Doing even less


October 4th, 2010

At this year’s Applied Improvisation Network Conference in Amsterdam, I was again invited to open space (dubbed the long-form improvisational form called ‘The Harrison’ by Chris Corrigan) on the final day, providing an opportunity for the 150 or so people there to share their gifts, ask the questions that were still bugging them and generally self-organise, improvise where needed, and be spontaneous.

I was inspired by watching Johnnie Moore open space the previous week (you can read about it here) and made a number of significant changes to the way I facilitate the opening. I was also inspired by my fellow improvisers who claim that improvisation is not something we do, we are all improvisers by dint of being human; and of course, by Harrison Owen, who posted these comments the night before on a TED talk by Sugata Mitra.

[This] is absolutely brilliant. Truly it brought tears to my eyes arising in part because of the consummate simplicity of the learning experiment and its powerful result – but even more because it epitomizes precisely what I believe we as a community should be about. And it is not just about the education of children, important though that may be. The possibilities are larger involving virtually every aspect of the human endeavor. We have had the privilege of witnessing the power of self organization at work doing things that most of our fellows, who have not had that experience, will consider to be impossible. Open Space may have provided the door way through which we might  consciously enter the self organizing world. But that is simply a beginning and the best is yet to come. The first step is to push beyond the narrow focus on OST as a method or “tool” – to begin to apply the central understandings to the vast array of human undertakings – finance, marketing, food production, scientific research, and on and on. Each application will be different and experimental, even as the video you posted was different and experimental. And we cannot do it alone, but we can be a powerful yeast that raises up some marvelous new loafs of bread.

Here’s what I did differently.

No matrix of post-its identifying times and spaces.
I used the simpler version of using a large board for each session (see below), posting the times on top and having a bunch of post-its with the available spaces.

I didn’t post the principles or the Law
I weaved these into the opening, as part of the story of the experience of open space. In any case, the venue didn’t allow any posting on its walls, so I would have had to do even more work to find ways to do this.

I didn’t mention bumblebees or butterflies
But I did, of course, talk about the Law of Two Feet, which I think is integral to open space and self organising.

I told a story
Instead of going through the process I usually do, I started with a story of the beginnings of open space using the Story Spine. And I didn’t rehearse, I improvised (at an improvisation conference no less!). Worked a treat.

I explained how to have a bad time in open space
This I learnt from Johnnie – it’s a brilliant way to pre-empt the nay-sayers and the doubters. It goes something like this: “You can have a bad time in open space by waiting for someone else to post a topic that you are itching to discuss; you can go to sessions and be bored, staying there getting more and more frustrated; and you can come to me at the end and tell me that open space doesn’t work, or that other people need to be better prepared, or that you wanted something that you didn’t get.” Or any variation on that theme.

Don’t colonise!
So here’s another tip I picked up from Johnnie. When posting topics, someone sees that another topic on the wall has the same word or is seemingly similar, so they pop their own topic over the top of it with the intention of combining. This is usually done with no consultation and is often a disaster. Better to have a number of different discussions on the same topic – acknowledging the subtle, but important, differences rather than combining and ending up with a amorphous, generalised conversation that leaves no-one feeling satisfied.

Questions. Yikes!
And when hands shot up when I’d finished and I reluctantly took a couple of questions, which led to even more questions, I remembered my own rule about opening space and not taking questions. So I said just that. “I’m not answering any more questions. Just get on with it.” And they did.

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