08 Jun

The Open Forum

Off-site at Codesign-it

When I was working with the Codesign-it collective, I often heard about the Open Forum (often know as OST, “Open Space Technology”), a method that they were deploying in collaborative innovation projects with clients. In July 2018 I was able to witness how it was used by the members of the collective themselves as part of the “Summer Sprint”, their annual off-site meeting. This was an opportunity to observe more closely the ins and outs of this technology, whose origins can be found in citizen-run open forums.

Anyone who has organised an off-site event has experienced it: Because it is so rare for everyone to be in the same place at the same time, everything must be done to ensure that the participants’ time is optimised. That is why these gatherings are often prepared in the smallest details, timed, tied up, designed so as not to lose a crumb of that precious time that runs out every second like grains in an hourglass. 

However, the Open Forum proposes an opposite approach, that of pure emergence. There is no pre-established schedule, no list of priority points; it is the topics proposed by the participants on the day that will be addressed. Nor are there any working groups selected by a competent authority; the teams form spontaneously around a participant who becomes the “topic leader”.

Setup of the open forum

Around forty members of the collective are gathered for this off-site. In front of the crowd, Alain Biriotti and Catherine Foliot explain the rules:

“The Open Forum was conceived as a facilitation mode to enable a massive parallelisation of interactions and collective construction based on a single resource, which is the energy of its members, Alain begins. This means that in an Open Forum the work themes are those proposed by the members and that the organisation is built in such a way as to maximise the energy of these members.” 

From the get-go, the intention behind the process is quite explicit. On the one hand, it is the participants’ energy, not their time, that is the most valuable resource. On the other hand, the use of this energy is directly linked to the emerging nature of the topics that will be addressed. 

How does the design of the Open Space Technology function to “maximise” this energy? 

The device works through the interaction of two elements: a set of 5 principles (detailed at the end of this post) and a framework that contains the energies to channel them. 

The framework is extremely simple and accessible. It is a table that indicates the maximum amount of topics and working groups: 

In this case, the setup accounted for 5 rounds of 1 hour spread over 2 days, with a maximum of 8 teams per round. 

Each topic is presented by a topic leader who explains the intention and original interpretation. Interested parties then form a working group around this leader. At the end of each round, all participants meet in a “pure process” plenary session, i.e. without debriefing. The aim is solely to determine whether a subject is exhausted or whether it continues for one more round, and whether work should begin on other topics. 

Vote with your feet

It is important to understand that the framework imposes a constraint on the maximum number of subjects and groups, but not on individuals. On the contrary, participants are invited to move around according to how they feel. In this way, a kind of permanent regulation takes place in the forum, based on each person’s motivation to contribute to a topic. The topic leaders themselves are asked to move if their teams take the topic in a direction that no longer suits them.

This is the famous “law of mobility”, or “law of two feet.” Behind this simple rule lies, I think, the most radical bias of the collaborative project. 

Radical, firstly, because the rule makes each person accountable: it is the participants who are the agents in the session and who must manage their own involvement to maximise their impact on the collective output. It is an ethic of action, where people are made responsible for the concrete, physical execution of their intentions.

Secondly, it is radical because it affirms that the individual freedom of each participant is paramount. I’m not going to join a group because an authority figure has ordered me to, or out of politeness, or out of coercion. If I take part in a discussion, it’s because I’ve chosen to be there.

It is easy to see that while this format works well for citizens’ forums, where we are all equal, it requires certain precautions when used in a professional context, and in particular in the face of hierarchical systems. Preparatory work is often needed to ensure that managerial control is relaxed, at least temporarily, and that everyone can contribute without fear.

At Codesign-it, however, it is striking to see the extent to which the open forum is recursive with internal operations, where the ethic of responsibility and the principle of freedom are at the heart of the collaborative project.  

Choix des sujets du forum ouvert - Choice of topics at the open forum

Choice of topics at the start of the Open Forum

Alchemy of energies

How does this mysterious alchemy that transforms individual energies into collective energy actually operate? It is through the interaction between the principles and the framework that the magic happens.

First of all, there is a particular relationship to time, which can be seen in principles #1 and #2. 

Principle #1

“It starts when it starts”

Principle #2

“It stops when it stops”

Linear time serves the energy available, not the other way round. The aim is not to be faster, but to be more synchronised. The framework thus defines the major movements of an alternation between team time and moments of regulation in plenary, a tempo rather than a stopwatch, an overall pulse that sets the pace for the flow of energy. 

Then there is the contribution of a renewable source of energy, via the law of mobility.

Principle #3

Law of mobility, or “Law of two feet”

Centred solely on subjective feelings, this law aims to remove extrinsic motivations of reward or control. If it is indeed desire that drives a person to take up a subject or participate in certain discussions, then the driving force of the forum is intrinsic motivation. It is this vital force that is at the origin of the creative dynamic.

Finally, it is a philosophy of abundance that favours parallel work and limits debriefing time as much as possible.

Principle #4

The people who show up are the right ones

Principle #5

What is happening is the best thing that could have happened

Principles #4 and #5 reassure those who might be afraid of missing out on something important. They put people back in their rightful place in the process, as energy carriers at the service of the collective process and not as individual resources whose time is limited.  

The topics play a pivotal role in this system and, through the intention of the topic leader, they set in motion the dynamic that transforms individual work into collective production. They act as an interface between the time of conscious thought – slow, tortuous, a prisoner of language and its limitations – and the time of the unconscious, which follows its own rhythm.  

In the end, what this system facilitates is the ability of each individual to connect in rhythm with the flow of energy circulating in the intersubjective space. The conscious individual is thus literally the carrier of the emerging energy, an energy that flows continuously in the background much faster than logical thought could. 

Paradoxically, it is by letting go of time that the Open Forum optimises the presence of participants and creates an abundance of opportunities. By placing energy as the main resource at the heart of the system, it gives full rein to kairos, the time for timely action, rather than yielding to the dictatorial reign of chronos, sequential time. Time spent in this way acquires a vertical dimension, a depth, which sends ripples that will still be felt long after the last round.

Sujets forum ouvert

The topics at the end of the second day

The 5 principles of the Open Forum

Principle #1

“It starts when it starts”

A work session does not have to start immediately in the allocated time slot. A subject leader can wait until all the interested people have quietly joined the group and feel when the energy is gathered.

Principle #2

“It stops when it stops”

A group is not confined to the time frame of a sequence. If it feels that more time is needed, it will have the altitude to continue its work in the next round of workshops. In this way, the treatment of a subject is not limited in time but ends when the group feels it can go no further.

Principle #3

Law of mobility, or “Law of two feet”

This law states, “If at any point you’re in a group and you feel like you’re not making a meaningful contribution and you’re not learning anything, you have a responsibility to pick up both feet and go somewhere else, where you feel like you’ll contribute more.”

Any participant can leave the group, including the person who initiated the discussion, if they feel that the group has taken the discussion in a different direction. The person leaving can then join another group, or act like a butterfly – taking a reflective break – or a bee – circulating information from group to group.

These three principles logically lead to two others:

Principle #4

The people who show up are the right ones

The people who join a work theme are the right ones to process it, because they have chosen to be there for the right reasons. The group that has chosen to dedicate its energy to this must be welcomed as the right group.

Principle #5

What is happening is the best thing that could have happened

While this principle is sometimes formulated in a more neutral way (“it is the only thing that could have happened”), Alain chooses to introduce it by using the superlative: “what is going to happen in this work sequence is the best thing that could have happened for the team, because we are the right people, with the right energy”.

This text was initially published in French on the site of the Codesign-it collective in November 2018.

Licence Creative Commons

This work from Codesign-it! and Coline Pannier is shared according to the Creative Commons Licence Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0).

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