Some musings on facilitating open space


November 11th, 2015

While open space has been part of my facilitation DNA for 25+ years, I don’t always have opportunities to facilitate open space events. That’s changed this past few weeks with two quite different events. The first was for a group of 40 humanitarian workers from the Pacific Region. They meet regularly, but this was the first time they had done so using open space. The second was with around 200 people, many with an engineering background,  from a state government organisation.

The first I facilitated alone, the second, I co-faciltated.

Given the choice, I would always choose to co-facilitate. It’s just not possible to have the sort of conversations I like to have with a co-facilltator (Should we or shouldn’t we do this or that? What if we…? How about trying…?) with my client. For one, it would probably freak them out to have too much of an insight into how my brain thinks up, considers, rejects, and eventually, after a circuitous route, lands on a course of action. Or not!

There’s a rhythm to an open space event, especially if people are new to the process. They arrive and view the circle with some suspicion, or at least apprehension. There’s nowhere to hide. It warms up slowly. Even if it’s a short open space, I like to include at least one sleep. People come back different after their subconscious has had a chance to process the experience of open space. Different how, you ask? More relaxed, more confident, willing to jump in – I’m not sure, but you can feel the different energy.

On the whole, I like big open space events better than smaller ones. There’s a buzz, an excitement around being able to get hundreds of people self-organising. It just seems to flow. As we know it always does. For me, it’s more evident when there’s lots of people.

I also love the way people are surprised by how useful it is just to talk with each other. Sure, there’s always someone who is a bit bored, or wants to move along at a faster pace, but generally the feedback is about the joy of actually sitting down and talking about what matters with other people who also care.

My favourite moment in open space is when people reconvene in the circle. I learnt from my friend and mentor, Brian Bainbridge, to sit in the circle and gently ring the bells till everyone comes and sits down. It may take a while, but eventually they do come. And with a large group, there’s also a lot of chatter. I absolutely love that moment, when ringing the bells, and all the chatter has stopped and there’s pretty much complete silence. It’s a moment you can practically touch. I find it deeply satisfying. A bit like open space itself.

Open Space on Open Space, Melbourne Dec 10


November 11th, 2015

IMG_7806I’ve just completed two days facilitating open space. And I’m exhausted. Why is facilitating open space – a process where it looks like the facilitator is doing not very much at all – so exhausting?

If you’re interested in this question and others about open space come along to our Open Space on Open Space in Melbourne on December 10. It’s for anyone who uses open space, has been a participant in an open space event and wants to know more, or is simply curious. It’s not a training (there’s one of those happening the following day, on December 11) – it’s more an opportunity to experience and share experiences of open space and deepen our understanding. Plus it will be fun to hang out.

What is Creative facilitation?


November 11th, 2015

And how does it differ from any other sorts of facilitation?

It took me a long time – literally years of trial and error – to find my own style of facilitation. It was helpful to see how other people facilitated and I would learn lots from them. But I was not other people. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say there were two huge influences on my facilitation: open space technology and applied improvisation. In-between I learnt lots of processes and techniques, useful of course to have many of these to draw upon, but alone, not enough.

Open space technology and applied improvisation provided a way of being a facilitator,not just doing facilitation. Eh? Does that sound a bit weird? Even if I am not specifically using open space or applied improv, the principles behind these approaches are always a part of how I facilitate.

For example, from open space I learnt to hand over responsibility to the participants, to step out of the limelight, to let people get on with it.

From applied improv I learnt to let go, to trust (both others, and myself), to commit, and how to perform as a facilitator.

Importantly, from both of these practices I learnt these things both cognitively and physically. Letting go is not just an abstract idea, it is a physical process.

Fast forward to 2010 when Johnnie Moore and I co-founded Creative Facilitation. Creative Facilitation embodies (literally) the best of open space and applied improvisation, and importantly, is based on this premise: that the participants in any workshop are creative, intelligent and want to succeed. With that in mind, we facilitate with people, not for people. It’s nuanced, and for me, it’s pivotal.

When improvisation meets Open Space


October 29th, 2014

Taiwan Open SpaceThere are few things that have influenced my way of working – and way of living – as much as Open Space and Improvisation. And it’s not so much what they represent, as the people they have enabled me to meet, befriend, and learn from.

I also see Open Space as improvisation in action. So I was thrilled to read this from one of the best and most respected improvisers on the planet, Rebecca Stockley. She was writing about a workshop she’s planning for newcomers at the annual Applied Improvisation Conference, coming up soon in Austin, Texas.

“I’m leading the Pre-Conference Workshop for our new-comers and would love to incorporate your ideas. Some of the ideas I am addressing so far include:

Create your own adventure
Learn – bring your Curiosity
Share – bring your generosity
Honor yourself – Law of Two Feet
Connect – Make new friends
Let your partner change you and Make your partner look good.”

Did you see that? “Honor yourself – Law of Two Feet”.

Yes. Yes.Yes.

Open Space Technology Facilitation Training – February 13


January 3rd, 2013

IMG_3210It’s exciting to be offering Open Space Facilitation Training again with my friend Andrew Rixon in Melbourne on Wednesday, February 13. Here’s a flyer about the training for you to download and you can book and find more information here.

Have you ever been to an ‘unconference’? Or maybe just heard about them? You might have been to a Trampoline day, or a BarCamp or some other event where you, as a participant, are invited to create the agenda. Open Space Technology has been around for a bit longer than these, and Harrison Owen, creator (?), discoverer (?), user and prolific author about all things Open Space says the approach has been around as long as there have been humans making decisions together, and all he did was rediscover this self-organising approach to meeting, and working together.

Open Space is easy to learn and easy to use – and it has layers and layers of really interesting stuff that underpins how and why it works. Understanding the origins of Open Space and the nuances of how and why it works, enables you to more effectively apply its principles to any meeting or gathering.

We like to think of Open Space as an operating system that underpins our facilitation and consulting practices.

If you are responsible for bringing people together to share information, make decisions, work together, co-create the future, or if you’re just curious about self-organising systems, complexity and peacebuilding (yes, really!) – then this training will have something for you.

We’ll explore the logistics of Open Space, the experience of Open Space, and the philosophy of Open Space. When, where and why to use Open Space, when not to use it, and why it works in even the most complex and conflicted situations.

We’ll explain, and demonstate, Open Space facilitation (hint: you’ll have to let go of just about everything you’ve ever learnt about facilitation) and we’ll look at how you can design to use Open Space for half a day or a whole week, over multiple sessions and embedded within more conventional processes.

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.

Always something else to learn about open space


September 21st, 2010

Yesterday I watched my friend and colleague, Johnnie Moore, open space. It’s always a joy to watch other facilitators at work (especially those that are as masterful as Johnnie) – something that doesn’t happen that much for those of us working alone.

Here’s some of what I picked up – much of which I’ll be trying next time I open space.

Johnnie did a great job of connecting with the audience, nearly all of whom were experiencing open space for the first time, by telling a story of the experience of the process and blending the principles into that narrative. He did this without explicitely naming the principles, and I thought it sounded much less stilted than my more pedestrian approach.

He further built the story of open space by talking about different ways of creating an agenda for a meeting and pointing out that the agenda for this meeting was blank. He brought the materials into the centre of the circle as he explained the process. Until I saw this it never occurred to me that it could be done this way. Now it’s so obvious. Just proves my point about the need to be vigilent about disrupting patterns of thinking and behaving – others’ and our own!

One of the difficulties of posting open space topics is that many people are prone to link their topic with someone else’s because they appear to be similar. Sometimes even 4 or 5 topics are clumped together because of a common key word. I’m always wary of this. I took part in an open space session where two topics were joined together and the whole conversation revolved around the two leaders arguing over what they really meant. It would have been far better to have had two separate sessions. So I really liked Johnnie’s advice to the participants to NOT colonise other people’s topics and to honour the individual offerings made.

And I particularly liked the way he named and described how to have a ‘bad’ experience of open space: wait for someone else to take the lead, don’t propose a session on a topic you’re really interested in, stay in boring conversations, and grumble at the end that nothing worthwhile happened. Just brilliant.

Let’s just pretend I wrote this, OK?


August 23rd, 2010

Of course, I didn’t. It was written by Harrison Owen. And I am ever so grateful that he did.

A long time ago a good friend, Ralph Copleman, was to be found in the middle of a large circle of peers dressed in a flowing cape and repeating the words, “Everything is moving, Everything is moving.” Odd to say the least and some doubted Ralph’s sanity. Some still do, but that image has stuck in my febrile brain ever since – and as time has passed it occurs to me that Ralph had it precisely right: This is an energetic cosmos. The problem arises when we (and that includes all of us some of the time) desperately want everything to  stop and stand still. So desperately in fact that we have created a mental image of our environment exclusively populated by static things which include everything from mountains to super nova along with the oddments of our life like professions, chairs, relationships, organizational structures, corporations, countries and empires. Unfortunately this mental image is a radical illusion, one might say delusion. Ralph is right. Everything is moving and what we perceive as stable structures are but the momentary, slice in time, freeze-frame constructs of our imagination.

Heresy? Psychobabble?  Advanced esoteric insight? – None of the above, I think. As a matter of fact, Ralph’s observation is nothing but a short (poetic?) version of the (now) standard scientific understanding of the nature of the cosmos. Starting with the Big Bang it is all flowing energy, albeit now clumped in momentary configurations – but still flowing energy for all of that. Scratch any rock hard enough and its essential nature comes through – a whirring bunch of quarks and neutrons doing the cosmic dance. Doubtless my physicist friends would take issue with my phrasing – but not, I think, with the core message. Everything is moving.

So what does all this have to do with the price of eggs? Or for that matter – Open Space and our role as facilitators and consultants? A lot, I believe.

Starting with Open Space which is many things to different people. For some it is a Large Group Intervention. Others might see it as an aberrant phenomenon peculiar to a cultish few. For myself Open Space is a trial ride in the flow of life which has a lot of similarities to my boat.

My boat is smallish in size (32 feet) but definitely larger than the average punt. She is very seaworthy and shares a common heritage with the local Lobster Boats here in Maine. We have many visitors, most of whom have never been on a boat such as the Ethelyn Rose. When you walk on board, things look sort of familiar. Chairs for sitting, a comfortable nook for dining, and even an oriental rug on the floor – excuse me, sole. If you look further there are the standard amenities such as a shower and commode, all sequestered in their separate quarters. Even a complete landlubber will feel more or less at home.

But the moment we leave the dock the world changes – apparent stability yields to constant motion. Everything is moving even if it seems to be staying in the same place! In the harbor motion is minimal, but the moment  we clear the breakwater marking the harbor entrance the experience can be radically different. Sea swells from the open Atlantic Ocean take us up and down in distances measured in yards, and should we have a good cross wind the surface chop adds an interesting side to side motion. The Ethelyn Rose is right at home, but some of our visitors have a different impression. And navigating in these conditions is a definite learning experience. Even a simple walk through the main cabin can be a challenge. Hand holds that you had carefully plotted at the start of your journey suddenly changed position relative to you as you made your way. What was up is now down and who knows what is happening in between. Interesting, and as they say, It ain’t Kansas.

Most people meet the challenge and after a few educational bumps to  various parts of their anatomy they learn not to fight reality. No matter what you may have thought you were going to do, the only useful option is to go with the flow. And the next level of learning is that when you do that well (flow) you can actually arrive where you need to be. Wonderful! Sounds a lot like Open Space.

We start in the static stability of a circle. This may seem strange to some, but there is a place for everybody and everybody finds a place. A familiar and enduring structure for sure. Then it happens. The circle crumbles in bits and pieces as people come to center, announcing their passions – only to be briefly restored as they return to their seats. However the restoration is but momentary. Shortly everybody leaves their seats to join a chaotic gaggle at the wall. So much for static structure, and it goes downhill from there.

Ebbing and flowing, groups form and reform all without benefit of the standard constraints essential for orderly organizational life—or so we might have thought. Pre-arranged agenda (sometimes called Mission, Goals, Objectives) is nonexistent. The Schedule might be posted but never followed – things start when they start. Assigned participation is nowhere to be found, and yet the right people show up. And to make things even worse, the air is filled with buzzing and flutters as Bees and Butterflies do their thing. Madness! To be sure there may be a few people who are utterly flummoxed as the hand holds they may have expected (see above under “Ethelyn Rose at Sea”) disappear . . . or reappear in unexpected places. Their condition is not helped, for should they ask what to do the answer is likely to come back as a question – What would they care to do?

A trifling few will lose heart and head for the shore – perceived stability. But the vast majority, as we have seen over the years and around the globe, will be totally captivated by the moment, and a smaller group will experience that moment as total exhilaration. They are doing what their prior life experience taught them could not be done – seriously and intentionally going with the flow. And rather than being rank hedonism, the experience proves to be massively productive and fulfilling. Doing well and good – and feeling great. A hard to beat combination.

And then we come to Monday morning. Back to reality, as they say. But is it? The truth, I believe is rather different. They have experienced reality and come to the edge of shedding illusion/delusion. In the words of friend Ralph, “Everything is moving” – and this is now a fact of life to be savored and enjoyed. No longer a terrifying unknown, it is to be affirmed and embraced. Not without a few “white knuckle” moments to be sure – but infinitely better than hanging onto the (illusory) rock of stability.

So what about us – those privileged folks who have accepted the honor of opening space in people’s lives? Short answer: Invite our guests over the edge. Please note I did not say, push them over the edge.

Crafting this invitation is always a matter of personal style and must come from the heart. The invitation I have in mind never  appears on a piece of paper (or the electronic equivalent). It arrives in our personhood – who we are and how we present ourselves, which is to say, from the heart. Not to be confused with a gushy valentine or formulaic presentation, the invitation manifests in our simple presence, revealing our own acceptance and joy in the moving flow of life. Without words we express the swimmer’s call: Come on in, the water is fine! Of course you have to be in the water for that call to have any credibility.

It is perhaps easier to say how NOT to create this invitation. First off, it is not a matter of rational argument and presentation of facts. Most people already know the facts at some level, and I think the case could be made that it was “rational argument” that has gotten us into the bind we experience. Given the “fact” of a moving, changing world which can be very uncomfortable, it is quite “rational” to define that world in terms of controllable static chunks that may be contained, or better, bent to our specifications.  This has led us to such wonderful things as “Flood Control” which works until such time as Mother Nature and Old Man River decide to take a different course. It turns out that The River is not a static, definable thing but part of a vast ever changing system. Effective Flood Control would require close management of the Planet’s atmosphere to say nothing of the cosmos beyond. Good luck!

Also under the heading of “NOT to be included” are well intentioned efforts to sugar coat the pill, as it were. Which is to say that we might propose certain limitations that will restrict the  possibility of change in Open Space. Some of us have called these “givens” but so far as I can tell the only given is change itself. And to suggest otherwise is not so much to violate the “Spirit of Open Space” but rather the essence of the cosmos itself. Ralph had it right: Everything is moving. In this context, Open Space Technology is a minimal consideration.

I am by no means suggesting that our invitation look like the back panel of some medication listing every possible adverce reaction, if in fact unexpected change is such an adverce reaction. And truth to tell I find the appearance of unexpected change in the midst of an Open Space to be one of its (OS’s) most delightful consequences. I also think that it is important to note the OS is not the engine of change. It simply provides the space for change to show up and the cosmos (or whatever) takes care of all the heavy lifting.

For me an invitation to Open Space is an opportunity to include friends and strangers in the deepest experience of (my) life. It has little to do with selling a product, doing a process, exercizing some sort of professional competence – although there are doubtless elements of all of that. Fundamentally it is my invitation to experience life at its fullest in which chanagability is not the enemy to be suppressed but rather the rich tapestry of an evolving future. I don’t make it, I can’t predict it – but I can participate both as a sojourner and a co-creator. Stuart Kauffman speaks of being “At Home in the Universe.” That is my elemental experience, and I am always looking for playmates.

Harrison Owen, OS-LIST 23 August 2010

Count me in Harrison. I’m always ready to play.

Improvising writing


July 18th, 2010

I’ve never been afraid of writing. It’s my preferred form of expression. And, mostly, I enjoy it. I do think I’m afraid of committed writing though. You know, the sort of writing that ends up being something: a book, a play, a script, a thesis.

So I’m always interested in ways to trick myself into more committed writing.

I really liked Denzil Meyers’ Adventures in Micro-Fiction, an improvisational writing technique based on an improvisational form called the Harold.

And now Stella Duffy explains how she used Open Space to complete the 4th draft of a novel. She was stuck, and Lee Simpson of Improbable suggested, “it might not be so much a case of not knowing what to do, as not wanting to do it in the usual way.”

Stella explains:

“And that if I did actually know what to do, all I needed to do was come up with that agenda and then allow myself permission to work on it in OS – as and when I was drawn to/moved to, rather than ploughing through a list and grinding to a halt because it was so boring/difficult.

So, the next day, I took some time, called about two dozen sessions – for myself, alone – made up my timetable and each day for the next few weeks I worked on what I was drawn to work on, for as long as I wanted to stay there. The final edit was a pleasure, the book my most successful at the time.

It sounds incredibly obvious as I write it now, but at the time it felt like a huge liberation, trying a new process, one I had worked successfully for other forms, and giving it a go with my ‘real’ work.

And a joy, of course, finding that OS had solo application!”

And Harrison Owen wades in with some thoughts of his own on writing in Open Space.

Having written a few books myself, in retrospect, I guess I did them all in Open Space. The one thing that became absolutely clear was that if I did not have the passion, nothing would work. Grinding it out was no help and best just to put the project on the shelf until it called me. However, once called, there was no stopping until it was over. I never knew at the beginning where the book was going, never had an outline — and truth to tell always felt that the book wrote me.  Sounds pretty much like the 4 Principles and the Law of Two Feet.

So my take aways from this little exploration: follow your passion, don’t plan 🙂 and wait for the book (or play or whatever) to write me. Now that’s something I can commit to!

The surprising power of open space


July 18th, 2010

Regular readers will be aware that I’m a fan of open space. And this week I was inspired by Stella Duffy and her experience of using open space to make theatre. Made me wonder if I’ve been limiting my own use of the form, and gave me a few ideas to chew over.

Stella has been working on a new theatre project and shared with the open space list the report she returned to the National Theatre Studio who generously gave 30+ people the space to work on the new project in OS. Here’s Stella’s story.

I’m emailing to thank you all so much for your support for the Chaosbaby Project Open Spaces this weekend and last.  To give you some idea of what happened, and how valuable it was :
36 people attended over both days (many of them came to both).
The age range was from 21 to mid-60’s.
They were 11 actors, 2 actor-musicians, 4 actor-writers, 1 choreographer-dancer, 6 directors, 1 designer, 1 film-maker, 2 musicians, 2 playwrights, 5 writer-directors, 1 photographer.

In the two days, using the Open Space form, various groups & individuals :

  • wrote a 14-page traditional/’straight’ narrative for the piece
  • developed character breakdowns
  • worked on the physicality/movement for a number of characters/spaces
  • held many discussions about the nature of the piece
  • discussed the nature of chaos (as a theatrical concept, as a dance/movement concept, and in terms of chaos theory and mathematics)
  • created/drew up initial design ideas
  • wrote 3 new monologues
  • worked on the (two, brief) pre-existing texts
  • wrote and recorded a lullaby
  • documented the work on camera and video
  • made a puppet show, with live music accompaniment

Above all, I think, we showed ourselves it is not only possible,but perhaps preferable to work in Open Space, with a wide range of theatre-makers, across many disciplines, which generated an enormous amount of work/material, led not by a single director or writer, but by the whole – and that in doing so it is still possible  to have a cohesive idea of what we are making and where best our skills might be used. I’m really excited about taking this on further, I especially loved that, having met Slav (on the door, doing security) the first Saturday, he took (wonderful) photos for us on the 2nd Saturday.

We’re looking at a full weekend/three day Open Space to further the work later in the year.

I’ve worked in made/devised/improvised theatre for the past twenty-five years, this was one of the few times I’ve felt that it was TRULY a shared group endeavour and not, at least in some ways, a director or writer-led experience. And happy though I am to work as both a director and a writer, a working form that uses ALL the skills in the room, to the utmost that can be offered, feels like a much better use of time, space, money and, most importantly, the full range of all the artists’ abilities.

And I loved Stella’s comment on my earlier post about scriptwriting and facilitation: “Improvising / writing / facilitating – they’re all the same thing as far as I’m concerned.” Indeed!