Open Space facilitators and process input

owen owen at
Sat Feb 27 06:54:50 PST 1999

>And periodically I have intuited (sic!) a need to contribute input
>on 'process' rather than 'content.' It was this latter, in my
>understanding, that was at the core of the recent conversation
>on the role of the OS facilitator.
>For example, a month ago I was invited to facilitate an OS gathering
>for a small community based school. This took place over 3
>successive mornings. The issue they wanted to explore was,
>seemingly, how to recreate their sense of collegiality.
>On this topic I felt no desire - let alone role - to participate in the
>content. After all it was their issue and their show, and my experience
>and passion for the topic were not relevant.
>Nonetheless I did see a role for me in introducing to the group ideas
>on what are 'conversation skills and practices' and, for example, what
>are some distinctions to be made between debate and dialogue, ideas
>that are widely available to those who notice their significance.
Alan raises a very interesting point -- namely the addition of process skills
and intervention during the course of an Open Space. I can only share my own
experience. Simply put, I have never found it necessary or useful to do that.
And in those situations where the client insisted, the results were either
non-contributory or actually counter-productive. Does that mean one should
never do such a thing? If I have learned anything over 63 years it is never to
say never. However, my experience has been consistent over the 14 years and
counting that I have been seriously playing in Open Space.
        There is no doubt that groups of all sorts can benefit from an improved
level of process skills, or conversation skills, if you like. The question for
me is -- given the Open Space  environment -- can they learn to do this all by
themselves in a period of time appropriate to their needs? If we were talking
about a 5 year learning curve, and the group was faced with an immediate issue
requiring resolution, doing it all by themselves might be a great idea, but the
needed skills would come a little too late. My findings to this point are that
given the need, the group will find the way. It may not be pretty, or in accord
with the best principles of group inter-action -- but it works. And there is a
major plus. The group did it, and the learning is their own. And having done it
once, they can do it again, and usually better.
        Experiencing this experience has not always been pleasant for me.
Indeed, it has often been damned painful and very nervous making. I was
trained, as most of us were, to believe that my job was fixing things, and
frankly I think I was pretty good at that. Detailed designs, fancy
interventions, training programs to enhance communications and all the rest --
I did it. And my clients paid the bills and kept coming back, so on that score,
I suppose my effort was acceptable.
        But, I have to say that I learned the most in those situations where
everything seemed to be hitting the fan at once, and all my careful
plans/interventions were trashed  -- and despite (or maybe because of ) it all,
the whole affair turned out just wonderful. Initially I thought I was just
incredibly lucky, but then I began to suspect that something more powerful was
going on. Somehow, some way from the deep mystery of the group's being
(Spirit?) the way forward appeared. In retrospect, I had to admit that the
group's solution was infinitely more elegant than anything I could have
imagined or designed. Talk about a blow to the old ego!
        Those of you who have read my book, "Open Space Technology: A User's
Guide," will remember the story of the naked lady. Briefly, one of our
participants in a very august gathering (we had presidents of countries)
decided that the only way to make her "statement" was to take off all her
clothes and sit totally naked in the middle of the circle during morning news.
I knew at that moment, if I had never known it before, that my only option was
to sit in that circle and hold space. The groups response was truly elegant,
and if you want the details read the book. My learning was profound, albeit
humbling, and resulted in what I have taken to be a guiding principle when
working in Open Space: Think of one more thing NOT to do.
        From that point on I noticed the various things that I actually did
during an Open Space, and as I felt comfortable,  consciously eliminated them
one at a time. Contrary to what I would have expected (and I should also say,
hoped) the group not only did fine, but truthfully, much better.
        I can't say it has been a walk in the park, and to be honest there have
been any number of situations which I can describe only as white knuckle
journeys. On not a few occasions, I have found it necessary to practice a
little deep breathing and hold firmly to the arms of the chair. BUT. And this
is a very large BUT -- the group has always come through. The learning is deep,
the empowerment (individual and collective) almost overwhelming, and the
substantive results typically mind-blowing. Will it always be true? Who knows,
but that has been the experience to date.
        Within the last 8 years or so, as I have immersed myself in the
literature of self-organizing systems -- what I would have taken to be totally
counter-intuitive and definitely wrong, now seems to make a great deal of
sense. If you start from a position that organizations are essentially closed
systems which require intense human input to get organized, what happens in
Open Space is not only wrong, but impossible. However, if you turn things
around a bit, as I have found myself doing -- and posit that all human systems
(groups, organizations etc) are open and self-organizing -- what happens in
Open Space is only what you would expect.
        The learning is by no means done, nor has the definitive book been
written, but I am finding that less is definitely more, and thinking of one
more thing not to do, to be a very useful discipline. At a practical level, I
continue to find that there is nothing that I might do that the group cannot do
as well or better for itself -- so long as I or somebody holds the space. And
there is an added value. What the group does for itself belongs to the group.
Harrison Owen
7808 River Falls Drive
Potomac, MD 20854   USA
301-469-9269 (phone)
301-983-9314 (fax)
email owen at
Open Space Institute website
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