Open Space Technology Opening and being mindful of the inner and external space when working with large groups

Two weeks ago, my colleague Chia Moan and I were fortunate to facilitate a 2 day workshop, using Open Space Technology (OST is an approach for hosting groups focused on a specific and important purpose or task, beginning without any formal agenda, beyond the overall purpose or theme – see more here). The project amply ticked the rich, challenging requirements for OST:  the work to be done was complex, the people and ideas involved diverse, the passion for resolution (and potential for conflict) very high, and the time to get it done was yesterday. To add to the adrenalin, we had just over a week’s notice to plan and get ready for the event, from scratch. My reaction, “Hmmm – that’s interesting – breathe – internal scream – breathe – contemplate running – breathe – OK let’s do it!”

The first challenge was to find an available space at a busy time of year. Through the creative investigative efforts of Chia, we ended up in a circular jazz basement, with pillar smack bang in the middle of the room and seated circle capacity for 60 – we had 125 participants. It was an absolute gem amongst the other venues offered, believe me, and what a lovely opportunity to capitalise on the themes of jazz and improvisation! Chia created thematic musical instrument posters, which made the invitation for all to improvise and create music together very tangible, and she drew imaginative smiling faces on the central pillar; whom we welcomed as part of our group.

I often adapt and use the principles of OST to my work and on many occasions have used OST for the group session within a Meeting Marketplace. This however, was my first opportunity to run a multi-day event as ‘pure’ open space. This gave me cause to visit the works of Harrison Owen (the originator of Open Space). Given the tight time frame I immersed myself in his writings, both reading and listening on audio. What a delightful journey. On a personal level, it reinforced the importance of mindfulness and presence, and gave great opportunity for ‘walking the talk’ when hosting and holding a space for 125 people.

There were several concepts in the book which kept running through my mind. Firstly, if done well, the opportunity for an open space facilitator having opened the space, to leave the venue (love that idea!) Secondly, to only intervene as a facilitator as an absolute last resort. I kept remembering Harrison’s advice that, when your heart starts pounding and you’re about to leap off the chair and jump in – resist! I even went to the extent of telling myself that I would imagine that the chair was stuck to my buttocks  and if I had to intervene,  I would take it with me. Sounds easy enough and yes a little bit silly. However, when ‘doing something’ (and being seen to ‘do’ to earn your keep!) is central, just ‘being’ is so counter to how we are programmed in society and in our profession. This is I think the quintessential challenge as an Open Space facilitator.

The opportunity to ‘be’ and remain with my feet glued to the floor and mouth tightly clamped, came with my first instruction and invitation to the group.  As people poured into the room it became clear that our 2 concentric kidney shaped circles on one side of the pillar weren’t going to cut it. So, with mindfulness of being the ‘invisible facilitator’ to the greatest extent possible, trusting the process and group, I instructed the group to “please create two larger circles”. And then chaos reigned…..I repeated my mantra…. “They will work it out, they will work it out”… as chairs went into every configuration possible, at one stage there were 4 circles forming, 2 slightly larger and increasing oddly misshapen kidneys, and two additional circles at the back of the room……. “they will work it out, they will work it out”……and they did, with some creative and hilarious variations on the circle theme.

With Evolve’s meeting marketplace, we are very mindful of creating opportunity for expression of all modalities (kinaesthetic, auditory, visual), communication (extrovert, introvert, group and one on one) and learning styles. Over the two days, Chia and I had great discussion along the lines of “Does open space provide enough space and air time for expression for introverts?” Chia was wondering if we should offer a process or means of acknowledging and facilitating the input of introverts.  I love to modify, adapt and tailor different approaches. So my natural response to Chia was “Yes let’s DO something”. However, this time I had given myself the challenge to not react instantly in my natural way, and to remain mindful of being true to the intent of the open space process and to ‘be’ rather than ‘do’ something.

I slept on it overnight and realised , with this resolve, I had possibly shut down an opportunity. The next morning, Chia and I met, and we discussed how we might open the space further for expression of the voices of the quieter (if there was that need). What we decided and did, was that in the opening of Day 2, Chia voiced to the group her question, and offered, if there was interest, to create the space for a group to discuss the needs of introverts. There was interest, however no, one was forth coming to host the group. Eventually, a self-confessed extrovert, put their hand up to facilitate the group (No surprises there!). I was working near that group when it met which was such a privilege –with the discussion and outcomes rich and rewarding.

Overall, the event reinforced the importance of mindfulness and having the space to listen to and trust your intuition, which was in fact honouring the intent of open space. Through mindfulness, I was able to pick up on what were verging on fundamentalist tendencies, what an opportunity missed if I had of shut Chia’s suggested intervention down! I learnt a great deal and it reminded me of why I do love what I do.


Carla Rogers




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