Harvesting from NEXT: Open Space

One of the most interesting happenings at NEXT was Open Space. After a presentation that included a description of the topic, people shouted out topics they wanted to discuss, then people clustered to the conversations that interested them and we were off! There were probably 30-40 discussions going on around the room.

We’ve implemented Open Space in our presbytery, National Capital. Here is a good description from our website. Note that the purpose of OS is not to deliberate on an issue or to seek consensus on something. The point is for people to come together to share ideas and potentially even form partnerships. (See the video at the NCP link about “flipping the presbytery.”)

Robert Austell had a good “friendly critique” of the process at NEXT. Some of his comments reflected limitations of the conference: the space was not ideal, and it’s hard to start from a place of trust when you don’t know one another. Some of the discussions were better facilitated than others. However, his post provides a good overview of what we did and some ways it could be better.

Rather than provide a broad description of Open Space, I want to share two moments I witnessed in OS recently, one in our own presbytery and one at the NEXT Conference. I share them for people who may be looking to implement Open Space. They are not huge moments, but I found them revealing in their own way:

1. After our first OS at National Capital, we had one of the crankiest meetings I’ve ever had the misfortune to experience. (There’s a reason I call us National Crankypants, but this was cranky even for us.) People were pulling out all the Roberts Rules of Order stops: Division in the house! Substitute motions! I think we were even wordsmithing a motion en masse at one point. Blech. Now granted it was a contentious issue we were dealing with (I can’t even remember what it was) and there was some confusion too. But I am certain that Open Space played a role in this dynamic. It’s like things were so unstructured that people just clamped down afterwards.

Some people find Open Space exciting and refreshing. Others find it scary in its sheer open-endedness. If you get a bunch of Presbyterians in a room together and ask them to be open source… to go off the agenda… to meander around in a topic to see what generative stuff might result… there is going to be blowback. It is such a different way of being that some folks will overcorrect. That is basic family systems stuff right there. We should have anticipated it and planned for it in our meeting, in retrospect. (I say that as a member of the committee that plans presbytery meetings.)

2. Following the NEXT conference Open Space, there was a report back of “harvestings.” These were supposed to be short sentences that reflected some aspect of the discussion. One person got up and, instead of sharing the results of the discussion, launched into what felt a lot like a public service announcement. It felt like talking points. Don’t get me wrong; the information was really important. But the difference between this report-back and the others was obvious and it shifted the energy palpably. I found myself wondering what that group’s discussion had been like.

Not sure what the takeaway is there, though it seems related to number 1. You can’t shift a culture overnight. There will be pockets of resistance. And resistance doesn’t always appear as frowny crossed arms. Sometimes resistance is friendly, but still speaking the old language.

It’s OK. But be aware of it, plan for it, correct and redirect as necessary… but don’t let it stop you either.

Image: the rules of Open Space.

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2 thoughts on “Harvesting from NEXT: Open Space

  1. Bob Braxton says:

    I hope that seven the unpleasant experiences in the Open Space trials are an encouragement for people to keep on keeping on. I believe Open Space has great potential in both contexts.

  2. Sue Ferguson says:

    one thing about the NCP open space…our feet were to do the talking…and I was in a room that was a good gathering, but I wanted to check out a 2nd topic in a different location and was “trapped”.

    Bonus that I never expected: the VBS program we are likely to do is the result of an Open Space conversation. who woulda thunk?

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