Grid lines

8 August 2009 0 By Viv McWaters

There’s been an interesting discussion on the OS-LIST about grid lines. For the uninitiated, open space events allow participants to create their own agenda and self organise.

iStock_orange dancefloor

The question is whether or not to use grid lines on the agenda wall (indicating times and spaces) to make it easier to see what’s on, when and where. Sounds logical. But…

I’ve only used grid lines once – when I facilitated my very first open space. Since then I’ve always preferred to use different coloured sticky notes to indicate different times, and the topics posted under the same coloured sticky on the agenda wall, any which way.

My main concern with a grid is that it’s like an incomplete sudoku – suggesting a right and wrong way, and that all the spaces created by the grid need to be filled. And we know that’s not true. It also raises the complementary question of what to do with more topics than you anticipated. Open space is challenging enough for a lot of people without setting up a failure scenario before they have even started the main game of talking to each other about what matters.


Larry Peterson reflects my own views very well (maybe I even learnt them from him!): The only “grid” I use is the one I put the post-its on.  I prefer the free form posting of topics on the wall, and maybe some splitting of Day 1 and Day 2.  For me, the chaos at the wall is intentional and if it’s not there, then the benefits of being at the “edge of chaos” are not achieved.  People have to use their intuition as well as logic when deciding what topic to pursue. It is clearly not a traditional agenda.

And Harrison Owen adds another dimension (as he usually does): But the underlying issue for me here is not about orderly process and methodology but rather the essential conditions for really juicy and creative engagements – which in my experience are always messy. When you actually know what you are doing, you can afford to put things in pre-defined boxes. They won’t always fit, and indeed usually don’t – but it at least seems like everything is in order. On the other hand, when you are out on the edges of things – that predetermined order simply goes to hell. And I think that is a very good thing! The trick is to fabricate a container that is so flexible that it can deal with just about anything. I think we have learned to do a pretty good job of that – but it is not about grids or no grids. The real secret, as I think about it, is that the group becomes its own container and we are the encouragers.

While this discussion outwardly focuses on the *mechanics* of open space, I think it also reflects how we, as facilitators, often feel about holding space. Holding space is hard to explain – it looks, to a casual observer, as if you are doing nothing at all. Easier to be seen to have *prepared* well, by having a neat grid in place to demonstrate just how organised you are. While well intentioned, it is detrimental to everybody – to you as the facilitator having stepped into being ‘helpful’, and to the participants who are let off the hook. Lesley Symons captures this well: It is my sense of things that the more we order….the more we take away from the process……..however this can be very uncomfortable for us(facilitator).

And another piece of the puzzle from Harrison: The issue is not “organization” – but who does it and when does it happen? The truth of the matter is that every Open Space is highly organized, usually more so than any facilitator or planning committee could ever imagine. [So] the real issue is efficiency and effectiveness. In that case the only question is how do you get there fastest and bestest? The curious answer would seem to be Do Less!