We’ve all been in horrible meetings. Maybe there’s no specific purpose or agenda. Maybe somebody is giving the same speech you’ve heard dozens of times and nobody is listening.  Maybe there’s an outright fight going on.  Maybe people are having a conversation about an important topic but it isn’t getting anywhere useful.  

In any case, there are a lot of good reasons to learn how to have more effective meetings.  I’m getting ready to run a two-day offsite with senior leaders in our R&D group, and in preparation, I just re-read Harrison Owen’s great book, “Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide.”  

I keep thinking about the difference between highly facilitated meetings and open space, and I’ve been trying to figure out why both work. Shouldn’t Open Space be just as bad as an unfacilitated meeting, or a meeting led by a well-meaning but controlling leader?  

I see 3 dynamics that result from the Open Space rules:

  • all voices are heard
  • safety is high
  • shared responsibility for the outcome

Open Space Ensures All Voices are Heard

In the marketplace, at the start of an open space event, everyone has a chance to raise issues that are important to them, but nobody is obligated to participate in discussion of those issues. Say I’m passionate about fixing our build system, but George thinks our UX designs are way more important. In a traditional meeting, George might want to prevent me from raising this issue--after all, any time spent on the build system is time not spent fixing our UX design process. If George is the leader of a traditional meeting, or a senior person, he might choose to use his power to keep my topic off the table.

In open space, I can raise the build system issue, and George is free to skip my session and focus on his UX issue. I can find others who are interested. (Of course, I might also learn that nobody else cares, but at least I had a chance to raise my concern.)

What’s happening here is a flattening of the power structure. In a traditional meeting, participants often feel compelled to defer to the wishes of the meeting leader. (That is, unless someone else with more power is participating in the meeting and decides to take control!) Cultural norms sometimes mean people stay in meetings that are not valuable to them, feeling unable to speak up or do anything about it.

Open Space Creates Safety with the One Law

In Open Space meetings, there is only one law: the Law of Two Feet. “If you find yourself in a situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet and move to a place where you are.”  If you’re bored, disengaged, or frustrated, in Open Space, you can’t blame the session organizer; it’s your own problem. If you’re feeling threatened because someone is dominating the conversation, you are expected to walk away. If everyone can walk away from inappropriate behaviors, it sends a clear message to the person behaving badly.

One of the classic challenges with meeting is groupthink--a group gets excited about a positive outcome and ignores the risks. As convergence is happening, it can be really tough to be the person who brings everyone back to reality. In an open space event, especially a 2-day event, you don’t have to be that person right at that moment. You can bide your time a little bit, perhaps walk away, and then bring your perspective when the group is more ready, without waiting too long.  

If your regular work days are chopped into 1-hour decision-making blocks and it’s hard to schedule follow-up meetings, you’re probably not getting this dynamic in your day-to-day.  The tension gets amped up in meetings because people worry they may not get another chance to have their voice heard.  

I’m a more deliberative person. I like having time to think and reflect on an issue rather than jumping to a decision too fast. When you combine the law of two feet with the surplus of time, people have the space to depart from the groupthink, reflect, and come back and try to impact the whole, if they choose to do so.

Open Space Causes Participants to Take Responsibility

Facilitating structured meetings is a lot of work. As facilitator, I put a lot of energy into prep; hours or days in most cases.  The act of facilitating requires deep presence and energy.  When I can pull it off, it comes out well, but I am almost always completely drained afterward.

Sometimes, I just don’t have the energy, and one of the things I’ve noticed is that participants follow my lead. In a highly structured meeting, it’s tough for participants to pick up the slack and take responsibility for the agenda. Maybe more experienced facilitators have tricks that work in this situation.

In open space, responsibility for the outcomes falls entirely on the participants. The facilitator is there to create space (no small undertaking) but not to drive the outcomes.  

Why would we ever do structured facilitation?

One of the biggest requirements for Open Space is time. Time for people to decide what’s important to work on, time to reflect, time to observe and adjust. Time to go to dinner and go to sleep overnight and wake up in the morning with new ideas on how to approach the challenge.  

Our work life isn’t structured in the form of 2-day working sessions (though maybe it should be?). The rest of the time, we are driving toward more specific outcomes in smaller periods of time--a plan for a quarter in a day; an ideation session over two hours.

But I wonder: what if The One Law were a cultural expectation in your company?  What if people felt that if they were neither learning nor contributing in a meeting, that it was always safe to leave and do something else? What would that change about your meeting dynamics? What other agreements would you need to have to make this possible?

Incidentally, if you are interested in getting better at facilitating your meetings, we offer a 2-day course based on Jean Tabaka's book, Collaboration Explained. Get in touch with us if you want to learn about it.

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