Casa Weekly

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Open Space at CatComm

Yesterday we undertook a new experiment at Catalytic Communities, inspired by a friend and collaborator, Michael Herman. I met Michael last July at the Omidyar Network conference in Chicago, Illinois. This three-day conference was organized according to Open Space Technology and facilitated by Michael. Open Space is "a method of organizing meetings (immediately) and leading movements (longer term) so that ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things, in record time."

Every three months, CatComm's staff spends a day away from the Casa or our home offices discussing accomplishments over the previous 3 months and new objectives for the following period. Thanks to a recent brainstorm with Michael we were able to experiment with Open Space for the first time. And the approach was overwhelmingly successful. The level of creative thought and exchange, and the sentiment of collaboration among staff, were all heightened. And I expect this to grow as we train and experiment in Open Space. What most surprised me was what the naturally positive approach inherent in Open Space taught me about how I had been handling things in the past...

The Open Space process began through a staff brainstorm of "What works at Catalytic Communities? What do we do well?"

As a staff...
• We take our work seriously, we are committed;
• We are always analyzing ourselves and our work to improve on it;
• We are functioning very well as a team;
• We are learning to work amidst obstacles;
• All staff are capable of answering on behalf of the organization, all of us have dominion over the process due to effective internal communication;
• We have successfully attracted a highly qualified and dedicated intern this year, to provide key support from June-August;

On our website...
• We are constantly working to improve our tools; we are engaged in a constant process of improving the CatComm site;
• Through an intense three-month process, we are finalizing a new, highly improved and user-friendly questionnaire on the Community Solutions Database, that will lead to expanded use of the site directly by communities;
• We make it possible for the media to find positive community stories;
• We are seeing increasing communication amongst projects on our website;
• English-language projects on the CatComm site are increasingly accessed;

At the Casa...
• The Casa's technology center works well - there are always leaders using the space;
• We are very effective in our network building;
• We strengthen community leaders' capability to develop their local projects through the Casa;
• We help community leaders recognize the importance of their own work and lift their self-esteem as we recognize their work at the Casa and through the CatComm site;
• Some community leaders at the Casa take it upon themselves to present the space to others;
• Other NGOs refer community leaders to CatComm; the organization has become a reference in this area;
• We attract increasing numbers of community leaders, and from distant locations, in addition to students, musicians, journalists and others that are inspired to develop social programs after they visit the Casa;
• We are receiving an increasing number of phone calls from the public wanting to learn more about CatComm.

From this simple brainstorm, each staff member noted on a piece of paper a topic they wanted to moderate during the afternoon, with the intention of answering the question: "How do we make more good things happen at CatComm?"

The afternoon was then led by staff focusing on the following themes they chose as central in improving our work:
1. Improving the visual design of the CatComm site by simplifying it, improving navigation and user-friendliness, with a focus on how to visually integrate our mission of network-building into the site.
2. Attracting and developing volunteers to teach IT courses at the Casa.
3. Developing printed outreach materials including a general organizational brochure and a "kit" for community leaders who come into contact with the Casa.

Other topics -- including improving communication among staff, how to increase press usage of the site, objectives-setting, and developing internal processes among staff to alter and manage the website's content -- were left for staff meetings to be held in July.

In addition to focusing staff attention where staff were naturally interested, and on building on the positive in what we're doing, Open Space also empowered staff to take control of the meeting. We will be incorporating Open Space into future open meetings held at the Casa with community leaders. Of course there topics will not be as imaginable as among staff with a clear common mission. As a result, we expect that implementing Open Space in open community meetings will result in exciting and unexpected collaborations and discussions.

As the director of CatComm I was refreshed to see staff taking control of the meeting... I was fascinated by the topics that came up naturally, as they are different to those I would have posed, but are perhaps closer to the pulse of what is really important...

Mostly, however, I was amazed to discover that in the past our staff focus has often been on the negative -- "what have we not accomplished that we had planned to and why?" By asking the opposite question -- "what have we accomplished and how can we do more of that?" -- one arrives at the same answers, but through an empowering process rather than one that is disempowering. At the end of the meeting staff confided that they sometimes have trouble filling out weekly reports because they naturally focus on what they haven't been able to do, rather than what they have accomplished, that week. Using Open Space brought out this vital realization, and so much more. Poof! And I cannot be more grateful that we discovered this amazing tool.