Opening Space

Last Friday, I opened up my space. Literally. [singlepic id=144 w=320 h=240 float=center]

The Cradle of Manifestation was host to an event like no other. Organized by Eugene Eric Kim and facilitated by Lisa Heft, Blue Oxen Associates' Tools for Catalyzing Collaboration was an Open Space format workshop, which brought together over 30 participants from the worlds of technology startups, big corporations, non-profits, facilitation, and academia, coming from all parts of the Bay Area to discuss these questions:

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It wasn't the questions themselves, or even the people, that made it so unique. It was the nature of the interactions we all had, in the Open Space format.

If you're not familiar with Open Space (which I wasn't until recently), there is a great "textbook" of it here.

The basic premise is that people gather, as if for a conference, but there is no pre-set agenda by the organizers. The participants themselves create the agenda at the start of the day, by proposing conversation topics and building the "Agenda Wall", pictured here:

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Other participants interested in those topics gather at the specified times and locations, and allow discussions to develop organically. At any given time, there were up to 7 breakout group discussion happening at once, and any number of side conversations going on. In one corner, a "newsroom" was setup for people to document on laptops the notes from their sessions, so they could be shared with everyone afterwards.

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I proposed the question, "What does it mean to improvise?" and I had a quartet of four participants. I had no preconceived notion of whether people would interpret "improvise" to mean "music". We actually had a brief discussion about the question (with notes recorded here), and then launched into about 30 minutes of different free improvisation exercises.

The principles of Open Space are so similar to the principles of improvisation that I feel compelled to restate them here:

1. Whoever comes are the right people.

2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.

3. Whenever it starts is the right time.

4. When it's over, it's over.

5. Be prepared to be surprised.

6. The Law of Two Feet

7. Butterflies and Bumblebees

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These last two merit some explanation - "The Law of Two Feet" refers to taking responsibility for your contribution to a discussion. If you're not listening or contributing, then it's your responsibility to exercise the Law of Two Feet and leave respectfully, finding another conversation where you can make a real contribution. How often do we empower people with that level of responsibility? Instead, we force people to show up for "team meetings" while they remain disconnected by playing on their Blackberries or checking Facebook. C'mon, you know who you are. I'm so curious to know what would happen if more organizations and workplaces utilized and enforced the Law of Two Feet.

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"Butterflies and Bumblebees", a corollary to the Law of Two Feet, refers to the vital role that some people play by hovering or floating among several conversations over the course of a session. Some - the "butterflies" - may arrive and stay only briefly in one place, but contribute one beautiful nugget to that discussion before moving on. Others - the "bumblebees" - may serve the important function of cross-pollinating conversations, pointing out where there are links between two or more different groups or topics.

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What I loved most about the day was seeing the transformation of the space, and seeing it actually fulfill the vision of being a Cradle of Manifestation. It held the space physically for what was going on in the space between all of these people. The space felt alive, yet unobtrusive, as the real life was in the exchange of ideas and connections being made. Someone said in the closing circle, "This kind of collection of people and ideas is where great things are born." I love that!

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As an observer of Open Space in action, I see how it's a lot like improvisation. There are a few simple rules, and a lot of space within that to move. Everyone needs to let go. Listening is a form of participation that is just as important as offering your own voice at the right time.

And while you never know what will happen, you're sure to discover something new about yourself along the way.

See more photos from this event by me and Eugene Chan. Used under a Creative Commons license.