Lisa Heft on Hosting Large Open Space Meetings

Hi, Martin –

(Martin has asked for tips for a 600-or-so person Open Space event)

So – As part of Christine Whitney Sanchez’ wonderful team for the Girl Scouts USA event, I facilitated a pre-conference Open Space for 700+ people.
(I smile when I think of your comments, Harrison – I, too have done OS for 2,000 so to me 5-600 sounds like a breeze. But Martin – it’s new until you have done it a few times, eh? And we are all happy to help).

The hotel ballroom I used for that was (according to the hotel) about 21,000 square feet – though it was a bit long rather than square. Being a person who absorbs information by graphics and not by numbers, this does not help me and I usually ask the site to see if they can help by creating a to-scale diagram of the room-sets we are discussing, to see if it all works as we discuss our variations before settling on one.

In very large events, I find that it may not be possible to have an opening circle set-up as a circle (or concentric rings) -and also- the ability to set up 50+ discussion areas.
Elements influencing this may be the size of the room, time it takes to move across the room, fire codes and safety issues, and so on.

So. On this list we have shared so many experiences about what-ifs regarding room set-up, and we have collectively found that the circle – for opening and closing – is essential. As not all rooms alow that, we have collectively found that the *feeling* of circle and the facilitator’s body use to *imply* and set that circle is essential.
Therefore, in large events / spaces – think about this:

(for those of you who think graphically, take a piece of paper – write ‘Agenda Wall’ at the top, make a little square in the center, and then draw a ‘cross’ bisecting the page from top to bottom and from left to right)

· I have the Agenda Wall along one very long, approachable wall (like always).

· I have the site set up a small platform in the center of the room upon which I stand (so everyone can see me and know where the sound is coming from when I speak).

· I have the room set up as pre-set circles of chairs (zero tables of course), allowing for a good wide ‘cross’-shaped aisle bisecting the room (my platform is in the center of that cross, one ‘arm’ leads to the Agenda wall and on the other three ‘arms’ are…topics tables…see below).

· In the other three ‘arms’ of the cross-shaped aisles (not the one leading to the Agenda Wall) I have – in each of those – three or four rectangular tables touching/in a line to form in each aisle one very long table. On these tables I have pre-set many markers, plus many topic signs. If the time is short I pre-affix the little time/space post-its to those topic signs, if not I put those post-its to the side of the Agenda Wall in the usual way. At the center end of these sign-making stations I position a microphone on a stand. I also hold a microphone.

· In the center of every of the 50+ circles of chairs I have a location sign (such as “A” or “AA”), notes-taker forms, and sign-in sheets to pass during a discussion.
(there are more than 50 possible conversations of course, as you have your different session times x number of discussion circles – the numbers of discussion circles depends on the size of the room – for large groups I like to imagine my group size divided by 15 to imagine how many discussion areas – others do this differently)

· On the walls (for visibility and help with traffic in a very large room) I have big signs that say things like “A through N” so one can look across the room and know where to walk to.

People start by coming into the room and sitting anywhere – in any one of those little circles of chairs.
I open, explain process and guidelines, from my little platform in the center.
I invite people to come to the sign-making tables, make a topic sign, come to their microphone, announce their topic, and post it on the Agenda Wall.

As people do this I indicate each next speaker, in the round. I am still using / physicalizing the opening circle. My indication of who speaks next also helps the seated participants know who is speaking next. With a large room it is useful to know this as the sound sounds like it comes from everywhere.

Agenda co-creation in my experience has never lasted longer than 1 hour 15 minutes – no matter how large the group has been.

Then we are off – people simple go to the Agenda Wall (you want plenty of room for traffic in front of that and it wants to be very long if possible to allow all to see), put their names on the signs (if that’s your approach) or not, then go to the discussion areas where their preferred topics are.

**everything happens in the same big room**. **there is no space/time in-between sessions on the schedule** **food is also brought in to stations around the edges of this room** **if there is a Newsroom, ideally it is also along the wall of this same room** ** if additional signage is needed helium balloons or signs hanging from the ceiling may be used **

We come back together at Closing Circle time by sitting anywhere. I am once again twirling on my little platform in the center. I invite Closing Circle comments and reflections, once again indicating in the round who next will speak as they once again come up to stand at the 3 microphones.

We have a really delicious time.

My fabulous colleagues who also have done larger OS will give you other ideas from their own experiences…

Our warm wishes go with you,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *