[OSList] Request for feedback - What to do when team members are afraid to call topics?

Steve Holyer coach at steveholyer.com
Tue Oct 6 06:22:34 PDT 2020

Hi Jake,

Some questions

* How realistic are the team’s fears (in your opinion)?
- Would leadership retaliate against the team?
- Why would they retaliate?
- Which topics/questions are "safe"?
- Which topics/questions does the team think/know bring retaliation?

* How are the "leadership" in question working to sponsor and 
participate the event?
- And, how are you working with them before the event?

How I want to approach it…

I wonder how you create the event with the sponsors in advance. And I 
wonder if you have a compelling question and invitation for every event.

In your shoes I would do these things. I often see people skipping at 
least some of these things so I list everything that comes to mind, 
excuse me if you’re already doing all of them:

* I would be sure the leaders are "sponsoring" each event.

* I would want to start working with the leaders/sponsors about 2 months 
out in your scenario (as soon as you complete one event, start working 
on the next one by engaging the sponsors).

* As usual, I would help the leaders / sponsors identify a compelling 
theme (urgent, complex/many answers not just 1, controversial/something 
that sparks passion and triggers responsibility across the teams and 

* And also, I would help the leaders / sponsors craft the invitation to 
the next event clearly stating the question & clearly committing to HOW 
they will respond to the outcomes. I would ask them to make this part of 
a "written" invitation that they (the VPs) send to everyone  involved in 
the event (by email engraving not required).

  I hope that there are no limits to what can be raised in the Open 
Space, but if there are limits (and you say people are afraid that there 
are discussions that will be punished—so yeah they perceive hard 
limits) I would ask the sponsors to clearly state what is allowed (and 
if you can swing it what is not allowed). Granted, it’s not ideal, but 
I believe if there are constraints on what’s allowed into the space, 
then you create safety by helping the sponsors name and acknowledge the 
constraints and show what they are. (Also gives you an opportunity in 
advance to invite them to be more open by pointing out how the off-limit 
topics close the space.)

  To balance the fear of retaliation, you give the group more 
information to organise themselves to go where it’s safe to go—and 
also not to avoid where it’s not safe. Of course, if they are avoiding 
key controversial subjects this is definitely closing space, but it’s 
at least helpful to be explicit about what’s open and what’s closed. 
I feel like you’re helping open the remaining space by asking the 
sponsors to clearly point out what is open and what is closed. (The 
sponsor’s must do it because it’s the facilitators job to hold the 
space open.)

* I would ask the sponsors to be explicit about what they commit to do 
with the outcomes of the open space after the event.

* I’ve experienced Open Space as a powerful laboratory type 
environment that helps everyone (leaders team members — all equal in 
the circle) to experience true self-organisation for the first time. 
(And it’s a side effect of using Open Space to solve real problems 
rather than the end goal in itself.) If you are doing the things above 
to open space and your organisation’s hierarchy is still interfering 
you may simply need to acknowledge that is the only thing that can 
happen right now.

* If what ever happens is the only thing that could happen", then I find 
it’s usually the only thing that *must* happen. Some folks (ORSC 
coaches mainly) say "every voice is the voice of the system …" So what 
are the voices in the system telling everyone when they remain silent 
when it’s time to propose topics? They are speaking to all the 
participants (including the sponsors / leaders).
— what does that say to your organisation about hierarchy and 
— what else could the silent voice be saying about your system? Do you 
know for sure "fear of retaliation" is the problem? Or are these voices 
saying something else important for the system? (The question isn’t 
clear?  The question isn’t compelling? The sponsor’s don’t support 
the outcomes? The Open Space EVENT is fine, but we’re constrained by 
the hierarchy the rest of the time? We’re sleepy?)

(Depending on other issues — like are you all remote right now or in 
the same place — I also might consider trying a longer Open Space. 
It’s hard for me to get into full swing when you have to do the whole 
thing in half a day. I recognise it might be hard to get sponsors’ 
commitment for more time.)

Have you looked into Michal Hermann’s "Inviting Leadership Guide?" I 
rely on it for questions like these: 

We also explore this deeply in the Open Space Leadership course I offer. 
We’re forming a new cohort for mid-October. I want to invite you to 
register and bring this question to work on in the workshop — 


On 6 Oct 2020, at 12:13, Jake Yeager via OSList wrote:

> Hi wonderful Open Space community,
> I'd like your input. I am working with a division within my company. 
> The
> division is sponsoring a half-day Open Space event every 2 months to 
> help
> improve adaptability and innovation. The division consists of 200 
> people,
> and all team members are invited to every event. My company is very
> hierarchical, and some team members are afraid to call topics. They 
> are
> afraid that leadership may retaliate against them.
> Upper leadership is very open, but some of the middle managers--e.g.,
> VP-level--are pretty controlling.
> Does anyone have any suggestions for what to do in this type of 
> situation?
> If you have questions or feedback, let me know.
> Thank you so much!
> All the best,
> Jake
> ________________
> When the mind is quiet, the sun of your heart will shine once again, 
> and
> you will be free of problems.
>  - Robert Adams <http://www.robert-adams.info/>

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Open Space Leadership
Agile Product Ownership
Agile Abundance

Certified Strategic Play™ Facilitator using the
    LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® Method and Materials

Steve Holyer and Associates

coach at steveholyer.com
Zurich, Switzerland

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