From Open Space to Action in 10 hours

A Dialogue Mapping Case Study

Introduction

In this article I am going to tell the story of a recent engagement where Open Space Technology was used in conjunction with Dialogue Mapping to co-create a strategy. It was a good outcome, fast, collaborative and a great example of real-world sense-making that produced high value, tangible outputs using the right tools at the right time.

Given it is a case study, I have to explain the context before I detail how it was done. So apologies that it is not a 4 minute read, but if you have an interest in Open Space, Co-creation, Compendium Software or Dialogue Mapping, I think you might get something out of it. Besides, there are not enough good case studies out there and it’s time to rectify this.

Setting the scene

In late 2016, I was engaged to help a University produce a 5 year strategy for their student orientation program. Considering the sheer variety of incoming students (e.g. age, culture, tech literacy and levels of social media addiction), it is easy to see how important it is for universities to get this right. Not only do they want students to feel welcome, they need to shape their expectations and ensure they feel their fees are well-spent.

Now this might not sound too bad, but consider the backdrop of disruption that many Universities are facing, including:

  • Increasing expectations of students for value-for-money given the plethora of high quality online resources (such as MOOC) that are free or low cost.
  • Changing industry views on the value of degrees, where organizations are increasingly no longer requiring them when considering new hires
  • Students opting not to spend time on campus, resulting in a lack of vibrancy on campus
  • Changes to funding models and course structures which affect student mix
  • The perennial duplication, red-tape and information overload issues associated with autonomous faculties with differing systems and processes.

Okay so now things get murkier, especially when you consider that orientation requires extensive collaboration and co-ordination across the entire university. In other words, there are lots (and lots) of stakeholders here with divergent world-views. Definitely elements of a wicked problem here…

The Open Space bit…

Given the challenge, this particular university opted to run an Open Space Technology event as the starting point. Open Space Technology, for the uninitiated, is an approach to hosting workshops or meetings without any formal agenda. Instead of an agenda, people convene around a unifying theme, and then identify specific topics within the theme that are important to them. The video below explains this quite succinctly

In this case study, the theme revolved around

“ideas, thoughts and visions of what the orientation program might look like if we had no constraints or previous designs.”

In Open Space, once topics are identified by participants, they are then discussed in breakout areas with “minutes” captured on flip charts. I found a nice video which I feel captures the essence of what this part of Open Space looks like in reality. In this video, you can see various breakout groups in rich conversation as they explore different topics.

Credit: Deborah Nystrom: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LnumrXvkpU4

In my experience, there are two great strengths of Open Space. First it can scale really well. I cannot think of any other method for problem solving that can handle hundreds, if not thousands of people. The only constraint seems to be the size of the space to accommodate breakout areas. Secondly, it can enable some very serendipitous, yet deeply rich conversations due to the way it brings various people together. In short, if done right, it creates the right conditions for rich dialogue to happen.

No method is perfect of course, and in the case of Open Space, I feel there is a weakness in the “where to next?” side of things. You see, the tangible outputs of an Open Space is a document commonly referred to as a “Book Of Proceedings”. This usually takes the form of a word document that has been derived from taking all of the flip-chart output from the day and typing it up. Why is this a problem? Well think about what a couple of hundred pages of flip chart with hand-scrawled notes like the example below and imagine typing that into a document.

By Hzhang47 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I suspect this happens because of an irony of rich dialogue. Sometimes we get so engaged, we forget to take notes and rush to put something up at the last minute. But even without that issue, it is very hard to reduce a rich conversation into a few bullet points without it sounding like a platitude. For example, imagine sharing a rich, insightful story that has a strong lesson about communication. Such a story might be reduced to a bullet point labelled “communication is *key*!!!” — deep, eh?

In the case of this University, there were more than twenty breakout sessions, each answering different questions. These were transcribed and compiled into a word document which was distributed to all participants and other interested parties. While these notes were a useful artifact of the event, it was by no means an orientation strategy.

Fortunately, the Open Space facilitator foresaw this issue and recommended me to the executive sponsor to pick up where the Open Space event left off.

Divergence is the easy bit…

I met with the sponsor of the Orientation Strategy and over a coffee, he made it clear he needed two things. Firstly, a succinct, single page strategy that identified all of the orientation goals and objectives that had to be met. Secondly, he needed a program of initiatives or activities that aligned to those goals and objectives. Without these, making a robust business case for more funding was a big challenge.

There are many templates and models for developing single page strategies. One has to simply search google images or Pinterest to see examples. In this case I was less interested in finding the perfect template at this early stage, but in my mind’s eye I saw a model similar to the one below.

Two groups owned the Orientation Program — a steering group chaired by the executive sponsor and a working group that focused on operational matters. Each group numbered around 15 members and included representatives from across the university. Unfortunately, not all members of these groups were able to participate in the Open Space event.

In short, I had to take the Book of Proceedings, and work with these two teams to collaboratively build a strategy. In my mind, I envisioned the engagement looking something like the image below. On the left was the divergent work that had already been done: the Open Space ideas and outputs in the form of the Book of Proceedings, and on the right the convergence to a strategy and initiatives.

By the way, did I mention that I only had a single 2 hour slot with both groups and 10 hours to complete it?

Flipchart image on top-left credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/53326337@N00/8677900443

Enter Compendium and Dialogue Mapping

Dialogue Mapping at its heart is a facilitation process where I create a visual map that captures and connects participants' contributions as a conversation unfolds. A session would look like the drawing below, where the group are focused on a shared display — likely a projector screen—and as they discuss issues, I capture the discussion using a visual representation known as IBIS (Issue Based Information System). This notation breaks conversation down into questions, ideas (answers), pros and cons.

One of the great strengths of Dialogue Mapping is how well it can negate many of the issues that trip up meetings on complex issues. For one, it reduces a lot of repetition and disagreements as participants have a facilitator and a visual aid to understand the problem.

Another great strength of Dialogue Mapping is that it is supported by dedicated software called Compendium that, as you will soon see, has particular capabilities that make it incredibly well suited to rapid synthesis of complex issues into clarity.

In relation to this case study, I had a single two-hour window where I would have all thirty members of the combined steering/working groups in the room. I had to make this count…

Making sense of (and honoring) the Book of Proceedings…

Recall this was a decision-making group of some 30 people, where I only had two hours with all of them. To complicate matters, some participants did not have the tacit experience of the Open Space event. I was therefore concerned the Dialogue Mapping session could deteriorate into “Open Space 2.0” in the sense that participants would end up covering the ground that was covered in the Open Space. Instead, what I needed them to do was focus on what the results of the Open Space were telling them. In other words, distilling the themes, patterns and signals from the minutiae.

Unfortunately I was not able to attend the Open Space, thus my starting point was also the Book of Proceedings. Around 75 people attended so the book contained a lot of information — it was the literal transcription of flip charts into a document.

I decided to map the Book of Proceedings into Compendium using the IBIS notation for two reasons. Firstly, as a facilitator it would help me get a feel for the territory covered by the Open Space sessions. Secondly, I had a feeling I would be using these maps with participants later.

The diagram below shows the process I used. For each breakout session in the Book of Proceedings (the left image shows one such session), I created a simple IBIS map (the middle image). This was a straight-up copy and paste from Word except now each breakout session was in a map format. Finally, I “reverse engineered” the map by grouping nodes based on whether I felt they were issues, opportunities/actions or simply context.

How each Book of Proceedings was broken into issues, opportunities and context.

The process of distilling comments into issues, opportunities or context was actually quite easy. For example, in a breakout session about early engagement of new students, here were some points written and how I interpreted them:

  • “Use technology more — maybe in campus tour” to me was an opportunity, because it clearly suggests a course of action.
  • “Our marketing is about [redacted] but we don’t build on it once here” is an issue as it describes a problem without offering a solution.
  • “They all have interests and passions — tap into them” is context principally because it was too vague to be an issue and not really an actionable opportunity.

Next I wanted to get a sense of the degree of overlap that existed with the issues and opportunities. After all, even though there were more than 20 breakout sessions answering different questions, there were bound to be common themes in the issues cited and the actions suggested.

To find this out, I leveraged one of the great strengths of the Compendium software: the ability to have the same nodes in different maps, which is illustrated in the diagram below. The left side shows 3 separate breakout session IBIS maps. I copied all of the issue nodes from the breakout sessions into a single larger map (on the right). Although it is not shown below, I followed the same process with the nodes that I marked as opportunities as well, resulting in two large maps. You will see why I did this toward the end of this article.

The net result of this work was two large maps that consolidated the outputs of every breakout session. One map had all of the issue nodes and the other had all the opportunity nodes. As I scanned through these consolidated maps, I saw a lot of similar themes emerging and noted that despite all of the different breakout sessions, many map nodes were saying much the same thing.

At this point I stopped. Although I could have continued this process by grouping related nodes together and removing duplicates, it was not my job. I needed the workshop participants to do that. The question was how…

Asking Good Questions

Once I had a sense of the Book of Proceedings, it was time to plan the initial workshop with the 30 decision makers. Now I do a fair bit of strategy work these days (and read various strategy books in an attempt to get better at this dark art). Amongst the plethora of tools, models, questions and steps that a plethora of management guru’s suggest, I’ve come to a couple of conclusions:

  1. Asking direct questions (such as “What should our vision be?”) is highly inefficient.
  2. By asking only two powerful questions, you are halfway to delivering a great strategy.
The Heretic’s Guide to Management Book (hereticsguidebooks.com)

Now there are of course various important caveats and qualifications for my two contentions. Unfortunately, it would take us too far afield to cover them all now, so I recommend you see what you can glean from this case study. Of course, for the definitive answer, you can always read my book to learn all about harnessing ambiguity!

Anyway, the two questions I decided would dominate the group workshop were:

  1. What key things emerged from the Open Space that should have a lot of focus?
  2. If the Orientation strategy goes really well in 2017 and beyond, how will things be different?

The intent behind the first question was to bring a discerning lens to the open space outputs. Importantly, it also allowed the possibility that the group might notice stuff that was not present in the Open Space output (i.e potential blind spots of that group of people).

The second question (which I also call the “Platitude Buster” question) is an extremely useful way to keep people focused on the end goal because it invites answers like “Increased X”, “Eliminating Y” or “Change in behaviour of Z”. This can give insight into potential ways in which one can measure success.

I call it the “platitude buster” because of its utility in dealing with dodgy management platitudes like “best practice collaboration”, “organisational excellence” or “big data analytics.” For example, instead of asking “What do we mean by big data analytics?” one asks “So if we had big data analytics, how would things be different to now?” This allows you to unpack what the platitude means by focusing on what it is supposed to achieve instead of getting bogged down in an unproductive definition-fest. That alone is the gift that keeps on giving!

Mapping the Dialogue…

Armed with my questions, I organised for printed copies of the original Book of Proceedings. In the first part of the workshop, I asked participants to spend 10 minutes reading through the book in silent contemplation, and to make notes on anything they considered important.

I then asked the group to discuss the first question: What key things emerged from the Open Space that should have a lot of focus?

It did not take long for a rich conversation to unfold as participants explained their takeaways from the event and the subsequent Book of Proceedings. During this conversation, participants who did not attend the Open Space, gained a lot of context about the vibe the event, while being able to offer a reflective “outside” perspective to those who did attend.

The small image above is a zoomed out version of the original dialogue map for this question. It illustrates how IBIS and dialogue mapping captures a lot of information in a short amount of time.

The key takeaway here that I want to emphasise is not just the map artifact, but the way I mapped this conversation. I was on the lookout for two conversational patterns that Dialogue Mappers are trained to hear. I was listening for themes and opportunities and I mapped the conversation to draw them out.

The image below shows a redacted branch of a small part of the conversation above and illustrates another strength of Dialogue Mapping. Even though I have not explained the IBIS notation, you should find the map below easy to read and follow. In this conversation, you can see an issue that was named via an answer to my root question on the left. The group unpacked the issue by looking at its impact (pros and cons), but also potential solutions.

Note my use of the question nodes called “Opportunities?” and “Theme?” Essentially, any time I heard a suggestion that felt like a potential course of action, I asked the group whether this was an opportunity we should be exploring — hence it became an answer to the opportunity question. When I heard a reflective “you know what this is really about…” type of comment, I asked the group whether this was a theme that was underpinning this issue.

As you will see later, calling out opportunities and themes in this way has a lot of benefit in time saving and later synthesis into a strategy.

Anyway, once the conversation was saturated around the first question, I asked the group the second question about how future strategy success would be different to now. This question also elicited a very rich dialogue map with all sorts of potential measures or indicators of future success, ranging from process innovation to different behaviors across both a short and long term viewpoint. Like the previous question, I was very careful to call out and capture themes and opportunities in the map.

The group spent a good hour discussing this question before it too, was saturated. I ended this part of the session by asking the group to reflect on what the entire conversation was telling them — in other words, any themes behind the themes discussed thus far. After capturing these “core themes” I showed them a prepared map that looked similar to the one below. This map reiterated the progress made thus far and reminded them what the end in mind was.

It should be noted the images on the right, showing a single page strategy and a schedule, were thumbnails so the group were unable to see the detail. This was deliberate because I did not want the group anchoring to a template, yet I still needed them to have a clear understanding of the journey ahead.

At this point I stopped and asked the group “So what do you think the next steps should be?”

Now truth be told, I was hoping like hell the group would nominate a sub-group to work with me on the next tasks. Recall that I had already mapped the Book of Proceedings into issues and opportunities, and I wanted this group to further synthesize its content along with the dialogue captured in this workshop. Fortunately for me, someone suggested a smaller group should be formed to perform the next steps and produce a draft single page strategy (phew — I didn’t have to cajole them!).

This newly formed reference group of 6 people (3 each from the steering and working groups) agreed to meet with me a couple days later.

Workshop 2: Mining the Book of Proceedings

If you recall, I had already created two large maps that had all issues and opportunities mined from the Book of Proceedings. However I had not performed any sort of formal analysis of them.

This workshop was all about making sense of the large issues map that I created. I loaded up the consolidated map of issues and asked the group to firstly, group nodes that were essentially saying the same thing and secondly, to group nodes thematically as the image shows below.

By the end of the 2 hour session, the reference group had synthesized the issues into 5 “focus areas”. Each focus area now had a dedicated map (note the blue nodes to the right of the map above). By clicking on any of these blue nodes, you are able drill down and see all of the issues that comprised the focus area.

Workshop 3: Sense-checking Focus Areas

The intent of the third workshop was to sense-check the outputs of workshop 2 with the 30-person group dialogue of workshop 1. Recall that the decision-making group was asked “What key things emerged from the Open Space that should have a lot of focus?”. It was now time to see how well the leadership group saw the issue compared to the 75 participants in the Open Space event.

Compendium software makes this very easy and the diagram below illustrates the process used. The group examined the dialogue map that arose from the 30-person session and looked at how well (or not) the answers fitted to the emerging focus areas from workshop 2. As it happened, the vast majority of issues identified by the leadership group members had already been captured. In other words, for the most part they fitted neatly and logically into one of the existing 5 focus areas that had emerged from workshop 2.

However there were a couple of ideas that did not get a lot of air-time in the Open Space. On reflection, the group realized that one of the focus areas did speak to these issues, but they opted to modify the wording of the focus area to better incorporate these ideas. The “redacted edit” node on the right represents this change.

I feel that since only one of the focus areas needed to be adjusted from the Open Space synthesis, the focus areas that emerged via the reference group withstood critical scrutiny and genuinely reflected the combined wisdom of all participants in this process.

Remember my strategy mental model? We now had a pretty solid understanding of our focus areas and if we truly focused on them, we should be addressing the vast majority of issues identified.

Workshop 4: Key Result Areas and Emerging Strategy

When the working group met again, the focus was now on the second question from the working group dialogue: If the Orientation strategy goes really well in 2017 and beyond, how will things be different?

By now the group had established a cadence. They understood the process and the intent, so we got straight to work synthesizing the outputs of the dialogue map that captured answers to that question. Similarly I hope that as a reader, you are getting the idea of what happened next…

Like the previous workshop, the leadership group conversation was synthesized by the reference group via clustering and grouping nodes. Like the previous workshops, I did not direct the group on how to perform the synthesis — in fact all I did in this stage was drive the software and move nodes around on their behalf. The group clustered the various answers and the net result was 5 themes around future success.

We now had some emerging key result areas…

I need to stress at this point that it is coincidence that the focus areas and key result areas were both distilled to 5 themes. It is also important to note that this is the point where I “flipped” the maps into the skeleton of a strategic plan. The image below shows the idea and also shows how this relates to the mental model I was using.

An illustration of how the working group outputs filled in the skeleton of a single page strategy

Two things are important to note with the image above. Firstly, I drew arrows between the emerging key result areas and key focus areas to highlight that there was *not* a 1:1 relationship between each key result area and each focus area. Secondly and more importantly, it was at this point I asked if the group could now articulate a vision for this strategy, given the territory they had covered. Given the context built, this came fairly quickly.

Now remember that each of the blue nodes in the above image are map nodes, and clicking on them would take you to all of the detailed work performed by the group. I asked the group to revisit these maps and mine them to produce concrete objectives for each focus area. In other words, participants looked at the maps and underlying branches and clusters, to derive objectives. In the image below you can see what this looked like. Note: I made the group use verbs to start each objective to make these more focused and actionable.

Note: Keen eyed viewers will also notice that a statement of principles was now also in the emerging plan above. That was done almost by accident. You see, in all workshops I always captured reflective statements in the form of answers to a “themes?” question. My intent was to mine these, but I didn’t have to. When one of the reference group members happened to make an insightful “do you know what this is really about…” type comment, the others felt that particular comment strongly articulated what the entire process was all about and enshrined it as the principles of delivery.

By now a lot of work had been done, but participants never got lost in the process because I always updated the map that illustrated the end in mind and the journey that had been taken. As you can see below by the “this is done” and “we are here” arrows, we were almost at the end…

We now had done enough work to take our data and enter it into a strategic plan template. As I mentioned early in this article, there are many strategic planning templates out there and our mapping work was flexible enough to be cast into various ones. Ultimately this choice was made by the working group who had an existing corporate strategy template that had been used before. Unfortunately I cannot show you the actual one we used, but suffice to say it looked somewhat like this…

Not a bad return for 8 hours work eh? At this point I had conducted 4 workshops of 2 hours each.

Workshop 5: Compiling initiatives

At this point we were almost done, having co-created a single page strategy draft in 8 hours. But if you recall all the way back to the start of the engagement, I had also created an “Opportunities” map from the Book of Proceedings. Also recall earlier in this article where I mentioned specifically listening out for opportunities during the first workshop, where the 30-strong representatives of the steering and working groups met.

The reference group met for one last workshop to mine the Book of Proceedings and the dialogue maps for opportunities. The group examined the large opportunities map, grouping, consolidating and clustering nodes in a self-directed fashion. Then all of the opportunities captured in the dialogue maps were examined and also grouped/clustered. (The process used was the same as workshop 2 and 3 so I won’t paste the grouping and clustering images here).

The net result was 10 groups of opportunities, which we called “Activity areas”. I then transferred these into an Excel template similar to the one shown below, where column A listed each of the 10 activity areas and column B was each opportunity that comprised it. Column’s C to L listed the focus areas and key result areas now in the one page plan.

This structure provides the means for the steering and working groups to examine how well each of the identified opportunities align to the strategy. They can assess how well the opportunities captured address the issues identified (via the Focus Areas in green) and the outcomes sought (via the Key Result Areas in red). By marking how well each of the ideas and opportunities aligned to the focus and key result areas, the executive sponsor and steering/working groups finally had the ability to:

  • Examine which opportunities addressed multiple focus areas and key result areas. This makes it much easier to build a business-case/budget for implementation.
  • Examine gaps : Understand which focus areas or key result areas were not being addressed by the opportunities, by looking for vertical or horizontal gaps in the green and red sections of the sheet. For example, column G shows a focus area that is not particularly well addressed by the initiatives listed.
  • Examine overlaps: Understand whether there was too many initiatives that addressed one particular focus area to the detriment of others. For example, column F shows a focus area possibly over-represented by initiatives.
  • Refine opportunities: Adjust or combine opportunities to improve how well they address particular focus areas or result areas.

Conclusion

I was very pleased with how this case study turned out. To my knowledge, this was the first time in the world that Open Space and Dialogue Mapping were used in this way. Open Space was a terrific vehicle for fostering the conversations that mattered, and Dialogue Mapping allowed for the rapid synthesis into an integrated strategy that honored work of the Open Space.

The ROI in this case study is excellent. If you have ever engaged consultants to perform strategy work, I’d be willing to bet it took them a lot more time (and cost) than this approach. This is not to say all my engagements are this quick, but this method does indeed scale. I have performed much larger engagements and still been able to help groups more rapidly make and synthesize meaning from the data. In fact, my next case study will showcase such an engagement.

Critically, the entire process was transparent. I can take any part of the strategy and initiatives that emerged, and show exactly how it emerged, right back to the specific workshops and conversations that gave rise to it. This is much more rich and rigorous than the classic approach of photographs of post-it notes and flip chart outputs. When you consider that this level of rigor was captured in 10 hours of face-to-face time and 16 hours overall, it shows just how powerful and scaleable this approach can be.

I hope you have come away with an appreciation of both Dialogue Mapping and Open Space, and how, when combined in the right way, both approaches significantly enhance each-other and the overall outcome. Additionally, I hope you now have an appreciation for just how effective tools like this can be in helping groups deal with problems that might otherwise seem overwhelmingly complex, wicked or impossible to solve in a collaborative way.

To that end, I hope that you found value out of my story and I appreciate you taking the time to read this article.

Paul Culmsee

Paul Culmsee

p.s if you would like to use this approach in your work, then consider attending one of my 2-day Dialogue Mapping training workshops. I will cover this case study and many others. For more info, visit http://hereticsguidebooks.com/training-and-events