Fwd: Report on an Open Space Meeting

owen owen at tmn.com
Sat May 8 04:59:50 PDT 1999

This showed up in my mailbox, and I thought to pass it on. If every there were
an assembly of "Js" I suspect this is it.

>Date: Fri, 07 May 1999 16:30:40 -0400
>From: "John W. Wesner" <jwesner at lucent.com>
>Organization: BL0318H00
>X-Mailer: Mozilla 3.01 (Macintosh; U; PPC)
>To: owen at tmn.com
>Subject: Report on an Open Space Meeting
>Harrison Owen
>Mr. Owen,
>I want to share with you an Open Space experience that I led this past
>The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) planned a Retreat
>for the chairs of the 39 Technical Divisions in the society, and the 12
>society Vice Presidents (the "Council on Engineering"—COE) who support
>them.  The intent was for the Division Chairs to have an opportunity to
>raise issues important to them, to support their providing the best
>possible experience to the 120,000 ASME members, each of whom  is a
>"member" of one or more Technical Divisions.  All of these people are
>volunteer leaders in the society.
>I had read "Tales from Open Space" shortly before the meeting last
>November at which we firmed up plans for the Retreat.  It seemed to me
>that Open Space would provide a meeting framework which would really
>support giving the Division Chairs the best opportunity to raise THEIR
>issues.  The alternative was business as usual: we (the Vice Presidents)
>would send them an agenda a couple of weeks before the meeting.
>I convinced the COE leader (the Senior Vice President) to let me use the
>Open Space meeting format.  We told the other Vice Presidents as little
>as possible, other than that I would run the Retreat, using some other
>new "tools".  (I had over the past two years successfully introduced at
>our meetings and Retreats several of the "Quality Tools"—like Affinity
>To prepare, I read three of the Open Space reference books: "Tales from
>Open Space", "Expanding Our Now," and "Open Space Technology: A User's
>Guide". I also got and looked at the video "Growing Our Now;" it was not
>too helpful.
>Before the meeting we took two preparatory actions:
>   + we sent everyone an agenda which only 
>      identified:
>       8:00   Opening Session
>          9:30   First Breakout
>         11:00   Second Breakout     
>                 (lunch will be available
>                  from 12:00-1:00, to carry
>                  to your breakout)
>         12:30   Third Breakout         
>          2:00   Wrap-Up
>          3:00   Adjourn
>       plus a high-level statement of the problem to be discussed and,   
>    as background, a copy of a draft Strategic Plan that the VPs had    
>    been developing.
>    + the Senior VP cautioned the VPs to let the Division leaders take
>      the lead in raising issues.
>We did not tell anyone what methodology we would use, or how it would
>work.  We did have to deal a little bit with some who wanted a more
>specific agenda; we essentially told them to "hang in".
>I really followed the process as described in the "User's Guide" very
>closely.  I made 3x5 "prompt" cards containing pretty much the suggested
>words, with minor tailoring to my specific event bounds. I prepared the
>wall posters and breakout room schedule exactly as described.  I began
>the meeting just as described: I entered the circle, greeted people, and
>walked silently around the circle.  These elements all worked just fine,
>and I would do the same again.
>Forty people created 16 sessions, only two of which did not attract any
>participants.  The dynamics of the early meeting were exactly as
>described in the "User’s Guide"!
>The breakouts went as expected.  There was some drifting of people among
>sessions, and one session had to find its own space.  Most had to be
>brought to a stop so that the day’s activities could continue.
>The one flaw was lunch.  The buffet was set up in the big meeting room,
>and there were some tables available.  Many people came after the 11:00
>session, and sat down to eat rather than taking their lunch off to the
>next session.  As they finished the lunch, they moved off to the
>sessions—which did get held, but for shorter-than-planned time.
>For the closing, I did not have breakout leaders give readouts. 
>Instead, I went around the circle doing a "Check Out" in the sense used
>in Dialog: where each person was asked to express their feelings about
>the experience, and "where they were at" at the moment.  The response
>was overwhelmingly positive--then and throughout the weekend.  A couple
>of people wanted to know about the book, and one person is thinking of
>using the method at another ASME meeting this fall.
>The thing we could not do, given the time constraints (which were
>imposed by other events planned for the weekend), was develop the report
>before participants went home.  We charged the breakout leaders to send
>in report material; the report is now being distributed, two months
>after the meeting.
>What would I do differently?
>   + I would put in a lunch period.  One alternate would be no tables 
>     near the buffet...
>   + I would try harder to get reports (breakout summaries, at least) 
>       before people left the site.
>All in all it went beautifully.  All the issues the Vice Presidents had
>wanted to put on the "formal" agenda were raised, but they were raised
>by the Division chairs, who thus felt that they were really being
>listened to.  The participants were almost universally excited by their
>Two interesting stories:
>+ The "check out" comment from one person who had come late was that
>next time we should send more specific information out before the
>meeting.  He obviously had missed the entire point--yet he was able to
>participate. I thought for a moment about answering him, but I quickly
>decided only to respond "you should have been here on time".
>+ I have facilitated enough meetings that I no longer feel uncomfortable
>in the center of a meeting circle.  You caution that many people ARE
>made uncomfortable by the circle--and that you can see a gain in comfort
>from the start of the meeting to the end.  I had an enlightening
>experience at the end which made this point very clear:  the Senior VP
>had committed to give another ASME leader a few minutes to present a
>message to this group of people.  We let this other person speak to them
>after the "Check Out".  They were still in their circle, and he had been
>there to see me do the checkout standing in the center of the circle. 
>But when I gave him the microphone, he stayed securely in the row of
>I really enjoyed using Open Space!  The method was just right for this
>meeting, and I now feel that I have another tool in my repertoire.   It
>is a little intimidating getting ready for the first time, but now I
>feel that I could do it again, only better!
>                                                               John W. Wesner
>wesnerj at asme.org

Harrison Owen 
7808 River Falls Drive 
Potomac, MD 20854   USA 
301-469-9269 (phone) 
301-983-9314 (fax) 
email owen at tmn.com
Website http://www.tmn.com/~owen
Open Space Institute website
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