Imagine 75 people collectively organizing 10 workshops, self managing the discussions, and leaving with dozens of strategies to successfully implement in their organizations, all within the span of an hour. Well, that’s exactly what happened this past week when the San Diego chapters of the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) and the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) joined forces to provide what turned out to be an unforgettable experience.
The event, entitled “Why Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast: an experiential approach to driving leadership change”, took place at the Sheraton Resort & Spa in Carlsbad and featured a candid and heartfelt keynote speech by Reid Carr, president and CEO of Red Door Interactive, about how creating a value driven culture has helped Red Door become a fast-growing and award-winning company. But this was only the beginning of the day’s events.
Following the keynote speech, ASTD board member and Sagatica COO Gregg Fasbinder instructed the audience to make their way to the back of the conference room, where two large circles of chairs, one within the other, had been arranged for an experiential learning activity. Once the participants settled in, Mr. Fasbinder stepped into the middle of the circle and explained how the group would be utilizing open space technology- a facilitation method that as has been developed for over 30 years and used around the world with groups of 5 to 500 members- to develop strategies for creating a culture of engagement. To explain the process, Fasbinder introduced facilitator Eric Kaufmann, an experienced executive coach and president of Sagatica.
Mr. Kaufmann explained the governing rule of open space technology, “the law of 2 feet. ” The rule urges participants to join group discussions for as long, or as little, as they’d like. “If you lose passion and excitement about the topic, move on,” explained Kaufmann. “As managers, how often do you get the chance to walk out in the middle of a meeting? Here it is not only allowed, it is encouraged.” There are also 4 principles of open space technology:
- •1. Whoever comes is the right people. This means that neither the number of participants nor the actual participants is as important as the quality of the interaction and conversation. For good conversation you only need one other person who shares your passion.
- •2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have. Real learning and progress take place when we move beyond our original agendas and convention-bound expectations. If everything happened just the way we wanted it, life would be dull, and learning would be limited. It is in moments of surprise that we grow.
- •3. Whenever it starts is the right time. Creativity and spirit are critical for open space meetings and neither pays much attention to the clock. They appear in their own time, which by definition means the right time can be at any moment.
- •4. Whenever it's over, it's over. And conversely, when it's not over, it's not over. The time and space allocated is only as effective as the conversation and meaningful interaction that’s happening. Passion and content are the drivers for today's meeting, not the artificial boundaries of the calendar.
After explaining the “rules” of the open space meeting, Kaufmann encouraged participants to write down the issue(s) they wanted to discuss, announce it to the group, and tape it to the wall. Participants proudly stepped into the center circle and stated their issues, which were then categorized by similarity in order to create discussion groups. Within minutes of establishing the discussion themes every participant had gathered around a table; it’s pretty amazing how quickly people can get organized when they are passionate about an issue!
Discussions were organized by sessions of 20 minutes with 5 issues being discussed per session. Even in the constraints of the morning, 10 meaningful conversations took place. As expected, the dynamics differed from one group to the next. Some groups started generating ideas immediately whereas others sat in silence for a few moments, avoiding eye contact while mustering up the courage to be the first to speak. Group roles were quickly established; some groups had dominant leaders who controlled the conversation while others elected to let everyone speak in turn. Some group members focused the discussion by asking clarifying question while others took notes and drew diagrams on large flipchart pages. At times there were even two or three conversations going on at the same time within one group. A few groups had as many as ten members while others had far less. In fact, there was even a group in the second session that had only two members and it generated as many meaningful ideas as the larger groups. What was that first principle of open space technology again? Most impressive however, was the excitement that filled the room. It’s hard to imagine that many engaged people in one place at the same time, each as passionate about a particular issue as the next.
So what was the result of all these efforts? Well, one of the issues for creating a culture of engagement that emerged from the meeting was acknowledging employee contributions and encouraging an ownership mentality across all staff in all aspects of HR. Group members came up with multiple strategies to achieve this goal, such as establishing transparent conflict resolution processes, and developing an employee scorecard that uses a rubric in which not only facts but also interpersonal relationships are taken into consideration. Other groups discussed ideas such as the importance of promoting a culture that values and respects everyone’s perspectives, limiting company size to facilitate engagement, breaking down silos, and blocking off time on a regular basis for employees to consider new ways to create a culture of engagement. When asked what she took away from the experience, a participant explained that “it all boils down to focusing on the values of the company. If everything is aligned it sets the stage for engagement”.
As the sessions concluded, Sagatica interns collected the issues and ideas written on the flipchart pages and posted them on the wall. Participants regrouped within the original two circles and a representative from each group gave a brief overview of the main points discussed during their session. This debriefing session allowed every participant to hear the ideas generated by others and consider a wide range of strategies that they could implement within their own organization. As one participant put it, the overviews were “a good way to tap into the ideas of other experts.”
Asked to reflect on the overall experience of open space technology, another participant expressed that she found it very rewarding to participate in a new group environment and that “this process allowed me to identify with topics I am passionate about.” She is now planning to implement open space technology in her own organization.