Innovation Culture and Open Space Meetings

By Jim Euchner, VP of Global Innovation at Goodyear and Editor-in-Chief of Research-Technology Management (RTM)

Everyone files out of the meeting room. The senior R&D leadership team has just reviewed the plan for the coming year, the budget to support it, and the results of the employee engagement survey. A few questions, invariably respectful, follow the prepared presentations. As the staff leaves, there are scattered quiet discussions about the survey, which reinforced everyone’s sense that employees are strongly engaged with their work, but which also surfaced an inexplicable (to the leadership) lack of trust for the leaders.

Now imagine another meeting. When the attendees enter the room, the chairs are arranged in a semicircle, around a stack of poster board and a pile of black magic markers. There are no prepared speakers, not even an agenda. There is a theme, posted in front of the room, which will be the subject of discussions for the next day and a half. Within the context of that theme, the participants will set the agenda. This is an open space meeting.

The idea of open space began with Harrison Owen, a leader in organization development, who was preparing to host the third annual conference on Organizational Transformation. Participants had observed that the most productive parts of the first two meetings were the coffee breaks, during which people talked about what was most important to them. He decided to do away entirely with the structure of the meeting and to focus instead simply on engendering the conversations that would be most meaningful to the participants. Open space was born.

Open space is a “large group intervention.” I have used it with groups of over a hundred participants, from R&D, marketing, engineering, and strategy. Others have used it with much larger groups. I have found it to be a great way to get large numbers of people with diverse backgrounds together to generate creative solutions to unstructured problems. My first open space meeting (which I finally conducted after considering the idea for about five years) was about shifting the R&D organization to a more customer-centered approach to innovation. Another, involving people from R&D, marketing, and strategy from several divisions, had the theme, “How do we collaborate to innovate?”

In open space, the participants set the agenda in real time (within the bounds of the overarching theme). It usually takes place over one and a half to two days. The attendees propose topics, which are assigned a time and a place by the facilitator. Several simultaneous sessions occur in parallel, and people vote with their feet. If no one comes to a session, that’s okay; perhaps the topic wasn’t that compelling. If there is a crowd, that’s great; it may lead to spinoff sessions. The notes from each session are captured by whoever proposed the session, and they are later shared with the entire group.

Open space meetings energize people. They always cover the topics you would have put on the agenda for a more traditional session, but they invariably include some that surprise you. In one session, someone proposed the topic “Fun!”, and the group discussed ways of creating better ideas by making the process of work more fun. The CEO happened to join the group. Another session, titled “How can we prevent the Concept Studio from stealing our resources?”, brought into the open a previously undiscussable tension about the consequences of assigning technical resources to customer innovation engagements.

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