Adaptations of Facilitation Processes: The 30 Minute Open Space

Monday, May 20th, 2013

Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of two or three hours to facilitate a meaningful conversation.

IMG_1236 (2)

Sometimes you don’t even have an hour. Once, I had half an hour to foster a meaningful experience to 80 busy preschool parents who were meeting together for the first time. Mind you, these are parents sitting on those pint-sized chairs that look so cute when occupied by three year olds, but jam adult-sized knees dangerously skyward towards vulnerable chins!

So, I decided to host a 30 Minute Open Space.

MSS open space (2)

Open Space Agenda at Maple Street School

This goes pretty much against everything I was taught about the method: You need at least 2-3 hours, it’s ideal to have a few days, etc. But the parents didn’t know that’s what was required, and they certainly didn’t have that kind of time to spare. They needed to get back to their kids and jobs and everything else they were abandoning to come to this meeting, which also had to cover several other agenda items, as well. So, I facilitated a 30 Minute Open Space. That’s 30 minutes to introduce the process, invite parents to offer topics, form groups, and report back.

This is how I did it:

  • I told parents that I had never hosted an Open Space in such a short time, but that I believed we would be able to do it and get something out of it. The key was to frame it with energy and positivity and confidence right from the start. Participants take their cues from the facilitator.
  • I shared the four principles and law of mobility, but I didn’t worry about describing the roles of bumblebees and butterflies. I just encouraged people to follow their interests.
  • Because we were in a small, crowded space, hosts stood up to introduce their topic, which was then written on a piece of paper by an assistant and posted on the “marketplace” wall.
  • I distributed pre-designed note-taking sheets to each host so they had a template for documenting their discussions.
  • Report-backs to the full group were given in “headline” form.

So… how were the 30 minutes used? Here’s a rough breakdown:

Minutes 1-4: I explained the process.

Minutes 5-8: At least ten topics were generated.

Minutes 9-11: Groups found meeting spaces in multiple classrooms and hall and even the adjoining sidewalk.

Minutes 12-24: Parent actively engaged with one another, sharing resources, telling stories, building community.

Minutes 25-28: Folks returned to the full group, faces flushed with the excitement of newly developed connections, and shared key takeaways.

Minutes 29-30: The school’s director assured the community that there was time and resources to continue the pursue the topics they were exploring at a later time.

MSS open space places to meet (2)

Getting creative with available space!


And it worked! 

In half an hour we had strengthened a community, shared meaningful information, and developed a roadmap of topics to be explored in the future. My approach was a little more directive than how Open Space is often facilitated, but not overly so. I held space and helped people find the groups they wanted to join. I used a chime to help people know when it was time to regroup.

As facilitators what can we learn from this experience?

The processes live for us to use and tweak and adapt. We don’t live to use the processes.

Many months later, I’m still getting comments from parents that it was one of the best school meetings they’ve ever been to and that it helped foster a collaborative community culture.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *