Open Space musings

June 27th, 2010

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 Learning

May 24th, 2010

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 Technology

April 13th, 2010

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.

Open Space wisdom

April 6th, 2010

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.

The Principles:

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!

Fringe World Open Space on Open Space, Melbourne 11 May

March 30th, 2010

Melbourne, Australia
Tuesday, 11 May 2010
Abbotsford Convent, 1 St Heliers Street, Abbotsford
9.30 am – 4 pm

Those of you who are familiar with Open Space might be aware that each year there is a World Open Space on Open Space (WOSonOS) event that brings together Open Space practitioners to, well, talk about Open Space. This year the WOSonOS is in Berlin, Germany May 12 – 15.

Many of you will also be aware that Fr Brian Bainbridge (who died in early February this year) was instrumental in the growth and development of Open Space in Australia and New Zealand. He also
maintained the Open Space Institute, circulated regular newsletters and trained many of us in the art and practice of Open Space Technology. He was also well known throughout the world and attended all but one of the last 17 World Open Space on Open Space events.

We have decided to host a Fringe Open Space on Open Space in Melbourne on May 11 to continue the tradition of having local Open Space on Open Space events and to honour Brian’s contribution. Fringe because it’s the day before the WOSonOS and we hope to post some pictures and reports on the (yet to be created) new Australasian Open Space Institute web site for those in Berlin, and elsewhere, to enjoy. It’s also an opportunity to explore the future of Open Space in Australasia – and to do what we always do at an Open Space on Open Space: have conversations about what matters to us, whatever that might be.

Oh, you’re wondering who ‘we’ is? Well, it’s me (Viv McWaters) and Andrew Rixon and Anne Pattillo (New Zealand) and Chris Corrigan (Canada) and Johnnie Moore (UK) and Geoff Brown (Australia). So you see it’s our mini World Open Space on Open Space, and even if no-one else comes we’ll have great conversations.

But we’d love you to join us.

Date: Tuesday May 11 2010
Venue: Abbotsford Convent, 1 St Heliers Street, Abbotsford
Time: 9.30 am – 4 pm
Cost: Free
Format: Open Space

Please leave a comment if you plan to attend, or if you have any questions. That way we’ll know how manylunches to order.

Remembering Brian

February 3rd, 2010

I sit here writing this post through my tears as I remember my dear friend and mentor Brian Bainbridge, who died yesterday morning, in his sleep, apparently of a heart attack.

Brian was a Catholic priest. We were invited to his 40th priestly celebration a few years ago. It was an odd event for us – we were proud to be there as his friends, and probably the only non-Catholics in the room. I still recall the puzzled faces as people asked my connection to Brian. “We work together,” I would answer, “in Open Space.”

Brian began as my Open Space teacher, advisor and mentor. We became friends and colleagues. We delivered Open Space training together, plotted the odd gathering including a World Open Space on Open Space (WOSonOS) in the now destroyed town of Marysville, travelled to WOSonOS events in Vancouver, Goa and San Francisco, and met often for lunch. He would drive down here for dinner, staying over night and quietly slipping away early in the morning as if he’d never been here.

In fact, that’s how he died. Quietly. In the manner of an Open Space facilitator – invisible, no fuss. But his impact on the world is anything but invisible. He lived an open space life. He opened space for others and was unendingly generous in his support and encouragement.

He was proud of what he achieved in his Parish, using Open Space, to transform it from a traditional hierarchy to a more democratic and inclusive way of being. It was not always easy. He persevered. He quietly opened space and allowed ‘whatever happens to be the only thing that could’. I’m glad he wrote it all down, in his eBook The New Parish Priest.

And it’s also his work in the world that I celebrate. His contribution to every single World Open Space on Open Space – USA, Canada, Germany, Australia, ‘Swenmark’, India, Russia, Ukraine, Taiwan. And his opening of space in places as diverse as rural Australia, Papua New Guinea, Cambodia, USA…

I remember him sitting in a circle – it could be any gathering, anywhere – quietly, listening no doubt to all the babbling around him. He would listen and he would wait, and then POW! He would say something that would have everyone reconsidering, thinking, nodding, puzzling. He would tell a story. And conclude with “I reckon”. Or if he was writing, it would always include, IMHO.

Oh. I will miss him!

Beyond Open Space

November 22nd, 2009

At the end of each and every Applied Improv Conference is an Open Space Day (we’re still working on the whole conference being in Open Space, but that’s another story). I’ve had great fun the last two years opening space, and this year enjoyed Chris Corrigan taking on the opening – providing a new voice for AINers to hear, and selfishly, providing an opportunity for me to see how someone else opens space.

I just loved the way Chris quickly applied the language of improvisation to Open Space and named it a long-form frame game known as The Harrison.

And I can’t describe how much I love this – from the incomparable Rich Cox (so much talent in one person, it shouldn’t be allowed!) Post Open Space were two more sessions (after the conference had finished) – Open Pub and Open Tub. Here are the Laws and Principles…


law of two drinks – If you find yourself in a situation where you are drinking alone, meet at least one more person before beginning your discussion.

the four principles – Whatever someone orders is the right drink. Whoever comes is the right pubgoer. Whenever it starts is the right time. When it’s last call, it’s over.


law of two towels – If you find yourself in a situation where you are soaking alone, meet at least one more person before beginning your discussion.

the four principles – Whoever comes is the right hottubber. Whatever someone wears is the right swimwear. Whenever it starts is the right time. When someone pees in the pool, it’s over.

Open Space in action

September 20th, 2009

For the past four years or so Fr Brian Bainbridge has been using the principles of Open Space Technology, and the process of OST, to transform the suburban parish where he is the Parish Priest.

This is a remarkable story of transformation within one of the most bureaucratic and hierarchical of establishments – the Catholic Church. Lucky for us, Brian has recorded the story and published an e-book. Even if you are not about to take on the Catholic Church or don’t have a parish to administer, you will learn much about how Open Space Technology can tap into the self-organisation that is inherent in any group, club, community or organisation.

The book reveals how Open Space is so much more than a simple meeting process.

You can buy the book (for US$5) here.

Grid lines

August 8th, 2009

There’s been an interesting discussion on the OS-LIST about grid lines. For the uninitiated, open space events allow participants to create their own agenda and self organise.

iStock_orange dancefloor

The question is whether or not to use grid lines on the agenda wall (indicating times and spaces) to make it easier to see what’s on, when and where. Sounds logical. But…

I’ve only used grid lines once – when I facilitated my very first open space. Since then I’ve always preferred to use different coloured sticky notes to indicate different times, and the topics posted under the same coloured sticky on the agenda wall, any which way.

My main concern with a grid is that it’s like an incomplete sudoku – suggesting a right and wrong way, and that all the spaces created by the grid need to be filled. And we know that’s not true. It also raises the complementary question of what to do with more topics than you anticipated. Open space is challenging enough for a lot of people without setting up a failure scenario before they have even started the main game of talking to each other about what matters.


Larry Peterson reflects my own views very well (maybe I even learnt them from him!): The only “grid” I use is the one I put the post-its on.  I prefer the free form posting of topics on the wall, and maybe some splitting of Day 1 and Day 2.  For me, the chaos at the wall is intentional and if it’s not there, then the benefits of being at the “edge of chaos” are not achieved.  People have to use their intuition as well as logic when deciding what topic to pursue. It is clearly not a traditional agenda.

And Harrison Owen adds another dimension (as he usually does): But the underlying issue for me here is not about orderly process and methodology but rather the essential conditions for really juicy and creative engagements – which in my experience are always messy. When you actually know what you are doing, you can afford to put things in pre-defined boxes. They won’t always fit, and indeed usually don’t – but it at least seems like everything is in order. On the other hand, when you are out on the edges of things – that predetermined order simply goes to hell. And I think that is a very good thing! The trick is to fabricate a container that is so flexible that it can deal with just about anything. I think we have learned to do a pretty good job of that – but it is not about grids or no grids. The real secret, as I think about it, is that the group becomes its own container and we are the encouragers.

While this discussion outwardly focuses on the *mechanics* of open space, I think it also reflects how we, as facilitators, often feel about holding space. Holding space is hard to explain – it looks, to a casual observer, as if you are doing nothing at all. Easier to be seen to have *prepared* well, by having a neat grid in place to demonstrate just how organised you are. While well intentioned, it is detrimental to everybody – to you as the facilitator having stepped into being ‘helpful’, and to the participants who are let off the hook. Lesley Symons captures this well: It is my sense of things that the more we order….the more we take away from the process……..however this can be very uncomfortable for us(facilitator).

And another piece of the puzzle from Harrison: The issue is not “organization” – but who does it and when does it happen? The truth of the matter is that every Open Space is highly organized, usually more so than any facilitator or planning committee could ever imagine. [So] the real issue is efficiency and effectiveness. In that case the only question is how do you get there fastest and bestest? The curious answer would seem to be Do Less!

What presses your buttons?

August 5th, 2009

The term ‘change management’ presses my buttons. So instead of responding straight away with a rant, I thought I’d explore what the term means to me.

First ‘change’ – there’s two types of change: change that I initiate, like changing jobs or moving house, or taking a vacation. Then there’s change that is imposed on me by someone else: a new train timetable, a restructure at work, a new way of acting that someone else has decided is necessary (aka behaviour change). Okay, so there’s more than two types of change. There’s incremental change, and there’s catastrophic change.

Now ‘management’ – able to influence, direct, control. Some things really do need management: building a house, or any other complicated project; running a household – paying bills, putting the garbage out, organising maintenance, taking the dog to the vet – all manner of things need to be managed. Good thing too.

It’s when change and management are lumped together that I get a bit antsy. What does change management mean, I wonder? I guess it may be possible, and necessary, when moving office locations for example. Change management could be handy. But it often relates to cultural change – and I’m not sure it’s possible, or even desirable to manage cultural change.

I was once asked how to ‘ensure a controlled and managed change process’? I have no idea! I don’t think it IS possible. So instead of ‘change management’ I offer the following alternative: ‘change awareness’ – a process of creating an environment in which change (read cultural change) can be explored, played with, and adopted in an organic way that makes sense to people.

How to do that? Open space, enable conversations, build relationships and trust that people will do what’s necessary, based on their passions and the responsibility they’re willing to take. Yep – it’s about using open space as a means of being together in community and organisations to build connections and culture.