“Knowing how to do this” + Open Space

Wanted to share some followup thoughts from our solid kickoff last Thursday.

First, when it comes to understanding how to have and support a group of any kind or size in working through long-term strategy and culture, I want to ban, “We don’t know how to do this,” from Miles River’s vocabulary and eventually from Wye’s as well. At a high-level, we definitely know how to do it. The devil is in the details, but we can (and will) figure those out.

The main obstacle is commitment. It’s like training for a marathon. We know how to do it at a high-level, but the details will vary. The main thing is recognizing that it’s going to be hard and painful and hopefully enjoyable too. If folks are committed to doing the strategic equivalent of running every day, then they can do it, and they’ll have a high probability of success. Until we all recognize and acknowledge that commitment, we are not going to succeed.

Second, how are we going to pull off this April meeting? First, kudos to Eden for quickly landing on the later date, which buys us two weeks. It’s not a whole lot, but it makes a big difference.

In order to figure out the support time needed to design and facilitate a meeting, I take the number of meeting days (in our case, three) and multiply it by a number between one and three, depending on the complexity of the meeting. So a minimally complex meeting would require six days total (1 x 3 for design time + 3 for the meeting itself, not including followup). A very complex meeting would require 12 days total (3 x 3 for design time + 3 for the meeting itself, again not including followup). This is all per support team member, so the numbers pile up quickly.

There are several assumptions that go into these numbers. First, the meeting itself will be participatory (and awesome). Second, in order for that to happen, the design process should also be participatory. Third, at least half of the design time is spent aligning around goals and success. The more complex the meeting, the harder that is, hence the need for more time. Aligning around clear goals and success requires participant time. Once you have that, the support team has more agency in designing the meeting itself.

Our April meeting will not be minimally complex. You could make a strong argument that it’s actually maximally complex, since it’s meant to be the start of a larger process with lots of unanswered questions and a currently flawed container. I would typically want at least four months to design for such a meeting. We will have about two months… and that’s on top of a whole lot of other work we’ll be doing over the next few months.

So how on earth can we make this work?

If the goals were clearer, we could make the design process less participatory. That’s not our situation, so that’s out.

There’s a fine balance between design and facilitation. A well-designed meeting is less reliant on the skill of the facilitator. If you eliminate design time, you are more reliant on the skill of the facilitator for success. That was our situation for our November meeting. It wasn’t optimal, but you can make it work. We can do this for April, but I’m reluctant to do so, because it’s riskier, it repeats a reactive, rushed pattern we’re trying to break, and it won’t build the capacity of Miles River.

So what’s left?

Open Space. Open Space is optimized for self-organization and emergence. It provides just enough structure to support the participants, but ultimately, they’re responsible for their own success. If they’re good (and we know our participants are), they’ll be successful. The basic design is more or less a template, so it doesn’t require a lot of time to design the days themselves. Facilitation is very light touch as well.

The best Open Space meetings have a strong invitation and at least three days. (Most people make the mistake of constraining their Open Space to one day or even less, which doesn’t leave enough time for shared understanding to develop.) We have three days, and we can use the design time we have to develop a strong invitation.

Because it’s light touch, the participants recognize that they are fully in charge of this ship. Not only does it force them to take responsibility, but when they see that it’s successful, they will be more motivated and empowered to replicate it on their own. Ultimately, we want to break them of this notion that highly skilled facilitators are required for them to be successful. (It always helps, but it shouldn’t be required in every situation.) Open Space will help us do that.

That won’t mean that they won’t be supported. There is an art to facilitating Open Space meetings effectively, and on top of that, we’ll be providing knowledge support. We’ll use artifacts to help facilitate sessions, and we’ll make meaning of those artifacts together at the end of each day. Those artifacts will help the conversations themselves be more productive (see the Tic-Tac-Toe exercise from Thursday), and they will also serve as the basis for sharing what happens with those who couldn’t make it. It will also be great practice opportunities for all of us.

We’ll also create some real-time dashboards to help them see themselves and prioritize. For example, we might put up an Eisenhower Matrix, and at the end of each day, cluster the sessions that happened in the corresponding quadrant. That will help the participants themselves see where they’re spending their time and whether or not they need to make an adjustment.

There’s still some stuff to think through, and enrollment will likely be a challenge, but I think this is the right direction overall. Feedback and pushback encouraged!