The lost Open Space opportunity re-found

August 20. Welcome to UU World readers. For related articles, see my Social networking and Unitarian Universalist Association category posts.

July 8. There was a lot of interest in this post when I originally wrote it on June 26, but perhaps that was too soon after General Assembly for some to consider how the Open Space Technology model could yet still benefit Unitarian Universalist. Plus, I promised a follow up and never wrote it. Review this if you hadn’t already and make comments and I promise to gather up some helpful resources.

Victoria Weinstein (PeaceBang) and I had a long chat last night about General Assembly and the UUA. The subject of Open Space Technology came up. I follow the process as best I could, matching what was reported with resources that describe what Open Space Technology could be (and some models that are fantastic). After reading Sean the CLF Delegate’s description, I am baffled about the intent and outcome of the exercise. It seems like a morass of process for process sake. Feh. (If you were there, please comment below.)

Not that I had high hopes; there were problems and cautions from the beginning.

  1. Even the relatively low Open Space turnout was gigantic compared to anything I’ve seen trying to use similar techniques.
  2. The information sent out ahead of time — and it seems some never got it — didn’t have enough detail to prepare participants.
  3. Thus there was no way for people to shout out what they hoped to accomplish.
  4. This sounds like The Next Big Idea That Goes Nowhere; it’s easy to become cynical as a Unitarian Universalist.
  5. Big name speakers are a tempting draw away from the process.
  6. The interleafing of “regular programming” with Open Space sessions probably upset both.
  7. I didn’t see much permission-giving — apart from the Law of Personal Mobility — for participants to own the process.
  8. The goal of the process wasn’t (and isn’t) clear.
  9. Old process habits (leading to grand, vague slogans) die hard.
  10. But the goal was directed to the UUA Board, and not the participants’ own needs, which probably discouraged some people from attending.

I know that a similar process — gathered in what are often called Unconferences — have amazing powers to help people self-organize as mutual teachers and learners.

I think that an Unconference model can help groups smaller than General Assembly but I’m worried that this experience has poisoned it for those who might otherwise be interested.

OK, I’m not done, but I’m zonked. Early to bed, and I’ll pick this up tomorrow.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Scott, you nailed it.

    The final step in Open Space at GA was voting on up to five of the 30 proposed slogans? mission statements? goals? to send to the Board. As I was handed the ballot, a sudden anger welled up in me. This was a ridiculously unrelated result to the whole process. I felt like we were told we would be learning to grow tomatoes and at the end were asked to polka for the benefit of the Board.

    I wrote an impassioned abstention on my “ScanTron” form, an admittedly useless gesture as the computer reading it will merely ignore my writing. But in the heat of the moment, it was what I needed to do.

    I fully intend to write a more reasoned letter in the future about how OST at GA was a pig in a poke. I do not fault OST at all. When done according to the rules set out by its designer, I’m sure it is a fine facilitation procedure. The power of committed people in small groups is amazing; to take that power and waste it on milquetoast one-liners was painful to see. But many OST rules were broken. Perhaps it is unfair to even call it Open Space when we changed it so much.

    This begs the question: why did the GA organizers decide they needed to fiddle with a fairly proven technique? As UUs, we often decide that we are so smart, so special, so unique, that we can do it better than other groups, other churches. Argh.

  2. Scott,
    I agree with you about the “advanced billing” of Open Space. I decided to ignore the whole thing from the beginning. There wasn’t a whiff of enough information about what it was and I had a prior engagement in Portland with some folks during the Open Space orientation. It also seems like it is NOT the type of thing to do during GA as usual but INSTEAD of GA as usual.

  3. Pardon my interruption. As a longtime open space facilitator, and former neighbor of SKSU and GTU in Berkeley, I was curious how your conference would go.

    I also felt the concerns that I had read here and that Kaliya (unconference) raised. And I saw the matrix of dozens of OST sessions created at the conference, which may indicate what a full fledged OST conference could look like in the organization’s future.

    I’m glad for the clarity that this should not be “blamed” on OST but rather this particular attempt at a hybrid design. Ah, we live and learn.

  4. While I agree with the problems, the group that I facilitated was a great success for those attending. It allowed people in small congregations with a real need for lay ministry resources to meet eachother, share resources, exchange contact info, and affirm the ministry model they aspire to — small churches with lay people doing hands on ministry.

    The downside was getting folded back into the larger process leaving action steps to the UUA.

  5. I started out with the OST process to see what it was about, and got hooked. Only, I got hooked thinking it was a different beast than it turned out to be! Louise, I completely agree with you about tomatoes and polkas! It was then frustrating to have the OST mean I missed programming that might have been more fruitful.

    I’ll just add a few more observations: (1) the initial OST session and the convergences were planned on top of some of the most important DRUUMM and AR/AO programming of the week. You can draw your own conclusions about who was then in the room…

    (2) Some of us were focused on things we wanted greater focus on (e.g. youth and young adult retention) and others focused on really trying to write a mission statement. The 104 statements mixed up goals, actions, and mission and the final 30 statements mixed up priorities and mission. I admit to being among those stuck on the priorities I see as most important (I’ll be honest, AR/AO and YaYA retention). If it had been clearer that this was more broad “mission” language, I wouldn’t have bothered going…

    (3) What I WAS interested was a real discussion among people about what our priorities should be. That never happened and is still frustrating to me. I stood up on Sunday morning and did my best to articulate (positively rather than my snarky temptation!) my hope that delegates would think about how they would implement what they were voting for, because it matters not where the board leads if we refuse to follow and put feet on the ground.

    (4) Oh, and randomly drawing the 12 topics from each initial session was just poorly thought out–why should something only one person in the room cares about be chosen and something most people in the room care about not be chosen? This should have been sticker voting, too. Wouldn’t have taken very long.

    But, there is the possibility that something useful will come of all of this. I changed my mind in major ways about OST about 5 times during GA. Between waiting for the tallied results and waiting to see the board work on that and then how that mission plays out, I expect to change my mind several more times in the next year, maybe two before reaching any “final” conclusion.

  6. I think this exercise will indeed be futile if we don’t listen to what was said in Plenary VII – the testamony on the statements. I didn’t attend, but I did watch the video. I think we need to tell our members and leaders to watch it, especially if any of their members participated in it. Many of the participants are people who are generally marginalized and this process gave them a voice. For it to really be a voice, though, we need to listen and give it some importance in our work in this movement. I did note one who said essentially that introverted youth & young adults have trouble having a voice in any of our process and we’re losing them. This was a very important statement to me. I’ve heard that there is a larger percentage of introverts than extroverts in our association than in the population at large. I’m an introvert who was given a voice through my UU faith and I’d love to help others find their voice, too. (Here’s my essay “Confessions of an Introvert” and a shorter version that was published in Freedom Xpress, “Finding the Courage”).

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