Open Space Works for Zappos


Open Space meeting: a purpose-driven meeting framework. It has stood the test of time—30 years and counting, as a matter of fact. Yet, how much do you know about it?

I’ve asked several people about Open Space, and at best, they could guess what it meant simply by the name. However, none had any accurate knowledge of this concept with regards to its approach to meetings, conferences, corporate retreats, symposiums, and similar events. I had no knowledge of it either, until recently, when I experienced an Open Space process firsthand. I am so impressed by its value that I am compelled to share about it.


Open Space’s beginnings

Open Space seems to have appeared on the global scene in the mid 1980’s, when Harrison Owen grew weary of organizing and hosting annual traditional conferences centered around his white paper on Organization Transformation. In a third year planning session, the idea came to him to conduct the conference in an open, unstructured style. Feedback from previous events indicated that people enjoyed the coffee breaks most. From that, he made a conscious effort to focus most on what works in the meetings.

Owen’s invitation, as well as his opening statement for that year’s conference, informed the attendees the format would be open and they would self-organize around the issues essential to their purpose for being there. His plan also allowed the grunt work normally performed by leadership (basically just him in those early years) to be distributed and assigned to his participants. Everyone became responsible for maximizing their own productivity and learning capacity.

Many of Owen’s basic ideas for this framework were taken from his experience as a biblical scholar, pastor, Peace Corps organizer in the villages of West Africa, federal government staffer and organization development consultant in Washington DC. He also took ideas from Native American tradition and those of the East, as well as various group dynamics wherever he traveled.


Open Space’s Effectiveness


Twenty-five years later, Owen’s conferences were continuing with over 100,000 different Open Space meetings held in corporations in over 160 countries; representing 21 different languages. Proof of the format’s effectiveness. Its participants have described the method as: “spirit at work,” “passion bounded by responsibility,” “intentional self-organization,” “chaos and creativity,” and “evolution in organization.”

In its typical setting, issues of importance or conflicts are posted on a community bulletin board, sometimes referred to as the Marketplace Wall. As each issue is worked through, additional notes and products (i.e. an aggregated report, or list of takeaways identified at the end) get posted based on everyone’s contributions. It’s a simple way to foster productivity, whether there are five people or five thousand in attendance.

If at all possible, plenty of markers, papers, tape, chairs, whiteboards, and flipcharts should be on hand for the meeting. If these items aren’t available, a space and a time is all that is really needed; this format can even be successfully presented virtually. 

While Open Space is known for its apparent lack of structure and welcoming of surprises, it is actually very structured — but that structure is so perfectly fit to the people and the work at hand, that any chaos goes unnoticed in its proper role of energizing work. In fact, the stories and work plans woven in Open Space are generally more complex and durable, and can develop a great deal faster, than traditional- or management-driven designs.


Four Principles of Open Space

There are Four Principles of Open Space. In my first Open Space experience, I fell in love with these principles, which guides one’s behavior throughout the meeting:

Principle One: Whoever comes is the right person. The fundamental requirement is that people who care to do something show up. I showed up.

Principle Two: Whatever happens is the only thing that could have. This keeps people focused on the here and now, eliminating all could-haves, should-haves, or might-have-beens. Even as one who is a chronic multi-tasker, I remained very much focused on the “what is” of that meeting and nothing else.

Principle Three: Whenever it starts is the right time. This is based on the fact that inspired performance and genuine creativity rarely, if ever, pay attention to the clock. I entered the 2-hr meeting an hour after it started due to a prior meeting commitment and was still able to jump right into the existing flow and know what was happening.                   

Principle Four: When it’s over, it’s over. In other words, don’t waste time. Do what you have to do, then move on to something else useful. I liked how the facilitator in our Open Space meeting was very hands-off from any real “take charge” duty, except at the end when time for the meeting to officially end. He said, “Out of respect for your time, if you need to leave, leave. If you wish to stay, do so.”  That’s it! Then he went back to engaging with the rest of us. So, the meeting ended when it finally fizzled out, I suppose. I left before that time.


One Law of Open Space

There is One Law of Open Space. It’s the so-called Law of Two Feet. It simply means if at any time you find yourself in any situation during the meeting where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet and move somewhere else! That could be to another group, or outside to rejuvenate your body and mind by the sun’s rays.

The key is to not stay somewhere and be miserable or unproductive.  When it was time for me to move my two feet out of that meeting, I didn’t feel guilty about leaving others there still brainstorming. I contributed something, then moved on to our campus’ bistro to get a bite to eat. I like this One Law!

In Zappos' ever-changing work environment, an Open Space structure proves a great fit. Our Holacratic, self-managing environment requires us, as individuals, to consistently build on our competencies in order to remain more adaptive and more resilient to our company’s ongoing quest to streamline our efforts.

In keeping with our Core Value #6, to Build Open and Honest Relationships with Communication, Open Space helps us to put our best foot forward when problem-solving. It is one more un-conventional tool to make it easy to find and understand the resources we need to succeed as individuals and team members, while moving Zappos forward. 

To paraphrase the words of one Open Space practitioner, although one can't predict specific outcomes in this type of setting, some of the inspiring side effects of Open Space are laughter, hard work which feels like play, surprising results, and fascinating new questions. My fascinating new question is why hadn’t I heard of this wonderfully productive style of meeting a long time ago? 

Author: Terri Liggins

Tags: Culture

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