An Interview on Open Space Technology

I had the privilege today of being part of a fun experiment. The organizers of the Organization Development World Summit, Budapest, August 22-26, hosted an interview and online chat with me today.

Here’s the 20 minute interview.

The chat was quite an experience!  People posted questions online and my little fingers were humming along on the keyboard typing answers.  There were a lot more of them than there was of me!

I was struck by the questions.  Some were basic, some complex.  All challenging to answer in such a brief format.  Here’s a sample:

  • If people are so used to instructions and orders in their corporate life, don’t they get lost in the freedom of open space?

Some people DO get lost in the freedom of Open Space. Harrison Owen, who created Open Space, coined the term “freedom shock” to describe that response. Some people, like me, felt they found their home when they discovered Open Space. Others are disoriented. I do a lot of work with journalists and it took me a long time to appreciate how overwhelmed many of them were by the openness. I do a few small things to help. First, as part of the set up, I’ll mention that when they first go to the wall to look at the sessions posted, know that it might seem somewhat chaotic. Just naming it lets them know that they’re not the only ones feeling that way.

I will sometimes do something simple, like an informal evening together for people to connect before opening the space. If they know who’s in the room, it helps to lesson the disorientation.

  • How can we use the Open Space technology in our private life? I mean can I transform it to my family?

Ultimately, handling freedom shock is very similar to what I’d say about using open space in every day life, for yourself and your family.  It comes to the same thing: internalizing the idea of taking responsibility for what you love as an act of service.

  • How long does it take to feel yourself expert in Open Space or is open space a never ending learning methodology?

I laugh at being called an “expert”. Open Space is simple and takes a lifetime to learn. So, yes, it is a never ending learning journey. That is part of what I love about it.

  • How can this method operate in a world that is so controlled by others and “big guns”? This sets peoples mind free, which could not be appreciated by different interests and power (I mean company leaders, country leaders, politician, etc.)

When someone things they are in control it is, in many ways, an illusion. No one can control your mind. I point to the example of Elie Wiesel, who lived through a concentration camp and wrote Night about how he maintained his sense of humanity.  This is an extreme example.

The more we pay attention to what matters to ourselves and live from that, the more we can, starting small, find allies.  You are right that people who see themselves in control can get scared and become more controlling.  It isn’t necessarily easy to bring your own voice. And it can have dangerous consequences in some environments.  Yet getting clear about what matters to you and living from that is a courageous step.  When you do, even in a small way, you inspire others.  As others are inspired, you find allies.  So start small, with a question that matters to you and invite others to join you in exploring that question.

  • Is there a difference in the way OST works in a group where the people meet in the OS session and in a group that is already together for some time (example work together in a company)? How does the different group dynamics influence OST?

When doing an OS inside an organization, the main challenge is having a manager who is willing to take the leap into something that seems risky. Ironically, I think an OS inside an organization is one of the most effective ways of sparking and accomplishing innovative ideas I know.  And organizations can pursue and sustain creative ideas because people already have many shared assumptions and infrastructure in place to support what emerges.

With less structured groups, it takes more effort to for people to clarify their collective intentions, decide to come together, and determine how to stay in touch after an event.

  • What is the ideal group size for OST?

Ideal group side – I’ve been with groups as small as 5 and as large as 2,100. I love both.

  • I can’t imagine 2100 people together. What kind of event was this?

The 2,100 people was a mix of 1,800 street kids ages 14-22 from Bogota Colombia and 300 teachers. The kids had finished a drug rehab program and were now in a jobs program. The OS was about creating and keeping jobs once out of the program.  There’s a story about it on my web site.

  • What were the greatest experiences of you, Peggy working with this method?

My greatest experience – they all seem to keep getting better! For me, what I love seeing is increasingly diverse groups handling increasingly complex questions. These always bring up dissonance. Seeing groups work creatively work through the disruptions inspires me.

  • What results can we promise to OST participants? and to the Sponsor(s)?

Results: here’s what I now say:

1) people come away refreshed, clearer about their own work;

2) they find partners, often unlikely partners;

3) often new and innovative initiatives are born;

4) a sense of community begins to grow; and

5) with time, a new culture forms.

  • Is there an age limit to participate in OS?

OS works with all ages. Children are naturals! They understand OS better than adults. There are many stories of OS with young people. And mixes of ages are always wonderful.

  • What happens if in an OS session people are discussing a really tense conflict and people get too emotional and start to be insulting. what can you do then?

I think the fact that people can use their feet to walk away if things get too hot acts as a psychological pressure release.

I have been in several open spaces with very conflicted people together.  They consistently come away saying they heard the other and respect them more than they ever had.

I have several colleagues who brought together 25 Palestinians and 25 Israelis for 3 days in OS.   An Israeli friend told me of their time at the airport on the way home.  The Palestinians were harassed by security. He said the Palestinians were more patient with their treatment and the Israelis were more sympathetic with how the Palestinians were treated.

So the chat ended, with words of thanks on all sides.