Leading my first open space gathering…

…and killing zombies.

During the open space gathering, Emily Muhlbach, development services communications coordinator at the City of Cedar Rapids, nominated a session about how citizens and other groups can work with the city.

This afternoon, a group of volunteers, nonprofit leaders and city officials got together to discuss the issue of abandoned houses in Cedar Rapids – sometimes called “zombie homes.”

It was a continuation of a project I worked on at Startup Weekend, where we built the website nozombiehomes.co. As I’ve said before, it was amazing to see a large team rally around a project designed to empower neighborhoods. But after the rush of the weekend was over, we were facing the question all Startup Weekend teams must face:

Now what?

We decided to host a single gathering to get all interested groups up to speed and on the same page. Those of us from the Startup Weekend team who wanted to carry on (about six of the 10) were there, and we invited city leaders, nonprofits like Matthew 25, Save CR Heritage, the Affordable Housing Network and others, and a few bankers and real estate agents.

While there were some who never responded and some who couldn’t make it due to inevitable scheduling conflicts, it seemed like a very useful meeting. And that’s not just me saying that. When we asked everyone to share a thought at the end, this is what we heard:

“Productive.”

“Partnerships.”

“Inspiring.”

“Fun.”

“Informative.”

“Energizing.”

How many hour and a half long meetings can claim all that?

I promise, this is zero percent due to my meeting leading skills. These results were thanks to technique we tried called open space technology. This technique was introduced to us by Peggy Holman, executive director and co-founder of Journalism That Matters.

Basically, open space is a mode of gathering that lets the people in the room guide the conversation and take responsibility for what does or doesn’t happen. The video below starts to explain:

“People would go to the meetings, and somebody would say, ‘this is what we’re going to talk about at the meeting.’ Then they’d go on coffee break and talk about what they really wanted to talk about.”

“Open space shifts from someone saying ‘this is the conversation we’re having,’ to inviting the people who are there, whether it’s the employees or the community or whatever, to say ‘what’s important to us, what do we want to talk about.’”

I’ll admit, when Holman first shared this idea with us, I was skeptical. We already had one huge “what next” question to answer! Wouldn’t opening the floor to more questions and comments just be a big messy distraction?

Holman told us that many open space gatherings happen over a day or two, but assured us that we could get results in the 90 minutes we had set aside.

The basic steps we followed were:

1. A brief recap of what we had built at Startup Weekend and why we wanted to explore the issue.
2. Having everyone in the room introduce themselves to someone they didn’t know, and share why they had wanted to participate.
3. Invited people to post as many topics or questions as they wanted on the wall.
4. Had the attendees organize into groups around these topics (like breakout sessions at a conference), and gave them about 40 minutes to discuss their topic or question.
5. Had each group report back to the full room, focusing on one key highlight, a next step for their topic and who would be leading that next step (whether it was someone in the group or someone they would contact).
6. Closed the gathering by having everyone share one word or thought that struck them.

Using this method, we were able to have concentric conversations about engaging and empowering neighborhoods, marketing our new website, working with the city and forming other partnerships, and logistics and operation for the fledgling idea. This was so much more than we could have accomplished if we had walked in with a set agenda. And, the responsibility for carrying all these ideas forward is spread throughout the group, instead of being automatically placed on me as the meeting’s organizer.

While the We Create Here team works to build out our community building capabilities, open space is definitely a tool I’ll keep in mind. I’m certainly not an expert after one meeting (there’s tons of information about the technique online if you want to learn more), but it was exciting to see how people responded.

Oh, and if you want to help us kill zombies, just drop me a note.