Musings on Holding Space

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to work with a group who wanted to create some plans for 2011. I drew on the Chaordic Stepping Stones to clarify the high level purpose, the principles, the people and the meeting concept, guided by the mantra that “we aren’t planning a meeting, we’re planning a harvest”. I loved how in the pre-meeting work the right practice for this meeting emerged so naturally and the Stepping Stones created space for suggestions (such as inviting more of the system into the room and invitation as a process).

We worked with the concept of an Action Café as there were specific project areas that needed the benefit of the group’s perspective in a short amount of time. There was a rich moment in the pre-meeting work where we explored the benefit of not assigning people to go to particular tables, to let people self-select and join the conversations that called to them. (In the meeting it was like magic when I chimed the first round and *whoosh* people immediately travelled to where they wanted to go.)

A few of my personal reflections:

  • Using this groan zone image was so helpful to describe to the key stakeholders what it would feel like during the meeting. As well as sharing the Open Space principle of who ever shows up are right people – not to fret about why someone has arrived at a table or wishing someone else would.
  • I also tapped into the OS principle of what happens is the only thing that could have, and when it starts is the right time. There were a few times when some formal presentations began to go on longer than planned and I simply let go and enjoyed the bits of wiggle room I had built into the agenda.
  • I used an informal circle to shift the feeling in the room when we moved from the formal presentation into the Café, resting to absorb the questions for the afternoon and the World Café principles that would help us meet well that day.
  • I focused on holding the space instead of mucking about in the group’s work.
  • In hindsight, I would have done The Work on a sticky thought about a senior leader (whom I had not conversed with) possibly staying for the Café. The Work might have helped me see the possibility in that potential reality rather than me feeling all “yikes” about it.

The meeting was deemed a success with all the action plans that had emerged by the end. At closing circle we passed a talking stick that even travelled backwards a couple of times – a joyous ending filled with both laughter and humble moments. It was an awesome example of how learning happens through conversation. One of the highlights for me was hearing several people say that they are convinced that inviting a group of people together around a challenge is how we should handle all the challenges inside the organization. I agree.

Where can you convene a group of thoughtful citizens to change the world? Are there places you can create the container instead of mucking about in a groups’ work?