Shared planets and open spaces

People & Planet have opted to use Open Space Technology for the second day of their flagship conference for student campaigners: Shared Planet. Rhizome is providing support in the form of a training for Open Space facilitators; mentoring for key staff over phone and email; and then being there on the day (November 7th) to support both the physical set up of the space and the facilitation of its opening.

Yesterday I was in Oxford delivering the training for Open Space facilitators for a small group of People & Planet’s staff. We started with a shared experience of Open Space which I facilitated for them. We debriefed – identifying the areas of Open Space that excited them; those that challenged them; and the issues or questions that arose for them in relation to applying Open Space to Shared Planet. From there we worked through a series of practice activities to help them build an understanding of the logistics behind Open Space and the confidence and skills to facilitate it.

The day raised several challenges about the use of Open Space:

P&P have put a lot of effort into facilitation training over the last decade. Training for their annual crop of graduate interns (much of which I’ve had the pleasure of delivering) and training for the student groups that make up their campaign network. At one stage I heard one participant wonder whether Open Space didn’t throw out the facilitation baby with the bath water. The concern? That the small group conversations that are integral to Open Space are unfacilitated and therefore open to domination and a lack of participation.

Of course Open Space has the law of two feet – namely that if you don’t want to stay in a session for whatever reason – poor dynamics included – you can get up and go. How well does that really work here in Britain? There’s a deeply ingrained sense of politeness about these things, combined with a common experience of sitting through long and tortuous meetings. Will people really get up and move? Yes, of course some will, but perhaps not all…

There was also the issue of control. I see this in many NGOs that work with grassroots networks. Fully letting go of the agenda on any level is tough. The NGOs have strategic directions, priority campaigns, and funding commitments. Individual staff have poured heart and soul into their area of work and developed specific skills and expertise. What if these priorities aren’t what the participants choose to discuss in their Open Space conversations?

P&P staff discussed contingency plans around both areas . The former I have a lot of sympathy for. The latter risks closing the Open Space and needs to be handled very carefully.

As for the training? Overall, a good day. Here’s a quick glance at the evaluations:

  • A really good introduction to Open Space – good pace, good explanation and good practical sessions
  • As ever, Matthew invites participation and was gentle and friendly
  • The right balance between helping us learn and stepping back to let us get on with it!
  • 10/10
  • More time on Shared Planet issues would have been cool
  • I didn’t get the newsroom concept at all in the intro
  • less time spent preparing to practice the introduction and giving more time for the other group to practice