Transforming Facilitation: Opening Space

Larry Peterson* (Associates in Transformation, , 416 653 4829)
With thanks to Diane Gibeault and Marcelene Anderson


When I first experienced Open Space Technology, it was a personally transforming moment. Over a 25-year period, starting in University in the 60's, I had consciously developed group facilitation skills. For 17 years I had facilitated the formation and ongoing success of a Canada-wide network of people dealing with homelessness. I had designed and facilitated, with others, many 5-day national gatherings with over a hundred participants with few or no speakers, large and small group conversations often leading to renewed personal energy and to new projects emerging in cities across Canada.

It felt like a quantum leap to experience the next step beyond guided facilitation. When I experienced that a facilitator could set the context and principles of self-organization, and then have the whole agenda emerge from the participants it was exciting. It was also a bit threatening that the "facilitator" could then look like they were doing very little, clean up the room, read the paper or even take a nap, and the meeting went on just fine "without" him or her. In fact, it went on better than most meetings because the participants took on real responsibility for the agenda and the outcomes. At the close of the meeting people reported the most remarkable learning and personal breakthroughs.

I believe Open Space Technology takes "meeting" to another level and it requires a paradigm shift in our understanding of "facilitation".


Guiding Conversations

Facilitation is about making it "facile" or easier to get a group or organization to where they are going. It is also about making it as lively and interesting as possible. Good process facilitators learn a variety of techniques and approaches. We facilitators ply our trade using flip charts, post-it notes and a plethora of documented group techniques. The facilitator usually asks key questions to engage conversation, mixing whole group and subgroup conversations, pairs, triads, and independent work. Drawing, flip chart or dramatic report back as well as guided imagery or vision quests are sometimes included. Critical to the task are decision-making techniques such as consensus formation and voting approaches that enable a group to move to its next steps.

From my experience, the best of small group guided facilitation is not based on a packaged approach. It is based on the facilitator's ability to understand what the group is trying to accomplish and where it is on its journey, to listen, to connect to the flow or energy of the group and the accuracy of his/her intuition about use of appropriate conversation approaches.

Large Group Interventions

Group facilitation has lately been translated into larger, "critical mass" events where often hundreds of participants are in one room. Most of these "large group intervention" approaches are quite guided: For example, in Future Search events, the questions to be addressed in the event follow a predetermined pattern, as do the seating arrangements. In Real Time events, the design team working with the facilitators determines the questions and flow. Some questions or topics will emerge in the discussion and then they will become topics for self-selected discussions. The facilitators then guide the use of those outputs. The table groups do self-organize their conversation by choosing facilitators and recorders, but not the topic of their conversation.

I see value in these approaches. I have facilitated Future Search events for clients when it was the most appropriate meeting form given their situation. I have used Real Time type processes in a variety of situations, especially where the sponsor requires that its authority and decision making is asserted in the event. Even with these guided processes, there can be real moments of breakthrough learning for individuals and for the "collective unconscious" of the group that is in the room. However, the facilitator guides this process in detail. The spaces for participants to experience initiative, self-organization or transformation by are usually limited to 1.5 hours or less.

Opening Space

Open Space Technology

The open space "facilitator" works with the sponsors to create the theme for the meeting and to clarify the understanding of the givens or parameters that shape the context for the event. At the event, the facilitator enables the participants to create their agenda and to self-manage their use of the time and space available. During an event the following takes place:

The "facilitator" describes the principles that govern the meeting, the theme but not the individual topics to be discussed.

The participants determine the theme-related topics that they will discuss, and the groups in which they discuss each topic.

It takes an hour or less for the facilitator to "open the space" for these conversations for almost any size group. When the whole group goes to the wall, negotiates changes in topics and then proceeds to their conversations, they are then responsible for what happens.

The facilitator "disappears" from both the content and the process of the event until the end of the day. The facilitator is behind the scenes "holding the space," ensuring the participants’ process and space are respected. He or she is only visible to the whole group at morning and evening news to identify what else needs to be put forward as Open Space topics. The facilitator may spend time in the computer room ensuring that the recording of the discussions is taking place.

A "talking stick" approach is often used in the closing of an Open Space event. The "facilitator" again states some operating principles but the content is from the participants and "time and space" are managed by participants using the object that is passed around or placed in the centre of the room.

The more guided parts of an Open Space meeting are the theme and container that is developed before the meeting and the convergence process that focuses energy at the end of Open Space meetings. Working with a sponsor or design team to develop a theme and clarify givens often demands my best facilitation skills and my ability to connect to the spirit of the sponsor group.

The convergence or focusing part of Open Space is a planning process based on the book of reports that is produced during the event. It usually involves some approach to focusing the energy that has emerged, setting priorities and clarifying the next steps. Guided facilitation approaches are often used at this point by facilitators, but the task is to work with both the spirited energy and the ideas that have emerged.

Some people do see Open Space as another technology for organizing a meeting, with just less facilitator intervention and more participant determination of what will be discussed. They see it as an extension of their tool kit and tend to use it for short periods of time. In fact, the "technology" part of Open Space does suggest some helpful group techniques. I have used some of the learning from Open Space to increase the self-organizing part of guided facilitation with real success. However, I do not call it Open Space.

A real Open Space meeting has the capability to transcend our attempts to guide and control our organizations and ourselves. In Open Space people realize that they have the capacity to experience real efficiency, team spirit and a sense of the whole without guided facilitation. Guided facilitation can restrain this high level of communication, creativity and productivity.

Translation and Transformation

Philosopher Ken Wilbur talks about the dimensions of "translation" and "transformation". For him, "translation" is coming up with better conceptual and emotional understandings of what is happening. For example, understanding that our organization is a web of interconnected "entities" functioning at many levels, that it is an open not a closed system, helps to translate our experience so that we can learn to act accordingly.

The "transformation" dimension for Ken Wilbur is the direct taste of that interconnected reality and the recognition that we are part of it. It is not describing the "collective unconscious" or spirit but a direct experience of it. This can lead to new connections and new insights that are breakthroughs, beyond where we have been before.

We all need words, images and stories to put our experience in context and to give it meaning. A guided facilitation process can provide a pattern of input and conversation that can lead to a new "translation" of our experience. The design team and the facilitator provide the pattern based on what the sponsor wants to accomplish. Within that pattern there are often opportunities for facilitated conversation, self-organized group interaction and occasionally dialogue.

Through the dialogue that takes place in good guided processes, in either small groups or in plenary, some breakthroughs do happen. There are usually opportunities in the process for conversation and reflection that lead to new insights. However, they are short and the facilitator is always up front on a regular basis to say, "Do this next" implying "Without me this would not have happened".

In an Open Space meeting, most of the guided translation happens before the "space" is opened, including the principles and the law, or after it is closed. After the first hour, the role of the facilitator is to "hold the space", and in that way participate in the "collective unconscious" of the group. As participants take on more responsibility for their own agendas and productive workgroups, they begin to manage their own time and space. They create more opportunities for interconnection with others at the event, and through those connections develop a greater sense or taste of the whole group or organization. The individual initiative and flow of conversations in and out of workgroups leads most participants to a surprising sense of interconnection and an experience of the direction of the organization or group. There is more space for transformative personal breakthroughs and learning that can be profound and moving. The experiences do contribute to more initiative, higher performance, trust and commitment on the part of most participants while at the event. There is evidence that this energy goes back into the workplace with productive results when the context encourages or at least permits this.

Participants also know that they have largely done this by themselves. This is demonstrated in the Open Space closing circle where participants spend much more time thanking each other than thanking the facilitator. They often thank the sponsors for taking the risk of engaging their leadership. They know they have, for the most part, done this through their initiative, leadership and their choice to work together in teams. Thus, there is increased confidence that they can have productive conversations and teamwork again.

They can also learn that this capability is available to them at any time, but that it is more accessible when certain conditions are present -- sponsor clarity and the principles and law of Open Space applied.

Open Space in Application

Groups and organizations are continuously learning, some intentionally and some not so intentionally. At one level, learning is about coming up with new translations – new understandings of experience -- that can inform increased performance. That is why there are so many books on management, organizations and change because we are constantly coming up with new ways to describe our experience and what we want our experience to be.

In my own journey and consulting work, I find that a lot of "translation" is necessary for me and for the organizations with which I work. I have to put what I do in a context of understanding and practice that enables me to be effective. Clarifying the history, the stories and culture, the measurement processes and data, the systems and work processes and the leading practices in an industry are often part of the learning required in an organization to assist the discovery of the next vision. This learning helps to challenge assumptions about what is possible in the future.

However, I also find that when sponsors, with my assistance, are able to provide the focus and the space for the people to discover their visions, roles and strategy in relation to the pre-determined theme then remarkable things can happen. Real transformative leaps in experience and understanding can lead to clear strategies for moving forward when there is sufficient time and space.

In that Open Space experience, my role does not feel like "facilitation" because it really isn't me, the facilitator, guiding a process that makes it easier. Instead, I am part of creating the conditions and holding the space within which the people in the room can self-organize and find the "collective wisdom" to find the vision, solve the crisis or plan the strategy themselves. In doing so, we all get a taste of what engaging the spirit of that organization can produce. The task is then to practice the interconnection so that the people and the organization can access that spirited performance all of the time.