An “open space” meeting, but online

Open space meetings are an incredibly potent tool to discuss almost anything in a group setting, and don’t need a lot of preparation. For our purposes, they are a simple and effective way to build a project proposal with a solid foundation on goals, checking with stakeholders, actually addressing the correct challenges and questions that relate to our research proposal.

Before the social contact restrictions of the cover-19 pandemic this meetings usually went like this: participants in a room, guided by a facilitator, used a whiteboard, a pin board or a table to write down the main issues, topics or questions that in their individual opinion need to be addressed by the group. The dynamic is quite simple, informal and hands-on, so that for instance the participants have to use pens, post-its, etc. themselves and therefore get engaged in the discussion. Then the group or facilitator goes over the topics proposed and groups them in themes or workshops, that are discussed in a second part of the meeting. Each workshop has a framework of simple principles and its goal is to discuss topics with a bit of more detail, for instance to develop a list of actions required, who should take them, a list of questions to be answered in a R&D proposal, etc. In this link there’s more info on how to organise these kind of meetings.

A team in our lab has started to prepare an R&D proposal for an upcoming call. Earlier this week we managed to get a few stakeholders online to present a first draft of the proposal and run a conversation more or less organised following an open space framework. The meeting was successful to improve the proposal and to rewrite its goals. This is how we did it to make it work online:

We had 9 participants and a one hour of meeting at most. The participants were from 3 different stakeholder organisations that have complementary areas of expertise in the topic of our research proposal. We have been in contact with all of them previously, although in some cases just a few weeks ago for the fist time. Hopefully we will be partners in the ad-hoc R&D team once the proposal is submitted for funding.

Before the meeting we prepared an outline of the research proposal with the basic goals and actions we believed make sense. For the open space dynamic, we prepared a simple table with six topics of discussion from the main themes of the research proposal.

We found a time slot free for all using doodle, a very useful free online tool to schedule meetings. We sent the meeting invitation email with a two line description of how the meeting was going to be organised.

The day of the meeting we started the meeting right-away, without proper introductions, with a 15-minute presentation of the project. The presentation was focused on background information about the general medical problem we initially want to address and the technologies we believe we can use.

We then started the open space part of the meeting, with a quick introduction of the participants and the basic rules: Chatham House rule, pre-established topics can be amended,

With a shared screen I took notes of the questions and statements that participants were willing to share about the different topics. This allowed participants to provide real time feedback and expand on the questions already being put forward.

The whole meeting took about 50 minutes and was very successful in identifying several important aspects of the proposal that we had not considered at all and that will be incorporated in the final bid.