An old piece (c.1998) rediscovered recently...
The Open Space approach starts with a return to the source -- to what's already working, what we already know, what we care about most right now, and what we are ready and willing to do about it. Open Space recognizes that anyone who cares about an issue or situation AND takes responsibility for doing something about it is, in fact, a leader -- regardless of title, tenure or team size. At the beginning of an Open Space event, when people state their passions and take responsibility for creating the space to deal with them, what emerges on the wall is a vision that is understood and shared by everyone in the room. Furthermore, it is a vision that is ready, right now, to become a productive reality. When the working sessions begin, the sense of community is felt by everyone as they commit themselves to their common work. And, when the room is full of leaders, the vision is clear, and everyone feels the support of colleagues -- action and learning follow easily, almost without management!
The Open Space format for meetings is so simple and so effective that many people leave an event determined to repeat the process somewhere else, with their work group, the board they volunteer on, or even with their family. Understandably, they want to share the spirit, energy and productivity of this approach with the people they care about. But before we can share the benefits of open space with others, we must have a sense of the depth that underlies the simple structures used in Open Space. It's easy to go through the motions -- the circle, the bulletin board, the four principles, the one law -- and these motions will give some benefits, in many cases. Nevertheless, to experience the full benefit of very high levels of spirit, learning and productivity requires a deeper sense, a deeper experience, of the process. Indeed, it's the depth of our understanding that gives us the power (as leaders) to hold the space open for others, even as we are tempted or pressured (as managers) to intervene, take charge, make choices for others, take personal responsibility for the actions of our group, and guarantee the delivery of pre-determined results.
The simple, playful process of blowing bubbles with soap can help us practice and deepen our experience of leadership and open space. These days, most bottles of bubbles come with a 'new and improved' sort of blowing mechanism, designed to make it easier to blow lots of (smaller) bubbles with each breath. Liken this to our organization technologies that create lots of (manageable) meetings, projects and crises each day. Every day and every stream of bubbles starts to look and feel the same. We're never able to put very much of ourselves into any one bubble or piece of work. Our pace quickens. We dive faster and faster, back to the bottle, hoping that this time, something different -- something amazing -- will happen.
The challenge of leadership is to work with these standard systems, built to break our work into smaller, more 'manageable' pieces, but to use them to create some really spectacular, giant-bubble, pieces of work, that can hold more of who we are -- more people, more effort, more attention, more power. Blowing one giant bubble, like real leadership, starts with an internal, reflective focus, taking in and becoming aware of what is within and around us, flowing in and out of the organization. Then it focuses our attention on our largest purpose and most important story, the work that truly requires a whole organization. As our attention, breath and effort flow out, the bubble and business results emerge and take shape. Finally, when the new thing can support itself, we let it go where it wants, removing obstacles where we can -- knowing it won't last, but knowing, too, that the source is still within reach, within us.
As leaders, we must learn to let go of limiting specifications -- to unleash the potential of others and allow their ideas to emerge as new structures, processes, products and decisions. We need to grip the bottle, not the bubbles -- to keep our attention on our core values and purpose, keep focusing the spirit of the organization into stories and business scenarios, AND keep letting go of our need to determine the details. Where management is about measuring and controlling the flow of the work, leadership is about gathering and unleashing the energy of the people. Leadership is about balancing the force it takes to fill really large bubbles, with the gentleness required to keep them from blowing away before they've reached their full size. It's knowing that each bubble, piece of work and group of people must ultimately find its own path. And, knowing that when really big bubbles run into things that can't be moved, they bounce!
In Open Space, we start with leadership, with the hard work of returning to what is most important, and quickly learn that the day-to-day work of management can be simple, almost invisible -- even as learning, play and productivity run high. Blowing bubbles is a simple, practical way to remember the power of leadership and open space -- the power that can help us transform our weekly meetings, daily conver-sations and routine decision-making into experiences of high learning, high play and high productivity.