Generating expansive conversations with open space

By Martin Vogel

As previously discussed on this blog, we favour conversational approaches to eliciting the development of leaders. When we’re working with groups who have an ambitious purpose but face a variety of complex options, we look for ways to break free of linear and binary thinking and instead synthesise diverse perpectives.

One approach on which we draw for inspiration is open space. It seems a pre-requisite for these conversational processes that they have mystifying names. This is no exception and its formal nomenclature – given by its originator, Harrison Owen – is Open Space Technology. Beneath the name lies gold. Put simply, it is a method for a group of people to self-organise multiple, simultaneous conversations around a related theme. It is energising for the participants and, in our experience, produces more interesting outcomes than laboured discussions led by facilitators.

According to open space practitioner, Michael Pannwitz:

”Although one can’t predict specific outcomes, it’s always highly productive for whatever issue people want to attend to. Some of the inspiring side effects that are regularly noted are laughter, hard work which feels like play, surprising results and fascinating new questions.”

When we run open space, we run several rounds of conversation over a day or afternoon. But open space can run on this basis for two or three days. The topics are determined by the participants. Before each round, there’s a brokering process to decide what to talk about next. Typically, several topics will be selected and for each there is a convenor, who stays with their topic throughout the round. Other participants may move between whichever conversations attract them or step out of the proceedings altogether.

So it’s really not a linear process. Even as conversations are proceeding, cross-fertilisation may occur between them by virtue of people moving from one topic to another. There are four principles and one law that guide the running of open space. The four principles are that:

  • The ones who show up to a conversation are the right people.
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could happen.
  • Whenever it starts is the right time.
  • When it is over, it is over.

These four principles create a momentum in the process. As a participant, instead of agonising over whether you have the right people to discuss your topic, you dive into it with whoever shows up. This applies even if you have convened a topic and you find yourself on your own. Remember people may come and go through the round, so your initial conversants may not be your only discussion partners.

The law of two feet states that you should go and attend whichever session you want but, if you find yourself in a session where you are not learning or contributing, use your two feet – that is, move on. I find this incredibly liberating. Think how many meetings a person sits through in an average lifetime out of nothing more than a sense of duty or presenteeism. What a waste of time!

Some of the most interesting conversations in open space happen between individuals who step out and form their own impromptu connection. But, in my experience, this doesn’t happen enough. Perhaps people are strongly shaped by the sense of duty to stick with the central process and are reluctant to move to the edge. (Although, conversely, it could be that participants are strongly engaged by the discussions they are in and don’t feel the need to step out.)

Open space is scaleable from a small number of people to hundreds. Ideally, there should be a minimum of (if any) verbal feeding back to the whole group after each round of conversation. The need for this is obviated by the fact that participants will likely have gravitated to the topics that concern them during the proceedings. And there should be good documentation to ensure people are able to keep up with what they’ve missed. In small groups, a well crafted sheet of flip chart should suffice. In larger groups, good practice dictates that participants are asked to write up brief summaries on their computers, phones or iPads for instant dissemination.

Beside self-organisation, the great virtue of open space is how it taps into the diversity in the room. It’s a great leveller, which breaks down the inhibitions of hierarchy. And it ensures that – over the course of the proceedings and even for large groups – most people in the room encounter each other in relatively intimate circumstances – in contrast to plenary processes where people sit passively as one person at a time holds the floor. This tends to foster collaborative building on each other’s ideas rather than adversarial critiquing of them. That’s a discipline that merits fostering more widely in these polarised times.

Image courtesy Álvaro Serrano at Unsplash.

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