Using Open Space or being “BOSSy”? How I would have done it….

Yet again I walked (flounced?). Yet again there’s communications (civil this time) with(one of) the organisers of the event.  Yet again the old conscience/ego chides “well, instead of specific criticisms, why not spell out how you’ld have done it differently?”

Here it is. There’s actually a couple of innovations I dreamt up today. It is Blended Open Space Stuff (BOSSy).  Btw, I am brewing an article on Open Space.  Partly simply because I want to use the title “OST-politik”….
The preparations for the day

Ask both funded and unfunded groups to prepare a presentation that is no more than 5 minutes and answers the following questions

  1. Who we are/why we exist
  2. What we’ve done in the last year that has “worked”
  3. What hasn’t gone well
  4. What we want to/will do differently
  5. What help we want, either from people in this room or beyond

Explain that people have the choice to have a film made based on their presentation (that will exclude 3. if they are uncomfortable sharing that beyond the room).

In a perfect world they would put that down on a sheet of paper, with recent photos of the people who will be attending.  These will get stuck up as posters.  Then, people can connect faces with projects, and see what different groups are good at/want help with.

Ask them to come up with  one sentence that describes a problem/challenge they are facing. This  will go on a flipchart for the open space,  “We are [group name] and the thing that we would really like to discuss is______________”


The day itself


Give each person three stickers, but tell them NOT to write anything on them.

Get them to put up the posters that  they have made and brought with them. If they haven’t, given them the option of doing so.

Encourage (put don’t force!) them to mingle with other people rather than cluster with friends or read the Guardian.

Encourage them to go around the room before the official start writing on the flipcharts that are up (have flipcharts with different questions)
“Straight in at the deep end”

At the appointed time, have your best (most confident and friendly) facilitator ring a bell to get everyone’s attention.

“Thanks for coming.  Please get your three stickers and a marker pen.

“Please find someone in this room who you do not know at all, or only very slightly.

  • Find out their name- write it on a sticker in big letters and give it to them to put on.
  • “Find out where live at the moment – write it on a sticker in big letters and give it to them to put on.
  • “Find out what “cause” they are campaigning for – environmental justice/gay rights etc – write it on a sticker in big letters and give it to them to put on.

[The three questions should go up on a powerpoint.  Or failing that, on sheets of paper that people can see]

“Then, they will do the same with you. And then you will be introducing them to other people, so find out something else – what food they like, why they’ve come today, whatever!

“You have THREE minutes for this.  Starting…. (ostentatiously looks at stop watch)…. Now.

[At exactly three minutes, ring the bell again.]

“Thank you!  Now, stay in your pair, and find another pair and form a group of four.  Introduce that person to the other people in one minute  Any left-over pair, form a group of six. You have five minutes for everyone to have been introduced!”

[After five minutes, ring the bell.]

Pulling back to orient people

“Thanks for coming.  If you hear this bell, there’s something we really have to tell you all.  (Rings bell).

[What is below can be ‘tag-teamed’ among your facilitators, so each is saying a bit]

“We hope you’re here

  • To bring problems and challenges you are having with your campaigning to a bigger group to get ideas, suggestions, advice
  • To make or strengthen links with people and organisations based on where you are, what you campaign on and who you “click with.
  • To learn more about [insert name of the host group]

As you will know from the emails we sent, we’ve designed the day around those goals.  We asked already in the email, but one last time, have people got OTHER goals for being here?

[Try to deal with these if anything comes up]

Toilets are through there. Fire exit is through there.  Facilitators are wearing [yellow?] t-shirts, bibs.  We are here to support YOU.

Tea, coffee, biscuits are there. Lunch is at 12.30.

“Other ‘rules’;

  • Mobiles on silent please
  • Listen carefully to what people are saying, and when you disagree, do so respectfully
  • Check whatever privileges you may have – and there are other privileges besides gender, race , age and class.
  • Anything else people want to throw in?

What is “Open Space”?

“This meeting has the barest formal agenda.  After one more exercise it is going to be “over to you” to figure out how best to use this time.   We’re using “open space” technology, and there is a poster on the wall over there to explain what it is).
The crucial thing is this – there is a “Law of Two Feet”.  You have one foot for learning, and one for contributing.  If you find yourself in a place where you are doing neither, it is your responsibility to respectfully go where you are.”  (At this point have one of the facilitators stand up and say “this is rubbish. I’m going for a coffee.” Hopefully this will elicit laughter, and a bit of nerves.

“Right- everyone. What did he do wrong?

“Was he allowed to go for coffee?  Yes.  Did he do it respectfully? No.”

“So, if you find yourself not in the right headspace, go for coffee – grab a marker pen and start writing up on the flipcharts.  Sit quietly, whatever.  If you really have to check your bloody facebook, check your facebook. It’s open space!

“Questions about the Law of Two Feet?”

The Novice Lines

“So has everyone got a coloured piece of paper and a white piece of paper?  In big letters, so other people can read it you are going to write.

“On the white paper write something you are good at. Cooking, website design, conflict mediation, whatever.

“On the coloured paper write something you would LIKE to be good at.  Public speaking? Accounts? Making videos. Whatever.

“You have  30 seconds to choose. Don’t overthink this!

“Right, please stand up, hold up your two sheets of paper and walk around the room.  Let’s see if we find matches.  If you can do something that people have written on their coloured paper, TELL THEM.  Exchange email addresses.  Yell out “huzzah” when you get a match!”

[After this has been going for a few minutes, send members of the facilitation team to collect all the sheets of paper.]

“Right, everyone. Thanks for that. Please take your seats.  Now, I need 10 volunteers!  You won’t be doing anything illegal or immoral.   Can I have ten volunteers standing here please.”

[Facilitator lays out the four icons – from novice to ninja]

“Now, there’s enough space for us all to step forward as much as four paces, safely.

“Could the ten of you line up please, on this line.

“You’re on what I call ‘the novice line.’ We’re going to find out who in the room has what skills, and we’re going to do it really quickly, and it will be fun. Honest.

“Let’s take cooking for example.

“If you are a novice cook you can just about boil an egg without burning the water.

“If you’re a practitioner, it means you can cook for 2 or 3 people, following a recipe book and sweating a little bit.

“If you’re an expert, you can cook most things without a cook book, for a bunch of people, and there’s a fistfight – even among the Quakers – for seconds.

“If the phone rings and it’s one of your activist friends who says: ‘There are 20 of us. We’ve just done this amazing action – turn on the radio! We’re arriving in two hours and we’ll be really hungry. Three of us are vegan, two are gluten intolerant and three of us MUST EAT MEAT. There’s 80 quid hidden in the cookie jar. Can you do it?’

“If you say ‘Well, duh, what else you need doing at the same time?’ then you are a ninja.
“So, in a second you’re going to step forward one step if you’re a novice, two steps if you’re a practitioner, three if you’re an expert and four if you’re a ninja. We’ve even got these lovely icons that  on the floor as markers.

“But – and I am sure the suspense is killing you. Here are a few important common questions and points.

“If you are not even a novice stay where you are.

“This is NOT a judgement – you are where you are. And also, you are under NO obligation to want to advance your skills. If you are happy as a novice or a practitioner, that’s fine

“This only works if you are honest – don’t boast and don’t be falsely modest. The more truthful you are, the more everyone benefits. Remember too, that women tend to be trained to underestimate themselves, men to overestimate. Same goes for working-class/middle-class. These are generalisations, of course

“Finally, keep your eyes closed as you choose where you are, so you aren’t affected by other people’s assessments of themselves.

“Everyone got it? Right, close your eyes, decide where you are going to move to on cooking, open your eyes, and… go!

[The ten people then move forward as far as they feel.]

“Right, well done everyone – quite a good spread of people.

“Hands up if you want to be better at cooking than you are now? Remember, no obligation! Okay, good. Now, the person who is best able to help you is probably NOT the ninja – they have forgotten what it is like not to know something. It’s probably the person who is just a step or two ahead of you.

“We’re running a little ahead of schedule, so I’ve time to ask the ninjas – how did you get so good? What advice do you have to offer? You’re allowed to treat me like an arresting officer and say ‘no comment’!

“Right, that was very interesting, but we’re not here to be cooks! I chose that one because everyone knows what kind of cook they are, and tends not to have too much ego invested! Let’s choose another, from the white pile. Back on the line please. Close your eyes. And the skill is … [Facilitator picks the most useful of the white papers, calls it out. Everyone moves forward or stays put, depending on their self-assessment.]

“Right – I chose a white paper to start with because at least someone in the room was going to be an expert or ninja. Gets too depressing otherwise. Now let’s do a coloured paper! If nobody here is in fact an expert or ninja, we’ll not panic just because there’s no-one in this room with that skill. The movement is – I hope – bigger than the few of us in this room.  I want you all to think for a second about anybody who you know who has this skill who can be bribed or blackmailed into helping your group gain that skill. Got someone? Now step forward to where you think they would step forward to…

“We’re still ahead of schedule, and you all seem pretty energised. Can I have a volunteer to have a go at running a novice line.   It will show you that there’s nothing magic to it.

[Hopefully someone comes forward and runs a novice line.]

The “Open Space”

“So, everyone, that’s it from us manipulating you!  The rest of the day is going to be built around what YOU want.  We asked you to come up with questions and problems.  The common ones were;

  • How do we attract and keep new people in our campaigns?
  • How do we avoid being drawn into endless consultations with politicians, the policy, social services?
  • How do we deal with burn out and morale maintenance
  • How do we constructively challenge homophobia in our potential and actual allies?
  • How do we constructively challenge racism in our potential and actual allies?
  • How do we constructively challenge sexism in our potential and actual allies?

If you have another problem that you want people’s attention on, please write it up on a sheet of paper and then stick it on one of these “flagpoles”.  Sit next to it  until some people come and join you. You may have to wait awhile, if big questions like the ones above haven’t been answered.

Crucially, we are NOT going to try to do a feedback on each of these questions.  But we DO have facilitators who are going to try to capture the flavour of what is said in each group.  They will NOT attach anyone’s names to individual comments and suggestions.

If you DO move from one group to another, please take a few minutes to listen to the discussion, rather than diving in with both feet.

Any questions?  Go for it.

[Open Space. Facilitators minuting, dealing with people’s questions, making sure tea and coffee doesn’t run out, etc]

3pm The “different groups”

So, you may all be knackered? But good knackered, from connection and idea overload, rather than boredom?  Yes, no, maybe?

We’re now going to hear from each of the groups.  We’ve asked each of them, and three of them want to be filmed, so we will do them first and then switch off the camera.  Does anyone want to learn how to do some filming?  We will show you a couple of things.

So each group is going to get at most five minutes.  Less is better. After four minutes I will hold up a sheet of paper that says “1”.  At exactly 5 minutes I will start clapping and I want you all to join in.  Got it?

So, the first group to answer these five questions is

  1. Who we are/why we exist
  2. What we’ve done in the last year that has “worked”
  3. What hasn’t gone well
  4. What we want to/will do differently
  5. What help we want, either from people in this room or beyond

…  [insert name].  We’re going to clap them off, so let’s clap them on!  [Applause]
The Feedback

Hands up who thinks most feedback is a meaningless ritual meant to protect the egos of the organisers (facilitator sticks up own hand!) and justify them to their funders?

So, we’ve got a SHORT questionnaire.  We want you to be brutally honest. It’s anonymous, but we have a reward system. If you flash us a completed form and then put it in the box, we will give you a [whatever the budget extends to – fruit, book vouchers, you name it].

What next?  We will type up the flipcharts, get the facilitators to summarise the open space discussions and put it all up on the web.  We will  analyse the feedback. We will then take a six month holiday….

THANKS FOR COMING.  A round of applause for yourselves please…

[The feedback form says

Be as brutally honest and specific as you can be please.   Do not worry about hurting our feelings. Capitalism hurts our feelings far more every day, ‘kay?

  1. What, (if anything) was useful for you from today
  2. What was missing from today, or could have been done better
  3. Did we help you or did we get in the way (please give examples)
  4. What else would you like to say?]



Do what you promised with the flipcharts etc

Edit the films of any groups that wanted filming

Analyse the feedback forms.

Reflect on the quality of a) the meeting design and b) the quality of the facilitation

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