My first ever encounter with Open Space was in the early nineties. It was a rite of passage for me as a fledgling facilitator as it was four days long, residential and in a beautiful venue in Sussex, England called The Isle of Thorns. No real thorns here – meadows, ancient forest, pooh sticks and babbling brooks and babbling academics and facilitated by Open Space legend, Jack Martin Leith, the theme of the conference was “The Future of Management Development”.
My memories of this conference is faint in places, intense in others. I remember a session that resulted in a conversational walk into the woods that resulted in a line of people standing, holding hands, on one side of a running stream. The stream was a metaphorical threshold for our visions and goals as manager developers and researchers.
Each person spoke their vision for their vocation and also more specific aims for the year. A collective picture emerged and we all jumped together, and made it to the other side. Another walk in the woods also explored nature as a metaphor for change. I remember sessions in traditional conference rooms that were equally powerful and I remember a flip chart being hurled out of a window.
Without a doubt, the venue and the proximity of nature increased self-organisation. People quickly broke out (ironically) of the more formal indoor breakout rooms!
Reflection 1: Nature can increase self-organisation
The open space developed over four days. It enriched. It evolved.
A core group stayed the whole course. Others arrived and left during the event – some with their own two feet, others with the demands of external work pressures and duties. As one who stayed for four days, and to this day, there’s nothing quite like a four day residential open space!
A story developed that is more like a full length novel, though, interestingly, the set of printed proceedings (a special issue of a journal) in no way captured most of that four days – just a selection. But a narrative and a kind of culture began to shape itself. To an extent, despite formal meal arrangements, self-organisation began to take over the space and soon the bar man was joining the circle too!
Reflection 2: If you can get 4-5 days, the space keeps opening and opening and opening.
Reflection 3: Open Space can become a shared, unfolding story.
Jack Martin Leith, the facilitator, also offered a session, and became a participant at times. I guess that’s controversial for some. As I remember it, it simply increased self-organisation and we took permission from that.
Reflection 4: Facilitators can enable or get in the way of self-organisation
Reflection 5: The facilitator is also one of the right people Four days was a courageous choice. The organisers (including Professor Tom Bourner) had the courage to risk it. We dived deep and swam far together. I’m not saying we couldn’t have done great things in a day, but, looking back, the four day open space remains in my memory as special and vital.
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