What Can Change In Two Days?

Some wisdom from the incredible Lisa Heft about Open Space Technology (a large group, self-organizing process) about what can be accomplished in an OST “of two days, ideally”.

I don’t think conflict is something that can often be resolved in a single meeting. By a single intervention. Resolution is not what I seek by offering Open Space as one of the possible tools for a certain meeting. The ability to breathe through conflict – to witness rage without blows – to be able to walk away (and walk back in) – to hear another person’s story (without trying to solve or change it) – these are all the things that an Open Space (of two days, ideally) can offer. Resolution? Take any human behavior – there are so many things that inform and change and hold in place certain behaviors. The meeting is just one part of someone’s life, life history, life after the meeting, real life ‘on Monday’, social norms, support for change and so on. But what the meeting can do as the ‘massage’ so the human can witness their own inner dialogue, feel witnessed, notice and wonder, try to articulate, stumble through, step back and step back in? Amazing.

Lisa’s teaching from her Open Space Learning Workshop has always stayed with me: 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 how designing OST as part of a larger architecture for change will be more beneficial than simply doing an Open Space.

But onto the “two days, ideally” part. What a luxury – two whole days for Open Space! Even a day and a half would be simply incredible to host. Most of the leaders I work with expect that their problems will be solved in a 35 minute timeslot. Not-a-chance-lance. This harkens to our mechanistic views of people in organizations. Just switch out that part for this new part and voila change will ensue. But we humans don’t work that way. Onto Lisa’s explanation:

I say two days ideally because in any process – including Open Space – on Day 1 people are often naming their grief and loss. Day 2 does not magically change that but with the overnight, with eating together, with feeling witnessed as they tell their story again and again on Day 1 – seems like enough people shift a bit on Day 2 to not lose their own story but walk forward into imagining a slightly different story, together.

I also wanted to note what Lisa shared about topics that may be deemed off-limits by the client. I had this experience recently, where the leader was very concerned that the group needed to talk about the important things (the things he felt were important). He was worried that they would talk about unimportant things (the things he felt were unimportant). We talked about how OST operates; that if someone posted a topic, no one else might come. Which could be a sign that that person is the only one interested in that topic, or maybe they are way before their time. The people will self-organize. And if is a topic that the leaders feels is not important, but 15 people gather around it, well, it is of some importance. And if they aren’t talking about it in the OST session I’m sure they are talking about it somewhere, somehow. Why not open the space for it and discover what the concern is?

Here is Lisa’s perspective (I love how her client worded this – I’ve adjusted it slightly for posting to the wider web audience):

I agree with the ‘givens’. I think it is not useful to say ‘this is what you cannot talk about’ / ‘this is off the table’. Humans will talk about whatever is the story within them that has the strongest pain or yearning or discovery or passion – even if we want them to talk about ‘x’. However: An example of how a marvelous client of mine said this. The OS was for strategic planning for the next two years. “You can talk about wanting A” (for example) and that is fine – but that is not what we have money for to fund for this next two years of our strategic plan. We are not able to inform or control that in our greater organization at this time – although rest assured we remain passionate about it as well. What we do have money to fund is in these three key strategic areas (D, E, and F – the three areas identified by our stakeholder for the coming years’ focus). So you can talk about other things but we hope you will also spend some time in these retreats helping us with the three upcoming strategic plan issue areas.”

So he did not say something was a given or off the table. He invited anything anyone wanted to talk about – but encouraged people to think within the diverse stream of these key identified-by-the-stakeholders areas. Nice.

The invitation for leaders and conveners is to think about where they might be having a mechanistic expectation for change (switch the parts) and instead of a humanistic approach: time to build relationships, time to be witnessed, space to reflect, time to co-create and start to walk into a new story. And to think about how they can reframe the context instead of declaring topics off the table. Where space can be opened and support for action is held within some higher level areas. And for me the invitation is to continue working on my limiting beliefs on standing in my power and confidence in these conversations with clients, sponsors and leaders.