Welcome To Open Space

(from Training Magazine, April 1994)

It was a bold experiment, not unlike jumping out of an airplane without knowing if the parachute was functioning. Beginning the morning of Thursday, Oct. 21, 1993, the Rockport Co., a subsidiary of Reebok International, closed for two days. No shoes were shipped. No orders were processed. Scheduled meetings were canceled. The head office was locked.

Except for a skeleton crew left behind to answer the phones, the company's entire work force gathered in a cavernous warehouse at the distribution center, some 20 miles from Rockport's Marlboro, MA headquarters. John Thorbeck, president of the company, was there. His senior executives, many of whom questioned his judgment in shutting down a S300 million operation, were there. Managers and clerical staff, supervisors and dock workers---some 350 people in all---milled around uncertainly.

There had been no planning for this momentous day. There was no agenda. No one had the foggiest notion of what would happen during the next two days, least of all Harrison Owen, the avuncular consultant who had persuaded Thorbeck to hold this event His zanv-sounding idea appeared poised to live down to its promise.

As the tension built, Owen, an Episcopal priest as well as a Potomac, MD-based management consultant, stepped into the center of the loosely formed circle and introduced the gathering to the idea of an open-space" meeting. This was their meeting and their time, he informed them, and what they did with it was entirely up to them. He would explain a few simple procedures that seemed to work in other open-space meetings he had held. They could modify these as they chose. He would then retire and sit in a corner, leaving them on their own. On second thought, since there were no corners, he would simply hang around and be available. He certainly had no intention of 'conducting" anything.

That's it This is going to be a bust several workers and executives remember thinking. He's never going to be able to pull it off. Not with this group. The routine that Owen proceeded to explain was simple indeed. One by one, each person who wished to do so would step into the center of the circle. He would announce his name and a topic about which he felt passionate---passionate enough, at least, to take responsibility for convening a break-out session. He would then write the topic on a large sheet of paper and stick it to the wall with masking tape. On it he would post a sticker---plucked from a board set up earlier---dictating what time the group would meet and where.

This would continue until nobody had any additional items to post. Then the "marketplace" would open. Everybody would examine the wall, which became a "community bulletin board," and sign up for as many issues as desired. Participants who posted issues would be responsible for convening groups, facilitating discussion, and recording minutes of the proceedings on one of the dozen or so computers set up for the purpose.

Pointing to the wall, Owen drew attention to four mystical-sounding "principles" that would guide the event. They were posted prominently, in barely legible handwriting:

1) Whoever comes is the right people.

2) Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.

3) Whenever it starts is the right time.

4) When it's over, it's over.

Also displayed conspicuously was a poster with 4 crude, hand-drawn depiction of two footprints with the heading, 'The Law of Two Feet." That, Owen explained, illustrated the voluntary nature of participation. If anyone was bored, not learning anything, or felt that she had nothing to contribute, then she was honor-bound to use her two feet to walk away. This law also served as a powerful deterrent to any conveners given to pomposity and self-importance.

His spiel over in less than a half-hour, Owen gestured toward a pile of flip charts and magic markers, and retreated.

'There was a long silence," recalls Keith Mathis, Rockport's director of distribution. "I thought the meeting had ended right there. With so much of the top brass around, I fully expected that no one would write anything down. But one person rose tentatively, then another, and soon it was like ants going to sugar."

In less than an hour, an energized group had posted dozens of issues on the wall: distribution, on-time delivery, customer service, excess raw materials. Manv were sensitive and had never before been acknowledged as issues of concern: women's perceptions of the Rockport environment, eliminating political games, overcoming "we vs. they" thinking, getting fid of paperwork.

By 5 p.m. on Friday, 66 different sessions had been conducted. The number of participants ranged from five to 150 or more on the hot topics. And there was something else---a sense of camaraderie and purpose that was almost palpable. Whenever logistical questions arose, individuals took the initiative and simply did whatever was required to make the conference work.

"I couldn't believe how smoothly things went," says Dick Roesler, vice president of human resources and administration "I remembered we had to dismantle our computer setup to take the computers back to headquarters. By the time I got there they had been neatly disassembled and were being packed. There was nothing for me to supervise or direct or do."

Roesler thought it would be a good idea to collect the wall postings to include in the records of the proceedings. Too late. An employee had already gathered them. They arrived at his office the next day reduced to 8-1/2 by 11 inches and ready for duplication. Another employee came up with a logo for the report.

The impetus for the open-space meeting came in 1983 when Owen spent several months putting together a major conference, laboring over the agenda and logistical details. The convention was a success, but what struck Owen forcefully was that attendees waxed rhapsodic not about the carefully planned presentations and workshops but about the coffee breaks. It was during breaks that impromptu discussion groups formed, friendships were forged and networks built. He started musing whimsically about a conference that would consist entirely of coffee breaks, dispensing with all the painfully crafted formal programs. The open-space concept---also known as open-space technology---was born.

In the decade since its conception. the open-space format has been used---with and without Owen's involvement---by dozens of organizations on six continents. ACCOR, the world's largest hotel company, has used it to evolve a corporate vision. Owens Corning has used it to develop new products. Honeywell has used it to help employees come to terms with restructuring. U.S. senators have used it to help determine how billions of dollars of federal appropriations should be spent. Township leaders in South Africa are using it to shape an ideal of the emerging new nation. It is being used in India and Australia by giant multinationals and tiny entrepreneurial ventures, by international organizations such as the World Bank and domestic agencies Eke the National Education Association.

The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development---otherwise known as the World Bank---is quite pleased with its experiments with open space. The Bethesda, MD. consulting firm of Hopkins and Hopkins Inc. has conducted almost a score of these meetings for groups responsible for countries from Latin America to Southeast Asia and everywhere in between.

All of the meetings were conducted with intact work groups. The issues that arose ran a gamut of concerns: How can we organize the work more efficiently? What should the work be: microenterprise in Pakistan or an irrigation project? How should country teams be structured? How should projects be prioritized? Sensitive organizational topics also raised their heads: the relationship of the front office with divisions; equity and fairness of compensation, workload and perquisites, sexual harassment, and family issues. Helen Vazquez, chief personnel officer for the Asia regions, so liked the results of an open-space meeting conducted with the personnel group that she plans to repeat it with the regional-management group. "It is a very powerful methodology to engage people in," she says. "People take ownership. They come up with solutions. It brings out the dormant possibilities in people."

Individuals who have participated in an open-space conference often speak of being struck by two factors: the utter simplicity ... and the power. Some gush about an almost spiritual force that manifests during the two or three days of a meeting. There is a feeling of unity. Communication seems to take place on a deeper, freer and more natural level than in any formal seminar…or on the job. Participants report feeling exhilarated, and the high often persists for several days after the conference. Those four Zen-like "principles," especially, seem to strike a welcome chord in a lot of people. Some open-space meetings appear to evoke the same kind of bonding and team spirit in large groups that programs such as Outward Bound create in small groups. But the focus is on work-related issues.

Culture, language, education and hierarchical position do not appear to impede the process. The Together Foundation, a Caracas, Venezuela-based consciousness-raising alliance, conducted a "Global Unity" session in Jackson, WY, that brought together 178 people from 28 countries speaking 17 languages. Participants ranged from presidents of countries to ordinary citizens.

Neither does the size of the group seem to make much difference. Open-space meetings have been held with as few as five participants and as many as 750. With computer-conferencing technology it is even possible to hold meetings on different continents with real-time interaction. In fact, this has already been tried (see "Open Cyberspace," page 55).

Open space obviously is not the solution for every type of meeting or conference under the sun. 'If you know exactly what you want and how to do it---implementing a word-processing program, to choose a mundane example---open space is not only inappropriate, but likely to be frustrating," says consultant Owen.

The technique seems to work best in situations characterized by uncertainty, ambiguity and a recognition that new ideas are needed. "The approach lends itself to themes or questions such as, "What do we stand for?" "What should we be doing?" "How should we do whatever it is we should be doing?" "How can we feel more involved and alive at work?"

If an organization invites its employees to tackle questions like those in a no-holds-barred environment, however, repercussions can extend far beyond the event itself. Open-space meetings tend to create expectations that things will be "different' from then on---that there will be more empowerment. less bureaucracy, greater cooperation and so on. If employees don't see these changes forthcoming. the experiment can backfire, creating only cynicism. Management's response to employees' ideas of "what this company should stand for" cannot be: "We've decided it's really none of your business, after all."

Therefore, an organization probably ought not to dabble with open space unless management is prepared to entertain suggestions for significant changes in organizational structures and procedures. Likewise, cautions Owen, if you prefer control and predictable outcomes, stay away from open space. There is no "controlling" the process. You have to be prepared to follow where it takes you and at its pace. If management has serious misgivings, it is perhaps best not to start. One Fortune 500 chemical manufacturer gave up its experiments with open space for that very reason: Too many executives balked.

Granted that open-space meetings, like many touchy-feely exercises, leave participants on a high, are they capable of producing concrete, documentable bottom-line results for a business? Can they be justified to the shareholders?

Anthony Tiberii, senior vice president and chief financial officer of the Rockport Co., was perhaps the most vocal opponent of Rockport's proposed open-space meeting. He didn't doubt that the employees would enjoy it. However, as a prudent CFO, he felt that "a company as large as ours could not afford to lose two whole shipping days." After the meeting he changed his mind. He was easily able to quantify some results.

Rockport orders its shoes from around the globe, from Indonesia to Brazil, and currently has a five-month lead time. The problem is that recession-battered retailers are placing orders closer to the time the customer wants the product; that is. retailers want shoes now, not next September. To avoid losing sales Rockport has had to boost inventory. But that raises the risk of being stuck with obsolete items in its fashion-sensitive lines. At the open-space meeting employees from sales, production, procurement and merchandising got together spontaneously to discuss how to cut down the purchasing cycle. These meetings are continuing and have made significant headway. Within the next 18 months, Tiberii expects to realize savings of more than $4 million a year in inventory and related costs.

Then there was the security guard who worked at the facility where the open-space meeting was held. He mentioned that he spent a lot of time on his feet and would love to wear the kind of comfortable shoes that Rockport made. But his company would never buy them, he said, because they didn't "look right" as part of a guard's uniform. Why couldn't the company redesign the uppers so that they met the security company's uniform specifications? Rockport is proceeding to develop such a line of shoes. If it is an average performer in the market Tiberii expects sales of about $20 million per year. "The funny thing is." Tiberii says, "the guard wasn't even a Rockport employee."

One of president Thorbeck's principal reasons for holding the open-space meeting was to release his company's potential. "I felt that there was so much more that it could do, given its profitability and its resources," he says. "Its sights were far too modest. We had to break the top-down mentality, to make it cross-functional, so we cost bust artifcially related goals." So far, so good. The bigger challenge is now company on track, to ensure that the newly released spirit does not dissipate.

Srikumar S Rao is chairman of the marketing department at the C. W. Post campus of Long Island University in New York, and a management consultant