Open Space Principles

Tools of the Trade

Why is funding for the art better for everyone? That’s the latest issue that Devoted & Disgruntled – a collective of arts activists using Open Space Technology to breathe fresh thinking into old debates – settled to tackle earlier this week at the Battersea Arts Centre.

I sadly had to miss out, but I got to hear more about D&D at the Owning the Arts conference directly from its founder, Phelim McDermott (also Artistic Director of Improbable).

For nearly 10 years, D&D have been offering free, drop-in events to the theatre community – and increasingly the wider arts sector – using Open Space Technology to “connect communities, inspire practitioners and open the door for change”. It’s a conference without an agenda, without keynote speeches, without even an organiser. People gather, decide which topics they will work, divide into sessions, and are free to move from one group to another, at any time. Each D&D event produces a bunch of reports (currently over 1,000 available for download), which can constitute a starting point for further research and debate, policy-making, manifesto-writing, collaboration and probably many other things.

While I knew a little about Open Space Technology through its variants – such as UnConvention, the grassroot music industry unconference which inaugural event I attended in Salford in 2008 and has now reached over 60 editions all over the world, and various specialised Camps such as BarCamp – it was great to hear about it directly from Phelim, who is not just using it for D&D events but has also completely embedded its principles into the creative process of his theatre company.

Open Space Technology was devised by Harrison Owen in the 1980s. It relied on 5 guiding principles and 1 law, brought to life by Phelim in his lively presentation. They don’t just apply to running a debate about arts funding or collaborating towards technological or social innovation: they can be adopted and adapted to shape organisational structures and community relations.


If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else.


1. Whoever comes is the right people

It’s all about the invitation: people who care will come, and it’s their contribution matters.

2. Whenever it starts is the right time

Creativity doesn’t happen by the clock. The right moment – kairos – is what counts.

3. Wherever it happens is the right place

This is another way to say that it can happen anywhere, and that even a conventional meeting – or organisational structure, or communication system – can be transformed in Open Space.

4. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have

It’s not about “ifs” and “whens”: action must be grounded in reality.

5. When it’s over, it’s over

Or “do the work, not the time”. Knowing when to call it a day is a valuable skill.

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Open Space is also a way to think differently about collaboration, by accepting that dissenting voices are a fully integral part of a discussion, and that a strong, resilient community is able to hold within itself what is actually against it.

It also comes with a word of warning about the danger of setting outcomes. As stated on the Wikipedia entry, Open Space is a purpose-led method, and while the invitation to the meeting will articulate this purpose, it will not set goals or outcomes for the day. Being too intent on a outcome can be counter-productive and stifle the creative and discursive process.

Here is a video made by The Art of Hosting that explains all of this pretty well:

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And a few participant quotes from D&D’s website:

“D&D is genuine horizontal engagement! (No – not that kind… unless I’ve been going to the wrong sessions). I genuinely thought I wouldn’t like D&D. It sounds too good to be true. I won’t start wheeling out the clichés but D&D is the biggest circle of people I have ever sat in. And that’s worth something.”
– Rachel Briscoe

“Don’t waste time resisting, like I did. Resistance is futile; presence is fertile. You should come.”
– Chris Goode

“ … everyone is there on equal terms, whether you’re the artistic director of a major regional theatre or a first-year student just beginning to make work. In a theatre world that is often competitive and jealously guards knowledge like a miser, this is a place where expertise and experience are shared with real generosity and no strings attached. Devoted & Disgruntled is not just a talking shop – it actually spurs action and initiatives such as mentoring schemes, the sharing of skills and spaces, and people coming together creatively and making work.”
– Lyn Gardner

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For more on Open Space Technology, Open Space World is an enthusiastic online volunteer community sharing resources in several languages – such as case studies, good practice examples and a facilitator directory.

Fitter, Happier, More Productive

Tools of the Trade

Imagine a workplace where people are energised and motivated by being in control of the work they do. Imagine they are trusted and given freedom, within clear guidelines, to decide how to achieve their results. Imagine they get the work/life balance they want. Imagine they are valued according to the work they do, rather than the number of hours they spend at their desk.

Introduction to The Happy Manifesto by Henry Stewart, CEO, Happy Ltd.


Work Better: The Happy Manifesto

What makes a workplace a happy one? Is there a recipe that can help to get it right? That’s what Henry Stewart set out to uncover in the Happy Manifesto, a workplace management handbook largely based on his experience developing his own company. Happy Ltd. started in 1998 as an IT training provider and now also provides individual and organisational development.

The 2013 book (available for free as a pdf) is full of tips on change management backed up by examples from Happy and other companies, ranging from hiring and firing to corporate volunteering, giving feedback, coaching and internal communications. It’s not just about flexible hours or more office parties: it’s about creating and maintaining an organisational culture where people are put first, hierarchical assumptions challenged and decision-making processes revisited.

The foundational value is trust: this implies expecting the best out of people, creating a no-blame culture that celebrates mistakes as steps in the learning process and hiring for attitude and potential (not solely on the basis of qualifications). Openness of information, transparency in the decision-making process, freedom to find the best way to achieve goals are other great principles to ensure that work is a fair and enjoyable environment.

Outside the workplace, opportunities to create a social impact – for example through corporate volunteering – are mutually beneficial to the community and the company, as staff get to learn new skills through giving time to their chosen projects. Long hours should not be seen as a sign of commitment but rather a symptom of poor time management; this shift in attitude can help both achieve a healthy work/life balance and improve productivity.

Stewart’s final tip is to select managers who are actually good at managing other people, and to create other rewarding senior positions for people who are good at their job, but not so with people. Happy Ltd. employees get to elect their department heads and can also choose themselves their direct line manager.


Business Innovation in the Arts

Transforming the structure and culture of an existing organisation can be a long, introspective and experimental process that requires a strong leadership drive. Mission Models Money’s 2010 report, Capital Matters, which investigates the future of funding and financing in the arts, links successful business models to creative, flexible and entrepreneurial organisational mindsets.

One of the key case studies presented in the report, Battersea Arts Centre, is a performing arts venue that has set itself the mission of “inventing the future of theatre” – which also implies reinventing the way they operate as an organisation. BAC’s radical structural transformation is driven by a mission-led and project-based approach, with constant prototyping and evaluation – what they call ‘scratch’ – as their underlying philosophy. For example, the production, technical and operational management teams are now joined up to form a “strategic programming team” that bypasses departmental divisions and can be reconfigured flexibly to respond to project needs. Budget management is everyone’s business and income generation is seen as a creative endeavour, on the model of a social enterprise. Their innovations are detailed on their website, from restoring the building – a Grade II*-listed Victorian former Town Hall – to presenting work-in-progress, supporting young producers, developing a collaborative touring network across the UK and empowering young people to turn their ideas into reality.

MMM describes BAC as “a living experiment in business innovation”, and the factors and values that enabled the organisation to transition to a new model resonate with the Happy principles: shared ownership, continuous learning, personal growth and collective innovation. One of the objectives of the process was to “reduce high levels of overworking among current staff”, and two other examples in the case point towards innovative people management and staff satisfaction:

  • Interns are being replaced by Apprentices who rotate through different activities within the organisation as a way of building capacity and matching aspirations and opportunity;
  • All staff are responsible for customer care no matter where they are in the building or the hierarchy and the front of house welcome is valued very highly.


Resources for Change  

Funding cuts, digital developments, changing audiences: there are many reasons for arts organisations to try not just to stay in the game, but to be truly innovative in the way they operate. As noted in the Capital Matters case study,Battersea Arts Centre changed their operational mode without using external consultants: staff and board members were committed to finding and implementing answers themselves. There’s plenty of self-help available out there, and I’ve listed a few resources below to learn, plan and implement.

Background Learning and Happiness Survey

Happiness is high on the agenda of the new economics foundation: they have developed the Happy Planet Index as one of the first global measures of sustainable well-being, to supplement traditional rankings by GDP with data on life expectancy, experienced well-being and Ecological Footprint. They’re also conducting research on well-being at work and its correlation with efficiency. They have produced an online Happiness at Work Survey that can be tried out for free (and starts at £6 per licence for business use), as well as an accompanying literature review report that informed the survey and provides the theoretical and statistical background on well-being at work.

Peer Organisational Development Network

Mission Models Money is currently running re.volution, “a peer learning network which aims to radically reconfigure business & organisational development support for cultural and creative practice in the UK”. While staff well-being is not an explicit goal of the network, innovative thinking in organisational culture, governance and business model is: a different angle for the same outcome. Peers are expected to offer up to three days of their time per year to share their expertise and assist fellow peers across four key themes: renewing the mission;reconfiguring the business model;revising the approach to money; and developing leadership, culture and values – a cross cutting theme that supports all the others.

Leadership Training for the Arts

To respond to this last need, the Clore Leadership Programme has been running since 2004, offering subsided short residential courses to develop leadership skills as well as year-long fellowships for about 25 individuals a year. The sought-after fellowship includes residential courses, mentoring and a 3-month placement in an organisation very different from the Fellow’s usual working environment. As Clore programmes aim at developing leaders, selection is based on attitude and abilities, rather than proven experience.