Pollard on Open Space

Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

Dave Pollard has a thoughtful and somewhat critical post about Open Space. I see that Jack Martin Leith has offered a few thoughts in response.

First off declaring my baggage at customs, I’m a frequent user and something of an enthusiast for Open Space. And I know that it’s a process that some people find frustrating. Debating its pros and cons can be difficult, as I think it raises tricky questions about what we think facilitation really is… and whether it’s something different from control and manipulation or just a well-dressed up version of it or a very watered down and benign rewriting of it.

It seems, if I’m following correctly, that Dave wants a facilitator to be there to support the “mavericks with complex ideas” but also deter the “bullies and manipulators”. Frankly, that sounds a tough challenge. Don’t these qualities often come as a package?

This same person must also “draw out the wallflowers” – I assume this talented facilitator has the mind-reading skills to spot those defective creatures and not confuse them with, say, those who are paying close attention but feeling reflective; or who are so furious they can barely speak – not wallflowers at all.

Goodness only knows, when I’m facilitating I feel all these urges to take control and have an impact. That’s why Open Space is probably good practice for me, as facilitating it requires minimalism.

One plus point for Open Space is that it divides up the “control” among participants, who can make personal choices about who is a bore and who is quietly fascinating, and use their two feet to steer towards or away from them. In my subjective experience, I think Open Space is just about impossible to hijack, because you can only attract volunteers to a conversation.

Of course, there are biases: in order to get your topic on the agenda you have to be vocal or headstrong enough to stand up and pitch it to other participants. And yes, if you don’t pitch it well, fewer people may show up. I certainly find that it takes a while for people to “get” that need to take a risk if you want a subject discussed. So yes, I think there is a bias towards those who are willing to make some noise and I’m interested in experiments to counter this.

I also sometimes think the timetable at the start is a bit too much structure – though, again, it’s not that hard to overwrite that as a participant by just bagging more than one time slot if you want.

Dave makes some interesting suggestions to improve Open Space but they all seem to assume that the facilitator knows much better than the participants what’s good for them AND (even more important) that the participants are so in awe of this person that they will enthusiastically follow his directions (rather than, which I think is much more realistic, pretend to go along and find ways to sabotage them). Of course, even in the minimalism of Open Space you could argue the facilitator is taking charge to some degree.

What’s more interesting – and harder to express – is a more fundamental question: do we really believe in the idea of one person leading a group of mere mortals through the wilderness? Or is it more realistic to expect confusion, frustration and mess as well as epiphanies and breakthroughs? And sometimes much more of the former than the latter?

And how do we know the difference between our own personal frustration on the one hand, and the the failure of a system on the other? I’ll risk the sweeping generalisation that most of us prefer to opine about systems than look in the mirror and reflect on exactly how we choose to engage with them.

Is the facilitator the expert guiding hand? Or is he perhaps a paradoxical figure who sits in the traditional position of leader and then deliberately fails to lead… but does clearly seem to present and attentive?

I’m aware I’m not doing full justice to Dave’s arguments here and I wish I was going to Bowen Island for a real conversation. But feedback welcome.

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