Open Space Learning Workshop

*This is a long, rambling capture of my learnings*

We were a group of 11 who gathered in a warm, sunny San Francisco for Lisa Heft’s Open Space Learning Workshop: Porcia, Owen, Gary, Julie, Dianne, Anthony, Denise, Carolina, Lindsay and Lorenia.

We started by reflecting in silence on our work as a facilitator and wrote our challenges, puzzles and discoveries. Mine included getting more voices in the room, shifting from one-to-many events to turn-to-each-other formats, and the power and magic of a diverse group gathered around something that has energy for them. We had the chance to feel Open Space by walking the circle to introduce ourselves and share one of our cards. Walking the circle brought awareness of pace, cadence, volume level, distance and more, plus the encouragement to practice at home with our cats and dogs!

From then we moved into teach-backs that helped us explore our pre-reading, each at a flip-chart to draw our teach-back of a chapter of Harrison’s book. And then building our theme – the task we will work on for our Open Space (OS) the next morning, with Lisa’s comment that when working with a client, they work together – over time – on a theme until they “get it” (she doesn’t wordsmith it on her own).  Loved the additional piece of two participants being quietly invited to observe and make notes on what Lisa was doing/how she was drawing out the theme ideas from the group then sharing those observations in the debrief.

The next morning our OS session began and here were my gems from that and the rest of the workshop:

  • Integrating play – introduce an object (e.g. scarf) and as each person picks it up it becomes something else.  Thanks to Lindsay and her clowning work for this idea.
  • Preference of one hour minimums for OS sessions; to provide the Book of Proceedings a week or two later (but with their handwritten notes pinned up as the OS unfolds); using colour coded signs and stickies with the times instead of the grid on the agenda wall, and having a few extras in your pocket with the playful description “time is stretchy in OS”. Signs up along one side with lunch, closing times etc.
  • In our reflection of what Lisa did, we were invited to doodle on flip charts was we were thinking/talking. Not to draw what we were talking about, but to keep the pen moving to help unlock our thoughts. Also awesome: both letters and an animal image were set up around the room that we were constantly moving from and to (e.g. B, lion).

We enjoyed a video of a corporate OS event with Harrison, and I picked up his emphasis on not using the word “problem”. A good reminder for me to work on my language and to revisit some of Peter Block’s writings. This led us into a discussion on action and voting, to consider that choosing topics or ideas at the end of an event could cause the loss of a breakthrough idea. Often better to honour how our brain works: give some rest time, step back, then come back to revisit the ideas and begin to cluster etc. Great question to ask: do you need action or accomplishment? Often accomplishment is what we seek and OS can provide without going to action or voting.  In a circumstance where choosing topics was necessary, gave 5 sticky dots each and invited: before, asked you for what you are passionate about, now asking you to name some priorities and think about what is good for the organization.

Another note about how OS can be used effectively when there isn’t urgency or a decision needed (e.g. knowledge sharing conferences). And a great analogy of keeping OS pure – like a sea anemone, adding to OS touches the system. Even adding tables between people changes the energy (“this form does not hold well…”). No touchy touchy!  But do provide lots and lots of nibbly, portable food and water.  Loved the idea of designing in butterfly stations (food table, espresso corner etc).

If clients want to see a demo, set up the walls and rooms, do your opening, invite them to create topics, and when they start to run out, ask them to think about someone they know who would be coming and what they would write. Okay Stop! Would you like to come to a conference like this? Show them documentation of what has come out of previous OS.

Encouragement to also learn other specific dialogue tools like Restorative Justice Circles. How conflict often shows up as loss or a need to tell your truth and be fully witnessed. Importance of pre-work in understanding any conflict at play. Example: 9 fractions in Haiti who all came together without guns or blows. In all of OS, even in northern Iraq, with Bosnians and Serbs, OS has never come to blows. Raised voices yes, but no blows.

Standing in your power and confidence to say “I don’t know if their behaviour is going to change. But I know that a seed will be planted in them, whether they remember that or not. And I’m okay with that.” And talking to the big cheese to make an agreement about how there will be passion, there will be topics – you okay with that? And the agreement that from the moment of opening until I toss it back to you at close “I own the room”. So if during the event you are concerned, come and talk to me.  I might not do anything about it. And you cannot step in. Can you live with it?” Example: Save Joe! Save Joe!  Joe has the law of two feet, and if I intervene it will affect the dynamics in ways we can’t know. So, “walk with me”… and if they do step in “are you telling me you are breaking your agreement”.

Space invaders – what a gift they are! Bill wants to shut it down and give a speech. But suddenly sound guy says problems with the audio; a kid overhears and goes around to tell the groups to be sure they take their notes; remember Aikido and imagine how to dance with it.  And the big funder pulling people aside throughout the event, then at the end announcing a ½ time person to support. Not a space invader after all but a gift.

Thoughts on shifting power dynamics: name tag tricks, invite lower power people to show up early, eat, own the space. Integrate into your pre-work. The big church cheese who welcomed, walked himself out, magically appeared at muffin time. So good – people know Elvis is in the building. Another leader who loves OS and the ability to scan during the event, looking for budding leadership, passion for topics, ideas that emerge he will keep an eye on.  During an action session he announced a “Champion for the Champions”, ensuring time on agendas, resources and more to put infrastructure around what they were coming up with. Don’t invite action ideas if you can’t put the legs under it.

So important to design with the culture in mind; for close with the church group, used colourful pieces of paper that they wrote their one word on. When all put up looked like a stained glass window.

Loved the image of the open door with the blue sky all around: what will it take to get you to walk through this door? And more on invitation: invitation text, nature of the invitation, outreach and strategy. Not necessary to talk about process in the invitation (“creative, open process” – lots of victims of previous bad creative, open processes!). Loved this one: no speakers, no outcomes, there will be someone with whom you need to talk. Can describe open/closing circle as plenary (whole group all together).  Don’t put a price on the first invitation – it’s about building relationships. OSOS: pay what you can, visa team that helped with letters and followed-up, online system active designed to  gather lots and lots of data in registration(e.g. first, second languages, abilities, mobility, laptops, rides etc), can you buy a room or register for someone else. Met people at the airport, all got welcomed during the before process, messages leading up to the event (weather report, dress casually, safe journey). And find “the other”; what will it take to reach out and include them? Diversity: it’s not by looking that you can see diversity.

On room set-up for 2,500 people: the one largest clean wall (avoiding art, doors etc) is your agenda wall. Chairs are 6 feet back to allow space. Maybe you add a platform for opening so people can “see” where the sound comes from. Chairs set up in horseshoes of 15, with three tables for agenda creation (“for any of your bodies who don’t work that way, I’ll be walking around with pen and paper”). Time stickers already on the signs (colour coded) and three or four mikes set up by the platform so people are still walking forward. Might have volunteers helping put their name on the wall. One pathway clear to the agenda wall. Maybe have multiple signs around the room. Stay in their last session groups for closing circle. Have some extra chairs in your back pocket for more conversation groups. Imagine the whole flow of the day to help you set up the room. If you have a graphic recorder, don’t group close to food or Newsroom to create another butterfly station. Don’t break into OS for food: make it available, healthy and portable. People will drink twice as much water as usual (helpful to bring in big water urns as the staff aren’t able to refill glasses/jugs easily. Lisa’s constant refrain of take care of yourself, stay hydrated.

On documentation design – Lisa added a participant sign-in sheet as it’s easy to circulate. If people chose to make note graphically, ask them to make a few notes or a paragraph. Ask to add any drawings to the Book of Proceedings. Graphic recording can be done throughout the day if they pop around conversations and at closing circle. For emailing info keep at 10MB to access across all cultures. Remember to design dissemination of Book of Proceedings into your plan. And create your binder that showcases what you do!  I added so many additional questions to my pre-work (Chaordic Stepping Stones).

From other OS conversations – Leilani Rashida Henry’s Question Circle (alternative way of using a panel). Lisa’s Graphic Window with flip chart paper folded into quadrants, then with four questions related to your task, draw your answers (about 20 mins then 30 minutes to discuss). Reflect before dialogue and the dialogue often goes deeper. Integrate different modalities (drawing, quiet etc). Great tip about meeting clients on neutral ground instead of on their mountain top. Polarity… tension of the guitar string makes the music. Instead of teambuilding, question “how can we find joy and satisfaction in our work?” Four questions: What is your favourite book? What is your favourite music? Who do you most admire in history? Visualize your 6th grade classroom – what made you different from others? What were you dreaming about yourself? What did you want to be? “Whatever you thought you wanted to be then in 6th grade, in some way, you are today”. What feeling “joy” invokes? What comes to mind? When last felt? Satisfaction… what does it mean? How does that feeling relate to how you feel when you come to work? (Done as intro to OS.)

In international languages settings, for opening circle walk arm in arm with a translator. Roving translators had colour swaths of cloth that showed the languages they spoke. Speak like Maya Angelou; slow and with emotion. Working in a prison; used dialogue circle instead of full form OS. People come and go; what do you want to talk about? Think about inclusion and access all the time.

In the final reflections we did Lisa’s Graphic Window, drawing (no text) our answers to these four questions: what am I comfortable with/things I can do really well as an OS facilitator? What are some of my challenges or concerns as an OS facilitator? What do I still need to learn or work on as an OS facilitator? Where can I picture using OS in my organization or community?  And a great closing circle where we wrote three words on an index card “essence of what I take out into the world”; shared them aloud then added the card to the basket passed around. Mine: courage, like-spirited and rejuvenation.

See here for a few pictures of my time in the workshop.

Thank you Lisa for a terrific learning experience – I can’t wait to return for Open Space on Open Space!