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

Cheryl Honey cheryl at communityweaving.org
Sat Feb 25 09:15:04 PST 2012

Thank you Artur. I can’t agree with you more…Cheryl


From: oslist-bounces at lists.openspacetech.org [mailto:oslist-bounces at lists.openspacetech.org] On Behalf Of Artur Silva
Sent: Friday, February 24, 2012 5:20 AM
To: World wide Open Space Technology email list
Subject: Re: [OSList] Teach Them to Fish / A Note to My Friends


Amen for almost everything! And thank you, Harrison, for reminding us of all this.

A small observation: I have struggled myself with the same old saying: "instead of giving a fish, teach them to fish".  Yes, if you "give a fish" you are patronizing and disempowering the other. But, if you "teach to fish" aren't you also disempowering him?


Having done professional training and facilitation (intermittently) for 40 years and teaching at Universities for 20 years, I have come to the conclusion that the role of a Professor is not to teach. It is to help the students to learn and more specifically to "learn how to learn" - anything, anytime, for all their lives... 


So it is not "to teach to fish"; it is to help them "to learn (remember?) how to survive". It may be fishing today, hunting tomorrow, cultivating in another day, but especially it will change every now and then, and the student must be prepared to "learn as a way of being" (from the title of a book of your friend Peter Vaill).


So, indeed the teacher/professor/facilitator must learn how to disappear, so that the student can surpass the master - at least, if he his younger, as he probably will continue to learn for a longer time.  

But this is not a disagreement because - if I understood well - this is exactly what your post says.

Warm regards




From: Harrison Owen <hhowen at verizon.net>
To: 'World wide Open Space Technology email list' <oslist at lists.openspacetech.org> 
Sent: Thursday, February 23, 2012 9:31 PM
Subject: [OSList] Teach Them to Fish / A Note to My Friends


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 necessary? 


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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