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Stories of Strategic Planning and Annual Meetings in Open Space

from peggy holman http://www.opencirclecompany.com, seattle, responded to brendan mckeague query on OpenSpaceTechnology/OSLIST

...a state-wide strategic planning process with the Washington State Arts Commission. There's a description of it on my web site: http://www.opencirclecompany.com/OSWSACStory.htm

The short hand was that we did a state-wide OS followed by 20 OS's in communities large and small all over the state. We then did another statewide gathering using OS for convergence, starting with time to review the proceedings from all of the OS gatherings. The staff and the commission then created a plan for WSAC informed by the people they served. The process enabled many connections among participants to pursue as they wished.

hints about how to sell the idea (of doing strategic planning in open space) to them (the clients)?

Compare the outcomes they say they want to the likely outcomes from an open space event of the appropriate duration. If there's a match, explain the process, but "sell" the outcomes. --ralph copleman

International Agricultural Trade Council - Strategic Planning in Semi-Annual Summit Meetings

This group's work in Open Space came about after a string of increasingly tense, increasingly unsatisfying semi-annual meetings. Leadership was committed to getting out of the way (of the slings and arrows) and challenging other stakeholders to take up their fair share of responsibility for the continued success of the organization.

In their first strategic planning session in Open Space, 35 people from twelve midwestern states worked together on plans for sharing a million-dollar federal grant. They identified and discussed their sixteen most important issues, clustered them into four main work areas, and wrote action plans for each area -- all in about five hours.

In a conversation with colleagues, one participant later described it as "...Excellent! I think we changed the direction of the whole organization..." Another participant found the format so easy to implement that she used her own version of it just one week later, at her own 40-person annual staff meeting and retreat.

In some ways, the first meeting had gone so well that people didn't quite believe that it really happened. And so, six months later, the next meeting was planned with a combination of hopeful anticipation and cautious skepticism. They also wrestled with the expected consequences of getting the whole organization moving in new directions, moving quickly, and moving together. It was a case of "...it'll never happen...but what will we do if it does?"

Even so, they committed to keep exploring. They started planning the second meeting in a mini-Open Space meeting, working hard to clarify their most important issues and intentions. After considering what they needed to achieve, they again chose to use Open Space for strategic planning. This time, however, they doubled the length of their session to a full day and chose a more pointed, provocative and action-oriented question to work on.

The juicier theme raised a number of previously undiscussable issues that had been lurking in the background and sapping organizational energy for a long time. The group raised a total of eighteen major issues, generated 20 pages of conclusions and items for immediate action, and came away with a level of strategic clarity and cooperation they'd been seeking for a number of years.

After this second meeting, one of the more vocal skeptics in the group confided that he was "really starting to see why (I) like Open Space so much."

In the most recent semi-annual meeting, the association staff led their own version of Open Space to extend the work of their first two sessions.


Executive Board Retreat and Annual Strategy Work

Conducted a one-day annual planning retreat for the 14-member board of a local chapter of Habitat for Humanity, an international organization working to eliminate sub-standard housing on the planet. Participants created their own 30-item agenda, self-organized into smaller workgroups to address all of the issues raised, and produced a 20-page implementation document that was available for everyone at the end of their day.

The only regret? Most people found the process so productive and high-spirited that they wished they had invited more people, i.e. committee chairs and other active volunteers. The upside is that their report made it easy to retell the story.


More on Strategic Planning in Open Space... from the OSLIST, the worldwide email listserve for open space practitioners worldwide

 Subject:   [OSLIST] OS and strategic planning 
 Date: Tue, 8 Apr 2003 16:46:13 -0500 
 From: Jaime Pedreros Fitzgerald<jpedrerosf@yahoo.com>

Hello dear colleagues,

Most of the OS literature I have reviewed mention that OS is not useful (or would not work) in strategic planning gatherings. I would like to mention that my first experience (november 2000) with OS with an business education institution consisted of "ways to enrich our strategic planning approach". This was conducted in two different brief gatherings, the first one with staff (5 people, 3 hour) members and the second one with selected (11 people, 4 hour) instructors. Actually, the second workshop was a suggestion of the person in charge of correspondence delivery (a kind of post man).

Despite the manager's "eager to control everything" some useful perspectives were developed:

My doubts and needs of additional information arouse because the tax authority in Bolivia (to whom I have already submitted a proposal to complement new staff members' induction process by using a half-day conventional training and half-day OS meeting) asked me to elaborate a "consensus" for the strategic planning of the organization (by using alternative methodologies). Later on, I (in case the contract is awarded to me) will organize three workshop in the corresponding major cities. These workshop will serve to discuss the draft of the harmonized document as well as to select participants for a "main event" in which the final document would be elaborated.

MY questions are as follows:

To what extent can OS be used in this case Is there any former (and of course, successful) experience about OS and strategic planning

Your kind assistance is highly (and obligedly) appreciated.

Warm regards from La Paz


From: Peggy Holman <peggy@opencirclecompany.com>


I did a strategic planning process with the Washington State Arts Commission (WSAC) a few years back using 20 open space gatherings. The first and last were state-wide. The ones in the middle were held throughout the state, ranging from 5 to 75 people. In all, about 1,200 people participated.

The second state-wide meeting was essentially a convergence of the whole series of meetings. It began with passing out the proceedings of all the meetings, organized loosely by subject areas. The question was "what is essential for the arts in our state?" The sessions named there formed the key strategies of the plan.

What we found was that WSAC, as convening agent, provided the invitation for many arts organizations to talk together, often for the first time. They took from the meeting their own plans and ideas and a new appreciation for WSAC as a convening agent. WSAC took responsibility for creating a plan that married their expertise and mission with the needs that were expressed.

The story is at http://www.opencirclecompany.com/OSWSACStory.htm

Greetings from windy, sunny Seattle, Peggy

From: Anne Pattillo <pattillo@actrix.gen.nz>


OST not working in a strategic planning environment is not my experience. I've used it in large and small organizations with success.

The Mental Health Foundation in New Zealand, engaged all of there staff, board and a number of stakeholders in the beginning of the strategic planning process. It was an interactive way to complete and environmental scan, internal assessment and to set the key development areas for the Foundation.

Similarly the Housing Corporation of New Zealand invited all of the staff - they thought they would get fifty people they got 1/3 of the total staff number 200 to a open space event early in the strategic planning process. In this event I reopened the space for convergence to get people to work on the bits of the strategic plan that interested them - so we had a group on vision, another on culture, another group on the asset programme etc etc.

OST certainly gave the process a kick start!



From: Ralph Copleman <rcopleman@comcast.net>

Open Space does not work for strategic planning because almost nothing does. Strategic planning, in my long experience, rarely works.

But that's a whole other story.

What's important is that Open Space works GREAT if a system wants to engage in re-shaping its future or choosing a new one altogether.

What Peggy Holman's story about the Washington State (US) Arts Council says to me is that people came together all across the state in 20 meetings to choose how they wanted to be together around an important issue. They did not do a strategic plan.

What they did NOT specifically do was identify perceived threats and/or opportunities in the current landscape and REACT with tactics for the FUTURE with regard to what was going on in the PRESENT. The latter has never been, for me, an effective practice.

When my clients ask me to help with their strategic planning, I bite my tongue (most of the time) to keep from saying what they want to do is silly and wasteful, and then I ask them:

  1. Do you want an agenda everyone will agree to?
  2. Do you want action steps to help you move toward those agreements?
  3. Do you want everybody (who cares) going forward together in support of these two items?

When the answers are "yes" to all three, and they usually are, then we can open some space (for 2 - 2.5 days). Of course, if they want to call what they do a "strategic plan", that's up to them. I wouldn't object.

I keep my focus on outcomes.

Ralph Copleman

From: Joelle Lyons Everett <JLEShelton@aol.com>


Can I quote you on this? You've put my own observations in very succinct form.

We had fun on a project a few months ago with an opportunity to express some of our true thoughts and feelings about strategic planning.

We subsequently helped this organization hold an Open Space, and some changes proposed and needs identified that day are being worked on. Plus, people from all the widely scattered parts of the organization are now talking to each other, working together more than ever, and thinking bigger about the possibilities.


From: Birgitt Williams <birgitt@mindspring.com>

A man walks into a psychiatrist's office snapping his fingers. The doctor asks why he is doing this? "To keep the tigers away," responds the man. "But there are no tigers in New York City," says the doctor. Where upon the man replies, "Effective, isn't it!" Author unknown

It is difficult to convince managers that strategic planning as it has been done in recent years may not be necessary or even valuable. I have led numerous organizations through OST meetings for the purpose of creating a better future. I concur with Ralph that SWOT and other analysis of the present are about the present, and not about the future. When I do pre-work with the client in planning for an OST meeting that is about the future, I ask the planners for their concepts/definitions about what strategic planning is. I have found, over the years, that there is very little agreement in a room full of people about what a strategic plan is or how it will be used. And the statistics say that 90% of strategic planning is never implemented.

In my conversation with the planning group, I ask them if they would consider developing something that really is about a preferred future and we end up with a document called "Preferred Future for....". Within the document we have the key opportunities for action as well as the reports from the OST meeting. The reports themselves generally are insufficient for a preferred future document. More work needs to be done in an "action planning" time at the end of the OST meeting to create this. We introduce "new language/new concepts" to the sponsor and participants when we use "preferred future" instead of strategic plan and when we introduce the concept that the preferred future needs to be flexible to take advantage of opportunities as they arise (this gets the organization away from fixed concepts such as ---"we can't do that because it is not in the strategic plan").

Jaime, I encourage you to put in your proposal to use OST--there is no better way to develop a living document of preferred future. I encourage you to put in for some extra time to assist the organization in actually pulling the report into a usable clear focused document. And one other consideration for you is based on your understanding of OST. I always encourage my clients to understand that in an OST meeting, passion is stirred and do they really want activities that are recommended to have to wait until after the plan is approved. In the case of cities, this could take many months and the passion for moving things forward subsides.

Blessings, Birgitt

From: Pattillo <pattillo@actrix.gen.nz>

10% implementation

It seems to me that at the heart of strategic planning is that great quote – "chance favours the prepared mind". While I accept that the physical documentation of a plan is for some the most important thing, and getting the strategic plan onto one page is important to others for me it is the least important of matters. Perhaps it’s my lack of completer/finisher – who would now.

Strategic planning is I think that rare opportunity for reflection and creation of our thoughts (plans) about how we would like to engage with our future and with one another and the things we do. Anyone who approaches strategic planning as a control of the unknown is I think a little mad. It is in this light that I think open space gives life to the heart of strategic planning. It gives anyone who cares in the future of an entity a chance to reflect and create the sense of how they would like to move forward. Implementation is not it seems to me an appropriate measure of strategic planning or open space – awareness, readiness, agility, connectedness, sustainability are, I think, better yardsticks.

In traditional strategic planning only a few people get to develop this awareness, using open spce in strategic planning means that any one who care enough has a prepared mind for chance and the future.

Anne Pattillo, Anne Pattillo Consulting

From: kerry napuk <k@napuk.demon.co.uk>

Of course, Open Space can be used in strategic planning. Ignore those negative comments about the planning process, it just reflects individual experiences probably with a poor planning model.

If people want to look at the future and call it strategic or corporate planning, that's their business. What matters is that they are willing to look at future issues and actions, the heart of Open Space. The really important issue is how many people will be involved in the process of agreeing THEIR organization's future? And, as we know, OST is a great process to involve lots of people from all parts of an organization (and outsiders too) on an equal basis.

Open Futures has used OST in two recent and successful strategic planning applications:

1. Scottish Further Education Funding Council, September 2002, with 45 principals or 98% of the total system in Scotland with Council members and staff. The theme was "what are the issues and actions for the Funding Council to consider in its 2003-06 corporate plan?" This was the first time that college principals participated in the planning process by raising their burning issues and proposed actions for consideration.

So, OST can be used effectively as a front end input on issues and actions to be considered by a smaller planning group. Conversely, another event can be used after a planning group establishes a planning framework, e.g. direction, objectives and goals, by asking participants to devise strategies and make detailed action plans for implementation. In this way, plans do not have to be cascaded through an organization, because they are agreed and owned during the OST event.

2. Scottish Arts Council, December 2002, with 31 senior managers to review key parts of the corporate plan in open space, revising the plan in accordance with the agreed outputs of all participants.

If you would like to review a tested and effective planning model, please see my book THE STRATEGY LED BUSINESS (McGraw?-Hill 1996, ISBN 0-07-709285-6 (amazon.com, search).) Although it was presented as a step-by-step process for small and medium sized businesses, it is a universal model for all sectors. I have used it in government and voluntary organizations. Our large group processes - Vision Search and Strategy Search - are based on this model, allowing the planning process for up to 120 people in teams of eight. For more information, please visit our website, www.openfutures.com.

Good luck on your project. You are doing ground breaking work! It can be done with the right design, using Open Space for front end inputs, back end detailed planning for implementation or review of specific parts of an existing plan.


Kerry Napuk Open Futures Ltd. Edinburgh, UK

From: Avner Haramati <avnerh@inter.net.il>

Hi Jaime

A strategic planning story from the southern part of the Holy Land; A regional council that governs on about 25 villages and Kibutzs decided to use OST to their strategic planning (as they called it) for the next 5 years.They chose OST because their idea was to have a participatory process with maximum inhabitants.

The preparations with the sponsor (the head of the council), the management of the region, the strategic planning team but especially with the steering commitee of the OS were long ( 3-4 months) and relatively complex. A lot of anxiety, trust building from all sides, and the enlisting of the population. We opened the space last November( I did it with Tova Averbuch) for 1 1/2 days on the issue of `What future are we going to build in xxxx for us and our childeren - issues and oportunities`. 8 `heavy` issues were chosen and 5 another less chosen that people wanted to take . It took 1-2 months to start roling and by now all the teams (but one `messy` issue that didn`t start) advance very well and it looks they are going to conclude towards June (the target date).

The comunity is informed on the website in real time about the meetings, proceedings, and there is an open invitation to whoever cares to join. At their request I accompany the new steering commitee (that was created after the OS) in their monthly meetings in order `to remind them to keep the tuneof the OS` It is heading by the sponsor and include the convenors of the teams, the strategic planning team and some people that care.

All the best

Avner Haramati Jerusalem

From: Larry Peterson <larry@spiritedorg.com>

I agree with Kerry on this one. I have opened space many times as part of "strategic planning" - getting clarity, passion and direction about intentionally moving forward. It is also a great way to practice "emergent" strategy. Developing the ability to respond when "chaos strikes". One client said that the three year plan took two years because in Open Space those implementing the "plan" produced it and started implementing it (and the relationships needed to carry it off) in the Open Space.

Larry Peterson, Associates in Transformation, Toronto, ON, Canada

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