Using Open Space Technology for team building

March 8, 2013

Chatter Technology Media and Telecommunications

Have you heard about Idean Soap Box, our team building days when we take the whole company somewhere nice, like Berlin, Saint-Petersburg or Hawaii? In the following blog post our CX Design Lead Harri Klemetti discusses the methodology behind it.

When I first heard about the “Open Space Technology” theory, I was quite skeptical about it working. The whole philosophy of a self-organizing seminar without any predefined presentations sounded like too big of a risk to take. My thinking was that if you invite people to a seminar, it is certainly your responsibility to be sure that the seminar is successful. And theoretically, the more you plan and prepare then the better the seminar will be, right?

On the other hand, I do agree with Harrison Owen, the founder of the method, as he stated (funnily enough) that often the most inspirational parts of a seminar are the discussions with other participants during coffee and lunch breaks.

Soon after, I had an opportunity to take part in one such Open Space seminar that was organized by Nokia Siemens Networks with the theme being set very loosely on Agile SW development. The event had a couple of hundred participants and took place in a big conference center. To my astonishment the seminar was a success and you could really sense the flow of energy and excitement among the participants.

A few years later, I was in a meeting where we were planning the agenda for Idean’s bi-annual team building day. We were already thinking of some presentation ideas when I recalled my experiences from the Open Space seminar. The team decided to give the method a try and do it by the book as much as we could. We also named the event SoapBox, referring to Hyde Park in London where everyone has a chance to step up and shout out loud whatever they have to say. However, we still had to plan a loose structure for the event.

To begin, we gathered all of the participants together and gave a short welcoming speech. We went through the open space rules, as it was something dramatically different from what we had done on previous similar occasions.

We then invited all participants to identify the topics they wanted to discuss. There was not any agenda, but rather a general theme of improving Idean’s ways of working.

Volunteers then stepped up, wrote down their topics and placed them on the schedule frame that had been prepared. Each session had a slot of 45 minutes with 15 minutes breaks in between sessions. There were four locations where sessions were held, meaning that we had four parallel sessions running at all times. The participants also had the freedom to book new sessions during the course of the day.

We asked that the volunteers who booked a session be responsible for facilitating it, writing down notes for discussions and at the end of the day presenting a wrap-up. We had prepared a general form to be filled in after each session, having some guiding questions, such as:

“What were the challenges?” or “What needs to be done next?”

While the presenters were hosting their sessions, all of the other participants were given a few rules to follow:

  • The law of two feet: if you feel that you are not learning or contributing to a session, go to another session… or go for a walk.
  • Whatever happens is supposed to happen. Pay attention to the moment; do not worry what might follow or where the discussion will lead.
  • Whenever it starts is the right time. This emphasized that we do not want unnecessary schedules or structures to limit our creativity and innovation.
  • When it is over, it is over. When there is nothing more to say, close the session and join another one.

After a hard working day it was time to make some conclusions from the point-of-view of the organizers. For starters, it was nice for us to notice that our colleagues picked up on the idea very quickly after their initial bewilderment. Also, all of the time-slots were eventually filled in during the course of the day.

One thing that we learned needed to change for future SoapBox events was that the 45-minute sessions proved to be too short. Lively discussions were still going on after 60 minutes when the next sessions were supposed to start. We also noticed that the management has to be prepared to take responsibility for some of the session’s findings in order to transform the improvement ideas into operative actions.

Overall, it proved to be a thrill to follow the flow of creativity that arises when you set up a delicate balance between control and chaos and let passionate people loose.

In the words of Harrison Owen, “Open Space works because it harnesses and acknowledges the power of self-organization, which is substantially aligned with the deepest process of life itself.”

Harri Klemetti · CX Design Lead
Idean, Tampere