Here’s my story of how I learned about unleashing spirit in an organization.
I was busy trying to establish a leadership development initiative in East Texas, after arriving in Tyler, Texas in the early 90’s. We had received a Pew Grant which allowed me to design a fresh, innovative model for building capacity in a community best known for oil wells. Notably, we were hoping to strategically empower people who had not seen themselves as leaders in the towns of Tyler and Longview. And, secretly, we were hoping to initiate a more regional view of leadership, rather that the historic competition between these two cities.
I engaged Mike Murray, a noted Organizational Development consultant, to help me with the project in designing the curriculum. We were looking at a nine-month program, meeting one Saturday a month, to expose people to basic leadership theory, conflict resolution techniques, change management, communication skills….the typical skill training that helps leaders to become more effective in their work. My vision for this project was “to transform spectators into players as effective leaders”.
I also wanted to use this Leadership Foundation to bring in some special guests to expose the wider community to some cutting-edge ideas in community leadership. We were able to bring in Ernie Cortes, of the Industrial Areas Foundation to introduce the concept of community organizing to East Texas with the hopes of mobilizing folks in some local projects of improvement. We brought John Scherer, a leadership specialist with Fortune 500 clientele, to introduce us to his powerful model of engagement that flowed out of one’s personal mission statement. And Mike suggested a real outlier for me to chase down to see if it might yield a special bang for our buck. The name of that outlier was Harrison Owen. What a great name for a consultant!
Harrison Owen lived in Washington D. C. and had developed a new way of generating enthusiasm in organizations and businesses called Open Space Technology. Mike and I were wondering if it might work in our setting and our goals. I would fly to D. C. to meet Harrison and get a feel for his method, and his person.
First off, Harrison and I had something in common. We were both Episcopal priests. But Harrison had never spent a day in the normal work of parish life. One of his first jobs was serving as an assistant to the head of the Peace Corps, Sargent Shriver in the Kennedy administration. You had me at “Kennedy”.
After that work ended, he was paid by a think tank group to put together an “all star” conference bringing the leading thinkers in multiple disciplines together to present a series of white papers on pressing subjects. The hope was that such a conference would generate breakthrough insights for the problems that were confronting the world. Harrison spent two years putting the event together, organizing the gathering, inviting the right people to present these powerful ideas, and making sure the right “players” were in attendance. And it went well, he said, a little stuffy, with rarified presentations that would make your head hurt. But it went well, as planned.
Like any good educational event planner, he conducted a survey at the conclusion of the conference with the typical questions rating the speakers and assessing the accommodations. But Harrison added a “kicker” question at the end: “What was your favorite part of the conference?”
The overwhelming answer surprised him….actually stunned him. The majority of the respondents stated that their favorite part of this high-powered conference with world-class experts was…….wait for it…..the coffee breaks!
Harrison reports that he was despondent, thinking that he had spent this significant amount of time and energy of his young life with the result being that of people crowing about the coffee breaks. He was buried in depression for a time….until he realized a great lesson, a lesson that would propel his future career. What these brilliant people really enjoyed was not the stilted academic papers, filled with erudite footnotes. Rather, the highlight, the real gift was the opportunity to interact in creative dialogue with other people. He realized that the trick would be to learn how to organize a coffee break! I simply fell in love with that image. And from that, he birthed a method of gathering that came to be known Open Space Technology.
At an Open Space event, the group is gathered in a circle, the basic way humans have joined together in our past, even in and especially in tribal times. For Harrison, it did not matter as to the size of the group. It could be the intimacy of a small staff, or the gathering of a city. Harrison said, and I found it to be true: Open Space always works. It will tell you important things about the community that you need to know. I wound up using Open Space with a parish, with the House of Bishops, with the gathered Diocese of Texas, and it worked like a charm. Harrison and I actually did it with the City of Tyler in a gymnasium, and it worked. It really does demand faith on the part of the leader, and like Neil Diamond wrote: I’m a believer!
Let me give you a brief description of Open Space Technology.
This creative process begins with the intentional gathering of a group. A broad invitation is sent, and then you wait to see who shows up. In the Diocese of Texas, we invited every baptized member to show up at a gathering in Houston to inaugurate the beginning of Bishop Claude Payne’s tenure. The key notion for us is that EVERYONE received an invitation, not just the “inside” crowd of usual suspects. We went out of the way to extend the “invite” to those who might have felt excluded in the past. Harrison’s premise is: the right people WILL show up. And they did. So a key strategic moment occurs before the process begins: who is included, and, who is being excluded? Another way to ask the question: who is being ignored?
A framing question is offered to the group which sets a wide parameter around the group’s work over the next few hours, or the next few days. In the case of the Diocese of Texas, our question was intentionally broad: How can we make the Diocese of Texas great? That freed people, liberated people, unleashed people to think beyond the conventional boundaries. The scope is intentionally broad at this point in order to bubble up new, creative ideas, sometimes from left field, sometimes from the stands, sometimes from outside the ball park.
The leader/facilitator explains briefly the process that is about to occur, Each person in the circle is being asked to think about one topic or question that just might be a “game change” idea that we could meet around, discuss, and suggest next steps for action.
Every time that I led Open Space, there is a pregnant moment when people start to realize what they are being asked to do: think, imagine, reflect, act in naming their issue or “big idea”. There are always different reactions, including shock, disbelief, excitement, and silence. And,, I always love saying my closing line in my presentation: “This is the plan….. and there is no Plan B.” Nervous laughter follows.
The facilitator then “opens the space”. Once you have your “big idea”, people are asked to write it down on a sheet of newsprint that is available on the perimeter of the circle. Once committed to paper, one is to come to the center of the circle to offer any topic that they think could be beneficial to the group pertaining to the framing question. When you are in the center, you simply read your topic, and then post it on a wall that is called the “Community Bulletin Board”.
This is the moment that the “technology” kicks in. One gets a “post it” from a time matrix board that is strategically located next to the Community Bulletin Board, with times and meeting rooms, which one places on the topic sheet. This indicates when and where the group discussing this specific topic will be meeting. The originator of the idea assumes the responsibility to gather the group around the topic, in the chosen room and at the specified time, and facilitate that dialogue in any way he/she wants.
We organizers provide “scribes” for each group meeting, recording on newsprint “running” process notes from the discussion. Those notes are compiled at the end of each day, transcribed, and then copied, so that each person would get a record of what went on in each group regardless as to whether or not you were able to attend.
Once the initial Gathering group finishes generating ideas, placing the topics and the “time and room” post its, it is time for the members to visit the Community Bulleting Board to decide which sessions they would like to attend, signing their names to the topic sheet indicating their intention to be there.
The genius of this process is that you can literally design a major event, and organize it in a matter of minutes. And another Zen rule of Harrison comes into play: What ever happens is the only thing that could have happened. And even in my overly-organized brain, I have found it to be true. I have done this with boards of churches, educational institutions, even with the professional organization of nursing professors….and it always works, generating creative ideas and unleashing spirit, as well as telling you some important things about your organization that you best take seriously.
I do have to end this tale by telling you about the use of Open Space with the Diocese of Texas. Two of the “old hand” priests, who had served the previous bishop who had been a bit into control, took me aside (as “old hands” do to young whipper-snappers like this Southside boy). They told me that my design was going to fail, “miserably” they added, with all the Christian love in their hearts. They told me: you simply have to program for these people, guide them like sheep. They won’t know what to do with this freedom!”
That’s exactly what they told me. And to be honest, as I began to introduce this wild-ass concept to this crowd gathered under a huge tent in Houston, I thought, for a second, I might be in trouble. But, when I “opened the space” for new ideas, the people began to pour forward to offer their ideas to our community. I described it as if it were an altar call at a Billy Graham Crusade, as they “came on down”! It was something. We generated over 300 ideas that blew the roof off that formerly staid diocese, and it resulted in a Spirit that powered our new day in the Diocese of Texas.
This Open Space process is one that I have used repeatedly through the years, with a learned sense of trust and confidence. It reminds me of the Creative Interchange process that I laid out in recent posts on South of God, courtesy of Dr. Charlie Palmgren. It begins with showing up in an authentic way, being real. It requires trust to give yourself to the process, unlike my “old hand” naysayers. It requires curiosity to “wonder how else things might be”. It takes people making connections between seemingly disparate elements, synthesizing new possibilities. And, it is driven by a tenacity to improve and do the very best we can. The yield is creative ideas, fresh fruit produced by authentic human interaction.
If you made it this far, you may be interested in unleashing some spirit of your own, in an organization or group that you care deeply about. You don’t have to follow Harrison’s process in a lock-step rigidity, though you should pay careful attention to the principles and values embedded in order to get the best results. I would tell you that Open Space Technology should have a warning label attached: You may lose control. For the naysayers for whom control is the core value, they will be resistant. But for those thirsty for the fresh experience of the creative spirit in community, they will appreciate the opportunity and become enthusiastic.
The question emerges: Do you want to unleash spirit in your world, the world? And your answer, our answer, may make all the difference.