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Unbound Spiral: Open Space - New Realities

September 18, 2006 07:57 AM

Thank you Rob. Your comment is living proof that blogs work and they shouldn't be ignored. . This was a post I composed some moons ago in April. It was always my intention to blog it. No better time than around your first anniversary of walking in the door at NPR.

I'm returning from Washington where I've been an elf in an Open Space session led by Rob Paterson and Johnnie Moore. It was the final workshop in a series run for National Public Radio - NPR. This post will just share a few words about NPR and the results of the Open Space session. I've also made some notes on my challenges and observations on the NPR conference site, which is open to the public.

NPR like many organizations is threatened by the radical changes impacting on broadcasting today. With the evolution of Podcasting, video blogging, and ongoing changes in listening behavior with iPods, PVR etc. the "arrangement" that has held public radio together requires a new common ground and understanding. This was Rob and his team's challenge as they worked with NPR over the last nine months.

NPR is the last bastion for "authentic American news". The closest thing America has to the BBC, and in my view we need it more than ever. And yet the "fund drives" and the way we get our news is being overtuned by the Internet. Concurrently, many stations lack the resources or the knowledge to "stream media", run a website or engage their community with emergent social media tools. There is also a large disparity between stations dependent on market. In my view, the opportunity exists for NPR to both go global and local with community radio. In the end NPR and the stations must engineer MyNPR.com. For community radio will become part of a multi-modal participatory media experience. Done right, with narrative journalism at its roots and a renewed look at the business model, NPR could well emerge as the media format for the future. MyNPR could be a nice place to be. (This is my speculation although I believe they must prototype it.)

Open Space was invented by Harrison Owen. It has a simple set of rules and for the most part the approach is "hands off". It's empowering although often seen as a "risky" choice by sponsors as there is no set agenda before hand. The NPR Open Space session took the place of their National conference. It involved almost 300 people, provided each and every attendee with the opportunity to speak and contribute. For me it was the largest Open Space session I've participated in. It was also wildly successful. New initiatives emerged, a new understanding between independent radio stations and NPR emerged. In the end, 47 different session were run with self-organizing groups of 3 to 60 participants. Stations worked with stations. Stations worked with NPR and NPR worked with stations. In the end it was clear that only the "whole system" can create the future and move public radio ahead.

Quotes from the end... "wonderful process... all have been heard.... really worthwhile...

I was lucky to be invited to the aftermath dinner with the team from NPR and Renewal Consulting (which included Rob, Johnnie, Jevon, Kash, Dina and myself). As a relative outsider who was just there for this event I'd missed out on the many "New Realities" workshops that had been run over the last 9 months. However, what impressed most was the "human values" and soul searching that has been applied to this project from the beginning. The team correctly determined that the required change was not about technology, rather it was all about people and how to bring them along on a conversation and find a new path forward. The belief and trust established with each other was what ultimately made this Open Space session so successful.

I will remember one discussion for a long time. I was testing Johnnie asking him where next and what instruction for the next session. I'd used an example I've used before. A few minutes later we shared it with Rob and he responded in the most remarkable fashion. The example is less important than the "values" (which he writes about all the time from his heart) with which he set us straight. Ultimately, it came down to how he wanted them to think and engage their creativity. Still his words at the time were "that's too much like consulting!". I had to agree with him and in this context it wasn't the right way forward. It was also the reason why he's generated so much trust on this project with his client. A trust and set of relationships that has allowed him to do the unthinkable for many. Not much more than a month ago Rob had never met Johnnie, Dina or myself. Johnnie met with Rob just over a month ago for the first time. While for our small roles in this theater we met on Sunday before the kickoff.

For many that's a risk they wouldn't take. For me, like Rob, it is increasingly one I find myself taking with my blogging buddies. We've read each other often for years, probably Skyped and chatted off and on; perhaps met at a number of conferences. For me this small assignment is just the proof that 1) a new way of working is emerging, and 2) given the chance a few bloggers can often out strategise, out perform, and simply do a better job than the most expensive consulting firms around.


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