It’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.Learning, Open Space | Comment (0)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.Facilitation, Open Space | Comments (2)
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.Open Space | Comment (0)
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.
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.”
“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!Improv, Open Space | Comment (0)
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!Collaboration, Open Space | Comment (0)
Over the last two weeks I’ve been immersed in Open Space Technology – sharing what I know, and learning from others, in a great two-day training program; and then opening space as part of a three-day workshop.
Way back in 2001 when I attended my first World Open Space on Open Space in Vancouver (and incidently met Chris Corrigan for the first time) I remember raising the issue of warming people up to open space. The general view was, and is, that the ritual of opening space is enough of a warm up. And often it is. But sometimes it’s not. I think there’s some value in building a bridge between people’s everyday work and the work they will do in open space, giving them time to let go of all the everyday pressures and immerse themselves in the process of having meaningful conversations.
Having meaningful conversations, particularly in the work place, seems to be a lost art. It’s often considered a waste of time, especially when the next meeting looms. There’s a great improv game called Sun and Moon or Enemy and Friend where you secretly identify two people, one to keep close to and the other to keep between you and the other person. As everyone moves around a sort of pattern emerges – one that replicates how we relate to others. Continuous partial attention. I’m sure you know what I mean. So when there’s an opportunity to sit down with others and have a meaningful conversation that lasts beyond a few minutes, some of us struggle. We struggle to pay attention, to remain focused, to be present and to hear what others are saying. We’re anxious to ‘get on with it’ – whatever ‘it’ is.
You’ll know by now my favourite mantra of the moment – conversations, relationships, then transactions. Open space epitomises this. Open space provides an opportunity to DO this – to have conversations, build relationships and agree on transactions.
Which brings me to the formal transactions part of open space (I’m of no doubt that there are many informal transactions that happen as a result of open space conversations) – called in the lingo, convergence.
I’ve always struggled with convergence. I’ve struggled with the dotmocracy approach, and I’ve played with re-opening space (known as non-convergence convergence). Neither have felt completely ‘right’ in some situations and as Johnnie Moore says, sometimes feel like commitment ceremonies – empty ritual. Which is a shame, because open space is such a rich experience for many.
So last week I tried something else. I don’t think it’s an answer – I think it’s another approach to convergence. One I’m likely to try again.
After reviewing the session reports, I asked each person to write on an A4 sheet of paper one action that really resonated for them. One that got them excited. One that they had some passion for. It could be a big, life-changing action or a small one or anything inbetween.
Then I invited everyone to walk around and find their tribe. Find others with a similar action, reminding them that there could be a tribe of one, or two, or many. No rules. Once they had found their tribes I invited them to develop an action plan including a champion, helpers and the first step. Seemed to work quite well. In a group of 30 people there were six action plans.Open Space | Comments (5)
We are not inviting our clients to engage in risky behavior. Quite the opposite, we are opening a space in which they can really be themselves. And the real risk is to continue with the non-productive, guilt inducing, dependant behavior. – Harrison Owen
Anyone confronted with an Open Space meeting for the first time is often thrust in to what I call ‘open space shock’. We are so used to being told what to do, where to go, and when, that when faced with a self-organising system, we sometimes doubt our own ability to respond.
I see this in all sort of ways: people asking for guidance, grumbling about the ‘lack of organisation’ and fears that no-one would ever come to a meeting or conference where they are responsible for creating the agenda. There’s a fear that we all seem to carry that we’re not good enough – our thoughts, our ideas, our experiences – so we default to relying on others. Open Space puts us all right back in the centre.
One of the many reasons I continue to use open space and explore its effects on people and organisations, is because of the reactions of people and the changes that emerge once they are involved in open space. Experiences are often good, sometimes not – all are legitimate. Why is it that a process like open space can engender so many reactions?
Harrison Owen again - It is not about doing something new, or internalizing some new truth — but rather remembering what we already knew and doing what we should/could have been doing in the first place.
If you’d like to join us on the journey – and also learn the basics of facilitating open space – Andrew Rixon and I will be leading a two-day learning event in Melbourne on June 16 & 17. There’s more information here.
Learning, Open Space | Comment (1)
For a few years now, I’ve been offering Open Space Technology training with the late Fr Brian Bainbridge. I know that Brian would want the training to continue, so I’m pleased that Andrew Rixon has stepped into the breach.
Andrew and I will be offering a two-day training on June 16 & 17 in Melbourne.
There’s more information here.Learning, Open Space | Comment (0)
Every now and again it’s good to be reminded about what makes open space work. Many of us try and intellectualise too much, and make it more complicated than it needs to be. Harrison Owen reminds us about the four principles and one law of open space, and what these mean in terms of the practice of open space in our lives and organisations.
Whoever comes are the right people
Whatever happens is the only thing that could have
Whenever it starts is the right time
When it’s over, it’s over.
The Law of Two Feet
If, at any time, you find yourself in a place where you are not contributing or not learning, then use your two feet and go somewhere else.
In response to a comment on the Open Space List regarding internalising these principles and law, Harrison wrote the following. I think there’s great wisdom in this.
I suspect that it is more a matter of remembering what we already know and for one reason or another have chosen to repress. All of this goes with the idea that Open Space is truly not something new and radically different. In fact it is a forceful confrontation with a pre-existing condition. We are already in Open Space by virtue of the fact that we have forever been in a self organizing world (the usual 13.7 billion years stuff).
The Law and the Principles are descriptive of normative behavior in a self organizing world, and therefore Open Space, I think. In short, we do all of the above all the time — unfortunately we usually feel guilty about it, and because of this, we tend to do it/them badly, or at least awkwardly and grudgingly. Thus with the Law: when faced with a nonproductive situation (no learning, no contribution) we always leave (hearts and mind out the window) — but the body remains feeling miserable, and making others miserable as well. Once we get the picture, things work better, and we feel a lot better. But it is not about doing something new, or internalizing some new truth — but rather remembering what we already knew and doing what we should/could have been doing in the first place.
Why bother with all this? Well if nothing else, I think it makes our job as consultants and facilitators a lot easier. First of all we are not inviting our clients to engage in risky behavior. Quite the opposite, we are opening a space in which they can really be themselves. And the real risk is to continue with the non-productive, guilt inducing, dependant behavior. The old Marxist Battle Cry might have some application here (with modification): People of the World Unite — You have nothing to lose but your chains.” In a word — Be yourself!
Hear, hear!Open Space | Comment (0)