Open space: the law of two feet

Facilitating workshops can be both exhausting and challenging. It’s often difficult to keep participants engaged and energised as an individual or as part of a small team. On the flip side, participants can often find it frustrating if a meeting or workshop goes in a direction which is simply not relevant to them.

My tip for facilitators would be to take a step back and let the participants do the hard work. This is often more enjoyable for those involved, and is potentially far more rewarding in terms of the ideas that are shared and the consensus formed.

We are all familiar with the idea of participatory workshops, but there is one participatory approach that takes this ‘mantra’ one step further – ‘open space’.

Open space is an innovative way of convening workshops and meetings where the participants are responsible for setting the agenda. The facilitator’s key task is to identify the question that is most important to those attending. The extent to which participants are able to drive the agenda might depend on their own experience of different methods to share and explore issues.

As a facilitator you might ask participants to put forward different approaches. World CaféFish Bowl, and Storytelling were just some of the means used during the face to face knowledge sharing session at the recent AgKnowledge Africa event. Here participants simply picked which approach they preferred and joined that group for ‘discussion’.

What is highly unique about this method is that if you don’t like how the discussion is unfolding, or it’s not dealing with the question in a way that is relevant to you then using ‘the law of two feet’ you can simply move on to another group.

In addition to this, the only other rules of open space sessions are as follows: whoever comes are the right people, whenever it starts is the right time, when it’s over its over, whatever happens is the only thing that did.

I used the law of two feet today in the final session of the AgKnowledge event – I think I may have caused a little offence to a few people, as it was not an open space session! But I got frustrated with the direction of the conversation. We were supposed to be sharing what we had learnt about knowledge over the last few days and capture a key message in 140 characters (twitteresque), but the group I was in simply split the paper into four sections, labelling them strengths, weaknesses, threats, and I forget the last.

When I suggested we should perhaps look at the bigger picture, and bring some dialogue to the group my request was dismissed by the self appointed facilitator. I was desperate to put together the learning over the last few days, to understand what others would take away, how they might change their future practices, and whether or not their views on the conceptual nature of knowledge sharing had changed – not the quality of the food, or the internet connection on site. Still, people seemed to be enjoying themselves, but conversations like this are not going to bring about change, and bring together new thinking on sharing knowledge. We need open minds, open dialogue and now I can understand why we need open space – and two feet to travel in it!

Ewan Le Borgne (IRC) and Pete Cranston (Euforic Services) introduce open space.


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