Open space is a way to break up the mundane, old ways of conferences. Just as we are realizing that rote memorization does not work in the classroom, and education needs to be shaken up. Our meetings and multi-day conferences need strong winds of new ideas and currents of new ways.
We do not need to leave the cool, non-traditional, people-powered ways to the techies in San Francisco, either. In fact, for the sake of our selves, our souls and our future, we need to harness our collective strengths. Open space (or Open Space Technology, as it can also be called. OST for short.) is one compelling way to do so.
Open space is not only about the topics that get discussed. The experience of open space is equally important. The experience of making choices and self-authorizing. The experiences of realizing that other people are co-creating ideas, having exchanges and addressing their own needs at the same time. In fact, others are doing so At. This. Very. Moment.
Open space is like communication. Just as 70% of communication is non-verbal, leaving 30% to be verbal. 70% of open space’s potency is how it feels, and 30% is what is said in the array of small groups.
Open space honors that we do not all learn in the same way. Open space embraces that we are all on different pages. Our being in different places is embraced, rather than viewed as being detrimental. It is actually, seeing a group of people as each one of us in a group is. Oftentimes, some people are ready to discuss some specific tangent, while others are seeking basic definitions and understanding of what is happening. Open space allows for the introductory and in-depth or tangential to happen at the same time. The people get to choose which one suits them.
During the recent BIN conference, I introduced open space technology as a version of “montessori for adults.” Go do what you want, as you want, with whomever else wants to do it. Or as they say in the Montessori camp, “go learn on your own, while being guided by a teacher.” Guiding happens, just with us guiding ourselves rather than relying on some typical teacher/facilitator.
I have attended too many gatherings and conferences where the energy of a group can swiftly change. The warmth, curiosity of the first-day-and-a-half pivots. Suddenly, people can begin to see that the multi-day funfest is has an endpoint. Questions arise: how do i carry this on next week when I am back at school/work/my home/my desk? How will the importance of this moment be sustained? Who is going to follow through on all that been talked about, identified, proposed and what i have heard?
Open space can be a pressure valve to let off some of the steam that expands in a contained space. Instead of trying to control it, open space provides a blank canvass for people to doodle, paint and illustrate. Old controlling tendencies get mired in question of what: what are we gonna paint? what are we using, watercolors, oils, pastels, charcoal? what is going on this canvass?
Instead, open space can be a canvass to the nth power. There can be as many canvasses as there are people who are ready to paint. Canvasses for whatever people identify a need for, and then commit to take it upon themselves to utilize. (if no one goes to discuss the place that open space identifies, then it quickly ceases)
Instead of saying, “oh no, we only have x number of slots,” open space enables, equips and empowers. People can say:
– You want a canvass to do what?
– Great. Go find some space and put a call out to everyone else so they know what you are up to.
The primary constraint in open space is our minds. By that, I mean the limits of what our human minds can fathom when we categorize, define and differentiate. Open space is a wiki for meetings and conferences. Some people can discuss topics and issues while others can figure out the building blocks of logistics, principles, leadership, communications. This is some of what happened when we devolved in Atlanta.
A year ago, I first introduced open space to another group. When defining it, I had to explain that it is not Free Time. Instead, it was a time for people:
- to go do what they need to do,
- to go where they needed to go,
- in order to take care of themselves.
That meant napping for some, and snacking for others. For me, i sat on a rocking chair on a large porch at the Benezet House of the Penn Center in St Helena, South Carolina. FOr most of the people present, it was a chance to jump in the car, ride 10 minutes to the beach where they took their shoes off, rolled their pant legs up, and strolled in the waves along the beach. They were doing what they needed to take care of themselves. They were right where tehy needed to be. And they got to do the things that we were all there to do: tell our stories, exchange ideas and experiences, compare notes.
As a little kid in me would say, it was so important that we got to do it outside, too. Afterwards, when i asked some people what their favorite part of our previous 2.5 days had been, they said it was their time on the beach.
That is some of what open space can allow for. What began as one person’s idea spread. It went from one car-full of people. To another. To a third. Just like that an idea found a group of people ready to spring into action. These ideas and such moments are all around us. The question is whether we can see them.
Rather than attempt to control them — control the ideas, control the moments, control the people — open space is one way to embrace ideas, moments and people.