Some common conference designs / approaches

Open Space Technology

Open Space Technology was devised by Harrison Owen whose insight was that however good the conference design, the best sessions (the ones most relevant to the participant’s needs) were the self-organised ones around the coffee breaks. So he developed a design that was an extended coffee break!

An Open Space event is a meeting where the participants create and manage their own programme of parallel sessions around a central theme. The theme needs to be one of central concern to those involved, and in an organisational context is often one like “What are the issues and opportunities facing the ABC Company?”

The guiding principles of Open Space are:
  1. Participation is voluntary (Whoever comes are the right people)
  2. Be relaxed about timetables and agendas (Whenever it starts is the right time)
  3. Don’t have fixed expectations (Whatever happens is the only thing that could happen)
  4. If there’s no more to say, move on. (When its over, it’s over)
  5. If you find yourself not contributing, go somewhere where you can learn or contribute (The Law of Two Feet)

The outcomes are highly participative and energising sessions that can integrate a wide diversity of stakeholders and produce creative and collaborative actions.

Future Search / Search Conferences

Both Future Search and Search Conference are large group planning meeting that brings a ‘whole system’ into the room at one time to work on a task focused agenda. They focus on the future, articulating what it means for each stakeholder present and working out how to influence it.

Future Search follows a progression of events approach from the past into the future, whereas Search Conferences are more concerned with finding the best fit between the system and its environment.

A typical Future Search conference lasts 2-3 days with up to 64 people and uses the following steps:

Focus on the Past. Examine a collective past from three perspectives: the individual the organisation, and society. Find patterns, trends and the direction of movement.
Map the present in all its messy complexity. Examine the current events, trends and developments outside the organisation that seem to be shaping the future. Understand the strengths and characteristics of the organisation. Generate lists of 'prouds' and 'sorries', the things about which people feel good or bad.
Focus on the future. Developing ideal future (5-20 years) scenarios describing the state of being there, not the process of getting there. Find common ground and develop a shared vision.
Reflect, learn and act. Prepare suggested action lists for oneself, the group, and the whole organisation in order to bring closer the future that has been described.

The Search Conference has the following content over 2-3 days:

Learning about our turbulent environment. Identifying the changes affecting the future of the system and imagining the probable and desirable global future.
Learning about the system. Developing a picture of the system’s functioning, and creating a list of what to keep and change.
Action planning. Taking the strategic objectives for the system and developing implementation plans.

The scenarios painted are richer in content than conventional presentations because they emerge out of the diverse contribution of people who reflect the whole system and it is is more productive than a problem-solving workshop because people are energised to find new solutions to fresh situations than to struggle with limited options to old problems.

Real Time Strategic Change

Real Time Strategic Change has no fixed framework but works from a basis of Beckhard’s change formula D x V x F > R. The product of Dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs, a Vision of how things could be and First steps toward realising that vision must be greater than Resistance to change. On this formula hang the sequence of small and large group activities determined by the design team to reach the desired outcomes.

Real Time Strategic Change is a change in the way the organisation works and makes decisions. This is because it focuses on simultaneous planning and implementation.