Practicing the Fine Art of Doing Nothing: A Knowledge Mobilizer’s Introduction to Open Space Facilitation / L’art subtil de ne rien faire : L’animation d’un forum ouvert expliquée par une courtière de connaissances

Lindsey Thomson, RIR-Guelph
Lindsey Thomson, Community Engaged Learning Manager at the Institute for Community Engaged Scholarship, University of Guelph, reflects on Open Space facilitation and knowledge mobilization.
Lindsey Thomson, responsable de l’apprentissage tourné vers la communauté à l’Institute for Community Engaged Scholarship de l’Université de Guelph, offre des pistes de réflexion sur l’animation d’un forum ouvert et la mobilisation des connaissances. 
Lindsey ThomsonBeing relatively new to the role of knowledge brokering and mobilization, I am often on the lookout for new skills and practices to enhance knowledge flows and the brokering of relationships – in my case, in the world of university-community collaborations in research at the University of Guelph.
Over the previous 8 years I have been fortunate enough to work my way up through school to achieve (and survive) a graduate level education which, not surprisingly, included multiple thesis projects, more course work and community research experience than I would have ever thought I could handle at one time, and eventually beginning my career in program evaluation. I believed that there was no way these experiences could not have prepared me well for my current career in knowledge mobilization. I believed that intervening with the major pieces of knowledge and skills I had acquired over the years was always necessary to facilitate successful partnerships in research. Much to my surprise, one Open Space Facilitation workshop I attended this month has led me to seriously reconsider this thought and instead feel that mastering the fine art of doing nothing at the right time and in the right place can sometimes be just as (if not more) valuable as jumping in and facilitating the heck out of a situation.
Okay, wait. So, after all of these years of education and training in individual and community-level interventions for the betterment of society and quality of life, I can effectively (and perhaps MORE effectively) facilitate community action and change by… doing… nothing? WOW.
Now, this was my initial reaction to the content of the workshop. Luckily, the story does not stop there and there is much more to ‘doing nothing’ as a facilitator at an Open Space event than one would initially assume.
Open Space Technology was born out of creator Harrison Owen’s observation that the most ‘useful’ part of conferences were often the coffee breaks. His goal with open space was to foster this same level of energy and self-organization of people and make this into an event in itself through meeting structures that encourage a more horizontal organization of people and their ideas (e.g. sitting in a circle, giving everyone the opportunity to post session topics, democratic prioritization of next steps, etc.). Rather than sending in a professional facilitator to lead discussions or spending hours upon hours devising a conference program, Owen instead decided that the full range of stakeholders in attendance should be responsible for setting their own agenda for the day (or multiple days). Situations that lend themselves well to Open Space Technology include a diverse group of participants who must deal with a complex issue for which no one has a single, clear answer.
The principles of open space technology are simple:
1. Whoever comes are the right people
2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened.
3. When it starts is the right time
4. When it’s over it’s over
Informing the flow of the meeting and conduct of participants is also The Law of Two Feet: If you find yourself in a situation where you are not contributing or learning, move somewhere where you can.
Learning about Open Space has not prompted me to discount the learnings I have been privileged enough and worked hard (oh so very hard!) to accumulate over the years – it has simply sparked an important moment of questioning of some of the fundamental assumptions about what it has come to mean for me to be an effective social worker, facilitator, community researcher, and knowledge mobilizer.
The idea of ‘holding space’ and its contrast with more traditional ideas of facilitation was the big ‘take home’ message for me. To ‘hold space’ is to engage a leadership style that feels unfamiliar and is more concerned with being rather than doing. To ‘hold space’ is to be present in a fully authentic manner and to go let go of any attachment you may have to a certain set of outcomes for the meeting. In Open Space, knowledge mobilization is less about an innate urge innate urge to intervene and occupy a more traditional leadership role and instead is very much about the creation of important safe and open spaces for knowledge sharing, with the utmost trust in attendees to self-organize and to effectively and efficiently address issues most important to them.
As a knowledge mobilizer and broker it now feels very worthwhile, freeing, and advantageous to ‘hold space’ in which university-community collaborations can be shaped by those most impacted by their content and function. I look forward to incorporating the fine art of doing nothing into my current and future work as a knowledge mobilizer!
Owen, H. 2008. Open space technology: A user’s guide (3rd Edition). Berrett-Koehler: San Francisco.
Corrigan,  C. (n. d.). Open space technology. Retrieved from