Stories of Open Space 4 – Dotted Open Space

Traditionalist open spacers (yes, there are many) will probably recoil from this tale. Each year in Brighton The Critical Incident is a one day “retreat” in the heart of the city of Brighton and Hove in the UK.

Over 30 sessions are spread across the day and all are experimental for the sessions leaders – workshops, discussions, debates, performances, talks and so on, all exploring a common theme which forms the basis of the invitation to the event.

Critical Incident usually attracts about 150 people across the day and evening activities which tend to centre on a large venue such as an art gallery with breakout spaces, and a nearby cafe.

Participants come to experiment  with their personal and professional development. Many come for the whole day, some come for specific pre-advertised sessions.

I created the event back in 2006 and, since then, in Brighton and also in Edinburgh, there have been nine “Incidents”. The idea is that people coming might seek and find a significant realisation and step in their professional and/or personal life. And that happens quite a lot at The Critical Incident.

In recent years we have tried an experiment with Open Space.

The event has an opening circle where, at the start of the day, participants are invited to come together, sitting in a circle. We introduce each other and session leaders introduce their sessions. So, in a way , this is a market place for a pre-existing programme. Why do I say that? Because, although there is a programme sent out in advance, many participants hear about the sessions for the first time on arrival, having decided to “surf” the day.

We also leave a significant number of room and time slots empty at the start of the day. I, someone else involved in the event, introduces the notion of open space and the market place and then the circle is invited, in classic open space style to “fill the spaces” in the programme. As in other open spaces, those sessions soon fill up, some room and time slot swapping also takes place at the same time. So, about a third of the programme is created from an opening circle market place on the day.

ci55 The Opening Circle

One thing I love about the process is that some people don’t register that open space is taking place in their minds until it is mentioned at the start of the day. Then out of the silence come spontaneous offerings. Some of these offerings are definitely creative reactions to the already set and published programme. Some offer sessions that enhance, build upon,enrich and add to what is already there. Others offer wonderful tangents. And some sessions, as in a lot of open spaces, are not clearly articulated or don’t tap into the “mood” of the event and no one goes.

Does Open Space work  when it is woven into an already existing programme. And why not do the whole thing as Open Space in the first place? This is a question we are considering as a steering group for the event. Yet there is something in the alchemy of the event that is specific to the dynamic between open space and pre-programmed sessions. I think it “works” particularly well in an event that is already based on an invite to flow and experiment.

We got strongly positive feedback that people value knowing in advance what is on offer but equally valuing the flexibility and self-organising aspect of the open space part of the day. The open space” spirit” seems to soften the harder aspects of a fixed programme, especially where open space sessions arise out of the fixed programme’s content and outcomes.

On the downside, the fixed element of the programme still tends to have a kind of “status” over the open space for many who are hard wired to know in advance what is going to happen. So, sometimes a sub group tends to form around open space part of the process and this has, at times, created a sense of two parallel and not always interacting communities at the same event.

We are continuing to experiment with Open Space at Critical Incident 2013 which is taking over a new theatre venue!

Reflection 1: Space can open anywhere

Reflection 2: Open Space can positively influence a fixed programme

Reflection 3: It’s okay to experiment with “traditional” open space.

Reflection 4: Even with a fixed programme, people often come ready to self-organise.


More stories of open space

Visit the Open Space Realm.

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