Opening the Space


It was a pleasure this week to be able to share my passion and discoveries in community work with three different groups of people who are also curious about the best way to do this.

My co-explorer and mentor Peter McDonald invited me to share some of my experiences at the Uniting Churches National Urban Mission Conference where the group were gathering to hear the wisdom of Dr Chris Baker (Director of Research for the William Temple Foundation).  Dr Baker was sharing with the group on his research into the role of religion in public policy and social welfare.  (I believe that DVD’s of his conference talks are going to be made available through the Pilgrim Church website.)

At the end of the week Peter and I ran the monthly “Faith in Action” ABCD Community of Practise in which we looked at Asset Mapping in Communities (pictured above).  Peter has posted the notes from this on his blog.

Finally I had the deep honour of presenting alongside giants Shane Claiborne, Billy Williams and Rev Kennedy (of EFICOR) at the Surrender Truth Lab in Adelaide.  I will post my thoughts from that here soon and audio will also be made available for this conference I am told.

On all three occasions I had the opportunity to play with a tool called Open Space Technology.

Open Space Technology is a great tool for harnessing the power of a highly diverse group of people to meet a present challenge.  It is great way to ensure that people participate in the conversations that most pressing and inspiring to them at that point in time. Open Space Technology differs from the Circle technique discussed in my last post primarily by the size of the group it is used to engage. While Circle works great with groups of up to 12 people- Open Space is better with larger groups

As with the Circle technique- the great and terrifying thing about Open Space is that we never know exactly what will happen when we “open the space” for people to discuss what is the most inspiring and important work for them at this time and in this place.  The great thing about this is that all of the issues that are MOST important to the participants will be raised.  The scary thing is that these important issues are not pre-supposed by any leader.

An open space starts with an open question.  For example at the National Urban Mission Conference Peter and I asked the question: “What is the most important thing we can do now?”  It is necessary for the question to be inviting and intriguing because participants in the space are then invited to pitch their ideas of conversations they would like to have to answer the question.  The facilitator invites anyone with a “pitch” to come to the center of the circle, grab a marker and a sheet of paper, and write down their burning question, passionate issue, or great idea. These aren’t speeches; just simple announcements.  These pitches are then taped to the wall in an assigned slot on a schedule of times and places around the room.

The participants then move towards a topic that most inspires them from the pitches that have been made.  Minutes later, the first sessions start without any announcement or instructions; because everybody knows where they need to be. Suddenly the large circle is many small circles, in the corners of the room or in separate breakout spaces, each working on some important part of the main theme. Every session has been proposed by someone who really cares about that item and has taken responsibility for making sure it gets addressed.

As the first sessions finish, at roughly the scheduled time, the second sessions begin. Everything is moving — people, ideas, resources, beliefs, relationships — but it all revolves and relates to the intention stated in the invitation.

As the intention of Open Space Technology is for all participants to be engaged only in conversations which interest them and to which they can contribute or learn it is necessary for a few rules to apply.


The most significant of these rules is the rule of two feet.
This rule says simply that you, and only you, know where you can learn and contribute the most to the work that must take place. It demands that you use your two feet to go where you need to go and do what you need to do. If at any time you find that you are not learning or contributing, you have the right and the responsibility to move… find another breakout session, visit the food table, take a walk in the sunshine, make a phone call — but DO NOT waste time and don’t suck energy from the conversation you are a part of.  If the work isn’t finished from a previous breakout when the time is over, use your feet, and find another space to continue the conversation.  If none of the pitches interest you, find a space to reflect on your own thoughts (perhaps you should have made your own pitch?)


Along with this rule is the notion of cross pollination.  Those who flit between conversations (the butterflies and bees of the open space) actually providing healthy cross-dialogue between these conversations.  So don’t feel trapped in a conversation that is not interesting you or to which you are not contributing. This simple rule makes everyone fully responsible for the quality of their own work and work experience.

The other rules are as follows:

  1. Whoever comes are the right people.  Don’t spend your time waiting for an expert to rock up.  Whoever is there are the people most passionate about this topic.
  2. Whenever it starts is the right time. Don’t wait for the magic number of people- start when people arrive (or if no-one arrive, then have a great think through the topic yourself)
  3. Wherever it happens is the right place.  Whether it happens in a formal circle or next to the coffee table, it doesn’t matter.
  4. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened.  If the conversation doesn’t go in the direction you would like- deal with it.
  5. When it’s over- its over.  Don’t force it.

It is often helpful to have these conversations summarised at the end of a session.

This tool is highly adaptable and can be applied to a number of different settings.  This week we used it to help people to process the “next steps” after a download of conference information (I never feel conferences give you enough time for this); and we also used it alongside an asset mapping exercise to look at ways we can host community conversations.

What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of Open Space Technology?  How might you use it to engage with your community?

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