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This was the big, risky, first-time I ever put together and led an Open Space event. This story says a lot more about what happened before the event with me and the planners, than it does about what happened during the event, with the participants. That's because the real action and hard work for those leading and/or sponsoring an Open Space meeting happens in the planning conversations and invitation process. The leaders and planners sow the seeds for a successful event...and future organization successes.

This story was written shortly after the event, and editted a bit later. I had a lot of fun living it -- and writing it! Hope it gives you some sense of the challenge and thrill of this way of working. --MichaelHerman?

Organization and Event Background

Old St. Patrick's Church is the oldest public building in the city of Chicago. It survived the great fire, but was all but wiped out by economic and social change on the near west side of the city. Ten years ago there were four registered parishioners. Today, 1500 registered, 15,000 on the mailing list. It's a dynamic, fast-growing, "community" (rather than "parish"), drawing from many parts of the city and suburbs, focused on the adult and city experiences of church -- yet still with all the challenges of being part of a 2000-year-old bureaucracy. Last year St. Pat's hosted something like 1200 meetings and gatherings, not counting masses and other religious services. For example, last night we filled the church and hall with 1500 guests to hear Chicago Bulls' head coach Phil Jackson speak as part of a series called "Spirituality Outside of the Churches."

For the last seven or eight years, Old St. Patrick's Church has hosted a half-day conference in February titled "Transitions: A Day to Explore Movements in Your Worklife." The stated purpose of the day is for "young adults" to have a chance to come together and talk with each other. In the past, some experts on career topics (resumes, networking, assessment, etc.) have also been available. The format has been mostly, but not entirely, traditional. A keynoter starts off, usually an executive search or related sort of professional to talk about career chaos and choices. This has been followed by two rounds of "dialogues" in small groups on topics named by the organizers and pre-selected by participants. The day ends with a large group question and answer with a priest and church staff member responding. Over the years, attendance had been as high as 200, but had recently fallen off to about half of that, as unemployment and downsizings began to decline.

Enter Open Space...

As an active member of the St. Pat's community, I was asked to lead the planning for this year's "Transitions" day, and maybe redesign it and spruce it up a bit. I immediately thought open space and wanted to lead it myself, even though I'd never led an OST event or been to an OST training. I saw the old design for the day as half-way open space and thought it would be easy to go the final steps to really open things up. I also saw a great opportunity for me to both learn and contribute. At the same time, I'd never seen a full-blown open space work, even as a participant. So as I was asking for a lot of trust from the staff and putting a lot of trust in Harrison Owen and his Open Space Technology Users' Guide.

Well, it wasn't exactly an easy sell. The staff felt real responsibility to 'plan' the agenda, line up speakers and worried about their catholic participants' abilities to do something so seemingly unstructured. After I'd done all the explaining and assuring I could do, I had won the right to try OST as the design, but had not yet generated real enthusiasm and support among the staff. They'd reached the point of saying, "Okay, now we get it, but we're not sure that Catholics can really do this. Catholics like structure..." (Since then I've found this a common first step, where a group of representatives or planners come to understand the power and potential of working in open space, but immediately bump into fears that they won't be able to justify to or convince their colleagues.)

Having turned that first corner, good things started happening to support me. Harrison Owen's OST website helped me locate two trained practitioners in the Chicago area...one of whom was a catholic nun who'd seen this work in her motherhouse in Iowa with a bunch of 68-year-old nuns -- and could testify to Catholics' abilities to work and learn in Open Space. Her stories and assurances at one of our planning meetings, (and her offer to help lead it if necessary) helped win the true support of the staff for the Open Space design. Even so, I was still a little freaked out myself, wondering if this would really work and if I could really lead it. As a self-employed person, Old St. Pat's has been my most important local community, next to my family, so this was to win or lose something very close to home!

I proposed a theme of "More Beyond: A Day to Explore the Uncharted Potential in Our Work, Workplaces and World." My intention was to shift the focus from "me and my job transition" to "we're all together now and everything is moving." The invitation told a little story about the map makers of long ago, who filled in the blank spaces of unexplored regions,the scholarly wrote "terra incognita" and those with a fanciful mind "there be dragons" -- but the truly hopeful among them used the words "more beyond."

The planning group did the editing, production and distribution of the invitation, which ended up fitting easily on one page. As preparations continued, I found myself having to look out for participants' rights to make their own choices even before the event started. It surprised me to learn how many ways things could have been limited by some planning choices. The staff felt pretty weird (understandably) about not taking responsibility for content, like not choosing a keynote speaker. I think we ended up meeting some of their needs by making a number of specific decisions to NOT make choices or take actions that participants could handle for themselves during the normal course of the event.

Little stuff, like setting the schedule generated challenging dialogues and learnings as we moved from... "We need to set a time for a break so they can eat the snacks." Then, "Well, no we really don't need to schedule that time because..." And finally, "Oh, right, okay. Then they will get to eat, but we don't need to tell them when, hmm, okay."

Then a bunch of little fairies or angels must have gone to work for me. I met Sheila Isakson (an OST practitioner from Milwaukee) who invited me to an OST conference (in Philadelphia) where I could see OST in action, and as it turned out, meet and talk with Harrison Owen and other important mentors. The learning and support were tremendous. I went home jazzed and ready to lead this conference. I even managed to set up another, smaller, OST event just two weeks before this one for some practice.

I made all of the posters the day before the event to help me get focused on what I wanted to happen. Pre-registration was considerably lower than last year's event. I had to try very hard to keep reminding myself that the right people were going to show. In my quiet desperation, I decided to name the breakout spaces with the names of famous people who'd pushed limits for "more beyond." I made posters to hang in each area (corners of the big room) complete with inspirational quotes. I wrestled with how to talk about the theme and wished that it had been thought up by someone else. I liked it a lot, but worried that I had too much to say about it. Another factor, weighing on my mind was that the weather experts were calling for 20 below zero temps tomorrow morning. It was going to take a lot of passion for people to get there at all.

That night I went to a folk concert with friends, but couldn't get my mind off of the event. Then it hit me...I'd done way too much. All those quotes and clever name choices were going to be way too much of my energy in the room. The people who did show weren't going to need any of that and, for some, it might be an unhelpful distraction. So I spent the whole concert backpedalling in my mind, pulling MYSELF out of the event. I made notes in the dark, then went home and trashed most of the posters I'd made to help explain and define the theme and made a few new ones. Meeting places were renamed as A, B, C, D and so on. Simple, clear, and not about my interpretation of the theme or expectations for the day. I replaced all my quotes and props with one page that said, simply enough, "More Beyond." I went to bed restless and late, still not sure what I would say about the theme the next morning. I also had nagging concerns about the closing. I thought a simple talking stick ceremony would be best, but I hadn't found an interesting talking stick, yet.

The Big Day...

That morning was the coldest morning in a long long time in Chicago, maybe 25 below, even before the windchill. I guessed we'd have about six people, but I wasn't worried about numbers anymore. Whoever came would be right. Realistically, I prepared myself for about thirty. I did my usual stretching routine and still a bit unsettled went to sit in one of my favorite places, on the floor in front of the dresser I've used my whole life. It was there that I realized that this cold, cold day was all about heat, warmth, passion, fire. Officially the theme was about work, workplace and world, but the design was about passion, community, and growth...all of which had some connection to heat and warmth. I grabbed a fuel bottle from my trail gear, for use as my talking stick. At the end I put it in the middle of the circle and asked people to talk about what kind of fuel they got from the day. It went great.

The day of the event we had 65 people show up. By the time they arrived, I set the circle and hung posters on every wall, just a handful of the most basic Open Space posters, with the four principles, one law, and other simple process reminders. I did my opening welcome and briefing and then the group put up 24 topics for breakout discussions. The whole openining was finished in about 30 minutes.

We named 8 spaces to work in, with 7 of them being somewhere in the large room. They worked through 3 one-hour sessions and we closed with an informal talking stick ceremony that took about 30 minutes. While the group self-managed their way through the day, I picked up empty coffee cups, dropped in on some of the topic discussions, and tried to stay loose but ready. (Fact is, I probably worked harder than I had to, trying to stay 'ready!'). Toward the end I asked if anyone wanted to help plan another open space gathering and 25 people waited in line to write down their names and phone numbers.

The Payoff...

In the end, their energy and joy -- and mine -- was really overwhelming; it caught me totally by surprise. So many people thanked me for "doing this," which was downright confusing for me, because I knew that they were the ones who really made the whole thing work. My own feelings of joy and satisfaction were on a par with how I felt when I finished my best marathon race and maybe even on my wedding day. It wasn't so much that I felt good, though I did. The real common thread was the awesome realization that so many choices I'd been making in my professional life and all the decisions we'd made together in the planning of this event, had somehow led to this unexpected and previously unimaginable richness, joy and satisfaction -- for everyone present.

Afterward, one of the sponsoring directors, who had clearly been enjoying himself the day of the event, summed up the staff perspective on the day, describing it as "going far beyond expectations...delighted to see the level of engagement on the part of the participants as well as the energy in the room (all) day...a valuable day for connecting...and fun as well."

this in from marty giannini, who comes from chicago, and did the open space training workshop with us here. he recently found himself opening space for the first time a long way from here, for a social service program in IRELAND! he sent this along afterward, about the day itself, but leaves out some of the good prep-work he did to get to this day....


[February 1st] is considered the first of spring, although we in New England are well fooled by the great covering of snow and the cold weather. In Ireland the first stirrings of spring are said to be witnessed by the first lambing of the ewes (some believe that "Imbolc" is derived from "ewe's milk" but this is considered unlikely by many etymologists and I will leave such concerns to those who enjoy arguing such things).

The ground may be ready to plow for the first time soon after this day in parts of Ireland (but all we can hope for is a bit of a temporary thaw).

Fisher-men would begin preparing their gear to go out, farmers would make sure their plows and other tools were in good working order; warriors, likewise, their weapons. This was a time of prepara-tion for one's summer activities, what ever they may be. It was also a time to check one's food stores, to see if they would last the rest of the season for there was still little fresh food for some time.

So the day finally arrived and Space was Opened for the Rialto group on the Feast of Imbolc (im-molk) or St. Brigid's Day.

Born the daughter of an Irish Chieftan circa 453AD Saint Brigid became a nun whose desire was to relieve the misery and hardship of the poor. Her feast day, the date of her death, is February 1st.

My first thought after the opening and creation of the day's agenda? Open Space Always Works!!

Tony (a "priest who's married" and the director of Rialto's Drug Task Force) gave a nice intro explaining briefly how the group got to the events of Friday.... REAL need to bring a very diverse group, from many entities and networks together.... to maximize work, efforts and coordination. He joked that, now 'acclimated' abit to Irish culture, "Marty now wants to be known as Martin."

I walked into (THE FIRE!!!) the center of a circle of 70 people (not the expected 20 or 30!!!) who'd responded to our invite ("The Rialto Story -- Our Work: Past, present & future). Like Harrison, I invited everyone to circle the room with their eyes acknowledging everyone's presence. This got a lot of giggles to which I was sure that "we were havin' fun already!" (fun was already had that morning while we all enjoyed coffee and scones in the cafe... obviously this was not a planning group bent on the usual restraints of conferences).

My intro to Open Space went off well.

3 stood up after the "going once... " call. I caught one guy on the edge of his seat and INDEED!!! -- he had a topic in his back pocket!!

The only "tragedy" during the day was that the coffee/tea table was a huge mess early on. The pumps were missing in the coffee canisters. People had been pouring coffee nonetheless. So during the first session i spent some time cleaning that up and enjoying my primary role of "picking up coffee cups" and such.

One of the first sessions ("Recording the Stories of Rialto") got way too big for the cafe (which was a loud and smoky place at the time) and moved back into the main room.

Another learning.... "organization just happens." Really... everytime I almost jumped in to try to control a situation (but didn't), it was shown that my intervention would have been unnecessary (and perhaps harmful). That was a thrilling realization!!!

Be Open... Be Space. Walking around and reading the many signs about Father Titus up in the space (a community center connected to a Carmelite Priory and Church and cafes, etc.), I had much time to contemplate these words. Few noticed my presence as I butterfly'd about to the different groups. I was not needed. They were doing best work. (Father Titus was a Carmelite from Holland, involved in this parish in the 30s, who was arrested by the Gestapo and died in Drachau because he urged Catholics and the Catholic press not to conspire with the National Socialists.

A final lesson... was that the details of Open Space are just so darn helpful in making things smooth. The tiniest detail is described by Harrison in the user Guide and it is no wonder!!... because the tiniest detail missed is noticed by the facilitator!

well.. those are my first thoughts. thanks for your support through my journey. I hope that this event will lead to more Open Spaces in Ireland. i'm ready to jump into the fire again! in any event, a new project now consumes my time, accompanying Caroline Moreau, a french woman who sings marvelously! we hope to be heard in venues and music festivals throughout Ireland beginning in April...

see more in the attachment about: "Crime Passionel... a journey through the delirious, decadent emotional landscape of the French psyche."...

Love, Martin (now pronounced "Marhhg-tan")

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Last edited January 25, 2017 8:35 am CentralTimeUSA by MichaelHerman
© 1998-2020 Michael Herman and www.michaelherman.com, unless signed by another author or organization. Please do not reprint or distribute for commercial purposes without permission and full attribution, including web address and this copyright notice. Permission has always been granted gladly to those who contact me and say something about themselves, their work, and their use of these materials. Thank you and good luck! - Michael