I learned something recently in hosting a group in what I would call a “modified open space.”
The client had already set up the room of tables. It wasn’t classroom style, but it was eight large rounds with eight chairs at each. Fortunately there was ample space around the sides of the table — lots of wall space. The intent was to use the tables as the meeting spaces. It was quite tight.
OK, no problem. I’ve worked with these modified formats before. I scoped out a few hall spaces that would be easy to pull a few couches and chairs together at. It would give people some room to talk and some space to move. Check.
I have experience invoking the spirit of open space technology, even though we couldn’t start in a round. Did it on this occasion too. Market place set up on the wall. Posters for principles and roles on another wall. Good.
Here’s what I noticed. When the market place was opened to populate, a noticeable amount of talking was taking place. Yes, some of it was about topics to host. Yes, some of it was about people conferring on topics. But there was a lot of chatter, something near “bad behavior” I would say. The attention to people announcing their topics felt very low.
Fast forward, the open space worked well. Ten groups convened. They scribbled notes and insights on some harvest templates. The energy in the room shifted, as I love when it does, to the people owning their process. Good, right.
However, my takeaway learning and assertion is that the opening circle in open space creates a different kind of relationship among the larger group. There is an accountability to each other that is different when sitting in the circle than when sitting at already separated tables. There is a different or decreased feeling for the whole of the group working together as a group when at separated tables than when in that opening circle.
It won’t be the last time that I do a modified open space. I’m ok with experimenting and breaking form. However, if I were teaching it for people who want to learn the process, oh boy, I’d point to the importance of the artistry of open space in that opening circle, not just the mechanics of creating that bulletin board.