Buying in to the Open Space discussion

September 28th, 2008

There’s a really cool discussion about Open Space circulating the blogosphere. It started here with Dave Pollard. Jack Martin Leith and Johnnie Moore waded in, and also Chris Corrigan. Dave will be at Chris’s Art of Hosting on Bowen Island by the time I get this posted – and I SO WISH I WAS THERE. There’s going to be some wonderful conversations if these posts are any indication.

I’m a bit wary of entering the fray with these excellent thinkers, but here goes. These my thoughts on some of the themes that have emerged.

Expectations of Open Space – or any other process for that matter

I’ve always been wary of any process that’s held up as THE one – including Open Space. The skill of the facilitator is in matching a process to a client’s expressed needs, the group, their expectations, the time available, the energy the group has – the actual facilitation is usually quite straightforward after juggling all those elements. And sometimes, Open Space will fit the bill. 

I’ve seen people frustrated, angry and bored with Open Space. Maybe they’d have the same reaction to any process. I don’t know. What I do know is that any process, including Open Space, works when people are generous – with themselves, and with each other. Generous to share what they know as well as what they don’t, their ideas, and their anxieties.

Dave suggested that Open Space works against the ‘maverick thinkers’. I wouldn’t know. If I care enough about my idea I’m going to tell whoever will listen. Maybe Open Space works against ‘obvious thinkers’ too. Maybe it allows all sorts of thinkers to be heard, but only if they choose to open their mouths. Open Space is not therapy. It’s not a cure for shyness, or aggression or anything else. It’s a fairly robust way (in my experience) of enabling people to have conversations. And sometimes those conversations are mediocre – sometimes they’re not. Should I intervene if the conversation is mediocre? How would I judge? I prefer to let people get on with it – which raises the question of why they need a facilitator at all. And that’s a whole other conversation that I’m not going into right now.

Objectivity of the facilitator

In another life I trained as a journalist. I suppose I was a failure at that because I simply couldn’t buy into the ‘objective journalist’ mantra. I believe I bring my experiences and biases and filters to every situation, including facilitating. I don’t believe in the ‘objective’ facilitator any more than I believe in the ‘objective’ journalist. Facilitators are making judgements and decisions constantly – some of them big, many small – and ALL are influenced by who we are, our beliefs, our values and our preferences. The very fact of a facilitator being in the room changes the dynamic – and that’s true in Open Space as well, even if it is less than in many other processes.

So why have a facilitator at all? (OK, I will buy in now) I reckon the best facilitators are those that are generalists and connectors – have a broad ranging knowledge base, are not experts in anything, and can see connections that others might miss. (hey, that’s me *smile*). The facilitator can become part of the system for a while and play a disruptive (in a good way) role. They can help the group experience something different. And when we use Open Space, the experience can be quite dramatic. Whatever the outcome the group, and the individuals, will be different as a result of the experience. Often only a little bit different, sometimes fundamentally different. Hopefully different good, rather than different bad.

Control/taking charge 

Facilitators generally learn to focus on process. And often, the most appropriate process for a particular group will be one where the facilitator plays a central role. Increasingly, though I’m finding I can be of more use when I’m not the centre of attention. So if I let go of content AND process, what’s left for me to do? Good question. Get out of the way? Find a new job? I think it’s all the work done before an event that has the greatest effect – and then maybe I’m only needed on the day to provide moral support.

Speaking personally, I like to be in control. That’s why I work for myself. I quite like to be bossy too. And sometimes those are good traits when things need to get done (and we know what those ‘things’ are). And sometimes I just need to let go of control. It’s hard. And it’s a really good skill to have developed. I’m grateful to Open Space for teaching me to let go.

In Playback Theatre there’s an activity called ‘conflicts’. Two players will act out, physically and with words, an inner conflict. I’m always reminded of this when I facilitate Open Space. I so want to get in there and DO something, FIX things, while I KNOW that I should just let it unfold. Is this abrogating my responsibility as a facilitator? Some might think so – I think it’s part of the facilitator skill to know when to intervene and when to stay the hell out of it.


I’ve posted on this before. If a particular product is required from a facilitated event, then maybe facilitation isn’t the best option. There’s lots of ways of ensuring outcomes, products, and consensus that don’t require facilitation. What facilitation can do is provide a way for people to gather face-to-face and have conversations – that may or may not lead to some conclusion. Open Space Technology provides a way (not the only way) for people to be in conversation. 

As a facilitator I’m prepared to take responsibility for my role – I’m not prepared to do the work on behalf of the group. I’d charge double for that!

And a final thought

I love the way Open Space creates such passion, so many questions, followers and heretics. Those of us participating in this on-line discussion have been grappling with many of these questions for years – I know I certainly have. And I can’t see it ending soon. As soon as I think I’ve grasped some *truth* about Open Space the world tilts a little and I’m left floundering again. I’ll continue to use Open Space, as well as many other approaches, and I’ll continue to explore and question. I’m grateful to Open Space and all the users and naysayers and tinkerers out there who continually challenge and excite.



4 Comments so far

  1. A solution to “Groundhog Day” problem solving | Jack Martin Leith on September 29, 2008 7:30 am

    […] Buying in to the Open Space discussion, by Viv McWaters […]

  2. Facilitation - Evaluation - Beyond the Edge - Viv McWaters on September 29, 2008 11:44 am

    […] found myself referring to generosity a lot lately. Here and here. Patti Digh also talks about being generous here. Patti says:  Chapter Four in Life is a Verb is […]

  3. Jack Martin Leith on September 30, 2008 6:24 pm

    Hiya Viv. Looking at this clutch of articles – yours, Dave Pollard’s, Chris Corrigan’s, Johnnie Moore’s, mine – I’m reminded of the three modes of facilitation that John Heron sets out in his book, The Facilitator’s Handbook. They are:

    1) Hierarchical: the facilitator decides

    2) Co-operative: the facilitator and participants decide together

    3) Autonomous: the facilitator delegates to the participants (but, does not abdicate responsibility and accountability).

    The three modes seem to correspond with Starhawk’s three types of power:

    Hierarchical > Power over
    Co-operative > Power with
    Autonomous > Power from within

    The facilitator’s challenge is to be able to employ all three modes of facilitation, and to know which mode to use in which specific situation. And the frustration for student facilitators is that “which to use when” cannot be taught. As you graciously admit, even experienced and highly skilled facilitators can get it wrong. In fact it could be argued that if you’re not getting it wrong, you’re not taking enough risks.

    Thank you for an enjoyable and thought provoking article. I’ve refereced it in my own one (A solution to “Groundhog Day” problem solving), and linked to it.


  4. Viv McWaters on September 30, 2008 6:56 pm

    Thanks Jack – I’m reminded too of facilitator archetypes (and their shadows) that my mate Andrew Rixon has explored: the healer, the teacher, the visionary and the warrior. In a survey of Australian facilitators, many felt that the teacher and visionary archetypes best described their style of facilitation. Interestingly, few related to the warrior archetype which is the one that I most strongly relate to. I think we probably bring all of these to our work – as you’ve suggested above. The trick – or skill – is in knowing when to use which.

Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind

This blog is kept spam free by WP-SpamFree.