Facilitation metaphors and Open Space

Trawling through the many web sites and articles reporting stories of Open Space events, a range of metaphors can be seen at play in the language used by the reporters and storytellers.

One of the most prominent is “facilitate”. What is facilitation?

“The term facilitation is broadly used to describe any activity which makes tasks for others easy” (Source here.)

That would imply that it is harder for a group to self-organise an Open Space event, and that a facilitator makes the process easier. I’d say that is true sometimes, but not always. An Open Space event does not always need a facilitator. Sometimes a self-organising group is all that is needed. In this case, the “One less thing to do” that Harrison Owen talks about, is facilitation itself. (Source here.)

Imagine that, my dear facilitating friends! You are the one less thing to do!

Now, if you’re investing a career in Open Space facilitation, you are in a difficult ethical position. And, sadly, some facilitators make the whole thing look harder than it often is, they over-elaborate it, in order to stay in work. This is at heart, corrupt, and a shocking conflict of interest.

At this point, I want to thank David Megginson who, when I was twenty- three, and was leading a session at an Open Space on the theme of finding one less thing to do, got up suddenly from a place of Zen-like (or perhaps Quaker-like) calm, picked up my flip chart, roared, and hurled it out of the window, leaving me stunned in the short term, and grateful in the longer term.

A second metaphor I’ve come across is among work-hungry facilitators who have been drawn to Open Space like flies to honey cake (and see Open Space as another string to their opportunistic bow), is that of “delivery“. Here the facilitator takes on the job (paid) of “delivering” an Open Space to a group, community or organisation. By being all about delivery, the Open Space process becomes a framework-to-be-delivered, and the participants find themselves in a Nightingale’s cage of imposed “self-empowerment”. The facilitator’s main focus is not on the emergence of self-organisation, of spontaneity and a loose structure that flexes with the present, but instead on the implementation of a predefined model. Here we end up with some participants conforming by fleeing into their left brains, with others disengaging or just cruising. A majority simply collude with mediocrity. In a few cases the delivery is so brilliant everyone buys in anyway and the Open Space shines because the circle holds strong.

Delivery can work, if the authentic need of a group, lacking certainly and focus, is to be delivered to. Then the facilitator becomes a support and truly serves by delivering. Too often, however, the delivery metaphor turns Open Space into an over-fixed model, yet another structure. Structure supports, but it also weights down. The delivery-obsessed facilitator is indifferent to the weight of the structure on the community.

Next up in our hall of metaphors is the word “leadership“. Here the facilitator “leads” an Open Space (Woohoo!). As a leader, the focus is on his or her sacred qualities, on their charisma, on their “power” and command of the group’s attention. The facilitator as leader is the ship’s captain whom participants follow, more or less with blind faith (or from a fear of bosses’ wrath). The facilitator as leader becomes the guru of the fired up Open Space cult, that readily becomes mesmerised by talking sticks and Tibetan bells and the great legend of the uber-guru, Harrison Owen himself who is invoked and is quoted chapter and verse to lend weight to the high priest facilitator of Open Space.

Leading confers authority. Then self-organising becomes, not a free act, but one of collective conformance and group-think. We follow the leader and this is our main self-organising gesture. The Open Space becomes a love-in if the leader plays the guru card, or a conformed-to formal process, if the leader/facilitator becomes a surrogate boss.

I want to suggest that leadership has only a very tiny place in the facilitator’s repertoire, sometimes just at the very start of the process, to lead the group into self-permission to self-organise. Then the true servant-leader dives into the horizontal and curls up in the corner, wishing everyone well. All the better if he or she can transform into a large tropical plant or a tree, as did the Red King in the Charlie Bone children’s stories.

A few other metaphors also crop up. Some talk of “empowering a group”, which is a nonsense for the prefix “em” means “from within out”. So, what they really mean is using Open Space as a kind of injection, a dose of power that is inserted, the group is “in-powered”.

Another word is “enable”, which is another form of doing something to a bunch of people. Elsewhere I have called these approaches, facipulation – “getting people to do things for a reason not quite clear to them at the time” (Source here.)

So, do I have any better metaphors to offer? Any alternatives? If a facilitator must be in the room, for good reasons, what metaphor best describes their healthy role?

Are they like a conductor of an orchestra, as one facilitator suggested to me recently? Oh, surely not, for an orchestra already has music in front of it, and that isn’t self-organisation at all! Yes, yes, are you hearing me, facilitators of Open Space? Open Space is a process fundamentally of self-organisation. Can you organise people to self-organise? Harrison Owen would say yes, but keep it as minimal as possible. Open Space makes a claim to be just about the minimum you need to … what …. facilitate, lead, deliver, enable, empower ? … self-organise? And, even then, he entreats us to look for one less thing to do.

So, here are a few other metaphors to play with.

The facilitator is an ingredient, not the cook; an ingredient that can help bind the other ingredients, or maybe help them rise, or bring out the healthy aspects of the food.

The facilitator is a momentary window through which a self-organising community can see what is possible, or at least feel it enough to want to act on those feelings.

The facilitator is an advocate for the potential of a group. For a moment, without ego, he or she, simply voices a process that is respectful of the self-organising potential in the room.

And also, the facilitator is a steward of the circle, ready to step away from it, as soon as the group or community says (and not always with words), “We are ready to try”.

Let these metaphors dance around in your soul a bit. See how they feel. They feel warm to me. They feel right. And, best of all, they don’t feel permanent.


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4 thoughts on “Facilitation metaphors and Open Space

  1. Great stuff! Luckily I had a couple of great mentors in Open Space facilitation – Brian Bainbridge and Harrison Owen. I learnt from them to unlearn a lot of what I had learnt as a facilitator. I like the idea of being a host for open space, a host that invites people in and then disappears.

  2. Paul, this thought arose as I read your piece: Any label we might employ keeps us trapped in consensual reality – the very thing we are using (sic) the Open Space process to escape from. No label needed: “Hello, I’m Jack, let’s get cracking…”

    Maybe you’re seated with the participants (sic) and they have no idea who you are, or the role you’re playing, when you suddenly point to the grid of times and places and say “let’s go” (or “let’s let go”?)

  3. Thanks Jack. But these are not labels. They are metaphors. Metaphors can characterise, evoke qualities. Nothing in the article suggests to me that labels are being used. I agree with you about the limiting danger of labels. I think that metaphors are fun and useful,

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