Great…so I’m just about to host a three day Art of Hosting workshop in which we will be talking about several methodologies, mental models and design tools, including Open Space. And today, right out of the blue come three incredibly amazing posts from Dave Pollard (who is joining us), Johnnie Moore (who almost joined us) and Jack Martin Leith about the process.
I’m up to my eyeballs in stuff and don’t have that much time to respond, but I can’t resist, so here are some thoughts, kind of randomly blurted out.
First I should say that I’ve never used Open Space to arrive at one solution for something. I don’t know how you could actually. Instead, it’s a process that starts with a complex environment and ends with a complex environment. What happens in the middle is that participants make personal sense of the complex environment and, when we do it well, it accelerates community around the challenges we face. A collective direction can emerge, but I usually find we need to have a more collective process to make sense of it later.
So what does that mean? It means that a group of people gets to work on what matters, finds their partners and away we go. What happens next is critical, paying attention to how people stay together and how we are informed by one another and how we make macro sense of all of it.
And what do I mean by work well? Well, as Dave points out, it is all about the design, and Johnnie, in another post he makes today talks about Dave Snowdon’s thoughts on need. For me need is critical to anchoring any process whether it be OPen Space or anything else. If there is no need, don’t meet, and if there IS a need, then very carefully design the meeting so that we can take best advantage of the people being face to face to meet the need. Under these conditions, when you can idenitfy the need, clarify the purpose of the gathering and invite the right people, amazing things happen. Need provides energy, focus, purpose and willingness.
I don’t know about “objectivity” and facilitation anymore…I suspect that there is really no such thing. I find my own facilitation style to be more informed by the idea of joining the field for a while and offering what I can. In other words, I don’t always come as the neutral party to a group. My approach when things seem to realy cook is to JOIN the group, as the person who can be responsible for the process. That’s a different approach, what we in the Art of Hosting community sometimes call “leading from the field” rather than being neutral or objective. I become another one of the group’s own resources for doing things well.
Now sometimes that means that I take an objective type stance from things, and sometimes it may even mean I take a contrarian stance. I don’t know why we need to have any hard and fast rules about working with groups, except the paramount rule of helping them meet their need, and to do it ethically. Obviously manipulating the outcome without being transparent about it is not ethical in my book. Transparency about what I am doing and thinking is important so people don’t think I’m somebody’s stooge. And I will never take work where my job is to lead a group to a pre-determined outcome that the groups itself is unaware of. The idea of “leading a horse to water” is a job for Machiavellian politicians, not process artists.
At any rate, where things sometimes fall down in processes including Open Space is when a sponsor actually does not know the need, which happens surprisingly often. In one group I’m talking to right now, the sponsor thinks the need is to create a solution to the problem – an organization within a community. What I am hearing from the community members is that the community needs some healing first. There is no basis of good relationship within the community, and creating a structure at this point might be divisive and in the end might not be sustainable. So what is the need here? What purpose of the gathering would best serve? What would happen if we built the thing without paying attention to what the community was saying?
The success of any Open Space or other kind of meeting lies in the design and pre-work, not the simply the skillful facilitation of the process itself. Dave’ points on tweaking processes are really useful in this regard.
Secondly, an important consideration for doing work well is inviting the right people. Dave alludes to getting the mix of people right and I actually agree with him. I have discovered over time however, that sponsors are often not willing to invite “the stranger” into the mix, people whose experience might be incredibly useful, but who aren’t usually invited to meetings. This most often happens when I suggest that companies invite customers to hlep them in conversations about thei products. Focus groups are one thing, but inviting customers into the actual designing process seems totally taboo. It’s as if the Cluetrain revolution never took off other than on the web. In those cases where sponsors have invited surprise and good thinking into the mix, I think the quality of ideas in the market place has certainly risen.
Finally something about time. Dave makes a point that with out the proper time, things seem not to boil. Dave is right and my guess is that he has not been in an Open Space event that has lasted over two or three days. In those events what happens in groups is a tremendous amount of relationship building occurs, the thinking and planning goes very very deep and the results tend to be very well considered and extremely sustainable. I have spent my working life imploring sponsors of Open Space events to give a little more time to things, just another half day, another night spent sleeping on it. Every time we have done so there have been no regrets. When we don’t get the proper time to do good work, it shows. When sponsors are thinking about designing a meeting, time is the biggest investment they make and it has the biggest potential for a return. But if you’re not in the facilitation world, you’d be surprised how many people expect miracles in a couple of hours.
As for decision making and consensus building, one of the delights of this coming week is that Tree Bressen will be with us too, and she excels in this area, especially in decision making within intentional community. I’ve had conversations with her over the years about Open Space and decision making and I sense a rub there for her, precisely because I think this process does not lead to making decisions in the way that other processes do. I’m fascinated by what is about to happen this week at the Art of Hosting here on Bowen Island, as we explore together how all of these things can add to what we are learning about how to best work with groups of people. I’m not above a little heresy and exploration, open to finding new ways of doing better, and I’m really glad Dave took the time to prepare himself like this.
Truly we will be a group of 30 teachers and learners coming!