Our client wanted to engage a diverse group of researchers, health promoters, and other health scientists to integrate mental health into the CDC agenda. His original plan was to hold a traditional conference with multiple days of scientific presentations. Once we understood that his goal was to have an action plan by the end of the conference, we suggested a very different approach, called “Open Space Technology”, which they ultimately adopted. Rather than session after session of presentations on pre-selected topics, the design focused on the theme of “exploring how the work of the CDC relates to mental health and mental illness”.
This highly interactive conference allowed attendees to share their knowledge, explore new ideas, and consider issues based on their passion related to mental health as a public health issue. The conference began by asking participants to identify topics for which they “have passion” and wanted to convene a session. We crafted an agenda of breakout sessions that allowed them to engage deeply on all of them. The convener of each session took the responsibility to document their session. Throughout the first two days, conference check-ins and feedback allowed the group to adjust the agenda based on what they were learning.
On the morning of the third day each participant received a bound report on all the sessions. Participants reviewed the information, agreed on six priority areas, and developed short and longer term actions for each of them. Leaders volunteered to take responsibility for implementing the plans. Within a week of closing the conference participants had already begun many of the short term actions. Within nine months detailed plans had been developed for most of the longer term items. Within three years the plans that were developed at this conference were achieved. The combination of passion and responsibility at the heart of the open space conference design supported these results.