This paper has been compiled from notes taken at an Open Space Technology workshop with Harrison Owen in January 1994, from conversations with colleagues and from my own experiences and insights into Open Space over the past few years. It is offered in the spirit of shared learning as a way of introducing the principles, elements and dynamics of Open Space to colleagues so that we can together explore and discover more of the possibilities of this technology. Please send me any comments or lessons learned so that I can maintain a "living document" by regularly updating the material. Look upon this as a way of collecting the necessary navigational aids for operating successfully in Open Space.
Organization Development Consultant
The Boeing Company
P.O. Box 3707, MS 7A-25
Seattle, WA 98124-2207
(425) 865-2255 (Office & Voice Mail)
(425) 865-4851 (FAX)
November 17, 1995
OPEN SPACE TECHNOLOGY
Most of the discoveries and innovations throughout our history have rarely been the result of careful planning but instead, have emerged out of the free interaction of random elements in an unconstrained environment. We often refer to this as chaos.
Chaos is a natural and needed phase in the creative process. It marks the time when the old mental, emotional and physical structures we collectively call the "culture" are no longer able to meet the new business requirements. Chaos is that state of dissolution of old forms before the new structures have emerged: the past cannot be relied upon, the future is unknown and the present offers us no logical assurances. However, despite the high degree of uncertainty within this phase, it is the birth-place of the new. If we are able to move beyond our fears as we enter the seeming dis-order then possibilities abound. Chaos and business do mix well together.
The Owens-Kornig Company tells the story of how fibreglass was discovered. It was not the product of a series of planned laboratory experiments but was an "accident". Scientists were attempting to weld glass blocks together and the interaction of the torch and the gas on the glass produced fibres. Similarly, 3M's Post-It notes came from a glue that didn't set properly. According to the old way of thinking this would have been considered a mistake and those involved would have been chastised but fortunately there were people who could see the possibilities for major product breakthroughs instead. These unplanned for products have generated enormous earnings for both companies.
Chaos can also be engineered as in the case of Bell Labs. One morning the Directors of Research were told, "Last night the Bell system was destroyed. Your job is to design a new system beyond the current bounds of technology!" This self-induced state of chaos freed up the minds of the researchers and they were able to break away from "analog" thinking and give birth to the digital system. If planning for breakthrough and innovation does not work then the question is how do we cultivate the right cultural conditions that will allow for their spontaneous emergence?
Open Space Technology is a simple and effective way of creating an environment where things are possible. The chaos that is present in Open Space is more the chaos of new beginnings where ideas have yet to take on the forms that will give shape, meaning and expression to their intent. This state of chaos, which is unconstrained by past thinking, provides the freedom to explore new possibilities.
The chaos in Open Space is the opposite of what we call control. Much of our business culture is driven by a need to control outcomes. While this may be goodness when attempting to control and reduce variations in our manufacturing processes it is counter-productive when applied to the creative thinking process as any control will stymie the innovative capabilities of the human spirit. Bureaucracies maintain the forms of business through their systems of controls but do not support the regeneration of the business by stimulating the visionary fire of the organization. On reflection, it would seem that our need to control, together with our fears around the loss of control, have caused many of us to engage in a mutual conspiracy to maintain closed systems. Open Space supports open systems.
There are those who would contend that belief in this "chaos theory" is a recipe for disaster and that things simply don't work that way. So what are these magical organizing principles which are able to bring a new order out of the mess we call chaos?
I hold the belief that groups of people and systems will self-organize when three vital ingredients are present:
A higher common purpose. When there is a collective intentionality and focus that serves the good of the whole system. This alignment to a greater purpose is what I call "vertical cohesion".
A willingness to work together. When each person can offer their passion and commitment to the success of the total venture by agreeing to cooperate and by seeing differences not as something divisive but as a diverse way of expressing unity. This alignment of hearts and minds corresponds to "horizontal cohesion".
A level of personal maturity and self-mastery. To the degree that I am relatively free of the gravitational pull of my own biases, agendas and emotional turbulence, then I am able to play in the team arena. If I am not fixed in my opinions of how things should be then I have a better chance of responding in the moment with my partners to the direction and needs of the system.
If the hallmark of a natural healthy system is that of free circulation so that the parts can spontaneously configure themselves to serve the well-being of the whole system then it would stand to reason that any disruption in this ability to move freely would bring dire consequences to the total enterprise.
A colleague who was working to reverse the trend of desertification in Africa told a simple story. The many nomadic tribes in north and central Africa had for generations wandered freely about the countryside with their cattle. They were acutely aware of the need to maintain a balance in the eco-system and of their own role in this task. The life of these tribespeople had a rhythm and purpose to it and they moved according to the seasons: their needs being met by the gifts of the land. They did not stay too long in one place and disrupt the delicate balance.
However, when political lines were suddenly drawn across the map and they were stopped at national borders and prevented from following traditional paths across the landscape, they were forced to stay in one place. Not only did this start to unravel the social fabric of the tribes, it also meant that more trees were cut down for fuel and the agricultural practice of year-round farming was introduced. This, together with over-grazing of the land, led to the gradual depletion of the soil and the eventual turning of the land into desert.
Are we doing something similar with our own organizations and business systems? There are natural groups of people such as engineers, software programmers and technical support staff who constitute communities within our organizations. These communities need to interact with their own disciplines but also need to "wander" and freely associate with other groups to achieve success for the company as a whole. What if the constant re-structuring of our organizations is mainly driven by political decisions and does not consider these community needs? What are the unintended consequences of these political boundaries and "stove-pipe" mentalities as they cut across natural ways of doing business in a self-organizing system? Like the nomadic tribes of Africa, we too could experience "desertification": losing not only productivity but also our spirit. Open Space Technology is one way of creating optimal conditions in which communities can move and breathe and self-organize for success.
Structure and Dynamics
Open Space is based on the premise that organizations and systems that have a clear purpose and a willingness to engage the new will automatically self-organize to achieve their goals. Participants are simply asked to show up, be present, tell the truth and let it all go!
The technology is based on four principles:
Whoever comes is the right people.
Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
Whenever it starts is the right time.
When it is over it is over.
Open Space has one law and that is The Law of Two Feet. This means that you are personally responsible for your own experience in Open Space. No "authority figure" is going to tell you what you can and cannot do. There is no one to blame if things are not going as you wished them to. The choice and the power to change things is all yours. You stand on your own two feet and you vote with your feet. For instance, if you find yourself in a particular working group and feel that the discussion is not rewarding for you then instead of complaining, you simply vote with your feet and move to another group where you can be engaged more productively. In this way the passion and spirit of the group is able to circulate and generate the needed outcomes.
Open Space employs four elements: the circle, the breath, the bulletin board and the marketplace.
The circle is a natural shape that allows communion to take place. Other shapes and meeting formats encourage other dynamics. For instance, the traditional lecture set-up with the audience seated in rows facing a platform does not necessarily inspire creative dialogue among those present. It is more of a passive/aggressive relationship which may deliver useful information but does little to foster a spirit of community. Meetings that take place around a square usually take on the aspect of negotiation as there are "sides" to be taken with this structure. The circle seems to be the most simple and natural setting for creative human interaction.
The circle has played an important part in the social architecture of many native peoples for thousands of years and whether we look to Africa, north America or Lappland, we see the circle as the forum for communion and decision-making. It was also reflected in the physical structure of their dwellings and meeting places. There was even a superstition that the circle provided protection from evil spirits as there were no corners for them to hide in. Open Space employs the circle because honest communication and creative work is easier in this setting.
The breath is vital to life as it establishes a rhythm within the life-cycle of any project, person or organization. Breathing can include everything from the movement of our lungs and the ebb and flo of the tides to the rise and fall of civilizations or the progress through the different phases of our manufacturing processes. Many of our business meetings do not breathe and therefore do not allow the possibilities present to be recognized and acted upon. The African village is built in a circle and all movement goes in and out of the circle. It breathes.
The bulletin board is the third element of Open Space and it provides a central place for people to communicate with each other about what they have to offer and what they wish to explore. It gives collective visibility so that the individual can make an informed choice about how, where and when to spend their time most productively.
The market place is where it all happens and is the space in which we can move about and transact our business. It brings needs and resources together but it is more than just a place for buying, selling or trading. For thousands of years of human history people have met here to exchange stories and discuss issues so that the market place has functioned as a setting where much of the culture of the village has been generated.
Open Space with its four elements creates an environment conducive to multi-disciplinary activity. This particular strength of the technology can greatly help to reduce the waste and creative inertia of "turf wars" and "tong" mentality often found in our corporate meetings. Open Space provides a neutral setting where participants are requested to focus together on a common goal that is vital for the well-being of the organization. A pre-requisite for achieving this is the setting aside of "rice bowl" thinking. Fortunately, the dynamics inherent in Open Space tend to support intergrative thinking and behaviors based on inter-dependency rather than the factional and divisive nature of "turf mentality".
Open Space technology can help to jump-start the preferred future as participants are actually behaving and being the future instead of sitting around and complaining about what they don't like and what they don't have. It is a space for empowerment.
Conversations with the Client
Open Space runs on passion and responsibility and so it is important that the client is clear about the purpose and their commitment to the process. It is most definitely not a "feel good" exercise for employees. Open Space invites people to deal with issues and opportunities around a chosen topic in a creative way.
When working with an organization, the executive or owner of the meeting needs to know what might happen. Let them know that when Open Space has begun they cannot jump in and control or stop what is happening. Tell them, "Spirit will break out and there will be new ways of people working together". If that is not what they want or can allow to take place then now is the time to say so. It is vital to have informed consent up front from the client. This constitutes the psychological contract for the project.
Open Space should not be mixed with other approaches such as speakers or panels. It needs to remain uncluttered in order to maintain its "structural integrity". It is, however, possible to effectively combine Open Space with other events by having these first before going on to an uninterrupted Open Space session. There are certain pre-events which actually lay the foundation and clear the way for a better use of Open Space. (see page 16 for examples of possible pre-events)
Open Space Technology is not something to sell. Let the client know that if they can think of another way of achieving their desired outcomes then they should go for it. If, on reflection, nothing else comes to mind then the client can get back with you and talk about next steps.
Preparations with the Client
The first order of business is to clearly establish what the client wants to achieve with Open Space. (Question: "What do you really want out of it?"). Knowing the desired outcomes not only gives us the focus for the session(s) but it also determines how long is needed. A rule of thumb would be:
One day - allows for a good conversation for creating clarity and understanding.
Two days - allows for a good conversation for generating possibilities and creating a record.
Three days - allows for a good conversation, creating possibilities, identifying real opportunities, moving into committed action and creating a record (plus reflecting on all of the above). This might include developing an implementation plan. (If lap-top computers and printers are available and used to record the plan as it is developed then participants can walk out of the final session with their own copy of the document).
The next step is to work with the client on developing an invitation. This is an important piece of work as it "sounds the note and sets the tone" for the upcoming session so this is not your usual memo! Here are a few pointers in shaping this message:
o It should have the punch of the first two lines of a novel.
o Don't fill it with too many details. Be specific enough to give the focus but be open enough to arouse the natural curiosity of the recipient. Leave room for the imagination as this is what Open Space is all about.
o It should be short, sweet and appropriate.
An example would be a client who wanted a process for setting priorities within the company. The focus and the question posed at the beginning of the session could be, "What are the issues and opportunities around providing the best possible services to our customers?" The invitation could then read: "We (name of the company) intend to provide the best possible services to our customers. I invite all of you who want to participate in planning our future to attend this working session. My promise to you is that nothing you feel strongly about will be left out. The session will be held (date, time and place)."
The big question in most companies is who to invite. More often than not, previous invitee lists have included a fair share of people who need to be there for political reasons or to have something "sold" to them. Open Space is very different as everyone is required to be actively involved. There are no spectators in Open Space - only players! The answer to the question of who should come is really ,"whoever cares". However, in dealing with the reality of our current business culture some guidelines could be:
o Invite all the stakeholders plus a few more as the "stranger" may bring special gifts. This was the case with Rockport Shoes. They were holding an Open Space session in their distribution warehouse when one of the guards from a local security company wandered in and got involved. This "stranger" came up with some ideas for military-style shoes that generated a profitable new business line for the company.
o Have all the organization there and not just one level. Invite all the executives, secretaries, line workers and administrators for a full mix of people and ideas.
o If you are dealing with a specific project or working group then invite those people and request that they each in turn invite someone to attend whom they believe will make a difference. This allows an intact group to have more of a permeable membrane surrounding it instead of being bounded by a water-tight wall which is the hallmark of a closed system.
Handling the Logistics
Finding the right space in which to hold Open Space is the first task. The larger the space the better as people need ample room to move around during the session(s) and the large participant circle which starts and ends each day is best if only one circle is set up rather than two or three concentric circles. It is important that everyone can see everyone else and not have their backs to each other. The single large circle where everyone is visible is a vital element in the dynamic structure of Open Space.
If possible, use a space that is indigenous to the company or client group. Some examples of this to date have been the distribution warehouse at Rockport Shoes, a marquee set up in a cane-field of a south American Sugar company and a hangar at a Californian aerospace company.
If these settings are difficult to find then go for rented space. When working with a hotel you may wish to use these guidelines:
o If a hotel room is rated as having a capacity for 500 people then assume for the purposes of Open Space that it can handle 250. It is important to have enough space for a large circle of participants in the room as big circles are more powerful.
o The walls will be used for the bulletin board and for posting the News so make sure there is sufficient clearance (about 15 feet) from the circle to the walls so that people have access.
o The bulletin board wall should be large enough so that people are no more than two or three deep when going through the sign-up process. It gets difficult to see things if it is more crowded. The News Wall can be on the opposite side of the large room and is for all "official" announcements like meal times and for anything that participants wish to post.
o One of the walls can have the computer tables against it so allow space for this. Keep the recording of events in the large room as this enhances the energy and creative intensity.
o As well as the large meeting room there is a need for breakout rooms. A good rule of thumb is that 50 people need 5 or 6 breakout rooms, 200 people need 10 and 500 people need 20. These rooms should be close by and where possible, leave the large room empty to handle "surge capacity" if one of the groups should suddenly grow and need a larger space.
o If you are serving food then consider a buffet for all meals for groups of over 50 people. This is good for diversity of choice and it avoids people sitting and waiting for food. You may wish to consider having the food available within certain "windows" (such as breakfast bewteen 6:00 - 8:00 AM) as this caters to participants who have travelled from other time zones.
o If people have special dietary needs then ask them to contact the hotel directly. This is one less thing for you to be involved in.
o Ask the hotel to keep coffee, tea, water and other beverages topped up during the day.
Here are some basic supplies needed for Open Space:
o You will need lots of masking tape as groups tend to eat tape. Please make sure before the session that the tape will actually stick to the wall that you will be using!
o 11 x 17 sheets of paper and marker pens for participants to create the announcements of what they wish to offer. (These will then be placed on the Bulletin Board to create the agenda for Open Space). The paper is also for the News wall. (500 people need 100-150 pens and 250 pieces of paper).
o A cheap way to construct the News Wall and Bulletin Board is by using end rolls of newsprint from your local newspaper printer instead of flip-chart paper.
o Flip-charts and easels and marker pens are needed for use by the various breakout groups (number determined by the number of breakout rooms plus two for the large room).
o Two cordless microphones and a good speaker system for the large room.
Here are some guidelines for setting up the room prior to the session:
o On the bulletin board wall, create a time/space matrix that will accommodate the 11 x 17 sheets. This will be where the agenda is built. Across the top of this grid plot out the time in one hour increments for the day(s). Start with 9:00 AM (the morning news for the whole group is usually from 8:00 - 9:00 AM) and end at 3:00 PM (the evening news/closure usually begins at 4:00 PM). Start and finish times, however, may vary by design. Down the left-hand side of the matrix list all the breakout rooms/areas by number. Place two small "loops" of masking tape in each of the grid's rectangles so that the 11 x 17 sheets with the offerings can be fixed to the grid by the convenors of the various conversations.
o Designate a space on one of the walls to be the News Wall.
o Set up the Recording Area with computers and printer(s) or Journals/Log books along one of the other walls. On the wall above the tables post instructions on how to organize the information for input (templates/common formats etc.).
o Make sure that the large room is free from all other furniture. It should be as clean as clear as possible with a large circle of chairs to accommodate the particpants. (some groups may even prefer to stand during the first part of the session). I prefer to come early to the venue so that there is ample time to set up the room and create the right atmosphere so that when people arrive they immediately notice that there is a different quality to this event than they normally are used to.
o Sometimes a center-piece is appropriate (PBS used the Cookie monster and Rockport had a shoe in the middle) but if in doubt, then keep the space clear. Remember the pens and 11 x 17 sheets of paper will be occupying the center for participants to use in creating their "offerings".
o Post the Four Principles and the Law of Two Feet on the walls of the main room. In a large room it is useful to have several copies of each of these on display.
Facilitating Open Space
The role of the facilitator in Open Space is two-fold. It is to "create the space" (the dynamic field in which possibilities can occur) at the beginning of day one and to "hold the space" (psychologically speaking) throughout the duration of Open Space. The facilitator should be totally present and absolutely invisible.
Personal preparation is important for the facilitator and qualities such as balance, clarity, detachment and focus are requirements for success. Treat it as a Zen meditation if you wish. Observe what is happening each moment and "hold the space" by being fully present in that moment. Continually check both inside and outside yourself to see what is happening. It is not your role as facilitator to caretake or interfere with what is emerging as Open Space is based on the freedom of choice of participants. (Some exceptions which may require intervention are dealt with in "Dealing with Difficulties" on page 14).
In working with an intact organization have someone else welcome the people when it is time to get started. At this point the facilitator can be outside the circle and out of view. The CEO or organization leader gives a short opening (using some of the language contained in the letter of invitation) and then welcomes the facilitator. It is good to have this person experience the power of Open Space by speaking from the center of the circle. Personal introductions among participants are not necessary at this time as people will get to meet each other during the course of the session(s).
If you are facilitating an Open Space session for people who are not part of an intact group but have simply shown up in response to the published theme, then you can do the welcoming yourself.
This is now the point where you as facilitator "create the space". Walk to the center of the circle and "ground" yourself. It may be helpful to see yourself in the role of a story-teller to invoke and evoke the right atmosphere in the room. Simply say, "Welcome to Open Space!"
If you are working with a large group then walk the inside bounds of the circle as you state the theme (using a cordless microphone). "We are here to explore the issues and opportunities around (chosen topic). It looks as though all the resources we need are right here in the room" Allow space between your words so that a rhythm is established. People will be following you with their eyes so that they will take in the whole circle as you complete your circuit. Your body language will also communicate the intention and theme of the session.
There are a couple of other ways of getting the energy moving. After the welcome and before stating the theme, either say, "Let's acknowledge the group here today by allowing your eyes to glance around the circle" or, "We seem a little tense this morning so let's take a couple of deep breaths together." The purpose of doing this is to have people become more sensitive to the "rhythm and breath" of the circle so that they can feel the power and possibilities present to accomplish the task at hand. They are the people who are going to do the work so they need to be aware of their own individual and collective resources.
Once the theme has been clearly stated and the group is focussed in the circle, it is now time to describe the process of Open Space. ("So O.K. you have heard the theme and why we are here but how are we going to get there? Let me explain."). There is no need to convince people that it will work: just describe how it works.
Name the process. "We are using Open Space Technology. The basis of this technology has been around for thousands of years and it incorporates a number of ways in which groups of people have gathered and self-organized in order to live and prosper together. It is based on Four Elements: the circle, the breath, the bulletin board and the market place. (See pages 3 & 4 for a fuller description of these four elements). Historically, this has been the way in which many village cultures have evolved and today this technology is being employed in many business and social settings to achieve results which otherwise would seem impossible or take inordinate amounts of time."
Point to the bulletin board wall with the "empty" time/space matrix and ask, "When did you last sit down with 75 (or whatever number) colleagues and have that as your agenda?" This will get people on edge and slightly uncomfortable and wondering about how it will all work out. Building this tension in the room is positive as it helps to create the conditions required for maximizing Open Space.
"You are going to build your own agenda for the working session(s). In a few minutes I'll ask those of you who so wish, to name issues and opportunities around the topic (repeat the topic) that (name) introduced for which you have passion and are willing to take responsibility. As you will be convening your own sessions I promise that your most passionate concerns will be included in the agenda! If, for some reason, your concerns are not addressed by the end of the day then please hold yourself responsible. There is nobody to blame. Open Space is for players: it is not a spectator sport."
"Let me explain the Four Principles and the One Law of Open Space. These are posted on the wall over there. As you go through the day be aware of these four principles at work. Whoever comes is the right people. If 50 people or just one person come to your session then that is the right number. If nobody shows up then that is also the right number. This is not a popularity contest! Whatever happens is the only thing that could have. Open Space is not based on what should happen but builds on what can happen when people come together with passion and commitment to work a common issue. Your expectations about specific outcomes may not be met and things may turn out differently than you had hoped. Whatever happens is right because it is the result of the level of choice, passion and commitment of those participating. Whenever it starts is the right time. You will know when the session has begun. It will just happen. When it is over it is over. Similarly, you will know when it is over. You may have scheduled an hour's session but after 30 minutes it feels complete. If that is the case then declare the session over and move on to something else. If the session is still alive after the scheduled time then keep going until you are finished. People will make the choice to stay or not. The only possible conflict could be finishing in time for the large group session which concludes each day which everyone is asked to attend."
"There is One Law in Open Space and that is The Law of Two Feet. (see page 3 for additional information) This means that you choose where you want to be and for how long during the day by voting with your feet. If you are in a group where you don't feel that you are getting what you want or can contribute what you have to offer then move somewhere else. You don't even have to endure the frustration of someone controlling a meeting: vote with your feet and move on. The Law of Two Feet is instant death for egotists and controllers and makes it evident who is responsible for the learning. It may seem like a simple-minded Law but I invite you to be prepared to be surprised!"
"Now back to the agenda-building. This is how it will work. We have pens and paper in the middle of the circle and I will invite you to come up and write an issue or theme you wish to explore with others. This is your "offering". If you wish to offer multiple sessions then please submit each one on a separate sheet of paper. Write the title of the session (a question is always powerful) and sign your name. Leave enough space for people to sign up for your session. Then stand at the microphone in the center of the circle and state the title and your name. This is not a sales pitch so please, no lengthy speeches! Take your 11 x 17 paper to the time/space matrix and place your offering on the wall. This is how we build the agenda: the where and when of Open Space. Then after that, please return to the circle and sit down."
"Remember Open Space is all about taking individual responsibility which also means that you do not have to offer anything at this time if you so choose. You may simply wish to participate in the sessions offered by others."
"We have different temperaments and personality types in the room and so some people will prefer to stay in one session from beginning to end while others will tend to move from group to group. Both types are important and contribute to the process. We refer to the latter type of person as a "butterfly" or a "bumble-bee" as their style is like moving from flower to flower. They bring insights and ideas from other groups and provide cross-pollination while those who remain in the sessions for the duration provide the continuity and stability that allows conversations to build and reach fruition. So just be yourself."
"One more thing before we begin. Those of you who are going to make an "offering" by convening a session have some responsibilities. You are asked to show up at the time and place that you announced and posted. Your job is to convene the group. You are not there to lecture to people. You are also asked to be responsible for seeing that the results of your conversation or activity are recorded. There are lap-top computers available over there for that purpose. By the way, you may also enter your individual comments and conclusions electronically or use the News wall to publish any thoughts. By recording the sessions as we go along we are building a living document that will be available to all participants either by the end of the (last) day or very shortly thereafter." If computers are not available then use a log-book or some other way of keeping a written record.
"I now invite those of you who have something to offer to come to the center of the room and write the title of the session you wish to offer and your name on the paper. Announce your "offering" to the circle then post it in one of the grids of the time/space matrix to establish where and when it will happen. Then please return to the circle when you have done this." When everyone is back in the circle then explain one further item.
"There may be scheduling conflicts if two sessions are being held at the same time and people wish to attend both or it may seem right that one session should precede the other. We settle this through negotiation between the convenors. There may be two similar offerings which some of you may feel should be combined. Let the convenors know your request and then allow them to decide. My suggestion is that sessions are only combined if they are virtually identical in their topic and intention. If there is only a slight difference then keep the two sessions: they may offer distinct viewing points which would be missed if they were to be combined. Also smaller groups give more people more "air-time".
By now the energy in the room should be ready to pop and people will be eager to get on and do it. As a rule don't answer any questions about Open Space as it usually ends up as "rationalising". Invite them to jump in and find out. If they want to swim then they need to get in the water. The facilitator's job is to describe but not to "explain" the process. Open Space is built on the premise that everybody already knows how to operate in Open Space. It is in our collective genes and all the faciltator does is to remind us of the natural way in which we self-organize, function and make choices together in a threat-free environment.
"Now is the time to enter the market place. So go and sign up and vote with your feet. We will meet back here in the large circle at 4:00 PM (or whatever time is appropriate) to find out what happened during the day. Go for it!"
The morning and evening news sessions are the only fixed times in Open Space. For a multi-day event, the morning news is for making general announcements, offering new sessions or informing the group of any cancellations. This is not a time for a large group discussion. However, you may wish to ask if anyone woke up with an insight about what is happening in Open Space that would be valuable to share.
The evening news should last one hour maximum and be a time for fun. It is when the community of people enjoys itself and learns together. You may wish to ask people to give one word describing today's session. Other possibilities could include having people describe what was different about today in regard to leadership and team dynamics or by naming a "funny thing that happened on the way to the future". This is a good time to interview the butterflies and bumble-bees to get their impression of what was moving through the various sessions. It is also powerful for the group simply to enjoy the silence together.
During a multi-day event a suggestion is for the facilitator to do the first morning and evening news sessions and then get somebody else to facilitate. This encourages the group to self-manage and allows the facilitator to "hold the space". You may wish to use a bell,a conch shell or some other instrument to announce the start of the morning and evening sessions.
The question now is, "What does a facilitator do now that the people are in charge?" The simple answer is, "Hold the space and pick up trash!" Here are some of the things that this could possibly mean:
o Go take a short nap or a walk to get into a new "head space". Although you will not formally being doing anything until the evening news session or closure, you are always required to be fully present and in a non-reactive mode so that things can be "allowed" to happen around you. Here you have a real distinction between the traditional facilitation role of running a meeting and what is required to allow Open Space to operate successfully.
o When people ask, "When do we start?" then reply, "Whenever you like". Don't slip into the old facilitator role.
o When people tell you that something should be happening and ask you to do something about it, gently remind them that they are in charge. If they want something to happen then they should make an "offering" to the group or suggest it themselves in one of the sessions. Keep turning responsibility back to the people unless, of course, there is a real life-threatening crisis.
o If you visit a session in progress, don't get hooked into the group. Sit on the edge and keep out of it. They are responsible for their own facilitation.
o Pick up trash. Keep the areas clear of coffee cups and any other left-overs. This is not just to ensure a clean and uncluttered physical environment but is one way in which you can rove around and keep your "feelers" out for what is happening while being engaged in legitimate work.
o Occasionally just stop and shut your eyes in order to intuit the "flow of spirit" in the total environment. Learn to trust your intuition: it is your radar for navigating in Open Space.
Some thoughts about closing the Open Space. As facilitator, ensure that an appropriate ending takes place: something that honors the theme of the session, the people and Open Space. This is definitely not the time for the CEO to stand up and give a pep-talk about "let's go make it happen". The closing ritual should be shaped by the particular culture of the group. It may include anything from improvisational theater and "skits" to a native American medicine wheel ceremony or a space for individuals to state their commitments and describe next steps. It can also be a time for reflection on how the breakthroughs and insights occurred during Open Space and how the group intends to work together in the future.
One way of designing the closing session could be as follows:
You can begin by asking the participants in the circle, "Does anyone have any insights about what happened today? What are some of the learnings that occurred to you during the course of Open Space?" Allow some time (10 - 15 minutes) for people to respond. This is not the time for traditional group report outs: these have been documented and will be made available to participants. This is a time for learning about learning. If you wish to elicit more specific feed-back and reflections on the experience then you can set up a simple structure using the four compass points of the native American medicine wheel. Place a sign with the designated word on the floor inside the circle at the "four corners". At the north, the sign reads "leadership"; the east is "vision"; the south is "community" (native American word is "healing") and the west is "management" (native American word is "teaching" or "learning").
Invite the group to reflect on the question, "What was different about and what have you learned about "leadership" today?" Allow time for people to respond and then pose the same question around the other themes of vision, community and management as you move around the "wheel". This exercise invites people to consider their learning in a different way and to the degree that this self-reflective process is successful, the group is able to generate wisdom. The session can either be closed at this point or can be extended to include a final activity that has specific meaning to the group. This is something for the participants themselves to design. The leader of the organization or the meeting "owner" can officially close the proceedings with a few words of thanks to the participants for everything that has occurred. No matter what happens as part of closing Open Space, it should be gracious and meaningful: going to the edge of what is proper and not beyond. You will know when there is closure as the fourth principle says "when it is over it is over".
The last activity for the facilitator is to debrief with the client. Find out if the client is satisfied with what took place and what could be done differently another time.
ASummary of the Steps in Open Space.
(1) Complete the preparations (invitations, supplies, room set-up etc.).
(2) Welcome the participants/Morning news.
(3) Create the space.
(4) State the theme.
(5) Describe the process.
(6) Name the Four Principles and the One Law
(7) Invite people to write "offerings" and post them.
(8) Return to circle for final instructions.
(9) Invite people to sign up and enter the market place.
(10) Hold the space and pick up trash.
(11) Invite people to gather together for Evening news/Closure.
(12) Debrief with the client.
Adisclaimer. This section is not intended to be a script that should be followed word for word. It was just easier for me to document it in this way. As facilitators, I trust we will be fully present and sensitive to the particular needs of the time and place and say and do whatever is appropriate.
Dealing with Difficulties
Open Space honors individual freedom of choice and assumes that people are sufficiently mature to make their own decisions about how things should be. Open Space does not operate on compliance with other people's rules and regulations. While the majority of people welcome this type of open and creative environment in which to work together, there are those for whom this can be unsettling. I am referring to those individuals who go through life "held together by bubble-gum and other people's rules". Sometimes things just go "tilt" for such people when the constraints are removed and they are suddenly faced with an unbounded freedom which carries with it the requirement of personal accountability and responsibility.
For whatever reason you may have an unstable person in the group. More often than not, where the signs of instability are present but have not yet "broken out", it is sufficient to simply acknowledge the person and, if appropriate, to "ground" them with a gentle hug or pat on the shoulder. There are also those rare times when Open Space is invaded by people with their own agenda who have not yet grasped the notion of building together. These are the Space Invaders and they come in various shapes, sizes and intensities. Let's now consider some possible ways of handling these different situations as they arise.
The most important thing that I have learned over the years is to accept that it is happening. Denial is the worst possible behavior. I have a theory that whatever happens, whether I deem it to be "good" or "bad", is just one of many ways of expressing and moving energy around. I believe that we can learn from everything that occurs. However, only by including and accepting that it is actually happening right there and then, can we harness the energy in the room and use it to help move things forward. I may not agree with the appropriateness of what someone is doing or saying but the fact is that it is having an immediate impact on the dynamics of the group and as facilitator I need to know how to include it as part of the learning experience.
My rule is: embrace it, celebrate it, release it and allow it to move things forward to whatever is next. I also have learned that I don't have to jump in and fix the situation. It is fine to allow the reality of what is occurring to impress itself upon the circle of people and, more often than not, a spontaneous response will come from the group that is a real blessing and resolution. Allow the group to have it's own learning and only step in if things are getting out of hand.
However, be prepared for anything. Harrison Owen tells of the time when at an international conference of several hundered people with different cultures present, a woman took off her clothes, walked to the center of the circle and gave a short speech. Harrison chose not to intervene (except to "hold the space") even though he knew that this "exhibition" was potentially offensive and confusing to many there. After a period of tense silence two people from the circle walked to the center with jackets, gently draped them over the woman and escorted her back to her place in the circle. The incident generated a great deal of energy and conversation for the duration of the conference and was finally seen by participants as having been a "positive" experience. The appropriateness of the woman's actions was not the immediate issue. The important thing at that time was how the situation was handled. The facilitator allowed the group to resolve the situation itself. This may seem like an extreme example and one which would most likely not occur in a corporate setting but it does illustrate how a difficult situation, if handled sensitively, can become a positive learning experience.
There are two kinds of Space Invaders: benign and malignant. It is important to be able to tell the difference between the two.
The benign invader is the person who seems to have the right answer and recipe for every situation and is always full of suggestions about what others should do. This over-enthusiastic individual is often someone who has recently gotten "salvation" and believes that it is in everyone's best interest that they follow along that same path. Remember, nobody can be forced to do anything as Open Space is all about freedom of choice. The benign invader, however, may be absolutely unaware of their behavior and its effect on others around them. Their intentions are usually good and they say things like, "We should all sign a petition about this now" or, "We should all stop now and hold hands and meditate/pray". The facilitator can handle this by replying, "Yes, that is a good idea. Why don't you take responsibility for the suggestion and put something on the News wall so that people can sign it if they so choose. Thank you." Or, "Let's take a quick break and then those who wish to, can come back and join you in holding hands and meditating/praying in the circle. Others, however, may choose to go on to other groups or activities. Thanks." The most important thing to remember is never allow people to vote on a suggestion with a show of hands. In Open Space we vote with our feet.
The malignant invader is altogether a different type of individual and energy to deal with. This individual usually has a strong personal agenda or ulterior motive for being there. The malignant invader is either a controller or dominator or even an out-and-out "spiritual fascist". If this person begins to be disruptive then immediately call a ten minute bathroom break and use the time for you and your co-facilitator to "bracket" the person and move them out of the circle. Sometimes clear verbal communication will be sufficient but in rare and extreme cases you may need to "physically assist" them in leaving the facilities. Always act to protect the integrity of Open Space. This is where it really pays off to have two facilitators present.
Removing someone from Open Space should only happen if things are way out of hand or your intuition tells you that this is the right course of action. I am careful to make sure that I am not "censoring" a person because of my own personal bias but really am responding to the "blips" on my radar that say that this individual is attempting to subvert the process for others. I have only once had to ask someone to leave and to then physically escort them off the premises.
One other safe-guard that should be mentioned. If the group is of a size where you need to use a sound system then there is a precaution that can be taken to avoid an individual "hi-jacking" the proceedings. Hi-jacking is a "crime" as Open Space belongs equally to everyone. The remedy is to always carry a cordless microphone with you so that you can make the necessary intervention. Also make sure you know where the controls are for the sound-system in case you need to switch it off.
The unstable people and the Space invaders can usually be spotted during the opening session or the morning news sessions so have your radar switched on at all times. This is another reason why facilitators spend time "holding the space" and "picking up trash" during the day. It allows you to continuously scan the environment. We are really talking about exceptions to the rule here. Open Space normally attracts mature and balanced individuals who can work together in a spirit of cooperation and shared purpose but it is always useful to be ready for any eventuality so that you can administer the necessary "sociological first aid".
Open Space, like any other gathering or business meeting, works best when people show up free from personal agendas, "old baggage" and restrictive "mental models". Much of what prohibits us working together effectively is born out of fear, ignorance and delusion. It is therefore a good idea to assess the state of readiness of the client group so that work can be undertaken prior to the Open Space session which would bring them up to an acceptable entry-level.
Apart from being held by the gravitational pull of organizational history, there are other reasons why groups may be incapacitated and need to engage in pre-work. The organization may have just gone through a merger or a radical re-structuring. There may have been lay-offs or even the death of a co-worker. Whatever may have happened, there is usually a cycle of grief to work through with any loss or major change and an appropriately designed pre-event can serve those needs. Open Space can actually help in dealing with grief at work.
You may be working with a client group that has just experienced something traumatic. What occurs next is usually shock and anger followed by denial on the part of the individuals. Open Space can be the right setting in which the group can find its new identity and regain its imagination and vision. However, before entering Open Space the loss and grieving need to be worked through. Here is one of the many ways in which this can be approached.
If the group is still in a state of shock and anger then do some collective breathing and releasing with them. When people are confronted by a shocking situation the normal reaction is to tighten up and restrict the natural rhythm of the breath. A simple technique is to have the group members stand in a circle and begin breathing together. Invite them to make the sound "Oh" as they inhale and to shout out "shit" as they exhale. This will begin to release the tension in the system which is locking up the energy and causing the pain. I realise that the language suggested may be deemed inappropriate for some settings but in these instances of shock, anger and denial it is important for the true feelings to be expressed. If you are not comfortable with the phrase "oh shit" then choose one which is more suitable but which still allows the needed release. Continue to do this collective breathing until the energy shifts in the room and it is obvious that the group is ready to enter the next phase.
The next stage of the work is letting go and moving through the denial of what happened and what caused the shock and anger. This is the acceptance of reality. An effective method is to have the individuals recollect memories and tell their story of what occurred. By doing this they will give themselves and each other permission to acknowledge the reality of what took place. It really doesn't matter what actually took place, the process is the same. Let's take for example the death of a co-worker where the conversation in the group may proceed along these lines:
"I was sitting across the room from George when suddenly he looked up, gasped and fell forward. His head went thump on the desk and he was dead." Another person might add, "Well, I was speaking with him in the corridor just minutes before he went back to his desk. He seemed just fine then. I can't believe that he died so quickly after that." Someone else may come in with, "Last week we were out playing golf together. We had planned to go out again next weekend and now he's dead. It just doesn't seem possible."
Allow the conversation to continue so that people can accept the fact that George is dead and then invite them to tell stories about George. Invite them to honor him. This is very much like an Irish wake where people meet around the coffin, tell the stories and celebrate the deceased before getting up and carrying on with their lives. After the story-telling the group may experience a period of emptiness and despair. If there is despair in the room it needs to be addressed. It should be embraced, acknowledged and breathed through. Deal with it: don't avoid the issue. Even though many of us find ourselves using these words, it is not really helpful to say, "Don't worry. Everything will be alright." This type of "support" may even delay or prevent the person from entering the despair inside them. One needs to enter it in order to move through it!
The psychological environment in which this session is being held needs to contain a quality not often referred to in our business strategies. This is the quality of love. By love, I mean the unconditional acceptance of what is happening that allows people to support each other in moving through the pain of despair and engaging the challenge of what lies ahead. Despair has been called the final catharsis that strips away everything before the silence can be entered. This silence is the clear and silent space of new possibilities. It is the "light at the end of the tunnel". Once the group has reached this "silent" place, the pre-work is complete and they are now ready to enter and make full use of the Open Space.
This work may take several days or just a few hours. It all depends on the dynamics of the group and how easily and gracefully they are able to move through the cycle of grief. As facilitator, allow the group to take whatever time is needed. Groups and individuals who are not able to work through the emotional inertia caused by grief are not only unhappy, they are also un-productive. There is a very definite business case for engaging in this type of work as well as for all the obvious "humanitarian" reasons.
We used the example of the death of a co-worker. The process for handling grief would be similar for any trauma whether it was caused by lay-offs, death or the radical re-structuring of the company. Groups need support in helping to manage transitions. The journey from the old "how it used to be" world to the new world of a future as yet unknown passes through a phase of uncertainty. This has been referred to as the "neutral space" or the "wandering in the wilderness" experience. It is where the old has been released and the new has yet to be claimed and made real. This "in-between" stage can be full of doubt, fear and seeming chaos but it is a very necessary part of the life-cycle and cannot be by-passed. I'm reminded of how nature operates. A butterfly is not a caterpillar that has had wings stuck on to it. The caterpillar and the butterfly needed that "in-between" phase of the chrysalis to allow the old form to be totally released so that something entirely new could emerge.
I have an opinion that I would like to share so please indulge me. One of the biggest problems I perceive that we have in western culture and, in particular, our western business culture is that we do not have appropriate corporate or social rites of passage. There are no obvious sign-posts to follow and certain subjects, like death, are taboo: even though we know for a fact that everything that is born will eventually die. There are very few acceptable and legitimate ways for people in their professional roles to acknowledge and move through the natural phases which constitute the human experience. This is an unhealthy situation. If energy is blocked in a system then it cannot flow. If it cannot flow it cannot regenerate the system and we have entropy instead of life and movement. Circulation is the hallmark of a healthy system.
Groups, like individuals, develop a sense of identity from those things that give meaning and purpose to their existence. This includes beliefs, values, past experiences and the perceptions held by others about them. A group or company can gain much strength and unity from sharing a common heritage. However, I have noticed that many groups have very little knowledge or appreciation of their own history. They are unaware of all the struggles and triumphs of those who have gone before them. They are missing out because nobody has told them the "story". Honoring the history is an important ritual for any group. If you believe that this sense of continuity is lacking in your client group then you may wish to suggest an "I remember when" story-telling session. Here is a simple design.
Let's assume that you are working with an organization that has been in existence for fifteen years and has a current membership of around 150 people. Have the leader invite everyone, including past and present members, to attend a celebration of the organization. This may mean that there are 200 people in the room for the event. Find a large room and clear it of all furniture except for chairs. Have these arranged in concentric circles (about four or five) and use more chairs than people. The idea is to have people seated around the two outer circles with the inner circles empty at the beginning so if there are 200 people in the room, use 250 chairs. Place markers pens and several sheets of paper at the center so that the story can be recorded. Time now to begin.
Announce, "We are here to celebrate the (name) organization by telling our story and I would like to invite whoever is the "eldest of the elders" to help us start. Whoever was here when the organization was born, would you please come forward and stand by the microphone in the center circle and tell your story. Tell us what was happening then. What did the place feel like and what were your struggles and your successes?" Allow this person to begin the telling of the story and then invite the next person to continue. As each person finishes ask them to be seated. You are now filling up the circles from the inside out. Keep going through the years until the newest member to join the group has spoken. During the story-telling the facilitator can sit on the floor in the center and record key words or phrases that capture what is being told. Participants may also wish to use pen and paper to record things but remember that the main focus is on the story as it is spoken.
Honoring history is about listening to the group story as it is told by the individual members. This is not the time to discuss and argue about what "really happened". Everyone's history is the right one and any differences are only differences in memory, perception and interpretation. When the story has been told, the leader can thank everyone for participating in the celebration. The facilitator can now gather up the sheets on which the story has been recorded, gently fold them up and put them away. Healing has taken place. The past has been honored and the group is now better equipped to engage the future. The Open Space session can follow immediately.
There is another area of organizational dynamics, generally referred to as "behavioral issues", which I would like to address. Even though much of the waste, delay and frustration experienced in organizations has its origin in human behavior, our current culture does not openly encourage us to talk about and resolve these issues. There is a great reluctance and nervousness around this topic. I believe that surfacing the barriers to effective teamwork is a necessity if we are to continuously improve the way we do business. The quality of how we work together in creating and delivering our products and services is as important as the quality of the products and services themselves.
Behavioral issues are usually the subject of hallway conversations but rarely, if ever, part of the official agenda of the organization. There is a need for people to be able to discuss the undiscussables! Let me offer a basic design for structuring a "barrier surfacing" session for a group of 5 - 15 people. Feel free to improvise on this theme.
Have the group sit around a large table and hand each person a pencil and a small stack (8 - 12) of 3 x 5 cards. Ask the team/group leader to state the purpose for the session and to explain why it is important. Then acknowledge publicly that this is a sensitive topic and one which is not usually on their meeting agenda. Invite each person to take about 10 minutes in silence to respond to the question, "What are all the behavioral barriers to effective teamwork that you see in yourself and in others?" Ask them to write separate statements on separate cards. The reason for the pencil is anonymity. If different colored pens are used by different people then individual statements may be recognised later in the process and this could inhibit the level of candor within the group.
When everyone has filled out the cards, collect them, shuffle them and distribute them back to the individual group members. Deal them out like a deck of playing-cards. Each person will now have a new set of cards in front of them and, most likely, it will consist of statements written by others. Next, invite someone to start reading aloud from the cards. Make it clear that the cards may contain statements that they both agree with and disagree with. It does not matter. What is being read aloud are the collective thoughts and feelings of the group around the issue of appropriate behavior and therefore every statement needs to be heard by everyone. Speaking the truth of what is happening, whether it be deemed "real" or "perceived" is a fundamental requirement. It is only possible to address and resolve an issue once it has been named.
Ask people to read no more than two or three cards at a time before allowing others to speak. This can occur in random order as the spirit moves or it can pass from person to person around the group. Emphasise that this is not the time for editorial comments. The purpose of the exercise is to surface what has possibly been hidden from the group and this is done by simply reading what is written on the cards.
Invite people to respond to a second question by once again using the 3 x 5 cards. Ask them, "What do you wish to request of other team members that would really help change things for the better?" Follow the same procedure for recording, collecting, shuffling, re-distributing and reading the cards. At the end of this round you can open things up for a general conversation on what people heard and how they experienced the process. Be sensitive to the fact that this may be the first time that these issues have been openly acknowledged. The group may be in a vulnerable state so make sure that you "hold the space" and encourage those qualities and behaviors that make it safe for people. Following this conversation, you can now invite people to make individual statements about what they are willing to do to make a difference. These are the personal commitments of accountability and responsibility that can help break the gravitational pull of the behavioral baggage that is holding back the group. I do not think that any of us are naive enough to believe that one single session will do the trick. This should be seen as a good beginning to an ongoing process. The group can choose to include the behavioral "stuff" as part of the regular check function in its quality improvement process or in whatever other methodology it is following.
If you are working with a large group of anywhere from 20 - 100 people, then the same process will work given these minor adjustments. Instead of 3 x 5 cards, have people record the answers to the two questions on Post-It Notes and then display these on a wall. The group can gather around the wall and different people can take turns in reading out the statements. For the general discussion, you may wish to have smaller groups meet and share their experiences. This gives more people more "air time" and because of the sensitivity of the subject matter, smaller groups provide more intimate and supportive environments. The results of these conversations can then be taken back into the larger group setting for closure.
One final suggesting is that of generating vision. This involves understanding the power of language and the creative thought process. This exercise is not about plastering the walls with endless words or spending hours carefully crafting a statement of vision to hang on the office wall. This is about people in action together.
Gather the group together in a large circle and issue them a challenge - an impossible dream - that will capture their imaginations. I use the example of President Kennedy's challenge to, "put a man on the moon and bring him back by the end of the decade". Work with the leader to choose the appropriate challenge for the group before the meeting. Have the leader issue the challenge and then invite people to respond to this in a "business as usual" manner. Break up into groups of five or six and role-play. Have people really get into the language of "why it can't happen here" and "why President Kennedy/company leader must be nuts to think that we can do something like that given our present resources". After four or five minutes, have the various small groups in turn give a sample of what that conversation sounds like.
Then invite people to switch to a mind-set that "holds all things as possible" and ask the small groups to continue the conversations in response to the challenge. Coach them to use the language of possibilities and to see where that leads them. Again, invite the various groups to share a flavor of what emerged in their conversations with the larger group. Return to the large circle and breathe and debrief on what people noticed in regard to distinctions in the use of language. Complete this exercise by having individuals reflect on "what is possible for their organization" and either have them call it out in a random fashion or go around the circle. Generating vision in this way is an excellent way of allowing a group to rally around future possibilities and to appreciate the power of language in dialogue before entering Open Space to hold their conversations. (These can be one or many or all of the generative conversations for relationship, possibility, opportunity, action, clarity and completion).
This section has described some examples of what can be done with client groups in order to better prepare them for Open Space. There are other areas to focus on and many other ways of designing and facilitating these "pre-events". I chose the themes of moving through grief, honoring organizational history, generating vision and surfacing and resolving behavioral barriers because they are some of the more common ones facing groups. As a facilitator of the process, the main point with all of this is to do whatever it takes to help raise the level of honesty, open-ness and trust in the client group. Not only is this good for the general well-being of the group, but it also allows more of what is possible in Open Space to be achieved.