Shared Open Space ~ SOS

Shared (or Semantic or Structured) Open Space meetings are very similar to standard Open Space Technology (OST) meetings.

Open, no agenda, no leaders, inclusive and equal.



The difference? SOS has a standard terminology for the elements - shown below in Capitalised bold italics. These are the data elements that will be shared with all other Communities and Groups.

SOS meetings are more suited to carrying out a Health Check, looking at ongoing or chronic issues, with a view to what the community needs and can do. Though the data elements are used in all three meeting types, with some minor differences.

For any meeting, a large, comfortable and friendly meeting-place is essential - plus plenty of big Post-It type notes (or just paper and tape) and a large wall or display boards to post all the ideas, questions and meeting details on. Some large marker pens and smaller felt-tip pens are useful. If possible volunteer "scribes" to record details of meetings and outcomes.

It should also be fun! If it isn't fun then there may be a problem and people will drift away. Whilst the meetings are designed to get stuff done, they can also be a good ways for the community to rediscover who and what they are. Depending on what the gathered members feel they want to do will determine what sort of meeting happens. As Harrison Owen says "Whatever happens is the only thing that could have".

Below is one way to do it. There are other models such as World Café or Disney's three rooms method or Bohm Dialogue.

Step 1 - Where: Find a venue that is free or very cheap. It helps if the venue has a large plain wall that you can stick notes on.

Step 2 - Who and When: See who is interested and ask them when would be a good time to meet.

Advertise or otherwise invite interested people, the more diverse the better.

Make sure you have plenty of paper, pencils, marker pens etc.. Try to have more than you need, just in case.

It can be immensely helpful to have a person or people who can record the outcomes as they appear - we call them scribes. Remember, one of the aims is to record and share. It also helps here to ask everyone to pick or chose a pseudonym so that the results can be posted publicly (if you wish to include names) without causing harm or embarrassment.

Note: We like names from history or even better the future.

Step 3 - The big day: On the day, ask whoever turns up to sit in a circle - and make themselves comfortable. If this is not possible it is not a big problem but it helps people to feel equally included. The main thing is that everyone feels comfortable. If it isn't fun it probably isn't working.

There are no rules as such, but we use the following guidelines.

  • Be respectful.
  • Be honest.
  • Be kind.
  • If it isn't working for someone they are free to leave at any time and come back if they wish to rejoin.

Step 4 - The Topic: First comes the big question.This is recorded as the Topic.

To aid collation of responses, and to frame the meeting it is useful to have a general aim, so broad questions can be useful, such as:

[Some Issue in] our Community: what can we do?

[Some Issue in] our Organisation: what can we do?

[Insert community name here - e.g. Houston], do we have a problem?

Feel free to replace "Some Issue in" with whatever is the current concern.

Note: A community can be location based or virtual, for example the system works very well with special interest and scientific groups

It might even be a good way to start the meeting - by asking the community what they think the Topic should be.

It can also be helpful, in the early stages for members to post Needs (some call them Values) on the wall as a snap-shot of the community's passions and perhaps positions on subjects. This can be very helpful if the group has not worked together before. We suggest each person chooses 4.

Step 5 - The Issues: Members think of the Issues (good and bad) that are present in their community or organisation and post these on a blank wall. If it is needed rank the Issues from -4 a big problem to +4 a huge opportunity

Step 6 - Causes and Effects: If there is time and the community feels willing to explore, it can be quite illuminating (especially with the negative Issues) to ask what might be the cause of the Issue and what the effects of the Issue are. We call this the Wisdom of the Whys: Sometimes it may just be useful to ask Why? - and then ask it again - and again.

This is a strategy that served us well when we were young and trying to work out how the world worked. It also has its roots in Socratic Questioning and the three and five whys. It might also be constructive, if possible to deal with the Causes and not just the symptoms.

This taps into a crucial aspect of the process - Systems Theory. All Issues, Causes and Effects (and Proposals and Projects) are in some way part of a System. If we don't take account of that we risk actually making the situation worse.

Step 7 - Take a break: Mingle, have something to eat, stretch your legs. Talk with friends, discus the Issues.

Step 8 - Proposals: The meeting then breaks up into smaller breakout-groups to discuss the Issues. Members are free to move between groups (or leave the meeting) as they want (the law of two feet).

Proposals can take the form of:

Per pro - Someone is already doing this. I am posting on their behalf (either because they have asked me to or just because they are not in the group)

Punt - Is this a possible answer?

Plea - I, and maybe the Group, cannot do anything about this Issue but I feel this is needed.

Possible - I'm interested and might join a Team doing this.

Pledge - I'd like to do this and would be responsible for starting the group.

Promise - I can, and will, do this on my own.

Personal - We can all do this, individually.

Paradise - This is my dream of how it could be.

Product (other) - A product I think might help

Product (mine) - A product I or my company could provide

Step 9 - The Pros and Cons: Once a Proposal is made, members are encouraged to look at the Pros and Cons. Again it might be helpful to rate the Proposal from -4 to +4. When (and if) a breakout-group feels ready to start actual work on a Proposal then this becomes a Project.

Step 10 - Tell the world: During, or after the meeting, the Group's data is shared here, for any other community or Group to discover and learn from or even copy!

Note: A major part of the design of SOS system is the use of standard terminology so that other communities and organisations can search and find others who are dealing with the same (or similar) Issues. It will help collation and sharing if this is borne in mind during meetings.


From then on each Group works together on Proposals and Projects - and if need be, calling for help from the wider community so that we can work on the Issues - together. Whilst the wider community might be able to offer advice and suggestion, the actual work to be done remains the responsibility of the Group.

As Projects progress, Groups are encouraged to update their data with Progress reports so that other groups can learn from the experiences of others. It may help Project Groups to decide on a Purpose, so that any suggestion or action can be checked to make sure it fits with what the Group is about. This can help forestall what some call "mission creep".

Members might also like to play the Triangle of Reciprocity game to better understand where they "fit".

It's early days and we expect things to change - this is an evolving project itself. New features and resources will be added as we grow and needs appear.

If you are interested in holding an SOS meeting for your Organisation or Community please get in touch.