People with different backgrounds all working towards a poorly defined goal would seem at the outset like a recipe for disaster. Imagine starting with a circle of chairs, some markers, and a complex problem to solve.
Leave your agenda at the door. What arises from this self-organizing structure can be greater and more finely adapted to your situation than you could possibly have hoped.
Harrison Owen, in his book 'Open Space Technology' explains the nuts and bolts of how this works, and how it can be harnessed.
Stemming from the idea that the best parts of any good conference are the coffee breaks, Owen developed a way to channel and harness that energy.
People can bring up topics and lead conversations, participate fully in them, bounce around from conversation to conversation, or even just sit on the sidelines as they see fit. Things begin when they are ready, and when they're over, they're over. Each individual is responsible for figuring out where they can best learn or contribute.
People don't get caught up on what could have been. Rules like "whoever comes are the right people" and "whatever happens is the only thing that could have" keep people focused on what's actually happening, rather than what might have been.
This all seems like a kick in the teeth to traditional meeting planning, but allowing people to self-organize keeps people engaged and productive. Can you say that about your last meeting?
To be fair, you can ruin any good idea, and this sort of meeting is no exception. If the decision's already been made, if someone's determined to be in control, or if all you want to do is deliver information, then this isn't the meeting style for you. On the other hand, OST can produce amazing results quickly when applied to complex, poorly defined problems.
As a plus, Open Space Technology can be organized quickly, and it can achieve amazing results as long as the people who show up are there voluntarily, and nobody tries to stay in control.
Web Only Bonus:
These were the two documents that served as my introduction to Open Space, and will provide a more complete description of the methodology. Enjoy.