Open Space and Sugar

On Thursday I facilitated a workshop for the BBC and AHRC on the theme of User Generated Content and its implications. I used Open Space and it seems as though a good time was had by all.

The space you use for these things has a part to play, and Thursday’s was just about the best you could get. We were in the East Room atop the Tate Modern here in London. This has full height windows down three sides, including panoramic views of the Thames. It’s so great to work in natural light. Plus my client was particularly inspired on the catering front. She banned the standard-issue sticky buns for breakfast in favour of bacon butties with brown sauce, as well as healthier fare. I particularly approved of having jaffa cakes with coffee and ice cream at the close (the latter an idea I lifted from my friends at NPR) (illustrations courtesy of particpants on Flickr).

This reminds me of a slightly more serious point about facilitation, which has been front of mind for me recently. I find myself talking about not adding any more sugar to processes. I mean this metaphorically rather than literally as you can see.

Open Space is a constant re-education in a minimalist approach to facilitation. Harrison Owen, who invented the whole thing, advises that – once you’ve explained the process to participants – you mostly need to stay out of their way, focussing on picking up the empty coffee cups.

Our world is often over-stimulating and one of things facilitation can offer folks is a bit of a break and space to reflect. I am continuously learning the benefits of making fewer and smaller interventions. A lot of the people I work with are “techniqued-out” and weary of what my friend Rob Paterson calls “consultant tricks”. They’ve all done that thing where you group Post It notes on a wall etc etc. There’s so much to be said for letting people get on with it and not overloading them with instructions.

Another aspect of this is avoiding fiddling with the process. Often when hosting Space, I think my job is to listen to a variety of suggestions from particpants for fine tuning how it works, and not implement them. What I often find is that behind these suggestions is a passion or frustration that could make a great offer for a new conversation, within the OS process – so my intervention is usually to encourage the particpant to consider that option.

For instance, someone may come to me half way through the day and say, this is very interesting, but perhaps you could… you know… lead us towards some clear conclusions this afternoon? I will usually get curious about the sort of conclusions they personally would like to see and find out if they’d like to host a conversation about that themselves.

This sounds easy but it does require a certain level of impulse control. Perhaps for now I’m just sublimating my desire to interfere into eating more jaffa cakes.

(Bonus link: the Anecdote boys have an interesting chart on the low intervention rate in Open Space.)

1 thought on “Open Space and Sugar

  1. Tom Guarriello

    I have two questions that I put to people who want me to do things for them in Open Space, and they are right out of the User’s Guide:

    What do you want to do?

    Why don’t you take care of it?

    Far from seeming rude and unhelpful, these questions actually carry through with the whole point of using Open Space which is to marry passion and responsibility. The more people do for themselves, including taking care of the small details, the less they need to consultant and the consulting box of tricks. And that’s a good thing, because despite making my living from being a consultant, I am of the most service when I can just get out of the way, as you point out.

    I’m loving the insights you are generating through your practice of OST, Johnnie.

    —–

    You’re clearly not getting enough sugar, there, Johnnie. Real facilitation means MAKING THINGS HAPPEN!

    I suggest shaking the shaker much harder!

    Good to see you this afternoon.

    Reply

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