Conversations, Connections, and Community Building

I’ve just returned from an exciting conference where I sat through three days of sessions delivered by great presenters, heard two fabulous keynote speakers, and collected piles of reports and brochures providing terrific resources. As enjoyable as it was, if I were to be really honest, the most useful information was collected from my colleagues during the coffee breaks. 

Something like this happened to American management consultant Harrison Owen back in 1983. He spent a year of his life immersed in the details of organizing a large, international symposium. The day finally came and went, hailed as a triumph.

It wasn’t until later, as the event was being reviewed, that it became apparent the most significant learning did not come from the workshops or the featured speakers he had helped to organize. Instead, it came from the coffee breaks and the open spaces in the agenda.

As a result, he wondered if it were possible to design an entire conference placing a priority on the creation of open spaces.

Remembering a celebration for 500 Liberian villagers he had experienced during the 1960s (this continued for four days with no planning and no orchestration), he decided to do things differently the next time around. He subsequently dismissed his organizing committee, tore up the list of proposed speakers and the agenda, and devised a new and a highly minimalist method of managing meetings which he called Open Space Technology (OST).

Although somewhat unorthodox, OST is typically described as a meeting process that begins with a theme but no set agenda. The actual topics on the agenda are generated by those who are invited to attend knowing only the theme in advance. Because participants generate topics that are meaningful and relevant to them, and, are empowered to talk about what is important to them, they always end up engaged in deep, rich, constructive conversations in a highly participatory manner.

With the number of participants ranging from 15 to 300, I’ve used it for staff planning days, interagency sessions, and leadership retreats. It’s worked well to address controversial subjects as well as issues related to literacy, homelessness, and aboriginals. Once, I even used it as the basis for an entire conference in Eureka, California that was organized for afterschool care providers. 

An Open Space meeting always begins in a circle – signifying that everyone is in it together as equals. Here, participants are introduced to the Four Principles and One Law that guide behavior.The four principles: 1) Whoever comes are the right people, 2) Whatever happens is the only thing that could have, 3) Whenever it starts is the right time, and 4) When it’s over it’s over.

The only law is the Law of Two Feet or what I call “permission to be an adult”. It states simply that if at any time you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, you are to use your two feet and move to a place more to your liking.

From there, the participants generate specific meeting topics, build the agenda, and move to a series of smaller group discussions. The entire process can take place within half a day or, in some cases, even two or three days before ending in a final closing circle.

As does any community builder, I draw upon many different facilitative techniques from my personal toolkit, however OST remains my favourite tool as it allows people with common interests or concerns to come together, organize themselves, and use their own knowledge and skills to solve problems, innovate, and facilitate change.

We live in a world of complex challenges. The organizations, businesses, and communities that embrace the idea of doing things differently will be those able to respond successfully. OST can be a key tool for empowering the conversations, connections, and community building to make that a reality. 

Today Harrison Owen, as well as many others, promote and train facilitators in the use of OST in the private and public sectors around the world. Despite the availability of this formal training, Owen, somewhat fittingly, also encourages anyone comfortable in the role of a facilitator to use it without it. While it may seem risky, be assured that if OST is utilized, every issue of concern to anybody will be laid upon the table, all issues will be discussed to the extent that anybody cares to do it, a full written record of all discussions will be created and shared, and next step actions will be identified. 

Posted on 10-24-10

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