Commonly though, there is a call, when working with organizations and communities, when leaders will feel more comfortable defaulting to the non-Open Space practices. Living in Open Space is a new and unfamiliar mode of practice in organizations and communities and there is some comfort to be taken in the retreat to a more comfortable level. In Open Space events, we have found that this often results in the full transformative power of the event being lost on the leadership team (even as some participants fully grasp it). If this articulation of the Open Space practices can be immediately useful, it may be in supporting leadership teams in moving forward in a way that is aligned to the experience people have had in a good Open Space event. The transition from a powerful Open Space back to business as usual can be accompanied by no small amount of grief, encountered when people return to how things were, with a new set of eyes tuned to seeing the power of the Open Space practices at work. In the past, Open Space Technology practitioners have used a kind of action planning process called “convergence” to ease the result of the even back into the life of the organization.
Covergence, as articulated in Harrison Owen's User's Guide proceeds this way. At the conclusion of the one or two day gathering, the proceedings have been typed up and a book is produced overnight. When participants arrive for the last half day, the proceedings are available for review and the invitation is made for people to read what is written and to decide which of the topics spark their passion. Participants are given a number of sticky dots or use an electronic system for voting and people choose where they would invest their passion. The results of the tally are arranged in order of priority and the top echelon form the basis from which action will unfold. This echelon is typically 10-20% of the posted topics, and so in order to incorporate topics which received fewer votes, participants are invited to converge topics together. Then an action champion is elicited for each group and action planning conversations get underway.
In 2003, Michael and I had a conversation about why this process seemed so out of step with Open Space itself. We settled on the fact that “convergence” seemed to be a way to ease the transition from Open Space back to business as usual. As I reflect on this conversation in the light of the practices and the non-practices we have discovered, this makes even more sense. Convergence is based first on an act of analysis, whereby participant personally gauge what seems most important to work on. Secondly, the action planning groups are “facilitated” in that an action champion comes forward who may or may not feel strongly about the topic. Certainly that person is not asked to take responsibility for what they love but rather works with the topic and any of the sub topics that are gathered around it. This is a different kind of conversation than the ones held in Open Space. In fact the conversation tend to take on a “problem solving” mindset as people try to figure out how action will proceed, especially as a number of diverse and possibly competing topics come under consideration. Finally what is ultimately made is not action per se but a good case for action, and although there have been champions identified to lead the conversation, there is no guarantee that these people will be involved in implementation. In short, a half day in convergence seemed like a cross between Open Space and business as usual, but with a tend towards practices old ways of doing things rather than building on the new practices that emerged in Open Space.
Michael and I proposed an alternative to this process of moving to action, which came to be erroneously known as “non-convergence.” I say erroneously, because in fact there is much convergence that does happen in our process, and it leads to grounded action with invested responsibility.
Our process proceeds from the assumption that people are capable of a finer grain of discernment than is required for simply grouping topic together. We provide the book of proceedings on the last day and invite people to read through them with an eye to identifying the patterns that want to come alive, the projects that are suggested, the initiatives that seems to need a small push to get going. We cast the reading in an appreciative frame, as people review the work they have done with an eye to growing more of the best. After a period of reading, we Open Space again, inviting participants to come forward to physically plant their stake in the outcome of the gathering by proposing a topic for moving forward. This topic might be an explicit restatement of a previous conversation or it may represent the surfacing of a pattern that has run through a number of conversations. Regardless, the convener hosts a conversation in Open Space, using the marketplace and community to attract mates and helpers and the result is one good piece of action, usually a time and place for another meeting date with a list of others who need to be involved.
This form of action planning has two major advantages over Convergence. First, it invites convergence within the individual using the brain and heart of committed participants to activate leadership on a subtle and completely possible level. Second, it ensures that any work that is proposed actually gets done, because it deepens personal and collective commitment to make good on the promise of the conversation. There is no externalizing of passion (with the attendant externalizing of responsibility) into a vote. It dispenses with the “popularity contest” feel of voting which leaves some people hurt if their topics fail to make the upper echelon, thereby wasting a valuable leadership resource. Most importantly perhaps, this process builds on the practices of Open Space, experienced in the event itself, to make change happen. It introduces appreciation, invitation, support and connection and making good to hard action planning decisions.
Since 2003 we have used this process in many different settings and although it seems as first blush an unusual way to decide on action, participants have always been up for the challenge. The most striking example I can remember happened in Prince George, British Columbia in 2005.
Prince George is a city of around 80,000 people and is the service and commercial hub of northern British Columbia. A substantial percentage of the population is Aboriginal, and increasingly “big city” inner city issues are rampant in that community, including high levels of unemployment, addiction, poor health and homelessness. At the behest of the federal government and a number of urban Aboriginal agencies involved in employment, business development and other community services, an urban Aboriginal strategy was proposed for Prince George. Building on the success of designing these kinds of strategies from the ground up, we began with an Open Space event in January of 2005.
Three hundred people came to that even and over the course of a full day produced a 63 page book of proceedings from 55 discussion groups. The next day, seeking to get to action, 100 people returned to work on “getting the conversation out of the room.” As they read through the proceedings, I asked for passion to be tightly bound to responsibility and invited people to be specific about their project plans. All the conveners knew that there was a meeting scheduled on February 15 for follow up to which they would be invited, and that if they got their proposals together by April 1st, a modest amount of federal government money was there to support their initiatives and help them get off the ground.
Twenty-four project postings were made and these convened into 19 groups. The work of these groups ranged from using a mobile library bus to encourage inner city literacy to setting up a holistic healing centre for families, to creating a homelessness committee to starting a forum for agencies to work together in conversation with one another to continue to talk about ways to meet the emerging needs. Several project champions have no organizational affiliation, being stay at home mothers, or teachers in an early childhood development program, or budding writers who are trying to break into mainstream media. All of them found initial support from existing organizations, funders or government agencies and in just one and a half hours, partnerships were made, action plans drafted and in some cases, goals, objectives and visions were written. One group became so close that when they were finished, they stood in a circle for a minute tightly holding hands and prayed together.
Within three weeks, the action champions had met again to iron out how the projects might proceed and how the strategy itself should be governed. There were calls for the community to remember the way it worked in Open Space so that the projects that got started would reflect the will and work of the community itself. There was tremendous personal investment in the process.
I attribute this strength of purpose and dedication to action to the application of the Open Space practices through the action planning process. Instead of ending up with a number of recommendations for someone else to do (or problems for others to fix) government and the community were able to work in partnership to support the work for which community members themselves were willing to take responsibility. As this group moves forward, they have at hand the ability to call for process that proceeds from the Open Space worldview to support the strategic work of aligning resources, making decisions and undertaking action. Accountability is vested in the relationships that support the process and the projects find life from attracting others into the field of play.
Experiencing the Open Space worldview for the first time through practices offers a tremendously powerful way forward that invites us to evolve from the “business as usual” mindset.