Stories of Open Space 1 – The Power of Four












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.

More stories of open space

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Hello Paul. “Open Space legend”? That’s very generous. Thank you!

    I think you know the story of how I ended up as facilitator of this event. In case you’ve forgotten, here it is again.

    I knew David Megginson (now Emeritus Professor, Sheffield Business School, UK) through Association for Management Education & Development, which was a hotbed of management innovation during the early 1990s.

    One day, I got a call from David saying that he was a member of a small group of academics that was planning a conference on the future of management development and organisation development, and that the team was making very slow progress. He asked me to join the team’s next planning meeting to see if I might jolt them into clarifying their goals and creating a plan that everyone was ready to implement.

    We met at the old Great Western Hotel by London’s Paddington station. The participants were David, Tom Bourner (then a key figure in the late lamented Centre for Management Development at University of Brighton), and Suzanne (Sue) O’Hara, one of Tom’s colleagues and collaborators.

    I’d joined the meeting as a favour—or rather, as a service—to David. It never occurred to me that I might become part of the team. But by the end of the meeting, that’s what had happened.

    Yes, it was a memorable event, for a number of reasons. For example, this is where you and I met for the first time, and where I began my friendship with Robin Manuell, who became a business partner many years later.

    I remember you hosting a workshop with a title along the lines of ‘Create a workshop that doesn’t use flipcharts or any of the usual paraphernalia’. And I joined a session that took the form of a visit to the nearby Bluebell Railway. It turned into something of an adventure, and our Open Space session report read like a chapter of a Famous Five story.

    I noted your comment “Jack Martin Leith, the facilitator, also offered a session, and became a participant at times”. Some Open Space facilitators have a self-imposed rule that forbids them from hosting a session or even taking part in one.

    But if I have knowledge that others clearly need, then I would be doing them a disservice by withholding this knowledge.

    Rules are for boarding schools, team games and parks. They have no place in Open Space.

    I’m chuffed to hear that the conference was a rite of passage for you, and that I was something of a catalyst for this.

    Very best wishes from Bristol.


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