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How to Overcome Objections to the Open Space Event Format

Published January 23, 2023 in Leadership

This week, we conclude our look at the Open Space event format. This series was inspired by a discussion in the ASAE Collaborate forum, where Patrick Jones, executive director and CEO of the International Bridge Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA), described his association's success hosting two Open Space events for members. 

Our post last week shared the guiding principles of Open Space, three association examples, and the advantages of using this event format. In this post, we focus on the challenges you may encounter when adopting the Open Space format for one of your events. But first, here’s a quick overview of Open Space.

An introduction to the Open Space event format

In his Collaborate post, Patrick shared a four-minute video that explains the Open Space concept and includes feedback from IBTTA’s Open Space attendees.

At an Open Space event, attendees create the agenda and organize into groups to discuss the issues and problems most important to them. Patrick described it this way: 

“Open Space begins with the premise that one of the most effective ways to cultivate engagement and deep dives into the most important issues confronting a community of people is NOT to control the people but instead to give them the freedom to talk about the things they are most interested in and passionate about.”

Advantages of the Open Space event format

Since we’re going to talk about its challenges, it’s only fair to mention the advantages the Open Space format has over the traditional conference agenda. We went into detail about these advantages in last week’s post

•    Timely, relevant agenda set by the attendees themselves—not predetermined months in advance by others

•    More engaging learning and community-building experience

•    More effective learning experience 

•    More inclusive experience that elicits a diversity of perspectives from attendees, including industry partners, if you wish

•    Less work for staff—no call for proposals or abstracts, no session and speaker selection, and no schedule and speaker management

•    Positive impact on attendees and industry—transformative conversations, professional connections, and community building

three women sitting at a table and participating in an open space event format

Potential challenges with the Open Space event format

Patrick said, “The forces working against open space are deeply entrenched and have large constituencies.”

Open Space is unfamiliar. But that’s easily remedied by sharing a video like IBTTA’s with decision-makers.

Open Space goes against our conditioning. Patrick described how most of our lives we’re conditioned to be on the receiving end of communication. We passively receive the ideas of one person or panel in the classroom, church, workplace, and conference keynotes and sessions. But any education professional knows that’s not good learning.

Association executives are risk averse. Patrick reminded Collaborate readers about this characteristic while including himself in that group. Many leaders don’t want to be surprised by a negative outcome or don’t want to rock the boat. So, start small like he did. Just make sure you invite people who can share your Open Space success story and influence decision-makers.

Employers might not buy in. It’s tough to approach a boss with a request for funds to attend an event with no agenda and no speakers. Where’s the beef? 

But traditional conferences don’t offer any guarantees either, yet we find money for them. Once again, Open Space goes against our conditioning and expectations. That’s why IBTTA’s first Open Space event for CEOs was a genius move. 

IBTTA’s first experiment with Open Space was a 90-minute session for 20 CEO members. Seven groups, ranging in size from two to ten people, held discussions. The CEOs loved the experience, giving credibility to the new idea, so IBTTA decided to use the concept again at a larger meeting.

You could do the same and use leadership testimonials as part of a justification toolkit, along with IBTTA’s explainer video.

Continuing education credits is the toughest challenge. Most CEU requirements won’t recognize Open Space sessions because it’s impossible to identify specific learning outcomes or presenters in advance.

In the Collaborate discussion, Lucas Cioffi, co-founder and CTO at QiqoChat, said Open Space sessions “make for amazing conversations, but they don't align with standard CE requirements.” 

Jack Coursen, senior director of professional development at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, suggested prefacing each Open Space session with planned thought-provocation mini-sessions. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) did something similar with scheduled keynote “invitations” at their virtual Open Space event.

Or you could forget about credits at Open Space events. Drive people to online content for their CE credits. It’s more convenient and affordable for them to digest educational content on their phones or laptops. Make it known that the Open Space event is the place for transformative ideas, conversations, and relationships, but not CE credits.

Lucas suggested another strategy. Hold an online Open Space event six months before your conference. Members can make new connections at the Open Space event—connections they can meet in real life at the conference, where they can also earn the credits they need.

Getting the right people in the room is the key to a successful Open Space event. You need to attract people who want to wrangle big issues, share ideas, and lead and participate in conversations.

AASHE called out their target audience on their Open Space event page: “Calling all change-makers, forward thinkers and progressive educators!” They specifically described the professional goals and type of work done by people who would benefit from the event.

They also asked registrants to share information about the event with their colleagues and provided sample messages to help them do so. Daita Serghi, senior education manager at AASHE, personally invited members she thought were ideal for the event. 

Lucas said, “The key is to put a big challenge the industry is facing at the center of your invitation and then to ensure you invite everyone (maybe also those outside of your association too) who can be part of a solution, aiming to get the ‘whole system in the room.’”

Given these challenges—although many are surmountable—why take a chance on Open Space? Because it delivers a more effective and enjoyable learning experience to attendees. 

But attendees aren’t the only ones who benefit from an Open Space event, your industry will too. Lucas gets the last word on this topic: “Think about what Open Space can do for your members and your industry, unlocking innovative… conversations that need to happen but are not yet happening.”

Debbie Willis

Debbie Willis is the VP of Global Marketing at ASI, with over 20 years marketing experience in the association and non-profit technology space. Passionate about all things MarTech, Debbie has led countless website, SEO, content, email, paid ad and social media marketing strategies and campaigns. Debbie loves creating meaningful content to engage and empower association and non-profit audiences. Debbie received a Bachelor of Business Administration in Marketing Information Systems from James Madison University and a Masters of Business Administration in Marketing from The George Washington University. Debbie is a member of Sigma Sigma Sigma sorority, American Society of Association Executives and dabbles in photography.

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