For the Unconference Skeptics…

I just finished reading Harrison Owen’s book “Open Space Technology” in preparation for a facilitator’s training conference I’m going to in a week (want to help me get there? Donations happily accepted!). It’s a fun and easy read, and if you’ve been to a GrUE, you’ll find yourself nodding over and over again, saying “Yep, that’s what it was like.” Even occasionally laughing; one of my favorite lines was Owen’s admission that “It seemed like a good idea at the time, and besides the gin had run out.

But even after nineteen successful GrUE’s in three years and two countries – yes, that’s right, nineteen – I still hear the same things from people. “Such-and-so is skeptical of the Unconference Model.” “Unless you have a list of presenters, no one will come.” “I’m really turned off by the idea of no organization.”

I can understand that. It was driven home to me quite well by a friend who was describing an event he’s trying to organize. “You’d like it, Gray!” he exclaimed. “We’re going to run it kind of like a GrUE, where there’s nothing really planned, and everybody just gets to do what they want!”

My gut reaction (not what I said to him) was to recoil in horror. That sounded like an awful idea for a conference. This was followed by a terrifying thought: OMG – is that what people hear me saying when I talk about a GrUE?

Perhaps it is. So I’m a little more careful now, and describe it more as:

A GrUE uses Open Space Technology principles (developed in 1985 and used in over 60,000 different events) to enable participants to self-organize a conference filled only with the issues and activities they care deeply about. It creates a unique event filled with passion and responsibility and unexpected connections within the group.

I dunno. I still like the other descriptions, such as “It’s like everybody brings their own book, and we get together and create a library” or even better, “It’s like Burning Man crossed with TED Talks for kinky people*” or something to that effect.

Proof of Concept

However, if the nineteen GrUEs (and the first gathering of The Usual Suspects, which you’ll hear about in a pending podcast) isn’t enough to convince people that this system can work, well, there’s other concrete evidence. Harrison Own talks about some of the clients he’s worked with, including the very first Open Space he facilitated, for 75 DuPont engineers determining the fate of Dacron. He talks about the 250 Boeing employees who used the process to quickly and efficiently address an airplane door redesign that was implemented worldwide. But most impressive to me was the story of the AT&T Olympic Pavilion in Atlanta:

Six months before the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta 1996, AT&T was invited to move its pavilion from the edge of the Olympic village to the center. That was the good news. The bad news was that the AT&T design team had just completed 10 months of hard work on the first version, and now there was a need to redesign it at a new place to serve 75,000 customers a day instead of 5,000, and to finish the design in half the time.

It was clearly understood that there was no way to do it by the linear process it done before. The 23 members of the design team were a dispirited group when they assembled to meet the challenge. One of the group member’s commented: ” we are about to turn a disaster into a catastrophe.” Two days later, the atmosphere was rather different. A totally new design had been created; everybody agreed that it was much better than the first design. As they planned, they ordered materials for delivery. Perhaps most important, everybody was still talking to each other, and some of them even described it as a ‘fun’ undertaking.

Using Open Space Technology made all the difference.

–source: Self Organization in Social Systems

So, if it was good enough for Ma Bell to put it in charge of a $200,000,000.00 one-chance investment with an impossible deadline and succeed…well, if that’s not enough proof of concept, then you’re never going to be convinced.

And that’s ok. We’ll continue to have them without you, and you can just come join us when you’re ready.

We miss you.

Nah. That Open Space Woo-woo Shit Never Works.

*Thanks to Naiia for reminding me & Caritas Joy for coming up with the analogy in the first place!

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