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Opening Space for Transformation in Nepal

BANEPA, BUDOL, KAVRE DISTRICT, NEPAL. Early October, 2004. The wet season should be over, but the rains just keep coming. Some here say that rain is an auspicious sign. For sure, this rain is good news for dry areas in western Nepal, where many people never have enough food to eat, but it's bad news, too, for people traveling to the First National Summit of Imagine Initiatives of Nepal.

Most people here travel by bus or ride motorcycles. Flooding and landslides are blocking the roads and make traveling difficult. As if that wasn't enough, earlier this week, Nepal's insurgent Maoist rebels declared a two-day nationwide bandh, or general strike, threatening to attack any traffic on the roads and any shops that we not kept closed. It is impressive that 60-70 people would show up anyway, most of them after 40 hours on old diesel buses. So far, there are no cars and only a handful of motorcycles parked outside the training center.

The center itself is a small, airy complex of buildings, orange brick, roofs of old stone or new corrugated tin, bare concrete and delicate ornament, as is so common here, nestled into the terraced hillside rice fields above Banepa, a small but fast-growing town about an hour (15-20 miles) outside of Kathmandu. For me, the center has the flavors of an old world village, subsistence farming, modern conveniences, summer camp all rolled into one.

The main training hall is a big room with a concrete floor, covered with 6-foot wide strips of carpet, six apparently random colors, but most of it seems brand new. Eighty chairs in a circle, with more seating available on the floor, in a inner circle of long, thin cushions covered in clean blue pastel linens. As the chairs fill up, people are well dressed, but half of them are barefoot. Our shoes, a colorful collection of loafers, sandals and flipflops, are piled up just outside of the door, tucked close to the building, even in the flowerbeds, to keep them out of the rain.

Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, struggling to resolve eight years of rebel violence that has killed some 11,000 people. They are wrestling with integration, the old and the new, urban and rural, tradition and technology, Buddhism and Hinduism, gender roles, agriculture and tourism, natural resources and education, monarchy and democracy, and a history that includes renowned Gohrka fighters and gurus of inner peace. There is a practical immediacy to the issues here, and a humble understanding of what it means to be human. The effect is refreshing and powerful.

In this context, it is no stretch at all for this First Summit of Imagine Initiatives to be designed and billed as "a blending of Open Space Technology and Appreciative Inquiry," and conducted in a swirl of Nepali and English. In the face of so much hardship and change, the Summit is actively inviting and supporting the "Imagine Initiatives Movement for Positive Societal Transformation." It is organized by the Nepal Appreciative Inquiry National Network (of which Imagine Nepal is a member) with support from the NGO Federation of Nepal. And despite the difficulties involved in getting here, all regions of the country are represented.

Getting Started

The formal opening of the Summit features important local officials, but this group that has gathered is not disconnected from any part of Nepali culture and society, even the Maoists. This group is fully committed to discovering, dreaming, designing and delivering the best of, and best for, all the Nepali people. Among them are the founder of a program in western Nepal for addressing violence against women and children, the author of the first Nepali text on facilitation and training, the author of the first Nepali book on Appreciative Inquiry, a former member of Parliament, a number of grade school and university educators, youth journalists and radio people, someone who finances community projects, social workers, forestry and resource management people and NGO networkers. At least one man has been kidnapped, but released five days later, by Maoist fighters. Many already use Appreciative Inquiry and everyone is eager to learn more about Open Space Technology, to see how they can add this to their practice.

My own presence here is improbable. Two years ago I facilitated Imagine Chicago's tenth anniversary celebration and first Global Imagination conference. As I was soon to be visiting Kathmandu, Buddhi Tamang, Ganapati Ojha and the other leaders of the Imagine Nepal program asked if I would come by and talk with their students. I gladly accepted their invitation. A few weeks later we held a small one-day Open Space workshop to reimagine the future of Nepal, and then gave some small training on how to use Open Space Technology.

A year later, I returned and facilitated a one-day Open Space meeting, this time for about 40 Kathmandu leaders. Again, it was a combination of doing the work and learning about the OST process. In side conversations I suggested to various leaders that we might do a longer conference this year. Their commitment and hard work was met by the generosity of the Open Space Institute, which funded my travel to get here this year.

With so much invested by so many, we are all a little anxious about the rains, the rebels and the other difficulties of pulling this off, making good on the investment. Sitting in the opening circle, I am the American expert who cannot understand a word of what is being said, the one who suggested some sort of conference and did almost nothing to make all of this reality. These stories always sound so "important" when told back in the States. For a moment, the formal opening even reminds me of so many high school movies about the American Revolution, delegates gathered against the odds, forging a new future. Mostly, however, the opening is just plain humbling.

As we go around the circle, everyone introduces themselves in Nepali. When it's my turn, I speak the only word of Nepali: "Namaste!" I give my introduction in English. Nobody needs to tell me what is happening, and many, if not most understand my own introduction. I feel lucky to be here. Later on, my individual conversations about how to use Open Space is so many different settings are their own reward.

In so many side conversations I help participants understand how to mix OST into their work in training courses, monthly staff meetings, youth projects, campus media, college curriculum, grade school education, women's and children's safety, community forestry, and community banking. These exchanges always seem to start with some little bit of tension about bringing a challenging question, then dissolve in relaxed smiles as I welcome the challenge and they realize that OST can be used almost anywhere. Of course, not all of these people will run the open space meetings we are talking about, but it seems important to sow the seeds. After all, this same sort of chatting last year is how this 4-day conference is happening this year. By the morning of our second day, I feel sure that I am doing well by my funders at the OSWorldORG:OpenSpaceInstituteUSA.

The rain and the formalities are over in time for lunch. The main Summit program is a simple blend of Appreciative Inquiry and Open Space Technology. Our theme is "Opening Space for Positive Societal Transformation in Nepal." We take the 4-Ds of Appreciative Inquiry: Discovery, Dream, Design and Delivery as our themes for a series of four one-day Open Space meetings. Much of the first day is taken up with formal openings. What was to be a short program beginning at 10am, starts late and runs on through lunch. Our first opening, for Discovering the Life Force of Nepal and taking inventory of what is best here, doesn't start until 3pm. Given that we now have time for only one Discovery breakout session, I open the space for Discovery of Life Force AND Dreams for the future of Nepal:

"Welcome to Open Space. The best way to learn about Open Space is to DO it. The best way to love our future, is to create it for ourselves. And the best way to create the future, is with friends. Look around the circle, follow me as I walk around, notice who's here, old friends and new… everyone passionate about the future of Nepal…"

I do little bits like this and Buddhi translates. This gives me time to think and lets me be more clear and careful in my emphasis. And we get to say everything 3 or 4 times. Sometimes I say a few lines and Buddhi goes on much longer. I make out only bits of what he says, but have full faith and confidence in what he's doing. From the beginning, we have an easy and comfortable rhythm -- and still, every few lines, I have to let go!

We have one bulletin board for the one afternoon Discovery session and four bulletin boards for four Dream sessions on Day Two. Tape is expensive, so we use pushpins. The boards fill with topics, and soon the first sessions underway: Communication, Indigenous Knowledge, Health, Nationalism, Cooperation, Gender, Cooperative Development, Power Sharing, and Appreciative Inquiry with Different Caste, Religions and Cultures. All but one are posted in English. The notes are taken in Nepali and English, sometimes on the same page. Computers are not available, so these will be typed later. A quick evening news session brings the first day to an official close, though an informal AI training conversation is convened after dinner.

Inviting Dreams in Marketplace

Day Two opens with morning news, and a review of some parts of OST. In two languages, we explain that Open Space begins with an invitation, an open, voluntary, opportunity to work together on some issue that really matters. We notice the Circle, also open, everyone equal, everyone included, with equal access to everyone else in the circle -- and Bulletin Board, where everyone has equal access to posting information and reading information. We notice that the topics posted are themselves invitations to working sessions, and that the notes taken are invitations to follow-up action.

Drawing on something that everyone here understands, we also notice that Open Space is just like Durbar Square, a huge open marketplace. We notice that the breakout groups spread around the floor of the room on Day One look a lot like the vendors who spread their offerings out on blankets on the ground. Normally, we wouldn't try to do this learning about Open Space while we're in the middle of doing it, but anything that is separated out here seems to get lost. Better to keep it all in the flow, and easier to take the translated learning in little bits over four days.

Then we come back to Dreaming, our theme for today. We invite new offerings in the marketplace, more topics related to their Dreams for Nepal -- for all of Nepal and for their own local and personal experience of Nepal. A flurry of topics, the usual rearranging of the wall, and then a full day in Open Space, four hour-and-a-half sessions, in and around the training hall. Toward the end of the second morning session, two skinny cows charge up the narrow brick road that runs through the compound, a small man just ahead of them, smacking the lead cow on the head with a stick, apparently seeking some sort of control.

At lunch, I hear that the media people who were here for the formal opening have written us up favorably in the national newspaper. Later it turns out that we've been reported on the national TV news as well. I hear they will be back on the last day to receive our results and report again to the nation. After lunch I discover two soldiers at the entrance to our compound, armed with 4-foot (semi-automatic?) rifles and I wonder if they are a result of this news coverage. Inside the training hall, however, it's just another Open Space. Markers and chairs and flipchart paper everywhere, and people talking about real issues:

Youth Development, Key Sectors Mapping of Resources, Health and Envirnoment, Tourism Development, HR Development, Health and Nutrtition, Cooperation in Every Sector, Natural Resource Management, Communication, Organization Development, Human Rights, Agricultural Transformation, Imagine Nepal, Technology and Development, Education, Creative Society, Good Governance, Village Tourism, Rural Urban Linkages, Children's Rights, New Democratic Party, Democratic Reform, Community Development, Women's Empowerment.

Shortly after lunch the whole process grinds to a halt. Confusion takes over. It seems that in our hurry to get started yesterday, in our efforts to present in two languages, and in our assuming that everyone had some familiarity with Appreciative Inquiry, we have not defined the four Ds clearly enough. Now they are a bit lost somewhere, between Discover and Dream, afraid they might be Designing or Delivering too soon. At first there is much discussion in Nepali, then they invite me to address the situation. We go back to me speaking and Buddhi translating. In the end, we add a Fifth Principle and slightly enhance the One Law.

The first four principles say: Whoever comes is the right people, whenever it starts is the right time, whatever happens is the only thing that could have and when it's over, it's over. In general, these add up to a generous acknowledgement of the uncertainty and chaos that we live with all of the time. They remind us to look out for spirit and surprise, and to welcome them to show up on their own terms. To these four we added: Whatever D you are doing is the right D.

Then, the Law of Two Feet, which gives participants both the right and the responsibility to learn and contribute as much as they can, was extended: The Law of Two Feet and Four Ds. It invites and reminds everyone to make sure that they do all four Ds in the course of our four days -- to make sure they look for the good, think big beyond current limits and customary time frames, get practical about plans and designs, and make sure they leave here with individual actions (no matter how small), immediate next steps, that they can do and deliver on.

These two adjustments do much to cut through the confusion. And soon everything is buzzing again, perhaps even buzzing more. Evening news starts half an hour late as the working sessions refuse to conclude and dissolve. When it finally happens, fun shows up -- the telltale sign that Open Space is really working. Someone starts to play my tingsha bells like tiny cymbals, another guy gets up and dances. Singing, smiling and laughing breaks out, and a rhythm of clapping. Then extra evening sessions are announced, some work, some play. It feels like a whole new level and we are running out of wall space.

For me, today's moment of confusion does much to illustrate both the power and futility of so much of organization development. Whole forests have died in service of methods like Appreciative Inquiry and Open Space. And yet, when they really take hold in a nation, with the people, on the ground, in common practice, they are quickly reduced to just a few bullet points. Appreciative Inquiry becomes the four Ds. Period. And Open Space becomes some mix of Invitation, Circle, Bulletin Board, Marketplace, Breathing, News (which is nothing more than another Invitation) -- and fun. Good news for the people, bad news for the prophets of process!

Again, we finish the day with a short evening news session. We're running out of wall space. And it turns out the soldiers were there to guard the meeting in the other training hall.

Inviting Order and Real Life

On Day Three, we take a moment to introduce three more characteristics of Open Space. Confusion is acknowledged and welcomed as normal. It lets us know that we are doing our best work, right at the edge of knowing. We notice that the Confusion comes from the environment, not the process, but that the process gives us the opportunity to invite order. We notice, too, that Fun is a normal part of Open Space, a sure sign that it's working. We explain the importance of the News, already posted all around the room. The News from Discovery and Dream conversations are an essential part of the invitation to Design. The cycle and practice of invitation are complete, self-sustaining, like the rest of "real life." We live in Open Space.

We invite them to begin to make order, to begin converging into Designs what they have been expanding in Discovery and Dreams. And then, we pay the price for scuttling Morning News. The first person out of his seat, it turns out, is not up to posting a topic, but wants us to do some singing and dancing before we go to work. Obviously unstoppable, I try instead for delay, suggesting we celebrate the completion of the agenda. Others already hold markers poised above paper, ready to scribble their topics. No matter, we launch into song, laughter and some other things I can't translate. When it's over, the whole group falls into the center of the circle and the bulletin boards fill up with topics. They take the space away from me like so much slack in a rope. Just as it should be.

Not every Dream is (or need be) Designed. Instead, a natural sifting, sorting, swirling process is allowed and the invitation is to Design what is most important to you now. Converging and prioritization take place in the hearts, minds and bodies of the participants. Many of the topics are repeats, as the groups work their through the Appreciative Inquiry stages. Some do fall by the wayside and a few new ones pop up: Gender, Patriotism, Cooperation, Natural Resources, Human Rights, Health, Village Tourism, Community Development, Democratic Reformation, Child Rights, Education, Sports, Governance, Music, Economic Development in Agriculture, Organization Development, Power Sharing.

Just before lunch, an important person arrives. Chandi Prasad Chapagain is just back from the AI Conference in Florida, and also from successfully defending his PhD? dissertation. He is Nepal's first PhD? in Appreciative Inquiry-based Development. A group of leaders is gathered and he presents his paper to them, a flurry of short speeches, all videotaped for the record. They ask me to speak as well. I congratulate him and thank him, as his work is a benefit to people everywhere, not just Nepal. He opens his 2-inch thick paper to show me where he's included Open Space and his learning from our workshop last year. He thanks me for the simplicity, clarity and power of my experiential teaching style. After lunch, a space is opened for him to give a short report to the whole group and take questions.

This third day is our last full day of Open Space, another four hour-and-a-half sessions, the impromptu PhD? presentation, and some more evening sessions. Tomorrow will be taken up with a bit of Open Space training in the morning and two short sessions for considering specific ways and places where OST and AI can be most helpful in Delivering results, before the media people and other officials return in the afternoon to get a final report. In the training hall, we are literally swimming in flipchart paper. In our last opening, tomorrow, we will demonstrate the process for Opening with non-readers and non-writers, in part because there is interest in this, and also because all of the walls are completely filled up now. For now, they are still scribbling notes and recording interviews with participants, for broadcast tomorrow on "FM radio."

Just before evening news, a nagging question comes clear for me. I think this thing may be nagging others, too. The issue is that the energy and engagement, the spirit, of this whole Summit has been fantastic. Learning, connections, new ideas, it's all working perfectly, and yet there is this question about whether or not we are really getting anything done. Something about this Open Space is different... and it's not just that I can't read the proceedings. For all of the buzz and even the FUN, for all of the passion and responsibility, that there really is nothing getting done -- or so it appears because ALL of the issues are being worked in lockstep, one D at a time.

Usually, issues come and go in Open Space in their own time and some things are Delivered in every session. Here, the imposition of the four Ds is preventing anything from getting Done or Delivered before its time. I'm relieved to figure this out, bothered to see it so late, and still sure it's the best we could do -- even as I'm not quite sure how to recover. If I had it to do over again, and still had to incorporate the two methods, I'd impose the AI form on each separate breakout session, work it quietly into the briefing and the notes template, rather than impose it on the larger schedule. And still, I see nothing but good coming out of the whole process, slightly twisted as it is. This makes it hard to know what to do about it.

Participants have been asking questions about both methods. They want to be sure they are doing AI "right" -- and want to know if they can use OST for this, that or the other thing. For me, the experience sets me to thinking about the differences between AI and Open Space. My own bias is for action, and I don't always care to wait until the right time to Do things. When one participant asks me which is the right D to begin with, I give my standard Open Space response: What do you really want to do? Which one do you want to start with? I know there is an academic right answer, but I'm more interested in personal passion and responsibility. When he looks puzzled, I offer that it's my guess that one of these Ds comes more easily for him than the others. I volunteer a certain inclination to think big, to Dream. I suggest that he start with that one that he likes best. After all, if it's a cycle, it ought to be possible to start anywhere we like, and work our way around to the others. It seems more important to cycle than to complete. I'm not sure if the relief of this new freedom was enough to outweigh its potential implications.

After Evening News, the questions come up again. A small group of participants want to know: "What does Discovery really mean? ...What are the necessary elements of a Design? ...I know how to plan, but what is Design? ...And so what *is* Open Space? Do you have any materials we can study? You haven't said what it really IS..." To this I offer a quick review of what I've been saying from the beginning... Open Space is invitation, circle, bulletin board, marketplace... passion bounded by responsibility... what do you want and what are you willing to do about it? It's an issue that matters and people gathering to deal with it. It's more the experience that we are in, than a thing that we do. The dialogue is long and satisfying, eventually spilling into questions of politics, practice and peace. In the end, we are saved by the dinner bell.

Closing, Connecting and Opening

Day Four opens with an old women, wrapped in in the field outside my window, working barefoot and by hand, planting seeds. In the training hall, we start with a short review of Open Space and how it fits together with Appreciative Inquiry. I present Open Space simply from one flipchart page of bullet points.

Next, we run through a quick comparison of Open Space and Appreciative Inquiry. I note that both are participatory, positive, transformative and effective. Then, I make a point of saying that what follows are my own limited views and experiences of AI, not definitive statements about that method.

I suggest to them that AI is more designed and planned, taking slower, measured steps to action, that the doing in AI is designed to come at the end of the process. It's more academic, supportive of understanding, formal, and structured, offering containers (4Ds), for bigger, longer term, plans for the future of institutions, cycling, guiding, and captured in research and documentation. Open Space, I say, tends to be faster into action, inviting doing to start as soon as possible. It's roots are practical, supporting movement (both personal and social), informal, flowing, offering center and focus (on the issues and bulletin board wall), for immediate next steps by individuals, expanding, inviting and sustained by contribution and storytelling.

The morning's summary finishes with a short walk through a diagram of several different ways to do OST and AI together. Here in this Summit we have opened four times, once for each stage of AI. Another alternative would be to Open once, for the Future of _____ (Nepal, project, organization, community, etc.), for Issues and Opportunities for _______ (creating, maximizing, growing, etc.), and invited conveners to use the 4Ds in each of their breakout sessions. The 4Ds might have been used as the notes-taking template. The Opening invitation could have been to Discover, Dream, Design and Deliver the Future of _______. Finally, I explain the common 2.5-day version of Open Space, likening the first two days of diverging to AI's Discovery and Dream and its last day of converging to Design and Delivery - acknowledging, of course that all of this is happening all the time, already, in Open Space.

Then we Open for the last time, this time without writing, demonstrating John Engle's Haitian version, since many of these participants are working in the villages where most are not reading and writing. We run two short, thirty minute sessions on a theme of Delivering Anything... Issues and Opportunities for Finishing Everything. This helps break us out of the 4D tracks, opening space for other topics and reinforcing the point that one can open space for anything, not just 4Ds. They seem to really "get it." Seven energetic conversations take place: Village Tourism, Dairy Industry, Power Sharing, Natural Resource Management, Using OST, Next Steps for the Network, and work on a formal declaration for the official closing of the Summit.

The closing circle is entirely in Nepali, but I hear my name go by in the thank you's. I hear their commitment and determination. I hear the tones of voice that I recognize as imploring friends and colleagues to go home and act, to do something, to keep it going and keep in touch. Toward the end of the circle two butterflies flutter in through the open windows, dance all around and are gone. The largest bumblebee I've ever seen buzzes around the florescent ceiling lights. Clearly, Open Space is taking hold around here!

In my own closing comments, I offer my contact information and many thank you's. I acknowledge the strong roots AI already has here and the strong beginning that's been made in the last two years with Open Space. Then I point out that there is no need to choose between AI and OST.

When we do Open Space, the opening is Discovery, where we notice our most important resources: passion and responsibility, real leadership. What goes up on the Bulletin Board wall is the Dream, what we hope to achieve now. When the Marketplace is opened and moving, that is Design, that is the structure, in constant motion, perfectly fitting and managed by everyone present. And when the News comes out, that is Delivery, in the conference report and in the follow-up actions. Then Breathing, keeping it going, is the same as what AI calls "cycle." Looking back in the other direction, Discovery and Dreaming are all about Passion, what we love and what we want. Design and Delivery are practical responsibility. Seen this way, it is impossible to practice one of these methods without also, simultaneously practicing the other one. Only the pacing and the packaging are different.

After the closing circle, a few people stay behind and explain that the people were saying they want to use Open Space in their research areas, for mass mobilization on various issues, for environmental work, planning and review processes, dialogue and creativity, and community development projects. All of this was spoken in Nepali, obviously not for my benefit. And not a single issue mentioned is familiar from my own conversations. When we come out of the training hall, the sky is quite dark and soon it is pouring down rain. Good for us. And good for that old woman's seeds.

After lunch we have a formal closing, for the national and local media. There are passionate speeches from Network leaders. There are waves of thank you's. I receive a beautiful gift and am asked to speak, too. The media rush to take my picture accepting the gift and making my remarks. I feel the fullness of gratitude, and respect. I do my best to express these. This moment and (incredibly) my photo make the front page of the local daily paper.

The formal declaration is read out and beautiful certificates are distributed, certifying everyone's participation in this Open Space and Appreciative Inquiry Training. In the declaration, participants committed to... (translated summary)

The day after the conference, Buddhi and I work to set up a number of linked weblogs, one for national network news, one for reports, and then a few for regional projects. These are the first websites for the group. This is where they will continue to report news and invitations, to discover, dream, design and deliver. The suite of these sites makes up the first Network Node of the Small Change News Network, my own personal project. We make many links between their blogs and mine. When I check my email, a message from Cleveland reminds me that we want to do an AI-OST training there, too, with the bloggers we know there.

I can't help but think that these Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space, blogging, Nepali and American stories will be hard to separate now.


Later on, Peggy Holman, an advanced practitioner and author of materials about both AI and OST, reminded me that "...AI is NOT the 4-D cycle. Treating it that way is like pre-choosing topics and letting people self-select which session to attend and calling it Open Space. The essence of AI is storytelling, generally launched through an appreciative interview. The 4-D's is an overlay that I believe describes a path we typically follow, just as you described how the 4-D's show up in the natural course of an OS. When it becomes rigid and mechanical, as you discovered, it ceases to serve. Just as OS is about an inviation to take responsiblity for what you love, AI is an invitation to follow the life-affirming stories that exist in all of us."

This of course is absolutely true about AI, and OST. And, as I've reported, I found the first focus of many participants, including experienced AI facilitators, to be the 4-Ds. In some cases, the life-affirming, story-telling, interviewing dimensions may be assumed, understood and go without saying. Other times they may have been missed or forgotten altogether. As my Nepali colleagues have much more AI experience than I do, I didn't presume to teach AI -- especially what about AI would work for them there. I sought, instead, to mix the understanding and practice of AI that I found there with my own understanding and practice of OST. On this sharing and blending of who we are and what we do, I think we had some good success.


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