Article written by writer Mark Henricks for Entrepreneur, May 1995 


Tired of meetings that go nowhere? Try an "Organized coffee break" instead. 


LAST NOVEMBER, the employees of Prospect Associates Ltd. were invited to a two-day, company-wide conference. Those who showed up found themselves in a room with no tables. The chairs were arranged in a circle. There was an agenda, but it was broad to the point of being vague. 

 "What we were trying to do was look at Prospect's future, what we were doing and where we should be going, to make sure it was the organization we wanted it to be," says Laura Henderson, founder, president and CEO of the 16-year-old Rockville, Maryland, health research firm. 

 When the conference began, the entrepreneur acted like just another attendee. The roughly 100 other people there, from secretaries to senior vice presidents, were asked to develop ideas on the all-encompassing topic of Prospect's future. They were responsible for setting up smaller meetings during the conference to talk over the ideas. They had to let participants know when to show up, as well as how to run the meetings and record the results. 

 The outcome was a 73-page report containing hundreds of recommendations. One recommendation, "creating from nothing," was developed by company artists and graphic designers. Others addressed management mentors, new markets, restructuring the company and even whether to start a nonprofit arm. 

 The company is considering acting on several ideas generated at the meeting, including holding a fiscal year-end drawing as an employee bonus to give away two airline tickets to one lucky worker. A plan to set up a nonprofit unit is being readied for further review. Other changes are taking in place in human resources. 

 Although it may seem chaotic, Prospect's gathering was carefully structured to be an "open space meeting." This new idea in meeting formats is to have all employees participate in free-wheeling idea-generation and problem-solving sessions. Proponents say open space meetings help businesses of all sizes, from start-ups to Fortune 100s, quickly deal with problems so complex or pressing, they defy other techniques. Henderson calls it "probably one of the most powerful things that's ever happened in management." 


 The open space concept is the creation of Potomac, Maryland, or-ganizational consultant Harrison Owen. Owen says he conceived the idea after spending a year designing an agenda for a large international meeting. Searching for a better way to organize the meeting, he talked to participants, hoping to isolate the most important parts of the meeting. 

 "When they looked back on [past meetings], they found they got the most out of the coffee breaks or informal sessions," Owen says. His initial idea, for an "organized coffee break," generated the first open space meeting in 1985, By 1991, however, only two or three open space meetings had been held. 

 Since then, the idea has exploded worldwide. Though Prospect and most other open space users are medium- to large-sized companies, the technique has been used in very small groups as well. Trainers, consultants and many others are trying and liking the open space meeting idea for its simplicity, low cost broad applicability, rapid results and ability to address large, poorly defined questions. 


 A typical open space meeting has three features: seats arranged in a circle, no leader and an agenda with very few details. Circular seating without tables, Owen says, breaks down rigid lines of communication, Lack of a leader encourages people to come forward. And a broad agenda invites a wider array of solutions, sometimes to problems no one knew existed. 

 Broad, however, doesn't mean hazy. Start with a specific problem, -a question or a change that must be dealt with, says Hugh Huntington, president of The Huntington Group Inc., a Taos, New Mexico, team-building consulting firm. Topics should also be clearly defined. "You wouldn't want to ask 'What are ways to cut the budget?' " he says. "It's got to be more focused, such as 'Where in manufacturing can we cut?' " 

 A problem suitable for an open space meeting shouldn't have an immediate solution. The manager must be willing to let employees develop solutions. "That's where, from an organizational viewpoint, it begins to have an impact," says Huntington. 

 You can hold an open space meeting anywhere there is space. The only requirements are a central meeting room with a large bulletin board or other place where participants can post potential discussion topics, and separate meeting rooms where people can hold sessions on specific subjects. Prospect found suitable space at a hotel, but other companies have used lunch rooms or on-site offices. 

 Five people is the minimum for a successful meeting, says Owen. At the other extreme, Huntington has held open space meetings of several hundred people at a time. Attendance should be voluntary. "Open space doesn't work well when people are told to come," says Owen. 

 And there is no reason to limit attendance to employees, Owen says. If your company can't gather an open space quorum from people on the payroll, you can - and, many consultants argue, should - invite nonemployees. Suppliers, customers and even competitors can also make valuable contributions. 

 Equipment needs are slim, says Brian McDermott, who has written about open space meetings for Minneapolis newsletter publisher Lakewood Publications and helped put together an open space meeting at an industry convention last year. "You get butcher paper and tape it up on the wall, some flip charts and pens,' he says. "Ideally, you have some computers set up so people can get to a workstation." 

 Another requirement is a specific issue, problem or change. "You don't just do open space," says Owen. "You need an issue. There's always a clear-cut reason to do it." 


 There may be no leader, but open space meetings require a knowledgeable facilitator to kick things off and complete the follow-through. Starting up involves instructing the attendees on how to create and post topics, set up meetings and record discussions. Follow-through requires collecting, formatting and printing the recommendations and ideas in a usable format. 

 For some companies, hiring a facilitator to conduct the meeting is the major cost, as experienced consultants may charge $2,000 or more a day. A less expensive option is to attend a two- to four-day training session, costing only several hundred dollars, to learn how to conduct your own open space meeting. An even more economical solution is to check out one of the many books or videos on the subject. Owens' book is called Open Space Technology: A User's Guide (Abbott Publishing), and Huntington has a 15-ininute video that discusses the benefits of open space meetings from the user's viewpoint. 

 No matter what size your company is, experts say you can learn how to accept input from everyone in the organization through the use of open space techniques in every-day management. "I strongly suggest people learn to do this on a continuing basis," says Anne Stadler, president of Anne M. Stadler & Associates, a Seattle management consulting firm. "It's a great tool for [daily] management as well as meetings. 


 Open space doesn't always work as well as Henderson's experience indicates. First, it's not suitable for a company with an authoritarian leader who won't relinquish control. "An open space [meeting] doesn't work if somebody thinks he or she is actually in control of it," says Owen. 

 Ideas are likely to come from unexpected places, so entrepreneurs must evaluate them on their merits, not their origins. At one Reebok open space meeting, a security guard who didn't even work for the company sat in on a group and suggested a new line of shoes for security guards, Owen says. The idea made so much sense that those present seized on it and began making plans for a new product. 

 It's possible to choose the wrong subject for an open space meeting. While it's well-suited for inspiring innovation and  communication, it won't help you with implementation problems. "If you're trying to install a new financial system, you don't use open space because you already know what you're trying to do," explains Owen. 

 There is also serious risk that the initial enthusiasm of an open space meeting will fade away, and nothing will change. Henderson is trying to avoid that by implementing many of the open space meeting's ideas. She has also encouraged Prospect employees to continue to propose and hold open space meetings informally whenever they want to, which she calls having an "open space mentality." 

 The difference, Henderson says, is "night and day. Evervbody's involved as opposed to a few people. People aren't waiting around until management has the time to deal with [problems]. They're taking the idea and running with it." 

Mark Henricks is a New York City writer who specializes in small-business topics.