Adventures in Open Space
Open Space Technology Learning Module Report
© 1998 John Perkins
Since the processes and procedures of Open Space are well described by
others (Owen, 1992 and Daniel, 1994) and in my Learning Agreement, I will
not reproduce them here. This paper will present my personal experiences
with Open Space in two sections. The first will consider some of the understandings
I have made about Open Space and myself. The second section will be an annotated
list of my experiences in specific Open Space events. In this paper I will
refer to an Open Space event as just that, or as simply Open Space and sometimes
as Open Space Technology or OST.
The fun of Participating. I first learned of Open Space Technology from
a flyer Harrison Owen sent
me announcing the first facilitator training to be held in the Seattle area
in 1994. I enjoyed the idea of being in the first training. In 1979 I was
in one of the first classes in Neuro-Linguistic Programming. I like the
experience of being a pioneer-helping to take a new process to fresh social
and interpersonal arenas. Since it is new for everyone it must be new for
me, and I know I am embarking on explorations of new worlds of learning.
I understood that my training would only be the launching pad for my learning
about Open Space.
The excitement of discovery is built into the fabric of Open Space. I love
the sheer elasticity of the form, something within me is set free to fully
attend and be present for myself and others in a heightened way. How is
this possible on such a consistent basis? I will look at this phenomena
from the point of view of therapeutic double binds, infinite games, and
Double Binds. Part of the fun and magic of Open Space falls within
techniques developed in psychotherapy called "therapeutic double binds"
and "prescribing the symptom." Underneath both of these approaches
is an attempt to disrupt the usual pattern of behavior in a client or client
system. In a therapeutic double bind, the patient is told not to change
in a context where he or she has come expecting to be told to change. Resisting
the injunction means a change, while not changing now becomes a choice.
"Since a symptom is something, which, by definition, one "can't
help," [the client] is then no longer behaving symptomatically. Thus
he is 'changed if he does and changed if he doesn't'" (Hoffman, 1981:
The elegance of Open Space is that in the opening presentation, where the
facilitator explains how it works and what to expect, he or she directly
places each individual member in a therapeutic double bind, which has benefits
for the group. The bind is in the law of two feet. Here, members are told
that this is the only "law" in Open Space, and it states that
"If, during the course of the gathering any person finds him or herself
in a situation where they are neither learning nor contributing, they can
use their two feet and go to some more productive place" (Owen, 1992:
People who follow this law become metaphoric butterflies and bumblebees,
which is, they attract interesting conversations to themselves outside the
posted ones, or they flit from group to group, cross pollinating ideas.
The therapeutic double bind is that this is what some people actually do,
and many others wish they had the "guts" to do, at meetings and
conferences. Therefore, by telling people that what they do is exactly what
is wanted, it frees them to openly do what they wanted to do all along,
or in failing to do what they want to do their lack of action is shown to
be their free choice.
I have also experienced the direct therapeutic benefits possible during
an Open Space. In other words, I have had experiences which have changed
my life. For example, at the five-day Open Space on "Growing our Now"
in Yachats, Oregon, I called a discussion on the topic, "Too Much To
Do-too Little Me-Rescues and Remedies," which drew nine people, including
Harrison. At that time, I felt frayed and overburdened due to some challenging
difficulties with work, school, and home life. I secretly enjoyed the idea
of getting some time to be center stage if only to whine a little bit. At
one point Harrison said something so important for me and where I felt myself
to be that I put it in bold text in my notes from this session, and I will
put it in bold text here: Pay close note to what's your story and keep
it clearly in mind/view. Negotiate with others to clarify stories, who plays
what roles, etc. (Growing Our Now, 1995). Harrison's statement put me
in a double bind: my misery, and my release, was my own making.
A few weeks later I had a corroborating experience. Around that time I seemed
to be chronically losing things-papers, bills, and the like. When I called
a close friend, and superb therapist, in New York to seek her advice about
what to do she advised, "Do you know how light is thought of as being
made of both particles and waves? You have become overly fixated on the
particles. Refocus, and place your attention and alignment with the wave
forms of your life." Which, using a different metaphor, was very close
to what Harrison had suggested. These two messages falling so close to one
another, and from people I trust and respect, made an impression on me.
To accomplish this resetting, I decided to give myself a two day retreat
at a convent one mile from my apartment. I decided to use a tool I had learned
at the Yachats Open Space as a means for enhancing my self reflection. I
used Prasad Kaipa's Pyramid Building approach which he employs with groups
seeking to clarify their strategic intent. While learning this method in
Yachats, I found the idea of labeling the corners, edges and faces of a
three dimensional tetrahedron intriguing.
While working out my pyramid (in appendix, pp. 4-6) I spent the day in silence.
This settled and grounded me. I felt back in the driver's seat of being
the narrator of my story. Or, if I was reporting to my friend in New York,
I felt more in synch with my wave form. So much so, that when the chance
arose to leave a job which I did not feel was part of my story any longer,
I accepted it. My story needed to move on...
Infinite Games. Open Space builds the context for an entirely different
type of game: an infinite game. As James Carse says in Finite and Infinite
Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility (1986), "A finite
game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose
of continuing the play" (p. 3). Open Space has many of the attributes
of infinite games. Plus, the experiences Carse attributes to infinite game
players could as easily be described by participants in Open Space events.
|Open Space |
(references from Owen)
|Infinite Games and Players (references from Carse,
|Open Space will not work when people are forced to join it
(1991: 178). ||It is an invariable principle of all play, finite and infinite,
that whoever plays, plays freely. Whoever must play, cannot play. (: 4,
emphasis in original) |
|Whenever it starts is the right time (1992:
70). ||Infinite players cannot say when their play began, nor do they
care. (: 7-8) |
|The Law of Two Feet saysif, during the course of the
gathering any person finds him or herself in a situation where they are
neither learning nor contributing, they can use their two feet and go to
some more productive place (1992: 72). ||While finite games are externally
defined, infinite games are internally defined (: 8). |
facilitator will do nothing and remain totally invisible (1992: 51). ||Infinite
players play best when they become least necessary to the continuation of
play...The joyfulness of infinite play, its laughter, lies in learning to
start something we cannot finish |
|If there is any single quality of an Open Space event that
strikes a first-time participant as delightfully strange it is playfulness.
Even in undertakings of profound seriousness, there is fun (1991: 172).
||To be playful is not to be trivial or frivolous, or to act as though
nothing of consequence will happen. On the contrary, when we are playful
with each other we relate as free persons, and the relationship is open
to surprise( :19). |
|Butterflies (people who do not attend discussions)
create centers of non-action where silence may be enjoyed or some new, unexplored
topic of conversation engaged. [These conversations] almost inevitably end
up being significant (1992: 74). ||everything that happens is of consequence
(: 19). |
|Perhaps one of the biggest surprises...(Huntington in Owen:
1995: 89). ||In infinite play one always plays dramatically, that is,
towards the open, towards the horizon, towards surprise, where nothing can
be scripted (: 31). |
Clearly, Open Space is facilitated and enjoyed best as an infinite game.
If we think of the expression of group effort as a fraction
Group Effort = Member Participation divided by Leadership
it becomes obvious where the paradox lies. Group effort simultaneously approaches
infinity or unity depending on what value we ascribe to leadership! As the
facilitator's leadership role approaches zero, members are free to follow
their own sense of passion and responsibility with exponential and unpredictable
results (in other words, the potential unleashed is infinite). Simultaneously
though, during any Open Space event any member can lead, that is, make decisions
and implement them alone or with the help of others. Therefore leadership
and group membership, being roles expressed by the same person or group
of people, brings the right side of the equation closer and closer to being
one, or a unity of group composition and group effort.
Six hundred years before Christ, Lao Tzu expressed the Taoist philosophy
of leadership in terms remarkably similar to Owen's dicta "The ultimate
facilitator will do nothing and remain totally invisible":
The most intelligent leader brings about results without making
those controlled realize they are being influenced
The intelligent leader will be careful not to speak as if he [or she] doubted
or distrusted his followers ability to do the job suitably.
When the work is done, and as he [or she] wanted it done, [the leader] will
be happy if the followers say: "This is how we wanted it" (1958:
Creative Engagement. A lot can happen when a group of people gather.
Open Space makes all participants co-creators of their personal and each
other's experiences. We can experience our social roles as self and socially
constructed and choose which roles to play during the Open Space. For example,
within an hour I might play, and play with, the roles of discussion facilitator,
note-taker, and absentee member (while away resting).
To facilitate an Open Space event is to generate and hold a context-that
is, a loosely bounded mutual understanding of purpose, time, and space-for
the group. Each participant quickly grasps the basic existential paradox:
with so many people actively engaged, my personal participation becomes
just a small fraction of what can occur, yet even that small contribution
generates great meaning for myself, and materially changes the quality of
the Open Space.
An Open Space event lets us express our "compound self" (Grudin,
1996: 66). As just noted, one can express several roles (or voices) at an
Open Space event:
Ideally, these several voices, which together make up the fullness
of our compound identity, should be available to us at all times. But individual
voices can be liberated and renewed by special activities. The secret is
full engagement. (Grudin :66)
Open Space encourages full engagement and people voluntarily provide it.
We can make a gift to ourselves, and of ourselves, to the other participants
in pursuit of the stated purpose of the event. In great workplaces which
have high trust among employees and management, they build that trust by
understanding the gift of creativity and humanness the employee offers to
the work of the organization (Levering, 1988: 195). The co-creation of the
experience and the support and expression of various roles is what makes
Open Space so exhaustingly satisfying. People, by freely committing to the
unpredictable encounters with others during an Open Space, awaken personal
and social creativity (May, 1975: 46).
In summary, Open Space, however one views it, clearly provides a contextual
field which is overly rich in opportunities for play and growth. Something
interesting must happen, or as Owen likes to emphasize, you can expect
to be surprised.
In my learning agreement I said I would document my learning by maintaining
a list of my experiences with notes. I will present the whole list of my
experiences to date, and then look at each event in particular. This list
does not include my original training in January of 1994 and my first Open
Space I co-facilitated with Dell Drake and June Eggler in May 1994. I did
not include them because they happened before my formal entry into Union
|Date ||Event |
|11/94 ||Two-Day Open Space on
Open Space, Washington, DC, facilitated by Harrison Owen. |
||One-Day Open Space with 93 teenagers and 30 adults, Partners in Prevention
(PIP) Leadership Camp, Vashon Island, WA. Facilitated by Jan Gray. I sponsored
|1/95 ||Five-Day Second Annual Training With Harrison Owen,
Dell Drake, and Anne Stadler, Seabeck, WA. |
|1/95 ||One-Day Open
Space. Antioch Graduate Management Program, Seattle, WA. |
Introduction to Open Space, for Upper Left Corner Chapter of the Association
for Quality and Participation (AQP), Seattle, WA. I facilitated. |
||One-Day Open Space (first of three days) for the Tobacco Free Washington
Coalition, Facilitated by Anne Stadler, Tukwila, WA. I sponsored. |
||One-Day LIOS Networking Open Space. Facilitated by Dell Drake, Kay Christy,
and Brian Mason, LIOS offices, Bellevue, WA. |
|4/95 ||One-Day Open
Space. Arc-King County, Seattle, WA. Facilitated by Neidra North. |
||Two-Day Open Space (last two of three days) for the Tobacco Free Washington
Coalition. Facilitated by Anne Stadler, Tukwila, WA. I sponsored. |
||Two-Hour Open Space for Northwest Intentional Communities Association
Annual Meeting in Bothell, WA. I facilitated. |
Open Space on the Theme of "Growing Our Now" in Yachats, OR. Facilitated
by Harrison Owen and Anne Stadler. |
|11/95 ||One-Day Open Space
with 80 teenagers and 30 adults, Partners in Prevention (PIP) Leadership
Camp, Vashon Island, WA. I facilitated. |
|1/96 ||One-Day Open Space
during Five-Day Third Annual Training With Harrison Owen, Dell Drake, and
Anne Stadler, Seabeck, WA. |
|2/96 ||Half-Day Open Space during
Tobacco Free Washington Coalition's Annual Planning Meeting. Seatac, WA.
I facilitated. |
|4/96 ||Half-Day Open Space at Interlake High School,
Bellevue, WA. I facilitated. |
|5/96 ||Half-Day Open Space at Bouncing
Back Conference, Seattle, WA. I facilitated. |
|6/96 ||One-Day Open
Space for Central Co-op Grocery Store, Seattle, WA. I facilitated. |
|7/96 ||Five-Day Open Space at the 14th Annual Organization Transformation
Conference, Olympia, WA. Harrison Owen facilitating. |
1. 11/94 Two-Day Open Space on Open Space (OS on OS), Washington, DC,
facilitated by Harrison Owen.
Want a two-word summary of my impressions? High-density. Since this is a
gathering of the faithful, Harrison dispenses with the half hour warm up,
puts the paper and markers in the middle of the room and simply states:
"You all know what Open Space is, and how it works. The floor is open."
I proposed a group on choice. I sat, alone in the first cycle since most
people had flocked to the stories session. Linda Pope accidentally stumbled
across me and we talked for 90 minutes, just she and I, and explored all
the nuances about choice I had wanted to discuss.
A great benefit for my program was meeting Marlene Daniel who had just finished
her dissertation using the Rockport experience with Open Space as her the
location for her study. She had copies of it there, and let us have copies
at cost. Chris Carter called a group on research and I learned of other
spirited people around the country who are interested in Open Space.
Most of the research that I heard about missed the point. Open Space is
first and foremost a group phenomena, yet we insist on believing more in
private pretests and posttests. I began to see two continuums-one is the
group experience potential with increasing or decreasing facilitation symbolized
by the highly facilitated Future Search Conference approach and the minimally
facilitated Open Space Technology approach. The other is Open Space and
group on one end with a personal mind map or creative expression on the
I added a late-breaking group near the end of the second day. I felt uninterested
in the posted topics, and put one up for "Quaker Silence." Two
people joined me in simply sitting together with the Spirit. The time together
felt soft and velvety.
Harrison kept looking for my white socks and I hadn't brought any! This
refers to a private joke between us. At the conclusion of my original training,
during my turn in the closing circle I said that I really liked Open Space
and wondered if I got really good at it if I could wear white socks like
Harrison (who had only worn white socks during the training). I told him
I had not won my socks, but would buy a pack after my OS with 130 youth
scheduled for the Saturday following this OS on OS.
2. 11/94 One-Day Open Space with 93 teenagers and 30 adults, Partners
in Prevention (PIP) Leadership Camp, Vashon Island, WA. Facilitated by Jan
Gray. I sponsored it.
I will review this Open Space fully in my report on my PIP Camp internship
3. 1/95 Five-Day Second Annual Training With Harrison Owen, Dell Drake
and Anne Stadler, Seabeck, WA.
This was my second full training. I decided to attend again so that it would
appear on my official Union records as a new learning, to get a second chance
to hear Harrison's presentation, and to meet with old friends and enjoy
Open Space with them. But really, I wanted to come as a test of my agency's
acceptance of Open Space.
When I decided after my first training (a short year before) to bring OS
into my work I faced two arenas where this innovation would have to be accepted.
The first, PIP Camp, gradually warmed to the idea and ultimately had a successful
OS event. The other was my agency which actually paid my salary. The executive
director had originally denied my request from a year before. But a lot
had happened in that year.
I doubt if the OS at PIP Camp made much of an impression on her. What got
her notice was winning one of the first Safeco Insurance Company's "Rudy"
Awards for "cutting through the fog and getting the job done."
This award came with a no-strings contribution to the agency of $30,000.
Financially, the executive director was very generous with sharing part
of this award with me. I also felt I might seek a symbolic recognition of
this innovation I had learned and brought to my job. That's why I asked,
for a second time, that I receive official agency sponsorship to attend
the training, which I got, with this comment, "John, I guess I'm from
the old school, where we adults have something to teach and the kids just
sat and listened."
4. 1/95 One-Day Open Space. Antioch Graduate Management Program, Seattle,
This was an exciting opportunity to see how a system completely comfortable
with Open Space would handle itself. One of the faculty members seemed surprised
that I wanted to come, but later reversed himself. I think I added diversity
to the event by representing the community and "friends" of Antioch.
Antioch was not the only academic setting thinking about Open Space. About
that time I had a call from my core faculty professor, Barry Heermann. He
wanted to discuss whether Open Space might work at Union. Also, the president
of the Learner's Council (official representatives of students' interests
to the administration) asked me via our electronic bulletin board system
(BBS) about Open Space. I was able to refer him to a long message I had
previously sent to another learner.
As part of the residency requirements for Union, we must attend five-day
long seminars. Could OS be used to conduct a seminar devoted to the future
of Union? Invitees would be everyone on the payroll, including adjuncts,
plus learners, spouses, potential learners, accreditation officials, etc.
I have been toying with a possible format:
Day One: Theme: Self-Regulated Participation: Personal Examples
Days Two-to-Four: Issues and Opportunities Facing Union as It Extends its
Lead in Learner Directed Post-Graduate Education
Day Five: Common Ground, Significant Differences, Remaining Unexplored Terrain
As this is a seminar, active learners would need to be there for five days
to earn their seminar credits. I envision the first and fifth days as a
"shell" for the learners. Graduates, administrative staff, faculty,
dropouts, and friends of the school (lending institutions, foundations,
family members, potential new learners, people from similar institutions,
folks interested in Open Space, etc.) could conceivable be present for any
or all of days two through four.
5. 2/95 Two-Hour Introduction to Open Space, for Upper Left Corner Chapter
of the Association for Quality and Participation (AQP), Seattle, WA, I facilitated.
Within the limited time of the usual AQP members' meeting of two hours I
conducted an Open Space! We only had time for one 45 minute break out session.
From this introduction, AQP used Open Space at its free members' meeting
in May, 1995, and is thinking of using it for at least one day of its big
annual fall conference in the fall of 1996.
6. 2/95 One-Day Open Space (first of three days) for the Tobacco Free
Washington Coalition, Facilitated by Anne Stadler, Tukwila, WA. I sponsored.
This was the first of three day spent in Open Space. I will discuss it a
little later when I get to the two concluding days held in April.
7. 3/95 One-Day LIOS Networking Open Space. Facilitated by Dell Drake,
Kay Christy and Brian Mason, LIOS offices, Bellevue, WA.
One group in particular at this Open Space produced insight after insight
for me into the rapidity with which small groups create and perpetuate a
culture for themselves. Here is what I wrote soon after that Open Space.
What Happens Inside a Discussion Group: Notes and Reflections from Topic
Group Stu Jennings called at the LIOS Networking Open Space 3/25/95
Note: These comments include thoughts which occurred to me at the time plus
later reflections. Initials are made up.
Stu's topic on how can we interact more from a learning posture than a debating
one, attracted my interests since I often feel more in a debating mode in
some types of meetings without really intending to, and without knowing
always how to stay engaged while presenting my point of view.
Stu made a statement which catalyzed the discussion. He said that when in
the debating mode he feels as though he is trying to win "brownie points."
Someone asked how many brownie points would be enough?
Someone else wanted to know WHO gave out the brownie points?
I then handed him a strip of masking tape, and said, "Here are all
of the brownie points you might want."
We became participant-creators as a culture developed in front of us. As
the talk went on, we played a lot with the awarding of the
"brownie points." Brownie points soon began to symbolize an offering
from the listener to the speaker when the speaker said something the listener
acknowledged as valid or truth-full.
As an experiment we began to practice acknowledging something the previous
speaker had said, paraphrasing what had been said, and building on the idea
of the previous speaker. We wished to avoid getting into "yes, but'
For those in the room when this was accepted we had two active elements
of our impromptu culture: the passing of tape strips to symbolize hearing
a truth and "acknowledging, paraphrase, building."
Dynamically, when new people bumblebeed into the room, we did not "train"
or "educate" them to our new culture. When they spoke for the
first time, if they demonstrated they had learned appreciation, paraphrase,
building someone would pass them a brownie point. However, they might not
understand what to do with the brownie points, which to them looked like
pieces of masking tape. We had ours stuck haphazardly on our shirts, wearing
them proudly. They might just as well put this brownie point on the edge
of the table or stick it to their chair.
This is not a trivial problem. Think of the flag. To some it is just a piece
of colorful cloth, and if a need for cloth is stronger than the need to
display "the flag" the cloth function will override. So that under
battle a flag might be torn up to make slings, or bandage wounds. This might
horrify those who see more symbolism in it. Especially if a compassionate
medic used "our flag" to bandage the wounds of "the enemy."
But, back to this group. We discussed Stu's point that in the debating mode
he can get really worked up defending bullshit, even when he knows it's
bullshit. In his learning/listening mode he tracks internally what he feels
positive or negative about as a way of uncovering his core beliefs.
A suggestion was offered to exaggerate the bullshit, play it big and burlesque,
as a way of lightening our grip on it, or its grip on us.
The challenge in our appreciation, paraphrase, building exercise is how
to respond with an acknowledge while our true selves may have major disagreements.
Example: M. mentioned that we might think of truth with a small 't' since
we all have our separate 't' truths; there is no capital 'T' truth.
Q. disagreed, but didn't know how to say it given our appreciation, paraphrase,
building rules. She said that we have truths, and some have a capital 'T'
and is true for all people. She knows these Truth because her body shivers
and vibrates when she hears them.
W. raised the point, after acknowledging Q. that those shaking truths still
may be small 't', simply major truths for Q.
Q. did not appreciate our culture and felt that since it was an exercise
she would leave. Which she did. But she had raised good topics which the
group continued to grapple with. She also left so quickly that it surprised
some of us "old-timers" when she did not get into the spirit of
the culture we had created.
Being in a group has a tension: on one hand being too forceful risks distancing
people, while being too passive might lead us to accept something we know
is wrong in order to feel like we belong to the group. X. mentioned the
understanding in some communities that everyone would commit to keeping
a long term view of their relationship, and work through any disagreements.
In other words, conflict would not be the wedge to ruin the relationship
and each accepts a good faith effort to resolve any difficulties.
This basic philosophy of acknowledging first and commitment through conflict
could help families, managers, etc.
Is there a need to take a stance? Is this need apparent only in certain
cultures where people maybe fear getting lost in the group? Could it be
that we learn to sense our personhood by testing the boundaries between
us and the group?
R. asked, before we left, for some suggestions to use in his daily living.
C. quoted Ken Webers: I think I could do with letting others be right.
I forget if I thought of this story during the group, or later. I didn't
share it at the time. A family with a teenage daughter and new born baby
came to find a Buddhist monk. The family said the daughter has confessed
that the baby was sired by him and the family insisted that he accept his
responsibility and raise the child.
The monk said, "Is that so." And accepted the baby.
Six weeks later the girl had a second confession, and told her parents who
the true father was, a local baker, and that they wanted to get married.
And get their baby back.
The family made a second trip to the monk. They apologized and told him
that they had made a grave mistake. They asked them for the baby back. The
monk said, "Is that so." And returned the baby.
Build on and respect differences.
In large groups, ask for a sign, "Is anyone else having this experience?"
8. 4/95 One-Day Open Space. Arc-King County, Seattle, WA. Facilitated
by Neidra North.
This proved to be an interested day centered around issues parents of children
with mental disabilities face when their children leave high school. About
50 parents participated. I saw a great deal of mutual support and caring.
I also had my first personal experience of the power of permitting people
to "bumblebee" from group to group. I had just left one group
where a parent had described how to hold her school's counselors and teachers
to the spirit of the law pertaining to individualized instruction for her
child. I left, and the next group I entered seemed stuck on this point.
I quickly told them who to talk to as a resource about that issue.
9. 4/95 Two-Day Open Space (last two of three days) for the Tobacco Free
Washington Coalition. Facilitated by Anne Stadler, Tukwila, WA. I sponsored.
At the OS on OS, Sam Magill call a group on the rhythms of Open Space. I
think not only does a particular OS develop a signature rhythm within the
structural rhythms of OS (starting circle, the bulletin board, market place
and Evening News portions) it definitely has a place in the larger movements
of the organization which uses it.
I would rate this particular Open Space series an "ambiguous"
success. On one hand we did a lot of good work and developed some terrific
suggestions for the steering committee. On the other hand, just myself and
the president of the organization attended all three days of the event.
This meant that when the proposals reached the steering it would have to
find the time to devote to reproducing the same conversations the Open Space
time had been set aside to accomplish.
10. 10/95 Five-Day Open Space on the Theme of "Growing Our Now"
in Yachats, OR. Facilitated by Harrison Owen and Anne Stadler.
Part of what I experienced in this group I discussed in Section 1. Now reviewing
my notes and the proceedings report, I am reminded of the richness of the
experience. One five day Open Space could easily become the basis for a
series of educational videotapes.
I consciously played with arriving "late" for groups. Almost always
I needed some minutes to sit observing and trying to get my bearings. Instantly
upon entering I could feel the energy of the group and whether I arrived
at a "good" time or not. I always knew I had missed something,
but what? Was it important? Even getting a quick verbal update left me feeling
like I had missed the subtleties of how people learned about each other,
their communication styles, what would energize them. Would I have a place
here? Could I make a contribution? Did they care if I felt interested in
their work, or did the group feel indifferent to my presence?
One of the participants placed these "Shadow Principles" on the
wall, then folded the page to cover them. He wrote:
1. I am afraid no one will show up for me and my thing.
I am also afraid I will get stuck with the wrong people.
2. I am afraid I won't be in control of what happens.
3. I am afraid of not being on time.
I am afraid that "it" might be spirit.
I am more comfortable with dogma.
4. If it is bad I am afraid I will be bored.
If it is good I am afraid that the feeling will end.
Where does the shadow fall when we promote a social innovation and offer
people the chance to experience being together in a new way? I experience
people, especially groups, struggling with its shadow before the event during
the planning stages, and again during the Evening News segment at the end
of the discussions. Since I conduct and participate in Open Space events
in community settings I am curious about people who leave early. Could they
really not find or create discussions of interest? Or did something awaken
their shadow and their discomfort-or disagreement-with the format?
11. 11/95 One-Day Open Space with 80 teenagers and 30 adults, Partners in
Prevention (PIP) Leadership Camp, Vashon Island, WA. I facilitated.
[Note: a fuller discussion will be in my report on this internship.] This
reprise of our Open Space for teens had a completely different feeling among
the planners. Because we had a successful camp in 1994, everyone fully supported
repeating Open Space for this camp. This year I would facilitate. I would
have preferred to repeat in my role as sponsor, but the sponsoring organization
did not want to pay someone to conduct the Open Space. I did insist that
my "fee" in that case would be that I only conducted the OS on
Saturday. That meant that I would not arrive with everyone to set up the
camp, etc. on Friday.
Although I knew the camp well, I still insisted on going to see it again
before this OS. This turned out to be a good idea since the long walls we
used in 1994 were covered with shields made by groups of Camp Fire Girls.
The camp's management did not want the shields disturbed and we had to improvise
alternative arrangements with room dividers. All worked out well.
12. 1/96 One-Day Open Space during Five-Day Third Annual Training With
Harrison Owen, Dell Drake and Anne Stadler, Seabeck, WA.
Spent just one full day at the training this year, the middle day devoted
to actual participation in Open Space. I was wrestling with finishing final
touches on my learning agreement and piloting my final research project.
I did take a moment to write two pages in my diary:
Why are OST experiences so different than other ones? Deeper
perhaps-more vital and open to depth or potentialities?
Feeling a satisfied tired. First group took three hours to explore inclusiveness
and diversity-How do we do that?
After lunch I went to Jack's talk/discussion about natural time in a world
of clocks. He began with his story of spending two and a half weeks floating
down the Grand Canyon without a watch. He really got a chance to attend
to the natural rhythms of the day; rhythms of human activity and rhythms
of the river.
Next, June led a group on how to heal old wounds in organizations. This
topic attracted Marianne and Kathy from Yachats, OR. They were dealing with
community planning and priorities around the closing of a local school because
of low enrollment. Many hurt feelings...I pointed out that a symbol of listening
would help people see that listening was taking place.
Harrison asked at some point when my thesis will be done, and I said, "When
it's over, it's over!" A great guy. Actually almost forgot the white
sock routine, just by luck June had a pair.
Rich had his juggling supplies and a tape of Michael Moschen. It had a lot
of the material I had just been reading about in the Smithsonian Magazine
article (Kemper, 1995): the ring and stick dance for the Cirque du Soleil,
juggling five balls inside a wooden pyramid, and his famous glass balls
routine. By the end of the evening it seemed that everyone in the whole
place was trying to keep something in the air.
I picked up some pointers for a better life:
The dance is there in the drumming. Joelle.
Feeling comfortable with discomfort.
Taking all you know and dangling it over a cliff.
Maybe it's not the time but the schedules. Anonymous.
13. 2/96 Half-Day Open Space during Tobacco Free Washington Coalition's
Annual Planning Meeting. Seatac, WA. I facilitated.
Edited excerpts from my journal
2/27/96 Today, Tuesday, I did a half-day OST for TFWC.
Trish Seghers, the president, had her doubts, but she let it go anyway.
We did great, about 15 topics, about what people really wanted to talk about,
convened by the people really ready to do the work. Feeling very tired,
but a good tired right now.
For the first time with adults I tried the handwritten note pages (copies
in the appendix). It went very well, and got back full reports from most
of the groups. Face an interesting issue: how to copy and distribute the
notes from the OST so that they cannot be turned over in a Freedom Of Information
Act request to the Tobacco Industry?
I had to rush to set up and forgot some things, nothing too major, but a
note to myself to use notes when I am rushed, just to make sure I tick off
the right stuff.
Lost of minor difficulties, like pens the wrong color (blue ink) and markers
not water soluble (Department of Health staff just brought what was in the
office). I think for the future I will be a bit more careful about what
is really going to be brought. Or maybe spring for my own set of supplies.
I physically walked through all of the steps of posting a topic from writing
it on paper to getting the room/time Post-It and putting it up on the agenda
wall. I think it helped to ground people.
Used an actual mirror, cutout bumblebee and butterfly today to make my points
about responsibility. At one point, while commenting on getting lunch before
1:15 I said, "If you come asking for lunch at 1:45 just (held up mirror)."
I liked the props. It gave a new concrete expression to the metaphors.
In the closing circle, Trish, to her credit, said that she was surprised
at how well it had gone, and publicly admitted her previous misgivings.
Lots of compliments on the facilitation of the opening from many people.
That felt good.
14. 4/96 Half-Day Open Space at Interlake High School, Bellevue, WA.
This Open Space marked a milestone in my career: my first as a consultant
which meant my first check, $300, for leading an Open Space. Yes!
The sponsoring group of students really did their work. After experiencing
Open Space at PIP Camp they decided to do one at their school. To prepare
their fellow students, they surveyed their opinion about inter-racial and
inter-ethnic relationships at Interlake. Interlake, for a variety of reasons,
has one of the most diversified student populations of any high school on
the Eastside of Lake Washington, usually known for its mostly European-American
suburbs. Part of the survey asked students why they would want to participate
in a day of workshops and discussions around these topics. Out of the responses,
the sponsoring group selected 50 to participate in the Open Space. Even
though this event continued past the customary end of the school day, about
eighty percent stayed through the closing circle.
Because students really have fewer experiences with high quality peer discussions,
I composed a set of guidelines for discussion hosts to use (see appendix).
The students posted fewer topics than I had predicted, only about a dozen,
but the discussions were spirited and honest. They quickly understood the
difference between Open Space and their usual experience at school. For
example, one boy asked me if I would be by to remind them to end their first
groups and start their second one. "No," I said. "Personal
responsibility, right?" he said, smiling. "Right."
Late in the day, while I sat chatting with the school nurse, the advisor
to the sponsoring group, the discussion in the room behind us grew louder
and louder. We paused, looked at each other, shrugged, and continued our
conversation. At the closing circle, a participant in this group said that
talk was great, even though some people feel very strongly about their point
of view, they were able to talk it out.
As an example of their creativity, a group decided to have a peer support
group to continue discussions about sexual preferences and growing up.
15. 5/96 Half-Day Open Space at Bouncing Back Conference, Seattle, WA.
Notes written June 1:
Yesterday, I facilitated an OS event for King County Community
Organizing. Had a smaller turnout than I expected. But whoever comes...among
those were Carolyn Hartness, a bunch of friends from my old job, and Penny,
my second core faculty member. I think Penny is genuinely interested in
finding ways of bringing this into her practice for conducting seminars
at Union. We discussed at length the challenges for doing Open Space type
self-structuring at a colloquium.
I suffered some minor forgetfulness-forgot to mention if the first group
needed more time the incoming group could adjust to that. Remembered to
use the mirror and other props. Good results again. One woman said she liked
them because she teaches elementary school and appreciates the power to
We did the notes on hand written pages again. And got a decent number of
On the rigidities of Open Space: I insisted on coming down the day before,
though the organizer of the day wanted me to stay away. I came 'late' in
the day instead. The chairs (the first 95) were in a fan shape on the stage.
Oh no. The organizer, who has not seen an Open Space event before, seemed
surprised that I wanted to change them. She asked if it was personal or
"Open Space" which wasn't being "flexible." I said I
know Open Space, and I have been hired to do a high quality Open Space.
If we change the fundamentals we have to call it something else since I
didn't want people leaving thinking they had seen OS when they hadn't."
Then I went to move chairs.
16. 6/96 One-Day Open Space for Central Co-op Grocery Store, Seattle,
WA. I facilitated.
Another successful OS event, this time for the board and some staff of the
Central Co-op natural foods grocery store. The store is facing a critical
moment in its life as it plans to expand to a new store in a different part
of town with different demographics. I felt honored to be asked to be a
part. Just before this particular Sunday, I had been reading messages on
the Union BBS about the
use of "art as inquiry." I thought I would experiment with it.
I think it worked. I posted this on the BBS:
Artwork and Open Space
In line with the discussion about "art as inquiry" I experimented
with including artwork in a full day retreat I just facilitated for a local
natural food co-op.
Am I an artist or art therapist? No, but I have tremendous experience facilitating
groups of all types. While living in New York I would attend the annual
Art Therapy Expo at Pratt Institute. To facilitate this exercise I had to
help people feel at ease with the task and provide enough variety of materials
(cray-pas, colored pencils, markers, etc.).
After spending from about 9 in the morning to 2 PM in Open Space Technology
generated small group conversations, I asked people to take ten minutes
to draw their images, or maps, of three questions facing the co-op as it
expands to a second store:
What is the map of the new store?
What is the map of the current situation?
What is the map which will get us from here to there?
You may notice these as classic concerns of any field which uses "interventions":
present state, desired state, and a method to get from the present state
to the desired state.
Results? I think we got useful insights. Many drew some variant of a spiral
or curvy-linear line as the path from here to there. But one person drew
two x's and a bold direct line connecting them. That's useful to know, but
just why, just now, I can't say.
In addition, the pictures gave people a quick short hand language, especially
when referring to their own drawings. One woman referred to the "bridge"
that was needed, and she had drawn a bridge.
Two people had not drawn something. One, during the sharing go-round, suddenly
remembered that she had drawings of city maps of the area for a new store,
and the store's floor plan. She put these up. For the other person, we put
up a blank sheet, which became a useful referent for what they really
faced-unpredictable events and surprising turns.
I feel this excursion into art deepened and broadened the conversation,
and provided some ways to present new information and notice informal reactions.
I recommend it.
( ) 7/96 Five-Day Open Space at the 14th Annual Organization Transformation
Conference, Olympia, WA. Harrison Owen facilitating.
I put empty parenthesis as the number for this Open Space to represent the
fact that it will open new avenues, new relationships, and new ways of thinking
which no one, least of all myself, can predict. Plus, I just agreed to lead
an OS event for 200 incoming high school students in August, if they secure
funding. This will make it simultaneously the youngest and largest group
I would have facilitated.
If we can enjoy infinite games, there must also be infinite stories
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