Open Space Technology Virgin – no more

Not sure what google search will make of this title – but hey !!   I’ve just run my first Open Space session as part of a conference and now its over I can a) admit that it was my first and b) admit that I had no idea whether it would work.  I have been to 3 years of Devoted and Disgruntled facilitated by Improbable and opened by Phelim McDermott.

His presence and positioning of the whole idea of Open Space breeds confidence and energy from his 200-300 strong circle of fellows.  D&D is a 3 days event. It allows time to think, to break-out, to be inspired, to be bored, to be alone, and to create together.  My challenge was I had 80 minutes.

The learned book by the creator of Open Space, Harrison Owen, claims it can be done with small groups and is a way of life rather than necessarily a big event. I believed him. I’d better…’cos I’d signed up to lead a session on fundraising for a North West conference All About Audiences in Manchester.  I had 25 people and 80 minutes…and they arrived expecting a talk from someone who would tell them all the answers about fundraising.  I arrived knowing they collectively knew more about it than I did – so why not harness that power.

I had a wonderful train journey drawing.  For those unfamiliar with Open Space there is a very strict set of things to do in advance to prepare the space so that, quickly, your colleagues can understand the technique, think about the basics, and learn One Law and 4 Principals.   When I arrived at the conference I completed my preparations by finding an artistic delegate who drew me a wonderful giraffe and a bumble bee and a member of Allaboutaudiences who drew me some butterflies. I was ready.

The organisers cleared the room of tables, computers, screens etc – just a circle of 25 chairs, some flip chart paper, and blue-tacked train-written signs around the wall. I’m not going to use this blog to tell you how it works – because there are site after site that offer that. All I would add is a few thoughts for me in the future (and maybe you).

a)  I absolutely followed the first instruction. Despite only having 80 minutes, I took a very deep breathe first and started very slowly to ask those sitting to observe the circle of people – a unique gathering. Whoever is here are the right people…

b) I was intrigued to find that only 1 of the 25 had ever encountered Open Space before. A lesson to never presume and to honour the fundemental principals of Open Space will work if you talk them through slowly and carefully.

c)  Its amazing – a group of unsure 25 people WILL get involved. They will help to set an agenda from a blank piece of paper. They will join the journey if they feel confident that there is some sense in the odd idea / odd guy leading it.

d) Whatever happens is the only thing that could have… and by the end of the two 20 minute break out sessions we gathered back in the circle having created “minutes” from 8 different meetings that had explored 8 different development themes.  Maybe some of those people will meet again. Maybe some of the notes will be useful to different people. Maybe…  But we all contributed and we all knew a little more by the end.

e) In the closing circle everyone spoke, almost all felt they had gained something by participating. And then we all rushed off to the next thing. It would have been fun to have had the time to have another round, or to carry on talking – maybe they will in the future.

For me. I am now not a virgin anymore, and I will seek to use the technique (and the giraffe, butterfly and bees) back at the office at one or more of our monthly training sessions.   A good experience.  Especially the large pint of beer afterwards.

Thanks Phelim for introducing so many hundreds of us to Open Space…the technique which also led a number of us to be on the march against cuts in “Puppets for Protest” – an idea from the Jan 11 D&D.