Building Open Space Online

What needs to happen for 150 non-techie facilitators to connect for an unconference, entirely online?

Metaphorum 2016 was probably the first event of its kind ever held. For 12 hours on 9 September, dozens of enthusiasts for the facilitation and coaching methodology Clean Language connected live online.

screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-14-29-44On the fly, they suggested topics, rounded up other interested people and got down to sharing ideas, experiences, and opinions in live videoconference calls. Out of those conversations came the friendships and collaborations to make more things happen.

By the end of the day, nobody wanted to stop talking, and people went on to organise “fringe” activities.

“Wow!” said the feedback. Participants admitted they’d been skeptical – but were now convinced. They loved the buzz on the day, and the injection of energy into their Clean Language practice.

Nobody now doubts that there’ll be a “next time”.

Overall, therefore, I think we can say that it worked. But why and how?

I’d initiated the event with a couple of ideas in mind.
1. I love Clean Language, and I want it to “go viral”. Uber-marketer Seth Godin suggests that’s best achieved by bringing people together to talk directly to each other: it seemed worth a try.
2. I wanted to experiment with combining two pieces of technology: Open Space Technology – a facilitation technique designed for getting large groups to have the conversations that matter; and the videoconference platform Zoom – like Skype but more stable, accessible, human-friendly and easy-to-use.

As with face-to-face events, it turned out that preparation was key. Throughout that phase, I was actively creating a space which was seeded with potential.

It may be a principle of Open Space that “whoever turns up are the right people” – but in my experience the right people don’t turn up by accident! I found myself crashing straight through the boundaries of “facilitation” and into “promotion”, as I pulled the group together, stretching my contact book to the max.

Similarly, I wasn’t “facilitating” as I created the technological space. We needed the online equivalents of clean toilets, fresh air and natural light! In the end, we went with familiar Facebook combined with a simple home-made web page, plus Zoom.

The reality is that no facilitator is ever really “just facilitating”. The positioning of a bulletin board, the timing of a break, or the quality of the coffee will all affect how the event turns out. We can’t not influence each other, usually unconsciously. In Clean Language jargon, there’s no such thing as being “completely Clean”.

Working online forced me to make obvious things which would normally be hidden by the context. For example, providing pens and sticky-notes in a meeting room hints that they should be used. Online, I needed to say: “I have set up a board at this URL, on which you can place virtual sticky notes”. That increased the amount of stuff that had to be communicated to participants, leading to email overload and a danger of doing too much driving, not enough enabling.

But on the day itself, facilitation was much more of what I was doing. With up to five simultaneous videconference spaces on the go, plus Facebook, I had to hold the space, not the content. I had to trust that the right people were there; that people would take responsibility for themselves and for ensuring that the conversations that needed to happen would happen. I simply had to let go and trust the process.

Could any experienced facilitator do this? Yes and no. I think that the essential behaviours involved in “holding space” are consistent online and off. And I think that my years of experience in facilitating small-group activities online made a huge difference to creating the space initially, and to holding it together during the odd wobbly moment: I knew where to be to catch either people or technology just before any fall.

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