Using Open Space Technology

The New Coffee Break

The best parts of conferences are often the coffee breaks, right? That’s when you get to talk one-on-one with that person you’ve wanted to connect with all day. That’s when you get to talk about the things you care most about, when you share best practices, philosophies, or new resources spurred by the day’s presentations. What would happen if a conference could be planned as one long coffee break? What kinds of insights and actions would come from a full day of coffee-break connections?  For several decades, countless numbers of individuals worldwide have participated in Open Space meetings, a format originated by Harrison Owen whereby conference participants create the meeting’s agenda and drive the discussions. Now, I’m a concrete, practical kind of person, so when I learned that an Open Space Technology conference means there are no speakers, there is no agenda, that breakout sessions are determined by participants the day of the conference, I laughed a derisive little laugh and said, “There is no way this will ever work.”

And then I ate my words.



Here in my home state, Creative New Jersey (CNJ) has embraced the Open Space Technology model as a tool for championing creativity, innovation, and sustainability through community engagement and cross-sector collaboration. Elizabeth Murphy, Creative NJ’s Director says, “CNJ’s work in communities gathers people ‘at the intersection’ of seemingly disparate disciplines, allowing for a host of diverse, creative ideas to combine with others, thereby encouraging an explosion of potentially groundbreaking, new ideas.”  

Launched as a statewide movement by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, CNJ has worked in five New Jersey communities, with nine more currently in various stages of development. For those of us involved with NJ Emerging Arts Leaders, we are excited to partner with CNJ this month as we host our own creativity convening. Our central question for our conference is: How can we, as emerging arts leaders, drive innovation and create sustainable opportunities for ourselves that will enable us to grow, to nurture vibrant relationships, and to inspire our communities?


We’re sure that the topics for discussion which are born out of this central question will challenge us to think and act differently, and the notes from all of the sessions will give us a road map for continued action. 

For example, ArtPride NJ’s Arts Day (May 2013) presented a mini CNJ convening and the central question was: How can the arts in NJ take new & creative approaches to strengthen its position within the fabric of community life?

Participants were asked to write down any questions that related to the guiding question. If you write down a question, you have to be willing to lead a breakout session on it—the subtext being: make sure it’s something you really care about, although you do not have to be an expert on this topic.

There are a few guiding open space principles: 

  • The people who are there that day are the right people to be there. Subtext: You’ve made the time to be here so you’re passionate about this.
  • ​The rule of two feet: If you are no longer getting anything out of a breakout session or no longer contributing to the discussion, get up and walk away—move on to something else.  Subtext: Only the most engaged people will be participating in a conversation at any given time.
  • Whenever something happens is the right time for it to happen. Subtext: An idea will succeed only when there is enough energy, time and passion behind it—don’t force it.

I led a breakout session and participated in one in that two-hour span, but I’ll focus on the one I led. My question was, “How do we connect the talents and interests of emerging leaders with the boards and organizations who need them?” The participants in the room were mostly executive and artistic directors of arts organizations in our state, or senior staff. There were a handful of younger staffers like me.

No one came to my breakout.

At least, for the first fifteen minutes. I was putting my markers back in the box, ready to follow the “rule of two feet” and accept that folks just weren’t interested in my topic, when a senior staff member of a highly respected philanthropic organization walked over and asked if I was still hosting my session. Within five minutes, we were joined by the executive director of a state-wide sustainability initiative, an arts and healthcare advocate, the head of a local media company, and a former State Arts Council chair.


What would happen if a conference could be planned as one long coffee break? 


We had a conversation—like you would over coffee—that flowed from one idea to the next and sometimes back again. Within twenty five minutes, we had four plans of action to address my question. I’m happy to share those with anyone who is interested, but for the sake of brevity, will simply say that I would never have come up with them on my own. I left that session with a network of interested individuals to use as sounding boards, with resources I hadn’t known existed, and with clearly articulated goals and the first steps to reaching them.

So, yeah…I ate my words, and gladly.

Elizabeth Murphy emphasizes that “this egalitarian, democratic approach to convening people unleashes the leadership of every individual who cares to show up and step up. The feeling of commitment and renewal at the end of the convening is palpable.” Albert Einstein (a remarkable New Jerseyan) once said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved with the same level of thinking we used to create them." CNJ’s process turns conventional wisdom on its head and allows for all sorts of diverse ideas to be tested through the lens of creativity and sustainability—qualities that our emerging arts leaders value greatly.

If you want to see a convening in action, the NJ Emerging Arts Leaders event, part of Americans for the Arts’ Creative Conversations, will be on Saturday, October 19 from 10:30am-5:30pm EDT, hosted by Rider University’s Arts Administration Department. We’ll be livestreaming here on HowlRound TV at and you can chime in with your thoughts on Twitter by using both #njeal and #newplay.

Have any of you encountered Open Space Technology or other community engagement/empowerment models that have worked particularly well for you? We’d love to hear your stories. If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that I’ll never come up with the best ideas alone. So…let’s grab a coffee and chat!


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I've been in the arts and a public school teacher for almost 40 years and every year for each profession we dutifully sat in large rooms (plenary sessions) or small rooms (breakout sessions) to listen to speakers chosen by other people talk to us. Once in a while, some of us - writers/teachers - would by chance be in the same place during the breaks. That's when the real energy came; that's when the substantive discussions took place. That's when some of us made life/career-changing decisions. That's when I learned how to do something I'd never know before. I made friends out of colleagues, understood people's real opinions, and connected with people I would only sit behind at a conference or breakout session or pass in a hall way. All those wasted opportunities to be with the people who could really matter to me and to whom I could matter, in turn! You nailed it. The coffee break groupings - natural, informal, no hierarchy, no podium, no pontificating (hopefully) and fully democratic. Thanks for reporting on a method of making what worked best for me. Can't wait to go to one of these kinds of conferences. I appreciated your example and how it turned out.

Hi Paul! Many of the conversations we had at the conference today centered on just that issue: Where do the big discoveries come from and how can we utilize those formats to support both teachers and students in schools? If you're interested I would be happy to put you in touch with participants in those breakout sessions from today's conference talk more about it

I was at that Arts Day, and although OST did have some flaws (namely that a coordinator did not let the workshop evolve organically) I found it refreshing. Like a giant brain storming session.

Hi Heidi! So glad you were there at Arts Day, too. I understand what you mean about wanting things to evolve organically. For those unfamiliar with Creative New Jersey, CNJ usually hold a two DAY convening with a community - the Arts Day event was only two HOURS. Imagine what a two DAY brainstorming session would do to refresh and invigorate participants! Imagine how much we could drill down into action plans with that kind of coffee break time!

The MN Sustainable Theatre Group just held one of these that I co-organized back in July. I had the EXACT same feelings as you going into it - there is no way this is going to work.
Low and behold we'll be doing ALL of our future meetings in this format. Instead of meeting monthly to just talk for less than an hour about the surface of things, we'll be doing open space meetings quarterly to dive deeper into actions, theories, and plans.
Thanks for sharing!