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Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide

Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide by Harrison Owen

Some of my notes….

The total simplicity of Open Space (sit in a circle, create a bulletin board, open a marketplace, and go to work) contrasts radically with the quality of results and speed of achievement.

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My experience tells me that the circle is the fundamental geometry of open human communication. A circle has no head or foot, no high or low, no sides to take; in a circle, people can simply be with each other-face to face. After all, we do not have a square of friends, and on a cold winter’s night it is nice to be part of the farnilycircle.

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Two additional mechanisms suggested themselves from the life of Balamah: the community bulletin board and the village marketplace. The bulletin board provides a convenient, low-tech means for identifying what people are interested in. The marketplace provides a means of bringing interests together in an orderly way. Both mechanisms are so ancient and ingrained in the human experience that explaining the rules is unnecessary. And of course if the village marketplace has not been a part of your experience, a shopping mall will do.

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As in many senior management groups, the agenda for the weekly Chief and Staff meetings was guarded as closely as Fort Knox, all in the name of efficiency. The gain in efficiency, however, was often balanced by a loss in effectiveness, as only those items officially on the agenda could be discussed. The rest remained unspoken, and possibly unspeakable.

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I strongly urge that you read the whole book through, skipping details where they become overwhelming. And then just do it, even if your first group is only the neighborhood children with associated dogs and cats. With a little experience under your belt, you can come back for the fine points.

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Open Space Technology is effective in situations where a diverse group of people must deal with complex and potentially conflicting material in innovative and productive ways. It is particularly powerful when nobody knows the answer, and the ongoing participation of a number of people is required to deal with the questions. Conversely, Open Space Technology will not work, and therefore should not be used, in any situation where the answer is already known, where somebody at a high level thinks he or she knows the answer, or where that somebody is the sort who must know the answer, and therefore must always be in charge-otherwise known as control, control, control.

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There are, in fact, five Conditions of Use when it comes to OST: 1) There is a real business issue. Open Space is not about “doing a process”; it is about doing a real and needed job. 2) A great deal of complexity. A simple business issue does not require meeting in Open Space or in any other fashion. Just do it! But if this issue is so complex that nobody can quite get their arms around it-that is “meat and potatoes for Open Space. 3) Lots of diversity in terms of people and points of view. 4) Real passion (people care.), and probably also conflict. 5) A decision time of yesterday (genuine urgency).

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In a curious way, Open Space Technology always seems to work; it just may be that sometimes people are not totally pleased with the results. Not to be mysterious, but in the Open Space environment, people tend

to be creative, synergistic (they work together), and self-motivated. If this type of behavior is not desired, it can cause problems.

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Sponsors need to know what they are getting into, what they can expect, and what will be required of them during and after the event. Even more important, the sponsors need to understand that they will never know exactly how things will turn out in detail and specifics. It is true that there are certain general results which can be promised in Open Space, and we will consider them shortly. It is also true that the final concrete and specific results are always emergent from the group, and rarely in accord with some preexisting plan, except by coincidence.

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My first principle in consulting with a client is never attempt to sell Open Space. Explain what it is, the global experience, how it works, and why you think it might be particularly appropriate for the client’s situation-and stop right there! Give the client plenty of open space in which to make his or her own decision. This may sound extreme, but in situations when my client was saying “yes”-but I sensed it was really a “maybe” or possibly “No”-I would suggest that the client think about it some more. In extreme cases I have even said that the client should consider all other possible options for the achievement of the hoped-for results, and when or if he feels that he has run out of options to come back for another conversation. My record in such situations is just about 50/50-but I always felt totally comfortable with the decision, no matter which way it went.

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In the final analysis, when consulting with the sponsor/client, the critical question is, Do you trust thepeople? If the answer is yes, then probably you should give the people space to find resolution for the common issue. If the answer is no, then other options need to be considered.

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Although Open Space Technology is powerful and effective, never use it for the sake of the process alone, only for the potential results. OST is designed to do a job, to work a real business issue, no matter how you define business or issue. So a first act of preparation is to determine in concrete terms what you want to accomplish, best stated in a question.

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Open Space Technology runs on two fundamentals: passion and responsibility. Without passion, nobody is interested. Without responsibility, nothing will get done.

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For Open Space Technology to work, it must focus on a real business issue that is of passionate concern to those who will be involved.

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The process of invitation becomes extraordinarily simple. Given the business issue of choice, run it up the flagpole and see who salutes.

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Simply say that although it may be new to this group, it has been used all over the world with predictable results. By the end of the gathering, the following will have occurred, and that is a promise!

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If samples are less than helpful, a basic format can assist. I suggest four simple sections all presented in a page, or less. More than a page, and it probably won’t get read.

1) The Theme (issue)., Stated in ten words or less-preferably much less (see above “Fixing Arizona”)

2) Background/Rational This should include highlights and most especially intriguing questions. But by no means should this be a full documentation of present status and desired future. If further documentation is URGENTLY required, include it in the package, but not the invitation.

3) Logistics (Where, When, and How): Keep it simple-the place of meeting, time of start and ending, but obviously you can’t include the

agenda, because that hasn’t happened yet. However, to mollify those who absolutely require an agenda you might indicate when meals will take place and the schedule of sessions. You might also want to indicate that this will be an Open Space but avoid a detailed explanation. It will only get you in trouble. If you absolutely have to say something try: “Open Space Technology is a highly participatory process which has been successfully employed in multiple situations all over the world’

4) The Promises (see above)., As I have said previously, most people really don’t care about the process. They care about results and need to have some assurance that their time will be well spent. The promises will help in that regard.

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When faced with a situation like the one described above, I simply would not consider anything less than two full days. In part this is a matter of allowing sufficient time for the issues to emerge and be addressed. During the first day, most of the issues will be raised, at least by title, but with a second day there is the opportunity to go deeper. And there is an added piece of the mix which is equally critical-the night in between. Although it may be true that formal sessions will run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the conversation never stops, even when people are asleep.

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This means that if you have a series of speakers you want the group to hear or other programmatic activities you want everybody to be a part of, do it before Open Space. The reason is simple and

relates to the essential precondition of voluntary self-selection, without which Open Space Technology will not work. There will be no problem, however, if the command performance takes place before the Open Space.

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When it comes to designated breakout spaces, a workable rule of thumb is five per one hundred participants. This presumes that there are some additional public spaces in the facility, such as the lobby, gardens, hallways, and of course, the more the better. It also presumes that some people will find it comfortable and convenient to meet in the large main room.

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In one particularly creative gathering (for the 2,108 German psychiatrists), which took place in two large circus tents, the breakout areas were indicated by helium filled balloons anchored by sandbags. The scene was completed with the necessary signs (Four Principles and One taw) attached to thin sticks and floating around the large space supported by bunches of balloons. A magical sight indeed!

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For example, all meals can be served as buffets over a several-hour period, allowing people to come and go as they please. For coffee breaks, try replacing the fifteen-minute mad dash, which nobody observes anyhow, with a more leisurely approach. The world will not come to an end if the beverages and snacks are left out for an hour or longer. Of course, things do get cold, or warm, over time, but that problem can be solved by serving foods that do well at room temperature over extended periods of time, such as fresh fruit.

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With the machines up and running, each convener of a group is invited (strongly urged, begged, but never commanded) to ensure that a reasonable record of the discussions in his or her group be prepared. I say “ensure” because it may be that somebody other than the convener will do the job, and often it turns into a group effort.

To provide some level of uniformity, a standard format is supplied. Typically it has four parts: 1) Title, 2) Convener (with phone number and address), 3) List of participants, and 4) Discussion and recommendations. The actual length is immaterial, although reports usually run several pages. Some people may get carried away, and ten-page reports have found their way in. One limit to verbosity is that participants themselves are responsible for the typing.

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As the reports are gathered they should immediately be printed out, and copies should be hung on the wall under a large sign saying Breaking News. You will be amazed how much interest and excitement these real-time, instant proceedings will generate. And they also serve a very practical function. Participants who may not have been able to attend a particular session can still keep up by checking the News Wall. And in the event they want further information it is a simple matter to find the reporter.

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The unique and critical role of the facilitator in an Open Space event revolves around two functions: creating time and space and holding time and space. Observably, in performance, this means doing less rather than more. Under the best of circumstances, the facilitator will be totally present and absolutely invisible.

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For the meeting to be effective, the indigenous sense of time and space must be allowed to emerge. That will only occur if the facilitator creates an environment of safety.

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Thus, furtive glances at one’s watch on the part of a North American facilitator operating

in a Latin environment communicate that not only are things “late” but lateness is bad. It is much better, albeit painful, to put the watch in a pocket and understand that it will start when it starts. The job of the facilitator is not to keep things on time, but rather to enable the creation of safe time. It is up to the participants to make their peace with the time they create, and to render judgment on themselves regarding tardiness and punctuality.

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Unless the facilitator is truly and authentically present, nothing that is done, or not done, will make any difference.

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When living fully on the planet or facilitating Open Space, Angie suggests that the following four things are necessary:

• Show Up

• Be Present

• Tell the Truth

• Let It All Go

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Finally, let it all go. Angie actually says, “Have no attachment to fixed outcomes.” Her way or mine, the point is that we have no permanent claim on anything that is, and the sooner we get that through our heads the better things will be. It is not that we have gone out of control, it is simply that we had no control to begin with.

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To the best ofruyknowledge, there is exactlyone way to absolutelyguarantee the failure of an Open Space event, and that is to by and control it.

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On the contrary, preparation is an intentional, ongoing act that must become part of the life of the would-be facilitator.

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For myself, I find that a period of intense and intentional meditation for several hours prior to the event is essential. For you, the same results may be achieved by taking a walk or going for a jog. Whatever the procedure, the objective is to achieve clarity of self and purpose, combined with openness to the environment and others.

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It is sometimes suggested that placing a small table in the center of the circle with the paper, markers, and masking tape is a good idea. This does make it easier for people whose arthritis or egos make it impossible to bend over, but it is a suggestion I avoid.

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So, nothing in the middle except for paper to write on, markers for the writing, and masking tape to stick the posters on the wall. A parting note on the paper: I find quarter sheets of flip-chart paper to be just the right size.

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The signs to be made cover three different aspects of the event: 1) Theme, Behavior, and Expectations; 2) Daily Schedule and Space/Time Matrix for the Wall; 3) Report Production.

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Thus there are four separate signs to be made: 1) the theme (briefly stated), 2) the four principles, 3) the one law, and 4) “Be Prepared…” Depending on the size of the group, you may need several copies of each of them. Once made, they should be posted in the sequencegiven above in several locations around the room, but not on the wall where the issues will be posted Make sure they are high enough to ensure visibility.

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I suggest allotting one and one-half hours for each session. Longer or shorter is possible, but the time suggested has worked well over the years.

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STAGES OF INITIATION

1. Welcome

2. Focus the Group

3. State the Theme

4. Describe the Process

5. Create the Community Bulletin Board

6. Open the Village Marketplace

7. Get out of the way!

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Unless you are hosting your own group, the first person to speak in the circle is the official sponsor, whomever that may be. Particularly if you are an external facilitator, it is important that the assembled body be greeted by somebody they all know, or know of.

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Recommended speech in this situation goes something like the following: “Welcome to you all. I know we are going to have a useful time together, and now is the moment to get on with it. Here’s Harrison”

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Once introduced, I come to the edge of the circle and say something simple like, “Welcome to Open Space” I then start walking slowly around the inside of the circle, and as I go, I invite the participants to let their eyes trace the circle to see who is there. The important thing is to move with slow deliberation and allow people time to really see who is sitting in the circle, even if they do not know who the other people are.

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“In case you are curious about how we are going to get from here to there… well, it is called Open Space Technology. OST has been developed over a period of time, starting in 1985. It has been used all over the world Willi groups from five to two thousand You will be surprised how simple it is, and strangely it always seems to work. “

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At this point, you have described the basic mechanisms of Open Space Technology, and some participants may have some questions. My advice is don’t take any; keep on going.

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If at the end of our tune together you find yourself walking out Willi just what you walked in with, you will have wasted your time. It is a common experience in Open Space that our precious agendas are trashed While this experience pray be painful, it is not without benefit, for when our old agendas depart, new ideas may emerge. So do yourself a favor, trash that agenda right now. Or at the very least get ready to. Be Prepared to Be Surprised!

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As a matter of principle (less is more), I always attempt to take as little time describing things as possible. Fifteen minutes seems to be about right and half an hour is definitely on the long side.

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Some sense of anxiety and adventure is essential. In the theater this would be known as warming up the crowd or “vamping until ready”

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As a rule, the number of issues relates directly to the number of people in the group. Groups of twenty-five to fifty will have about thirty issues; groups of one hundred to two hundred will have about seventy-five issues. Groups of more than three hundred participants will not generate a substantial increase in the number of issues. The largest number I have experienced was 236 issues with a group of two thousand.

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It is also important that the group hear the names of those posting the issues, and further that the names be written on the papers. Part of this is a matter of identification: who is doing what. But of equal importance is the matter of commitment. When you announce an issue and call out your name, you are much more likely to follow through than if the arrangement is anonymous. Going on record, publicly, is critical to confirm commitment.

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Toward the end, take special pains to make sure that, for whatever reason, somebody isn’t hanging back and about to be left out. More often than not, just as you are sure that nobody has anything more, somebody will make a break for the center. It is extremely important that everybody has a chance, even if it means holding the group up for a few moments.

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You can deal with all of this simultaneously by suggesting that people sit down so that others can see, and further, that sign-up be held in abeyance until the full menu has been posted. I use the example of going to a good Swedish smorgasbord and filling yourself up on the first dish. It may taste wonderful, but look at all you will miss. And the worst of it is, you will never really know. So patience, just a little patience, is a virtue.

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It may occur to you that arranging the issue papers by time slots (in addition to by the days) could be helpful. If nothing else this would make the Community Bulletin Board look more like a traditional agenda. I would advise against this for several reasons. First, there is the practical fact that such arrangement will add yet another level of complication-when simplicity is the order of the day. But more importantly, I have found that just as soon as everything is arranged in the “proper” order everything changes.

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When all, or most, have reached high ground, I say something like, “People, the village marketplace is open. Go and sign up for whatever issues you wish to pursue. Enjoy yourselves. As soon as you have your groups together, go to work. I will see you for Evening News” And I leave to take a walk or more usually a nap.

In the early days, I used to preface my departure with some words like, “I am going now, but if you need me I will be just down the hall” I have since learned that those words are totally gratuitous. The participants don’t need me and don’t care where I will be. I am the only one who is even aware that I have left.

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Another word for holding, as in holding space, might be caring, to which we might add cleaning, clearing, or even honoring. I suppose there are big things that can, and should, get done under this heading, but for the most part I find it is the little things that count-like picking up coffee cups and trash.

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But it is really our job, all of our jobs, and most especially the job of the facilitator. It is a job that allows you to go anywhere and just watch.

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I have found that three questions can be helpful: 1) What is the dance? 2) What is the smell? 3) What are the colors? When you first try to access and focus your intuition in an Open Space with these questions, it is helpful to find an out-of-the-way corner which is still somehow connected to the ongoing action. As you improve with practice, you will find that you can do it anywhere, anytime, regardless of the tumult and energy manifest by the group.

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ask yourself, What is the dance? It will be immediately apparent that the assembled horde is not doing a waltz or tango, but there is a flow, an ordered movement as groups form, dissolve, and form again. And how does that feel to you? Smooth, jerky, frantic, graceful? Don’t attempt any judgment about what it means or whether it is good or bad, just allow yourself to be fully present to that dance. You might even just enjoy it! After a bit, go to the next question.

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And so the question-What is the smell? Ask the question without judgment or analysis. Just let your nose do all the work and notice what happens.

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After a bit, ask the final question. What are the colors? This will probably work better if you close your eyes, for the colors you seek are not those on the walls of the rooms or clothes of the people. They are the colors of your mind. You may have difficulty with this; some people do. But if you are patient the colors will come through, at least they always have for me. It may begin as black, but notice if the black has hues of deep purple or red. And when the colors brighten, what is the shade and texture? Once again, refrain from making a judgment about good or bad, right or wrong, pleasant or jarring-just notice the colors.

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When you have finished this little exercise, notice how you feel. Warm, sad, happy, peaceful, energized? And most especially notice if you feel called upon to move somewhere-even if the destination is totally unclear. If that happens, Do it!

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As with most enterprises, it is the little things that count. For example, if participants come with an apparently reasonable question regarding what they should do, an appropriate response would be What would they like to do? More often than not, they already know, or if not they will benefit greatly from taking a little time to figure it out.

If the question is more of a suggestion, which in a traditional conference might have been made to the management/planning committee, I have found it effective to ask the questioners why they don’t take care of that. The point is made: we are all the management.

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When people find that they are truly being treated as responsible and free individuals, they tend to live up to those expectations.

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Very occasionally, however, misunderstanding or subtle peer pressure will get somebody into an Open Space environment who should not be there. Such people must be taken care of.

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The facilitator’s first thought must be to protect the space and people’s right to choose. This can usually be done easily and inoffensively by saying something like, “I think what is proposed is probably a veiygood idea; why don’t you propose a new session dealing with that?” An alternative might be, “Since we have all been sitting liereforsonie tune, I suggest that we take a break, and then those who would like to pursue this idea may come back and do so. As for the rest, they can get on with whatever they had in mind “

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But I have come close, and I think the reason I have so far escaped the awful choice is that my consultations with the client before the gathering are intense, and I make every effort to clearly state the nature of my role as facilitator.

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My options were fairly limited, but one thing I was sure of. if I moved at all there was a high likelihood that the group would panic, or at least somebody might do something that would later be regretted. I resolved to do the only thing I could do, hold the space.

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It is small wonder then that the role of the facilitator in Open Space is perceived as strange, counterintuitive, or just plain wrong because intervention in any overt sense is rarely, if ever, part of that role. I would never say never, but I will say that in twenty years in hundreds of Open Spaces, I have never found it necessary to intervene with any group.

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In those situations where I was successful (the group became unstuck or the conflict calmed) I gladly accepted whatever accolades were offered and felt proud at having done my job. But I noticed that there was also an unintended consequence. The group became dependent on me or some other facilitator every time they felt they were in trouble. And after a while the groups would become so dependent that they would not think of having a meeting without a facilitator at hand.

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When you start doing an Open Space and get to the point where you are supposedly Holding Space, find yourself a good sturdy chair, preferably with strong arms. Sit in the chair and firmly grip the arms. When a moment arrives that you are sure your help is required for the fix, by all means charge to the rescue. But keep firm hold of the arms of the chair. It will feel a little odd, but you will quickly get the picture that fixing that group is not your job. They can do it perfectly well all by themselves if given the space. Trust the People.

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Creation of an action plan, by whatever name, requires that at least three things be accomplished. First, the group must identify the areas where some action is needed. Second, the required action must be specified in sufficient detail that real work can commence. And third, responsible parties must be identified who will get the show on the road.

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For relatively simple discussions with smaller groups (less than one hundred), conducted over the course of a single day, it is quite possible to conclude that day with any of the approaches described below, and walk out with a useful action plan.

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I find that ten dots per person works out about right. The instructions are as follows: After reading tfieproceedings and talking with your colleagues, find the issues you believe to be the most important Indicate your level of enthusiasm for those issues bypasting some number of your sticky dots on the papers You can put all the dots on a single issue or spread them out. The choice is yours.

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The sticky dot approach becomes difficult with larger groups. Personally I find that anything over one hundred participants is too many for the sticky dots, and with truly large groups a paper balloting procedure is almost essential.

The process here is actually simple, but labor intensive. A special ballot is prepared listing and numbering each issue. Each participant is given a ballot with the following instructions: After reading thiepro- ceedings and talking to your colleagues, identify the ten issues which are of the greatest importance to you. Rank these issues indicating your preference by

assigning 10 to your most important issues, 9 to the second, 8 to the third, and so on. Wlien you have marked your ballot, hand it in. It will take about one hour for the reading, conversation, and voting.

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With a list of the top ranked issues in hand, set up an equivalent number of flip chart stands around the perimeter of the large meeting room. At the top of each chart write the issue, one per chart. The actual order doesn’t make much difference, but a little showmanship can be added to the occasion by doing it one at a time in the order of priority. If all the participants are standing about, this becomes a marvelous, and slightly suspenseful way of announcing the results of the balloting. Beneath each issue add titled blank sections so that the flip chart page appears as follows: 1) Issue 2) Related Issues 3) Next Steps 4) Co-Conspirators.

After the flip chart pages have been prepared, invite the original conveners of the (now) top issues to stand by their chart. With the conveners in place, invite all the participants to visit any or all conveners/charts and add (write in) their contribution.

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To assist them in this process, I propose a sort of triage. As they consider the suggestions of the total group along with their own best judgment, do they think this issue is a Dolt, a TalkAboutlt, or a Clear as Mud?

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I take a radio mike and race around the space from convener to convener. And after each one has spoken, I solicit applause from the total crowd. That may sound a little odd and unbusinesslike, but by that time the group is really into the whole affair, and some small amount of celebration is in order.

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As you construct the closure for an Open Space event, it will quickly become apparent that the more-or-less standard ways of bringing a program to conclusion simply will not do. Whatever is done must be done in the same spirit as the rest of event. So, for example, having the “leader” stand up and deliver an impassioned speech about all the wonderful things the participants are now going to do will be experienced as dissonant to the synergy and collegiality that have evolved.

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In practice, the microphone, or the Talking Stick starts from my place in the circle. I explain simply that it will be passed to my right, and as it reaches each person, they are invited to share briefly what the event has meant for them and what they propose to do in the future. There is no necessity to speak; anyone who so chooses may simply pass the mike along to the next person.

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Personally, I find the report-out less than useful, most often producing boredom, frustration, or both. If reporters take the time they think their subject deserves, most people are bored. If the time is limited, the reporters are frustrated. Truthfully, the report-out is not a very efficient or effective way of communicating the results of the conference. A written set of proceedings will do a much better job.

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When the microphone finally comes back to me, I ask the group to stand and allow their eyes to move around the circle in silence, acknowledging each other, what they have accomplished, and what they hope to do.

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So after a few moments, I ask each person to turn completely around in his or her place, face outward, and imagine what he or she is going to be doing in the days immediately ahead.

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To the north is leadeiship, the powerful trail breaker, pointing the direction and opening the way for Spirit to grow and evolve. The animal is the deer and the color is red. To the east is vision, the highflying seer of all. The animal is the eagle and the color is blue. To the south is community, the warmth of hearth and heart, which binds all people together. The animal is the mouse (as in cuddly, warm, friendly), and the color is yellow, the color of the Sun. To the west is managemend. It is quite doubtful that Native Americans ever used this term, but I believe (or at least I would like to believe) this is what they had in mind. The animal is the bear in his slow, methodical, plodding mode, best seen in the berry patch as he takes care of business. Not very exciting, but very effective when it comes to handling the details of living in the community. The color is green, as in growing things.

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We have discovered one, almost “sure-fire” approach to the achievement of suboptimal results. That is to follow what for many organizations is standard procedure. After a meeting which had been productive of many new ideas, projects, and proposals-all of these are referred to some external, and presumably higher, body for evaluation and implementation.

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