Open Space in the College of Liberal Arts

Jen Mein

Mein1It was the morning of January 17, 2013, and the hosting team (myself, Dave Dorman, Anne Gomez, and Myron Lowe) and the callers (Jennifer Cieslak and Karen Swoverland) were gathered in Circle just moments before we welcomed 75 guests. A lot of planning had gone into this day. We had hopes for what would happen, but we went into it with no predetermined outcome, trusting that those who were convened today would bring the questions, ideas, and possible solutions that would enable the co-creation of a web strategy that would advance the University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts. As we settled into nervous anticipation for what was about to unfold, I shared that as a team of hosts and callers for the conversation we had been unconsciously following the Eight Breaths of Process Architecture—beginning with a question and progressing through a series of phases that lead to wiser, more informed action. Although these are described as phases, the process is not linear but rather cyclical; sense making, reflecting on the alignment of purpose and next wise steps happens through the process. We had been intentional and thoughtful in our planning so we could let go and trust the process and let whatever happens next just happen. 

First Breath: The Call

This breath represents the birth of the calling team. The ‘caller’ or ‘callers’ are the ones who invite the host(s) to help them. What is really at stake here? What if we worked together to surface the need that matters to the community?

In this case, the callers were Jennifer Cieslak, Chief of Staff in the College of Liberal Arts (CLA), and Karen Swoverland, Service Manager in the CLA Office of Information Technology (OIT). Rather than drafting a plan in isolation, they stepped into a more participatory process engaging those who cared deeply about the issue of web communication and who wanted to develop a plan together.

The CLA fosters inquiry, dialogue, critical thinking, and creativity so using an Art of Hosting approach to plan a web communication strategy fit very well. Those who have positional authority and responsibility for communications were very capable of developing a plan; however, such a plan would affect others around the college and university. By including those who cared about the issue from the beginning, the callers hoped a plan would be co-created and support by all those who have a stake in the outcome.

Second Breath: Clarify

This breath is the callers and hosts working together to create clarity around the purpose and principles of engagement. How do we move from identifying a need to a having a purpose for gathering members of our community? What is our purpose?

After a bit of discussion, we developed a purpose statement that articulated that the reason for calling a conversation for the community. We were focused on creating a shared understanding for building a roadmap to inform how we are using the critical tool of web most effectively to advance CLA and CLA’s academic programs. The phrase “building a roadmap” had the intention of setting a vision and action steps. The phrase “advance CLA and CLA’s academic programs” got right to the heart of the matter.Mein2

Third Breath: Invite

This breath gives form and structure to the invitation and design process. This is a very active, engaging breath. It requires discipline and diligence to hold to the agreed upon purpose and allow it to ground the work in progress. We ask questions like: Who are the stakeholders? How do we invite people to participate in a way that moves them to show up? The callers begin to engage stakeholders in person to extend a warm invitation and the hosts dive deep into planning the logistics.

Jennifer and Karen began sharing the idea of having a conversation with individuals and groups around the CLA and University. A diverse group of faculty, staff, department chairs, and deans from the CLA, University Relations, and the OIT were invited to come together to learn from each other and to inform the future of a collegiate-wide web presence and resources in an engaging, participatory day. Some initial questions were: What’s working today? What opportunities do you see? How does the web and web communication advance your work? Are there future directions you would like to pursue?

Jennifer and Karen set the context and explained why there was a sense of urgency and importance around developing a web strategy together. They said, “We know that people care a great deal about web communication and that there are diverse perspectives and great ideas that are waiting to be tapped. Help us shape what the future of web communication will look like in the college.” It had been approximately six years since the college took comprehensive stock of the global collegiate web presence, web resources, and web needs. Needs and interests keep growing, new ideas and technologies are constantly emerging, and now CLA has a very large web presence that is challenging to maintain. It was time to assess and get a handle on the range of interests, needs, and perspectives in the college community.

The environment was changing as well—the college’s web team was about to move from the collegiate technology unit to the media and public relations unit, recognizing the web’s role as a communications tool. The University’s Operational Excellence initiative was sparking change in the IT and communications environments. Plus, the web team had a staff vacancy and they wanted to consider options for moving forward thoughtfully.

Concurrently with the conversations Jennifer and Karen were having, Dave Dorman and I were creating the meeting design grounded by the purpose, while maintaining open communication with them to understand the issues emerging from the attendees. The process was very iterative; initially, we had planned for a World Café in the morning and an Open Space Technology process in the afternoon. However, Dave and I attended an in-depth training in Open Space Technology and came to learn, understand, and appreciate more about how the technique draws out ideas, fosters meaningful conversation, and—with the inclusion of caller-generated reports and an action market—really allows a large group to harvest their discussions and converge into action teams. Open Space Technology works best when these conditions are present (Owen, 1997):

  • A real issue of concern, that it is something worth talking about.
  • A high level of complexity, such that no single person or small group fully understands or can solve the issue.
  • A high level of diversity, in terms of the skills and people required for a successful resolution.
  • Real or potential conflict, which implies that people genuinely care about the issue
  • A high level urgency, meaning the time for decisions and action was “yesterday.”

Dave and I recognized the need to have a larger hosting team to and invited our Art of Hosting colleagues Anne Gomez and Myron Lowe to join us for implementation. Closer to the day of the event, the following invitation was sent to those who had confirmed that they would be attending the event:

In our collective and individual experience, we may have seen that on the path to communicating the outstanding work being done by CLA and its programs in service to the University’s mission, we are at a crossroads for determining the direction that the web can play in our communications strategy.

In our exploration, we understand the need for…

  • Aligning with fiscal realities
  • Optimizing a “student-centric” focus
  • Countering skepticism of the liberal arts and deepening understanding of its relevance

The college organized this day as a participative retreat in order to share and leverage diverse perspectives and expertise and to support collaboration that makes a difference.

Who will be there? We expect 75 attendees from diverse academic and administrative units in CLA, as well as colleagues who work on web communication from other colleges and University offices. 

What will happen? After you and your fellow attendees generate the agenda on site by suggesting topics to explore ideas and develop action plans, you will have multiple opportunities to connect with others in meaningful conversations. In the spirit of a design charrette, this will be a creative and collaborative session that will allow everyone to benefit from the diversity in the room—drawing on the collective experiences, knowledge, and wisdom—to move web communications in CLA forward.

To prepare think about the following question to identify topics you would like to discuss:

What are the opportunities we want to explore in order to develop our future web strategy that advances CLA and its academic mission?

The success of the day relies on the initiative and participation of everyone present! Be ready to raise those questions for which you want to discover ideas and strategies you may want to share in small group discussions.Mein3

Fourth Breath: Meet

The fourth breath is about creating the container for the collective wisdom to emerge.

Before everyone arrived, we paid special attention to the space and beauty of the meeting location. We hung hand-drawn posters, loaded a slideshow of CLA images that displayed all around the room on large display monitors, created the Open Space Technology Marketplace, set up the laptops for the newsroom, and arranged the small group discussion spaces. Before guests began to arrive, Jennifer, Karen, Dave, Myron, Anne, and I met in circle for check-in and to prepare us for the day.

The day opened at 8:30, allowing a half hour for people to arrive, get name tags, and socialize a little bit over coffee and treats. Then, at 9:00, I welcomed everyone and provided a walk through of the day with a visual agenda before Dean James Parente gave a warm welcome and an inspiring talk about the importance of liberal arts and aligning our resources. To provide further context, Karen Swoverland introduced Kristeen Bullwinkle, an online marketing consultant who had conducted an assessment of the web in CLA and identified opportunities for the future. Jennifer Cieslak then set the stage for the work we were about to do together to generate the future that responds to the challenges, with a focus not solely on “change,” but on co-creating the future.

By 9:40, we moved from providing context and setting the stage into the Open Space Technology process. The following principles and law were explained:

  • Whoever come are the right people: Genuine interest and wisdom are there in this group. You don’t need the president or 30 people in your group. Those who show up are the right people because they care about that topic.
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have: Let go of the past and regrets; focus on the best possible effort in this moment—it’s about letting go of expectations. Let’s not waste energy on blame and regrets, the could-haves and should-haves. Bottom line, it’s about working with what we’ve got now. Look for possibilities and be ready to be surprised.
  • Whenever it starts is the right time: Take things as they come. The discussion will take the rhythm that suits the group. Teams know that creative energy, dialogue, and breakthroughs are not programmed according to a schedule.
  • When it’s over it’s over: Discussions may be short or long, you decide. It may all be said in 10 or 20 minutes. If the energy of the group is going down ask, “Are we done?” If so, move on to another group. If it’s not over after the expected time, find a place and keep going. You can discuss the same topic for hours if you need to.
  • There is one law—the law of mobility: If you are neither learning nor contributing, move on!

When the Marketplace, was opened, there were 26 conversations that were called for three rounds of conversations: two rounds were 45 minutes long and one round was an hour long. Lunch took place between rounds two and three. Between rounds and after round three, those who called conversations used laptops that were in the room to type up reports, harvesting key points of the discussions that they hosted, which were then posted all around the room. Participants had dedicated time to walk around and review the reports before we opened an Action Marketplace. Prompted with the question, “What are we ready to act upon?” six actions were called and people gathered into action work teams to plan next steps for those actions. Then, action reports were typed up and shared with everyone in the room. In closing, the participants were thanked and applauded for all their hard work. The day ended like it began, with Jennifer and Karen meeting with the hosting team in circle for a check-in about how we thought the day went and a check-out about what we were leaving the day with.Mein4

Fifth Breath: Harvest

This breath is about collective meaning making and collecting what will allow the group to make decisions for the wiser way forward. Harvesting often is about bringing more perspectives in to help make sense of what one person can’t see alone. We look for underlying patterns and ask, how do these patterns shape our intended actions?

For this event, there were three types of harvests. The first harvest was a book of reports that contained typed up reports from the callers of the 26 exploratory conversations and six action team conversations that were sent to all the participants within a couple of days of the event. We had a talented student capturing some of the interactions and energy in the room through photography and video that were used to create a high-level summary document and a beautiful harvest video to illustrate the process.

Sixth Breath: Act

This breath is about performing the wise actions that decided upon during the conversations, follow-up, and continued learning. We ask, “How do we sustain the self-organization?”

In this case, action teams that formed during the event followed up and began to take some of the steps they had identified. In hindsight, there was lack of clarity around the responsibility and expectations of action team leads and members. There was also an intention to review all of the discussion notes and develop a roadmap for a web strategy that advances CLA and CLA’s programs. Unfortunately, that intention was not realized due to a number of factors, but it remains one of many priorities for the CLA going forward.

Seventh Breath: Reflect

This breath is about reflecting and capturing what we’ve learned. We ask if we gained results that are aligned to the initial need and purpose and think about the next long term steps.

Upon reflecting on the day of the gathering, we reviewed feedback from the participants. Some of the themes that emerged included appreciation for the diverse perspectives and great conversations, the fluidity of the structure, and the level of engagement from all the participants. It was a long, exhausting day as some left feeling overwhelmed and some even felt powerless to suggest or implement wise action.

Regretfully, the CLA is not in a place that they had hoped at this point in time. One important lesson that we learned is that it is important to maintain the momentum generated in an event like the one we hosted. There was an intention to engage in a structured planning process to co-create a web strategy based on the harvest of reports, but there were other priorities that demanded time and attention, too. In the future, we all agreed that it would be helpful for a follow-up planning session within a few weeks of a community engagement event. The team also thought it would be helpful to provide greater support and clarity to the action teams so they are empowered to take next steps toward wise action.Mein5

Eighth Breath: Holding the Whole

This breath is the story of the unfolding progress, tending to the core team and the purpose underneath all activities. It’s being aware of all the breaths, tending to the long-term intent and the wisdom of the actions and the well being of everyone in this system.

I suppose, simply writing this story is one way of holding the whole. Each breath includes time for divergence/opening, emergence/groan zone, and convergence/closing. Knowing that the Eight Breaths of Process Architecture is not linear but rather cyclical, allows us to go back and revisit breaths, make them stronger, and go forward again. Opportunities exist for us to revisit each breath and make them stronger.