Pop-up Open Space


I wonder if anyone reading this has experiences to share of what I am about to describe. Most published stories of open space tend to go by the book. The book is often referred to as the user guide“, and it tends towards a process that is largely based on an instruction manual. Dogmatic application manual can then lead, in my humble opinion, not to one less thing to do, but often one more thing to do.These are “guides” not rules, and tha tis the spirit in which they were written. In many cases, the user guide proves remarkably resilient and applicable. Yet there is always the next moment, the new story, the moment that needs something playful.

There’s a lot in the manual (and the many trainings that have come into being from it) about sponsors and invitations, and the things that need to be done before an Open Space to ensure the open spacer er… opens space. I have no difficulty with the manual. It’s full of good advice and is the foundation you might just need to open some space. But, hey, what about this… I’m at a company away day that is looking at product innovation. It is business critical, and it is floundering. Powerpoint after Powerpoint has resulted in a stifled audience, and when they get to breakout sessions, the flipcharts look empty, the energy is low, and it all looks a bit too quiet. There’s a feeling in the room that the event is dying on its feet. Several sessions are lost in badly facilitated action planning. I am on the team and the lead facilitator looks to me for any ideas. It must be because I am silent and looking knowing and wise.

Actually I’m seething inside at this over-facilitated, over-designed, overplanned conference crash. Do you mind if I… I ask, a bit pompously and the lead facilitator is up for whatever help he can get. I leap up, and step into the mess. I have a loud voice and it can’t get any worse than this. An idea has just occurred to me and I decide to hurl it into the cluttered room. “Er, hey.” I roar. “Why don’t we open some space?” I’m loud. It goes silent.

This is what I say: “This is crap isn’t it?” Silence. “Can everyone bring their chairs and let’s get into a big circle. Tuts, irritation, doubt and mostly relief. Two minutes later there’s a big circle.

I introduce open space in about four minutes and quickly crab some flip chart paper and tack it to the wall, creating four corners at new breakout spaces.

I ask people to take their chairs with them and, within about ten minutes we have a whole bunch of different sessions, many based around action.

The bosses in the room are gobsmacked.

We have a two hour open space until wrap up and there’s a huge buzz in the room from this pop-up open space.

The invite was improvised and spontaneous.

The space opened because it wanted and needed to. It popped up and out as if it were the most natural thing in the world. It transformed the day and sent the clutter fleeing for cover. It was done without fuss and chairs from the main circle quickly went into breakout and back again. The facilitator team were edgy because they felt they were supposed to be doing something and I dragged them away for coffee. We chatted a bit about “emergence” and I was looked on as if I’d done some kind of magic. I was young and enjoyed the attention. I was also looked as as if I was a bit weird. Well, I am a bit weird. I do wonder if pop-up open space could and should happen a lot more.

A lot of open spacers I know loved improvisation and spontaneity, yet when it comes to open space are a bit locked in the process in the book of instructions – the manual that tends to overplay the “prep” for the event. So, I’m waving a flag for pop-up, guerilla open space. Why not open some space even for the process of open space? Let’s shimmy it a little and see what falls out.

“Flash mob” open space has, I think, a big future. My intuition tells me a fair number of facilitators have done it, and a fair few of them haven’t reported it, telling instead there more “responsible” by-the-book open space stories. But why not? Why not open some space on the spur of the moment? The invite is still there -it just takes a hell of a lot shorter. The opportunity is always there where an over-organised event is disappearing up its own proverbial…

It is also there in an event that has some inbuilt flexibility. Why not throw some open space into the flexible mix? But best of all, why not open space when space is there to be open? Self-organisation is often crying out for a chance in the midst of failing over-organisation.

So, here’s to some more pop-up open space…

Reference: The User Guide

Visit my Open Space Realm

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Reminds me of a traumatic experience facilitating two hostile groups. I moved the chairs into a circle and nearly twenty years later the organization is going from strength to strength, see http://yalaworld.net/Blog/tabid/171/EntryId/9/The-Sydney-Powerhouse-Museum-br-an-example-of-the-emergence-of-collective-intelligence.aspx

  2. And there’s that word “emergence” again, Geoffrey. Thanks for the link to a frank story I recommend all to read. Also, the power of the circle. Space opens better in circles!

  3. I have done a similar thing with a two day training of which I was responsible for one day. I understood the what they wanted as the outcome and the course of events were not headed in that direction. I convinced them over lunch to do an open space for the afternoon. The outcome was tremendous. The participants shared and created…. the energy was powerful. Although the leadership was grateful for the experience and the revised energy when it came to take home benefits they reverted back to the hierarchy. It was several years ago and I still have people commenting about the great experience.

    In relationship to the User Guide…. I was trained by Harrison Owen and I sense a freedom to do what you feel moves you. I still followed the basic structure of Open Space and followed the principles. That is the most helpful to have a truly rich experience. I have never sensed from the user guide that I needed to follow each and every step. Quite the opposite for me. I sensed the User Guide was written as a map with a foundation of principles with tons of permission to map your own journey. I used the guide the first time to reorient myself to a whole new way…. and now I feel free to Open Space.

  4. Andy Harmon says:

    I love this article. I am an occasional Open Space participant and great admirer of what it can accomplish and this article shows how keeping true to the spirit of the thing can pay off, even if you don’t follow all the ‘rules’.

  5. For starters, Powerpoint presentations have no place in Open Space – exactly what Harrison Owen was trying to avoid.

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