Open Space Technology

In Turkey, not a day goes by without a fascinating development… It seems like the Turkish protestors are on a mission to teach the world a lesson in 21st Century leadership. As you might know; a peaceful, local protest aimed to protect a public green space in Istanbul turned into a nationwide (even global!) movement against oppression – all within a matter of hours. During the protests, Turks organized so quickly, so efficiently and so seamlessly that politicians, who are behind the times, thought everything was a pre-planned foreign conspiracy. In reality, though, it was nothing more than life organizing on its own! Once the government brutally cracked down the protests, Turks made an unexpected move: Across the country, every night they started gathering at local parks, hosting meetings, organizing community summits, creating speaker’s corners – all without a leader, all without a former agenda! Old-school mentality would tell us that no movement could be successful in the absence of a former leader, clear rules and regulations, and a system that works like a well-oiled machine. Surprise, surprise! Smart leaders have been using a similar idea for decades. It is called the Open Space Technology (OST). Let’s see how and why it works…

Chaos is the law of nature. Order is the dream of man.


Think about a typical seminar, meeting or conference you attend to. They all share some commonality: There is a pre-determined agenda, speakers are already chosen, speeches are pre-scripted, and there is an invisible boundary between the audience and the speakers. Ironically, for most of us, the most exciting part of such meetings are the coffee breaks, lunches, and cocktails during which we can mingle with others. That’s when we can exchange ideas and network with people. On the other hand, the least exciting part of such meetings is the part during which we sit down and listen to a speaker –no matter how great s/he is– preach us. That is a one-way communication. I think such a meeting format was born of human ego, which is absolutely afraid of unpredictability. Deep down we want everything to be neat. The obsession for order is so much that for a typical event organizer, it is more important that the meeting runs smoothly than the participants get value out of it.

"Parklar Bizim - The Parks are Ours" Movement is a beautiful replica of the Open Space Technology and a wonderful proof that life has the ability to self organize.
“Parklar Bizim – The Parks are Ours” Movement is a beautiful replica of the Open Space Technology and an elegant proof that life can self-organize.

But there is another way. If the issue you are dealing with is very important, really urgent and highly complex, then OST might be a much better fit for your organization. In OST, the attendance is not required. There is no formal agenda. Attendees figure out what needs to be discussed. Speakers are self-selected. The seating arrangement is circular. Nothing is scripted; conversation flows naturally, and it goes to wherever it is supposed to go. Here are the rules:

  1. Whoever comes is the right people.
  2. Whenever it starts is the right time.
  3. Wherever it happens is the right place
  4. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
  5. When it’s over, it’s over.
  6. If at any time you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else.

Does it sound chaotic? Definitely. Does it work? Absolutely! Never mind more than 100,000 open space meetings that have taken place around the world. Just look at what’s happening right now in Turkey:

Protestors voluntarily gather at local parks. There is no attendance requirement. Only the willing and caring people come. If you don’t like what you hear, you just leave. No one forces anybody to attend or stay. No one is in charge of the agenda. Whatever needs to be discussed is collectively decided, which means only the issues that the people care the most are discussed. Those issues are the ones that vitalize people and galvanize communities. That’s why the park meetings don’t flame out. The urgency of the issues and the passion of the attendees keep the engine running. The attendees are not mere bystanders. Subject matter experts join and speak. They inform the public. Share their ideas. See how people react, and if need be, they take action. Once the meeting is over, it is over. The minutes are shared online. Everybody can see what has been discussed, what has been agreed on. Actually, all the meetings are broadcasted live.

We are all afraid of the chaotic aspect of life. Deep down, we yearn for stability and predictability. Unfortunately, those two do not exist in the Universe. They never did, and never will. But that does not mean that there is no order in life. As chaotic as it might seem, life can self-organize. Life is based on chaos, which gives us order without predictability. Nobody predicted that Turks would hit the parks to collectively imagine a better future. But they did. Nobody predicted that they would re-invent the OST concept. But they did. Nobody predicted that any good would come out of these park meetings. But it did. Because, Chaos is the basis of life, and it is extremely fertile… Feel free to use this insight within your organization.

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