all-day quarterly meetings with our staff. Because many of our people worked remotely and on client sites, we rarely all saw each other at the same time, so these meetings became important for maintaining our cultural cohesion.
The first quarterly meeting we held was full of presentations and breakout sessions centered on different topics we knew. While the meetings were successful, we also got a lot of feedback reminding us that we missed several topics and that some of the topics could have used more or less time.
It's important to mention here that our company was one of the first Lean/Agile consulting firms. We were steeped in new ways of building teams and processes. So, when one of our developers came back from a conference where they used a crazy meeting format called Open Space Technology which has no predefined agenda and let's attendees choose the topics. We tried it. And ever since then, it's become one of the most powerful meeting formats I know.
Open Space meetings don't work for every meeting, so you can't do away with agendas forever. However, Open Space meetings are great when you are bringing together a group of people who have many different potential topics to discuss and the priorities are not immediately clear.
I use this format for summits and retrospectives where we need to uncover the topics as a group and prioritize them as we go. Open Space meetings are also great when you suspect new topics will come up during the process and you'll need to re-prioritize them in real time.
Here are a few simple guidelines for running your own Open Space meeting.
1. Choose a theme or a focus
While I keep the agenda open, I do create a general area of focus for the meeting. I've used "sharpen the axe" to focus on process improvement or "stronger bonds" to think more about team engagement and culture. Choose something that identifies a know concern but still leaves the topics open.
2. Set good ground rules
A meeting with no agenda needs good ground rules to stay focused and work well. Here are the three that I use.
"Vote with your feet": If you're not learning or contributing, move to a different topic.
"Yes, and": (No "buts" rule.) Don't tear down ideas; find a way to build on it.
"Tackle issues, not people": Focus on the underlying issue, and don't make personal attacks.
3. Start with a brainstorm
Every Open Space meeting starts with a discussion of the theme and a brainstorming of topics. Make sure you're not being critical at this stage; be open to any potential discussion topic. Don't rush this step; often the best topics come up late in this process and after a long moment of silence.
I have team members write ideas on index cards (one per card) so that we can organize as we go. I keep extra index cards around so we can add new ones as they come up during the session.
4. Select discussion facilitators
The power of an Open Space meeting is that you are empowering people to talk about what they want to talk about. Choose, don't assign, facilitators who are most passionate about the topics.
5. Work in self-organizing teams
I generally set up multiple rounds of meetings in time slots of 30-45 minutes with 15-minute periods for regrouping. For each round, I get volunteers for 3-5 topics and then have people self-organize into meeting groups.
After the round ends, we regroup and each facilitator presents a short summary of the discussion, key insights, and any recommendations for the larger group.
6. Document notes and action items
Make sure to have each team submit a one-page summary of the discussion including the topic, the facilitator's name, names of those who attended, key discussion points, takeaways, and any other recommendations.
This summary can be handwritten on paper and taped to a wall so people can see the results. If you have good connectivity, you can also collect information on an online document as you go.
7. Reflect on the process and learning
At the end of the meeting, take some time to reflect on the process. At the end of the meeting, I like to have each person share their biggest takeaway along with one personal action item. You can also have people rate the meeting and suggest changes for future formats.
Open Space meetings are not a lazy-person's substitute for properly planned meetings. Instead, they are a tool you can use when the situation calls for deeper dives into emergent topics. And remember: like all powerful tools, you need practice to use Open Space meetings. You also need to know when, and when not, to apply them.