Sunday, July 13, 2008

6/5 Morning: Peggy Holman and Open Space Technology

This post is more about organizers structured the JTM gathering, but there may be some lessons/insights for how we run our community websites.

Peggy Holman facilitated our sessions. She refers to her conference-organizing method as Open Space Technology. We're not talking hardware and software; rather, Open Space Technology is a method of getting conference participants to interact, contribute, and create.

Here's how it worked at JTM on Thursday:

After our opening sessions, there were three blocks of time but no speakers set on our program. We'd been asked prior to the gethering to think about sessions we ourselves would like to convene. Our sessions didn't have to take the form of, "I know a lot about X and want to tell everybody about it." We were invited to convene a session along the lines of, "I don't know jack about X, but I sure wish I did, so come talk with me about it." As Peggy said as she got us going, "Questions are invitations for others to join us."

So Thursday morning, Peggy set out a bunch of blank papers and markers and invited us to convene sessions by writing down a title, announcing it at the microphone, and then posting the title (and location—room, corner, general direction, etc.) on the wall in one of the time blocks. Then we could all look at the wall, decide which sessions we thought we could learn from and/or contribute to, and go.

Talk about a marketplace of ideas! (Peggy's webpage refers to a "marketplace of inquiry.")

Peggy didn't try to control the sessions, but she did lay out her four principles for Open Space Technology, which she said apply as much to conferences as to our online work:
  1. Whoever comes is the right people.
  2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could happen.
  3. When it starts is the right time.
  4. When it's over, it's over.
My interpretations:
  1. The people who show up are there because they are motivated to listen, to speak, to learn about what you posted as your title or mission. They're the people you want. Don't sweat trying to recruit everybody else; let them come as they wish.
  2. We can argue about predestination later; for now, let things evolve and happen. Don't sweat control.
  3. Don't be a slave to the clock (Peggy said this!). Folks might come in and out. They might be "late" because they were having a good conversation or just needed a donut or a break. Go with the flow, not the ticking of the clock.
  4. Ditto! If people are still engaged, stay engaged! If the conversation runs out, we've said all we need to say.
Peggy also presented the Law of Two Feet: Open Space meetings like this work when each participant walks with one foot of passion and one foot of responsibility to go where she/he wants to be. Passion here means going where you want to go (and that's where you should go). Responsibility means you don't go to or stay in a session for any other reason than your interest. If you find a session isn't interesting, isn't helping you, isn't something you can contribute to, don't just sit there; go! It's o.k. You have a responsibility to yourself and to your host not to simply take up space in a session.

Now this feels like high-wire stuff: it feels like Open Space Technology could so easily fall flat with certain groups, especially if they are expecting a nice passive lecture rather than a more interactive, participatory experience. But at JTM—holy cow! We had a roomful of people who've started blogs and websites, who want to connect. Zoom! Up went the titles, around the wall schedule we crowded, and off we went to these floating conversations. It looks like chaos, but then that's how self-organization works. Self-organization—that's a key term here!

Now think about how this applies to a community website:
  • You can't force people to participate, and you wouldn't want to.
  • You the website founder/manager can establish ground rules and contribute ideas, but let your community members start their own conversations, too. Ideas, conversation, and action will coalesce where there is true passion and responsibility.
  • You don't have to be the oracle. You don't want to be the oracle. Ask questions to invite others to participate, to lead.
Think a little more, and you can probably come up with other applications of Open Space Technology to community websites. I'm going to keep thinking about self-organization. (We are all fractals... ;-) )

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