Keeping the momentum going after an open space

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —May 5, 2006
Filed in Anecdotes, Communication

A few months ago I facilitated an open space session for a group of knowledge coordinators working in a government agency. We spent the day together and at the end of the session there was a clear set of activities and a high level of energy to get things done. Yesterday I heard that many of the tasks haven’t been done. Yes, I was a little disappointed so I ask the question: “How can we increase the chances of sustaining the momentum after an open space session?”

On the same day on hearing this news I was working with Mary Alice Arthur, a appreciative inquiry (AI) practitioner from New Zealand. Mary Alice has done some wonderful projects recently: a merger at New Zealand Telecom, branding for ANZ bank (NZ) and working with NZ primary schools—all done with AI. Mary Alice said there was a similar concern in the Telecom merger project: would the interventions designed by staff be implemented? To counter the potential apathy each action team (responsible for designing and implementing the intervention) conducted a feasibility study and developed a plan for their intervention then presented their plan to the senior management team. The management team’s role was not to veto the plans, but just to listen and hear the team commit to delivering their project. There was tremendous follow through.

Robert Cialdini describes why this act is powerful in ensuring the ‘ball keeps rolling’ after your open space finishes: “People have a desire to look consistent within their words, beliefs, attitudes and deeds.” Of course when you commit to a leader there is considerable pressure to deliver. This type of  commitment is most effective “when they are active, public, effortful, and viewed as internally motivated (uncoerced).” Hmmm. What I’ve suggested sounds a little coerced. How about this modification: actions teams can volunteer to present their plan to the senior management team.

Now I’m not an expert in open space (Andrew and Mark have a much greater experience) so I’m keen to hear from people who have done many open spaces. What’s been your experience?

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. In short, the more you think about this question BEFORE the event, the better the chances for sustained action afterwards. It’s pretty elementary. When you are preparing the invitation, ask the sponsor how they intend to support the results of the gathering (if at all). Then you can be open with people at the meeting itself about what is at their disposal with respect to follow up.
    THis is never a problem if you have more than a day in Open Space. An extra half day for action planning makes all the difference in my opinion. I often reconvene the action champions a few weeks after the event to check in on where they are at and to see what else people need to do. This generally gives the needed boost to avoid the event tailing off.
    But if you only have a day, my recommendation is to do a couple of things like this:
    * include on the session report form a box for “What happens next?” and make sure the convener’s get some committment to carry forward. This could be as simple as setting a date for the conversation to continue.
    * Create an “Action marketplace” in the room in which small invitations to action can be posted. It’s just a bulletin board that folks can sign up on.
    * In your introduction, remind people that the actions that arise from the meeting will be their responsibility for follow through.
    And, as always, feel free to Skype me next time this question arises for you and we’ll talk it through.

  2. Thanks Chris. Excellent advice. I was hoping you would post a comment.

  3. Here on the west coast of North America, we fish for salmon with big chunks of herring.
    Your post was a big chunk of herring! Good bait!

  4. I don’t think this is just an issue for open space. I’ve done a lot of similar facilitation for similar reasons, and have observed exactly the same phenonema.
    My approach (still being trialled), is to decline invitations to run facilitated sessions that don’t factor in some sort of follow-up (at least half a day), preferably two. I’m encouraged from Chris’ comments, which suggests that this might have the desired effect…

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