Emergent Convergence and Open Space

A development in Open Space in recent years has been the “bolting on” to an Open Space event of an end-of-the-day action planning session. Other end-of-day activities include a kind of forced final round of reflections, often involving a talking stick or some kind of prioritisation of issues, stopping short of full action planning. In all cases, participants who have been in a day (or more) long process of self-organisation and emergence, suddenly find the facilitator revealing their true colours as a more or less benevolent control-obsessed process junkie. The circle is suddenly hijacked by the facilitator and everyone is thrown into a process of convergence. Of course, the Law of Two feet could be used by anyone, but leaving a whole community fixed circle involving everyone, by using one’s Two Feet is essentially a gesture of exiting the whole event, as there’s nowhere else to go to but out of the circle.

Convergence is usually well intentioned. Action planning often seems like the right thing to do. Often it is placed there because the facilitator has contracted to a sponsor who wants real outcomes from the “risk” they have taken letting everyone self-organise. No one wants the danger that all we will end up with is talk and no outcomes, hot air and no action. Open Space generates all this potentially “useful stuff”, but without actions, it will all disappear into the ether. These are often the justifications used.

So, we get to the closing circle and, instead of this being part of the opened space, it is used, not to close by sharing and reflecting and projecting, but to “close down” to action. The facilitator suddenly dives into process and the action planning becomes “one more thing to do.”

It also reinforces an assumption that opening space needs immediate closing down. Open Space can’t be trusted to create action through self-organisation.

Or can it?

Of course it can.

I believe it all comes down to two things:

1. Creating an invitation that also has a restlessness to arrive at outcomes and actions at its core.

2. Trusting what people can really do when they self-organise around an issue of importance in terms of the need for action to result.

The Open Space invitation is often very general, or is worded in such a way, that the need for the Open Space to (at least partly) self-organise around action and outcome isn’t clear, stated, or is too implied. An invitation that invites people to “explore” may well open so much exploring space that action gets lost or forgotten. An invitation to only dream may not be taken up as an invitation to “do” as well. An invitation that includes a strong call to action, creates a sense not only of restless interest, but also restless will and urgency, is more likely to result in a community self-organising the later sessions in the day around action. I’ve seen it often. If the invitation invites consideration of action, the sessions in the Marketplace (and also if the marketplace is re-opened after lunch) will be sessions around action, agreement, commitment, and follow up.

It’s easy for opening up, emergent Open Spaces to forget action. It’s less likely to happen if what has brought participants to the event in the first place is a wish to self-organise around action. In those cases, any bolt-on facilitated “action planning” becomes unneeded, even clunky and intrusive.

So, when a client is seeking a lot of outcomes and action from an Open Space Event, a lot of commitment to that can be created in advance of the day. Essentially space can open way before the day itself. There may be opportunities for smaller circles with participants well in advance of the day. The sponsor might even blog their own restlessness and urgency in advance – online, on a Youtube-type video. We may need to remind ourselves in advance that we don’t want to forget the need for action, before the Open Space event begins. It’s all in eloquent, truthful invitation that address and invites involvement of not just the head and the heart, but also the will of each person coming.

When a community self-organises at the level of the will, one can really feel it in the room. The energy buzzes and Open Space programmes and marketplaces become far less fixed at the start of the day. New sessions emerge throughout the day. Sessions become changed, combined, and, as the day progresses, a restlessness to create new sessions focused on action and doing, begin to emerge. Ironically, a pre-timetabled action session at the end of the day, can stifle and suffocate that possibility, because it undermines faith in self-organisation. Occasionally, a collective action planning session might be useful, but only as part of the self-organising process. In other words, the community might decide together to do one!

What happens if action planning is a “must”, if the sponsor demands it as a condition of doing an Open Space at all ? If you have to do something convergent as a facilitator (and you can always say no of course), then I would still insist on closing the circle, taking a break and then, when group returns, I would make it clear that we are now in a new mode, a new form of experience. The Open Space is over, and now we are doing some action planning. I would not make it a “bolt on” and wouldn’t want to replace the Closing Circle with a bunch of actions. Intuitively I’d make a longer break, seek to persuade the sponsor to allow people to come voluntarily to this session. Even better, let the action planning and convergence take place on a different day, after a good night’s sleep. Even better than that might be the possibility to hold a follow up Open Space event (possibly shorter, possibly online) where the new invitation is an invitation to identify actions! Then self-organisation can kick in within a new circle. They key thing is that imposed action planning is not a self-organised process of an opened circle, especially if involvement is compulsory. Look to open as much space as you can if it is part of the same day, and put a clear break between the closing circle and any new convergent process.

Convergence doesn’t come easily when it is too immediately located after emergence. People who are in the thrill of self-organisation, can feel deflated and “pressed down” if over-facilitation suddenly switches on. The closing circle is a part of the breathing out process of a day of self-organisation. We breath our experience and energy into the world. We also breathe in what we have been experienced, as individuals, taking much into our inner selves, ready to be processed in sleep, and in different kinds of post-event reflection. Action planning and convergence can be an intrusion into that space. An uninvited intrusion.

So, let the space open, let the circle self-organise around action as needed. If action is a priority, ensure it is a cornerstone of the invitation. But on the day, as a facilitator, mind your own bloody business.


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One thought on “Emergent Convergence and Open Space

  1. On days when we need action planning, I simply have people review the work they have done, read over the notes that have been harvested and open space again for action. We’ve been doing that kind of thing for years and years, and it made it’s way into the third edition of the user’s guide after Michael Herman and I argued that this was much more in the spirit of Open Space that voting with dots, which I have always hated.

    I agree with you that he standard narrative for meetings seems to follow the idea that we brainstorm and then have concrete outcomes, but the unconscious adoption of that basic design is a crime. Recently I opened space for 120 people for a five day learning village in which folks just posted offerings and we lived together in Open Space. There was no reporting out or action plans or follow up accountabilities. To do so would have been a horrible mistake. It was just five good days together where we all took responsibility for what we cared about.

    Other times, planning processes are useful. Sometimes sponsors are overly proscriptive, afraid and controlling. They can be coached. Trust can be built, good work can be done. There is no one size fits all, but the principle of doing it all in Open Space is very important. And ten years of experience has borne that out.

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