I’ve recently completed a commission for the King’s Lynn and West Norfolk Local Strategic Partnership which gave me the opportunity to renew my relationship with Open Space Technology. The partnership, concerned about the local impact of the credit crunch on the local economy, wanted to consult with a wide range of partners on what could be done. We could have set up a conventional consultation workshop with a series of pre-defined themes to discuss, but instead, my recommendations to use Open Space were accepted.
The Open Space methodology works on the assumption that delegates will be more motivated to address subject areas of their own choosing than they will by a pre-determined agenda. Once participants have determined the agenda, they can join any group of their choice and are encouraged to ‘cross-pollinate’ thinking by moving across workshops. The organisational constraints on the workshops are minimal: participants are at liberty to discuss anything that addresses the central question, starting and finishing discussions at their discretion. This fluidity has been proven to create an environment of creativity which to the observer can appear quite chaotic at times, but to the participants is a liberating and refreshing way of exchanging ideas and developing new thinking.
One of the most powerful aspects of Open Space is the dynamic it creates. The agenda setting process is arranged in a circle, what the guru of Open Space, Harrison Owen, describes as “the fundamental geometry of human communication“. We started the meeting, which was held in a conference centre with a large converted barn, with some contextual presentations with delegates sat in the conventional theatre style. During the coffee break that followed, the room was re-set to a giant circle with me facilitating the process in the centre. The change in the meeting dynamic was extraordinary! 14 groups ranging from 2 to 20 delegates were self-selected and an innovative range of ideas were proposed. The organisers were delighted during the feedback back in the big circle with the diversity of the ideas and the quality of the discussion. It reaffirmed my belief that when it comes to such things, the minimal management is best and left to their own devices; people working together can do great things.