[OSList] Teach Them to Fish / A Note to My Friends

Harrison Owen hhowen at verizon.net
Thu Feb 23 13:31:05 PST 2012

There is an old saying to the effect that when seeking to help people it is
infinitely better to teach them to fish than to give them fish. The point is
obvious. When you learn how to fish you can feed yourself. The secondary
point may be less than obvious. When you are simply handed a fish the
conditions for learned helplessness and continued dependence, to say nothing
of subservience are created. Even with the best, most altruistic intentions
in the world, a fish handout has its problems. And what does all this have
to do with the price of tea in China? Not much, I guess, but I think it has
a lot to say about our roles as facilitators. 


One of the things I have always loved about Open Space is that it is not
rocket science. Anybody with a good head and good heart can “do it” – a
reality which has been proved time and time again. Early on I thought the
“magic” lay in the simplicity of the process – but it turned out it was
worse than that. There isn’t any process that “We do” – in fact the process
does us. Yes, I know – you have heard all this before
 self organization at
work. We are simply remembering what we already know. But well before I made
any connection between Open Space and self-organization, I was struck by its
simplicity and universality – it simply worked
 everywhere. The immediate
impact of this realization was a “tag phrase” I found myself uttering at
every opening of space. At the beginning and at the end I told the folks,”
There is absolutely nothing that I am doing with you that you cannot do for
yourselves.” It was all about teaching fishing.


As time went along I found myself working the implications of this phrase.
Substantively, I told everybody who came to me that, while I would be
pleased to open their space, I would do it only once. Should they want to do
it again, I would help from the sidelines, and for all subsequent
gatherings, they were on their own. A second impact on my practice resolved
into a simple phrase: “Think of one more thing not to do.”


Having come into the “business” (of facilitation) in the late ‘60’s I found
myself in the midst of a flowering of methods, techniques and procedures
emanating from the emergent OD movement in all of its manifestations.
Suddenly the “simple meeting” became a massive cookbook of possibilities.
Warm up processes, Ice breakers for starters. Interventions of all sorts
during the main course, with “Kumb’yah”  and holding hands for desert. I
jest, but only just.  Designing such a thing could take months and involve
dozens of people. And when it came to the actual meeting it almost seemed
that the Conference Committee plus assorted Facilitators outnumbered
participants by 2:1. I couldn’t help but wonder
was this trip really


In many ways, Open Space (OST) came to me as an answer to my questing. It is
true that two martinis helped and marked the birth, but I think the period
of gestation had been going on for a bit. I have joked that my essential
laziness was the primal cause, but more basic was a deep hope that there had
to be a better way. Was it not possible that human beings could engage in
intelligent conversation without “all that stuff?” The gin helped, I suppose
– but the answer was ridiculously simple: Yes – Just sit in a circle, create
a bulletin board, open a market place, and go to work. All the rest is
history, but I wasn’t out of the woods.


Given my prior experience, to say nothing of the experience and practice of
my friends, I just could not believe that something so simple could possibly
work without help. Obviously we needed to “prepare” for Open Space. And so I
tried any number of warm-ups and ice breakers – trust games, relaxation
exercises, visualizations and more. Most were pleasant, maybe even fun – but
did they really add value?  The only way to find out was not to do them –
and find out.


As often happens, the first iteration of the experiment (dropping stuff)
happened quite unintentionally. I was in South Africa in the anxious days
immediately post Apartheid. We needed to do an Open Space -- FAST. Nobody
had ever heard of Open Space, but they were ready to try anything. So we
just did it. No preparation, no warm up, no nothing. Just the barebones:
circle, bulletin board, market place and to work. And to work they went! I
learned something, which has been confirmed again and again as the
experience grew. When space needs to open – Just Do it.  But I must confess
that holding hands at the end still can feel good, although there is no need
to sing Kumb’yah.


But it wasn’t just the warm ups. As my experience with Open Space was
growing, friends and colleagues were creating their own approaches. Diana
Whitney and David Cooperrider with Appreciative Inquiry and Juanita Brown
with World Café, for example. Wouldn’t it make sense to sequence or combine
all these things? We tried, and it was fun – but did it really make any
difference? Did the work move more swiftly, were the conversations deeper?
Was the follow-on more effective? Despite my best efforts, I could see
little if any improvement, and I really wanted to. And to the extent that
there was a marginal plus, that seemed to have less to do with the
cumulative effect of the several approaches – and more to do with the simple
fact that people had been together longer. In fact on multiple occasions
participants would come up to me to ask why we hadn’t done it all in Open
Space? “That is where the cookie really crumbled,” one person said.
(Translation: “That’s where the conversation really got real.”)


I know this is an argument I can never win. But the truth of the matter is
that there is no argument and I have no interest in winning. Each of us must
make our own judgment as to what might be the most effective and appropriate
in each situation. That said, the fact of the matter is that in 27 years of
observation I have never seen any group of people have the slightest bit of
difficulty entering into Open Space – even when the topic under
consideration was viciously volatile. Always worked, all by itself. I have,
to be sure, seen situations where the sponsors (and often the facilitators)
were more than hesitant. But for the people themselves – no problem.


I suppose there could be an argument if my basic concern were to defend this
approach (OST) against all others, any combination thereof, or extraneous
heterodoxies. Were that the case,  I am sure that I could be (should be!)
accused of a very biased, proprietary self-interest. But my interest is
rather different, and the simple truth of the matter is that I would be
delighted if all methods and approaches were simply to disappear – right
along with every last Facilitator. Throw out the Tool Box and The
Profession! No longer needed. It is all about teaching folks to fish.


I judge myself and the impact of my work by a single criterion: How fast can
I become redundant? How soon can the folks fish for themselves? My task
becomes infinitely easier as the simplicity of my approach increases and the
necessity to explain fades away. Best of all would be a situation where
there is really nothing to explain – just Do it. And then remind the folks
that they did it, and can do it again. No more. No less. After that the only
thing left to do is post a sign: “Gone Fishing!”




Harrison Owen

7808 River Falls Dr.

Potomac, MD 20854



189 Beaucaire Ave. (summer)

Camden, Maine 20854


Phone 301-365-2093

(summer)  207-763-3261



www.ho-image.com (Personal Website)

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