Catalyzing Research Action in Exposomics

In 2022, the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) convened an 8-week, 400-participant, 7-event open space series and summit, all online, to advance the formation of a vast emerging field of research and catalyze a shift to action, in myriad applications. This might be the longest Open Space “event” I’ve facilitated. Six “workshops” were followed closely by a 3-day summit for a smaller group to further refine the way forward on major working themes. Here are the invitation, proceedings and initial reporting on the workshop series and strategic summit:

Workshop Series Invitation
Accelerating Precision Environmental Health: Demonstrating the Value of the Exposome

Full Series Proceedings (written by the participants)
Catalyzing Exposome Research Action [pdf]

September 2022 Report
Workshop series signals turning point for exposome research
More than 400 researchers gathered to plan how to move from defining the exposome to actively studying it.

October 2022 Update
Progress in exposomics, precision health made at scientific summit
Exposome community of practice to be developed, strategic planning under way.

January 2023 Update
Transforming the understanding of human health and disease
Researchers identify 76 environmental exposures associated with type 2 diabetes using innovative precision environmental health framework.

“One of the key outcomes from the workshop series was to collect data to help formulate an operational model on how to conduct experiments in exposomics. There was a consensus to establish a community of practice to guide best practices and enable coordination among various exposome efforts.”

Dare Real Agile Podcast: Connecting Open Space and Enterprise Scrum

Alexandre-Frédéric Joly and I had quite a lot of fun on his Dare Real Agile Business Agility Podcast, covering a lot of ground in a marathon podcast conversation last year. Here are some segments that might add some color to the ideas shared elsewhere in this website.

Part 1

5:00 – 15:00 How I got here, learnings and biases, connecting agile, open space, turbulence, self-organization and more.

Part 2

4:00-13:00 – Connecting Open Space (self-orgnanization) and Enterprise Scrum (all-at-once management), the hurdle of visualization, and the natural flow of prioritization, commitment, delivery and retrospective.

15:00 – On lineage, practice and learning for ourselves.

19:00 – 23:00 – About the Enterprise Canvas(es).

23:00 – 25:00 – About the two-box canvas, the simplest canvas that could possibly work.

Part 3

4:00 – 9:00 – Why and ways of working with a canvas.

11:00 – 15:00 – Open Space, Kanban, Scrum and Enterprise Scrum are naturally occuring learning phenomena – if we don’t over-complicate the process.

19:00 – About letting go, into the flow.

21:00 – 26:00 – The truth about safe space.

28:00 – 32:00 – Everyday Open Space, the story of one team’s breakthrough.

Invitation = Purpose + Choice

I met Kent Beck, one of the original 17 Agile Manifesto signers and the creator of Extreme Programming, at the Agile/XP Universe conference, the precursor to the Agile Alliance 20XX series of conferences.

One of my favorite memories of the conference is the two of us and some others sprawled on the floor in the middle of the open space circle and Kent peppering me with questions about open space. I remember him in that moment as one of the most intensely focused learners I’ve known. Great fun!

This morning I noticed this and replied:

Seven Momentums for Team and Enterprise Development

You know what momentum feels like. You can feel it in any group or crowd, that lift, when everyone starts to move together. Facilitating self-organization in open space meetings with hundreds of participants, I learned to navigate by that sensation, in the room and even in the larger conference space.

When I started coaching new agile/scrum teams, what I’d previously applied to a three-day event got stretched out over weeks and months. It’s still self-organization. I’m still inviting people to take direct responsibility for their experience. I’m still inviting and sensing for and wanting to feed that “lift.” But the longer timeline let me refine my sensing and distinguish seven layers of momentum, a continuum of development, each wave building atop the previous ones.

That said, no team or organization builds these momentums in an orderly, linear way. It’s more a shifting of the center of mass, or the center of learning, a kind of pulsation in their learning edge, if you will.

They are presented here in what I think is their naturally arising order, which implies that none can really be skipped over and ignored. Indeed, if we take the example of Scrum and self-organization in software development teams, much of what goes wrong will often be traced back to having skipped the first step: a momentum of good personal experience.

Too often organizations fail to build the kind of momentum necessary for what Scrum focuses on: Learning, Planning, and Delivery. As a result, teams struggle with those and never get to even try for Organization, Customer and Systemic momentum.

So here is what I think it takes to develop great teams and organizations:

  1. A momentum of personal experience. This starts with voluntary self-selection, when people choose to be part of the game, when they feel safe and valued, and when they see the purpose as meaningful. The simplest way to communicate and achieve this momentum is through invitation. We can measure this in terms of engagement, the six criteria, happiness/joy, and so on, but the bottom line is that great work can only be done and sustained by people who CHOOSE for themselves to do that work. Not just when they take the job, but every day. Remember, everyone is fully engaged on their first day of work, and then, too often, it’s all downhill from there.
  2. A momentum of learning (and improving). Once people have some choice, feel safe and valued, they can be honest about gaps. They can suggest improvements without sounding sour. They can dare to experiment and fail. Learning builds confidence for everything else.
  3. A momentum of planning (and refinement). Once teams start learning and improving together, they can be more honest about how much they can do in a cycle, about what they don’t know, about how long things will take. Even if it’s not as fast as they want, at least they know that they’re getting better.
  4. A momentum of (committing and) delivering. Once teams can be honest about what’s possible, and make reliable plans, they can start delivering dependable results.
  5. A momentum of organization. When teams start delivering more and better, and more dependably so, the groups around them take note. The spirit, learning, planning and delivery momentums seep into these groups and challenge them to improve their own work.
  6. Momentum with customers. In software, one of those surrounding groups is often a marketing or sales group that controls access to customers. When they sense the previous momentums building, they more readily facilitate direct connections with customers, so the team can learn even more and faster. And deliver better.
  7. Systemic momentum or… A momentum of momentums. The holy grail. When these various waves start crossing each other, turning up new patterns and opportunities, feeding on each other in virtuous cycles. Or, if you like, the whole system is lifted by the same great swell.

How to use this perspective?

First, start at the beginning. Take care of personal experience. EVERYTHING else always depends on that. Inviting matters.

Then, as the working, learning, planning, etc go on, keep sensing for where the team or organization is on the continuum. What’s their learning edge? What’s their most important obstacle? Tend to that.

In Scrum, for instance, if planning is the breakdown, is it the refining, the sizing, or sprint planning? Again, pick the biggest obstacle and work on that. Identifying, prioritizing and targeting the most important blockers of momentum, just like we’d normally prioritize features to build.

But in my experience, it works this way everywhere. Every team. Every organization. If a team’s not amazing, track your way backward from Systemic, see where things breakdown, and work from the level that precedes it. Build from what’s working, not from the breakdown.

What To Do After Open Space

Open Space gets people – and ideas – moving. It’s not uncommon to generate 100+ pages of notes from one meeting. But then what? How to process and work with all of that information? And all of the NEXT info and ideas sparked by what’s in the document itself? How to keep going the learning, working, and spirit high?

First, let’s notice that three kinds of issues typically come out of an Open Space meeting or summit event, particularly those that are long enough to allow for the production of a decent set of notes and some action planning/prioritization time at the end:

  • Things that got Done, often these don’t show up in the notes.  They just happened, everybody saw it, knows it, and they’ve moved on.  This includes tacit agreements and alignments that surfaced or got created. 
  • Things that got Started, these are most obvious as Next Steps, where the foundation has been laid and the conversation is moving into actions that are generally pretty clear to everyone.
  • Things that are still “clear as mud,” not well known or not agreed.  These are going to take more conversation.  Maybe a whole new, focused, open space meeting.  The good news is that now everyone knows how to do it.  New gatherings or just new breakouts can be called by anyone, on any issue, with learning, contribution, notetaking and reporting done in the spirit of the original gathering. 

Perhaps counterintuitively, the things that get done are often hard to track.  The effects are small, many and widely distributed.  They just happen.  The second group can be identified, managed, tracked and are more likely to be noticed when they move to “Done.”  To make progress on the last group (and beyond) requires some attention to sustained practice(s). 

Here’s a quick sketch of the sort of process and practice(s) that can keep the most important conversations going and the work advancing from murky to done:

  1. Put all the issues back on the wall, on individual sticky notes.
  2. Sort them, if it makes sense, into clusters or constellations, which might be overlapping
  3. Scan this document for any major themes that might run through many issues but haven’t been surfaced as a specific, issue.
  4. Read this document, as a team, in order of issue priority.  Read for actions, large and small.  Refine each issue into a set of possible actions.
  5. Begin sorting the actions into the themes, clusters or a canvas (e.g. Enterprise Scrum canvas, Business Model Canvas).
  6. Keep reading, refining and sorting, in priority order – restating or even restarting your overall framework as needed to continue to make sense of what you’re surfacing – until you get EVERYTHING that matters on the wall (even if they’re BIG things).
  7. Prioritize within groupings.  Pay attention to synergies and dependencies.
  8. Notice obstacles to be overcome.  Add those as additional actions.
  9. Choose a cadence (e.g. bi-weekly, monthly, quarterly cycles) and break actions down into pieces that can (1) deliver some real value and (2) are small enough to be completed in not more than about half of your chosen cycle length.
  10. Start each cycle with identification and commitment to a set of actions that can reasonably be accomplished in just that one cycle.  Adjust the commitment, cycle after cycle, until you hit your cycle goal dependably.
  11. After each cycle, review, update and improve the organization of everything on your “board” or wall.  Celebrate “done.”  Target blockers.  Refine large pieces of work into small.  Prioritize and re-prioritize based on real value.
  12. Somewhere along the way, consider some strategic coaching, to help refine essential practices, roles and artifacts.  Because, simple as these things sound, really easy is often quite difficult, especially across multiple teams or new events.

Rules for Ongoing Open Space

This must be my most frequently shared bit of OS practice guidance. These rules were developed at University of Kentucky Rural Medical Center and reported by Lloyd Kepferle in Harrison Owen’s Tales from Open Space (pdf).

They are a good reminder that Open Space is not just way to have better meetings, or even better organizations. It’s a better way to BE IN organization with others, if we will make the sort of simple shifts suggested here.

In the last 20 years, especially in pandemic time, they’ve become less strange than when they were first written.

Eliminate constraints on the following:

  • Who can call a meeting.
  • The type of problem or opportunity that is being addressed.
  • The availability of time to have a meeting.
  • Who may attend a meeting.
  • The availability of information necessary for a group to work.

Personal empowerment is constrained by the following:

  • When a problem or opportunity is to be discussed, there must be wide notification of the meeting time and place so that anyone who is interested can attend.
  • Proposed solutions/ideas must be broadcast widely so that they can be acknowledged as organizational policies, programs, or procedures, or, if they are contradictory to organizational rules, another solution can be sought.
  • Proposed solution cannot be hurtful to anyone else.
  • Proposed solutions should channel limited resources so that they have maximum impact on achieving organizational goals.
  • Accomplishing the work for which people were hired takes precedence over the group work. However, if the right people (those who really care) are involved in any topic, they will find a way to make sure their work is completed and the work of the group is brought to a successful conclusion.

Through these simple (ongoing) practices and procedures, any ordinary organization can transcend (not replace) its old ways of being and include and embody (more fully and consciously) this thing we call Open Space.

Some Favorite Open Space Stories

Here are some favorite stories/examples of what we’ve done, over the years, in Open Space (overview, learnings) meetings and summit events:

Senior Executive Summit meeting in South Africa – A global leader in their industry convened a for 120 leaders, to coincide with the announcement of an important legal ruling. At stake was fully 10% of revenues going forward, an even higher share of annual profits, and perhaps the beginning of the end of seemingly unshakable market dominance. No matter the legal outcome, their future would now require a tremendous change in mindset. During our meeting, the decision came down, and went against them. Pre-set market-facing plans were set in motion. The extended leadership group was already fully mobilized for making the shift from “big” to “smart.” They identified 14 strategic imperatives, examined them fully in our first day of working sessions, used computer voting software to prioritize these issues for two rounds of action planning on the morning of day two, and ultimately fed all of that into functional team meetings on the second afternoon. Over the next year, they used open space successfully several more times and adopted “setting the PowerPoints aside” as a standard part of their executive forum events.

The Chicago Community Trust and a number of co-sponsoring activist organizations used OpenSpace for the first Illinois Food Security Summit, a 200-person, 3-day conference that brought the full range of Illinois food security players into one room for the first time. The group included vegans and beef producers, organic farmers and chefs, food pantry volunteers and government agencies. They raised and addressed 70 different issues, identified a number of immediate next steps, and established the Chicago-Area Food Policy Council to shepherd future activities. The story that still comes up over and over again from participants is that they continue to be amazed that so many different kinds people, who met there for the first time, are still talking — and are now working on dozens of large and small, old and new projects together, including several more statewide summits. See also Proceedings and FoodSummitStory. UPDATE 2006: …asked to facilitate a follow-on, regional food summit held in Rockford/FourRivers area.  UPDATE 2017:  Routes to Farm Summit for direct-to-market farmers and local food movement partners.

The Agile Software Alliance and Extreme Programming Universe ran one third of their annual, 300-person, international conference in Open Space and documented the proceedings in a revolutionary new web format called a WikiWeb. The Agile/Extreme movement is encouraging a whole new way of software development that looks very much like OST. A number of people attending this conference learned enough from watching the process to go out and facilitate their own meetings in Open Space. AgileXpUniverseFacilitatorNotes and AgileXpParticipantComments UPDATE: In 2011, the Agile Alliance Board now does much of their face-to-face (board retreats) work in Open Space ways and that initial conference experiment has bloomed into many regional groups and regular conferences, called Agile Open(s), running entirely on their own, in Open Space.

Peoria School District 150 held a 3-evening, 200-person summit meeting, in the midst of post-911 budget cuts and other major change issues, to create a community-wide vision and set new priorities for revitalizing their school system. The meeting was well-covered by local broadcast and print media, the 100-page proceedings was publicly available via the District’s website, and the top priorities identified on the third evening became the working agenda for their new superintendent and school board. Proceedings

InterChange: Schlumberger internal global leaders conference. Within that traditional conference featuring presentations by 40 of their most senior executives, they used OpenSpace for a 6-hour strategy forum for 120 senior managers, published 50-page proceedings online internally, and delivered a printed report for all participants to discuss directly with their Chairman and CEO.

In Racine, Wisconsin, 35 young people (ages 12-20) gathered for one 4-hour, afterschool conference in Open Space. As a result of that meeting they initiated a youth art newsletter, a downtown, lakefront skateboarding park, and the largest YMCA Earth Service Corps chapter in the country. They called themselves ‘Youth Action,’ used OST at all their meetings, and eventually ended up introducing OST to young leaders from all over the USA. YouthActionRacineInvite | YouthActionRacineStory UPDATE 2011: Recently one of the three young women (17 year olds) who picked up the leadership of this group so easily back then, reported that she was in the middle of Opening Space for a conference of people working to end the death penalty. What she learned one afternoon in high school, ten years ago, now informs her life’s work.

Jewish in America: The Conversation, a new, national conversation initiated by The Jewish Week, the largest American Jewish newspaper. The two-day summit retreat, held at the Aspen Meadows Institute, offered a safe and creative environment for 75 American Jews who are leaders or potential leaders in their respective fields to talk about the future of Jewish life in this country and what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century. Participants came from a wide span of religious, political and generational perspectives, but shared a common love for the Jewish people, its history, survival and advancement. They met, talked, prayed, imagined and planned together. More at… TheConversationNews (news reports). Using what they learned in that first event, organizers have continued ”The Conversation” as an annual Open Space conference they run without any need for my ongoing support.

Transforming Philanthropy is an initiative that began with the GivingConference, hosted with Phil Cubeta at GiftHub, which brought together philanthropists, weblog publishers, financial advisors, and community organizers. A core group then moved to Omidyar Network and convened a number of members summits. Some of the people at the first of those summits went on to organize RecentChangesCamp, which connected software technologists and community leaders and activists (see OregonianNewspaper). All of these summits have been 3-day meetings, attended by 40-120 people, and run completely in Open Space. At least three new conferences are now being planned for 2006. Phil posted this Update May 2006. Ted Ernst facilitated another in this lineage, Uganda 2007, and later introduced WikiSym to meeting in Open Space in San Diego and Denmark. Theresa Williamson took OpenSpace back to her work running CatalyticCommunities in Rio de Janeiro. UPDATE 2011: See RecentChangesCamp which has been a great success story, in its own right, now having been repeated on three continents since 2005. Beyond this, results flowing from RecentChangesCamp, WikiSym’s shift to Open Space, and other Giving Conference beginnings get harder and harder to track and record — which is just great.

Peaceful Development Organizers in Kathmandu, Nepal, held a one-day introduction to OpenSpace for about 20 students and staff at a local college. Based on the success of that day, they held a second day for more than 40 community organizers and facililtators, which set the stage for a first annual 4-day, national conference and leadership training program on peaceful development and the future of Nepal. Funded by the Open Space Institute USA, it enabled seventy-five community leaders from every part of Nepal used and learned AppreciativeInquiry and OpenSpace. NepalConferenceSummary | NepalTrainingSummary UPDATES: When a thousand year old sacred “gate” was destroyed later, in the course of civil unrest and rebellion, in the village of one of my colleagues there, he wrote to say that he was organizing an Open Space on rebuiding the gate. Later still, when the Maoists rejoined the government and the new government was formed, my colleagues wrote again, to say that they were working toward an Appreciative Inquiry + Open Space meeting for the newly formed 600-member Constituent Assembly (national legislature).

The school district in Fairbanks, Alaska (covering an area the size of the entire state of Connecticut) held a 2-day, 250-person conference on Becoming a Peacemaker. Half the participants were students in the middle and high schools (ages 13-18) and all participants had some experience with mediation and conflict resolution. The kids did exceptionally well in Open Space and one high school student led a series of four breakout sessions to create an entire suicide prevention program that for the middle school students. The statewide suicide prevention hotline was up and running within weeks of the conference. The conference in Fairbanks was followed by a 2-day OST training and practice workshop, attended by about 60 youth and adults. Six months later, they reported that they were holding 1-3 OST meetings per week, in and around Fairbanks.

Deep Earth Academy, with National Science Foundation support, rewrote the book on informal ship-to-shore science education. The JOIDES-Resolution (JR) is an international research drilling ship, managed like other joint science stations in space or antarctica, and the source of perhaps 60% of everything we know about climate change. The Deep Earth Academy works to translate the science done aboard the JR into classrooms, museums, and other learning places. With planning grant funding from the NSF, DEA gathered 55 scientists, educators, media experts, and other specialists for 2.5 days in open space — to rewrite the book on informal ship2shore science education and draft a set of collaborative, synergistic pilot project proposals. Participants raised 35 issues, explored them in depth, prioritized all of it, and then began drafting specific project proposals. We posted all of their notes in a new project website which will be used for the next two years as the proposals are funded, the pilot projects are implemented, the outcomes evaluated and a much larger implementation grant. UPDATE Fall, 2013: The organization chose to fund four of eleven proposed pilots, all of which have been developed successfully. Next up, implementation grant submission early 2014.

Inviting Agility at Walmart

This is a great story from Todd Kromann, Agile Coach at Walmart, and part of my contribution to BOSSA Nova: Company-wide Agility with Beyond Budgeting, Open Space & Sociocracy, by Jutta Eckstein and John Buck.

A tiny cohort of four agile coaches was able to invite thousands of IT employees and contractors at Walmart to shift the organization’s work from 10% agile to 90% agile in less than two years. We simply invited the people doing the work into Open Space, in more than 30 one-day events, hundreds at a time.

We didn’t impose a methodology, a tool or a metric. We offered invitation, autonomy, and options. We asked everyone to find ways to make their work more agile. That was the purpose and all the ideas went up on the wall, completely open and transparent. As the work took off, “Agile Champions” helped the four coaches spread the invitation and the results.

Formally, the business adopted agile concepts such as founder’s mentality, design thinking and Team of Teams. These were promoted from the CEO level and the IT coaches had little involvement. Walmart has several agile ‘thought leaders’ on it’s board of directors and they contributed to the net effect.

Because this was very open, the story is hard to define. The scope could be as low as 4000 or into the 10’s of thousands depending on who you ask. The Bentonville business depart- ments were included (it was open) and business folks usually opted to attend.

Today, I get reference checks for Agile coaches from Walmart, and these are often people I’ve never met. Any of our cham- pions claim that title. I think that’s a side effect of an open transformation. So, the concept of 4 coaches is only correct in the narrow sense of 4 people whose full time job was coaching. By the end we scaled up to 6 full time coaches in Bentonville and perhaps a dozen worldwide. This was federated so, again, it’s hard to define.

While the numbers are hard to pin down, the net effect is not. We are now 100% agile in that it’s more awkward to opt out than to opt in. We no longer have any Agile coaches. If you ask anyone at Walmart how we became agile, they will likely say they did it by themselves 😉 An open transformation is like an avalanche. It just takes a few snowballs and after that, it’s chaos.

Inviting Agility to Address Adaptive Challenges

This is part of my contribution to BOSSA Nova: Company-wide Agility with Beyond Budgeting, Open Space & Sociocracy, by Jutta Eckstein and John Buck.

Some years ago, the managers running a 900-person gasoline delivery logistics unit invited into Open Space more than one hundred of their colleagues, representing a wide variety of functions and levels, with this simple email message:

Your palms are sweating, everything looks more and more complex. You are being asked to do more with less and you cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel. You feel like the chaos is catching up with you… Does this sound familiar?

A more adaptive focus, as opposed to today’s purely operational approach, needs to emerge from within [the division] to enable a sustainable performance advantage so that we remain on the edge of chaos, this sweet spot for productive change, where order and disorder flow with discipline.

Please join us in investigating together what this sweet spot would look and feel like at [place/hotel] on [two and a half days]…

This language sprung from a book on “adaptive challenges.” These were not just big, complex issues, they were questions that they’d never seen before, essential shifts that needed to be navigated for the first time. After a year of study and discussion, the managers had wrestled the unit’s future into a list of 12 or 15 of these challenges. Now they were ready to invite the rest of the organization to try to solve them.

The night before the program started, we seriously debated whether or not the managers’ list of adaptive challenges should be announced at the opening. I counseled against this, and finally they agreed. As soon as the agenda was created and the breakout sessions started, the managers all pulled their lists out of their back pockets to check the work of the group. Sure enough, to their great amazement and relief, ALL of their “adaptive challenges” were detailed there, in the dozens of issues posted on the wall.

The next day at our Morning News plenary check-in, a big upset bubbled out. There was a growing sense of doubt and frustration. One man put it something like this, “I think we are failing here. I’ve talked with other people and none of this stuff (on the wall) makes our palms sweat or keeps us up at night. I think we’re not doing what we came here to do!” Many others agreed, but didn’t know what to do.

After more than an hour of difficult conversation in the big circle, the group came to understand and start to believe that they were doing and addressing everything the managers had hoped and envisioned, exactly what the organization needed to move forward. What the managers saw as the biggest strategic challenges and threats, everyone else experienced as simply “the stuff we work to solve every day.”

By the end of their meeting, all of the most important issues (for managers and everyone else, it turns out) were identified, discussed, documented and on the morning of day three were prioritized by the whole group, by voting. This self-organizing team of more than 100 people produced a prioritized “backlog” that everyone understood and was ready to go to work on, together.

How to Facilitate Open Space Online?

This question comes up a lot lately. Here is one instance that came by email, from the shores of the Mediterranean, which gives me the chance to share my reply:

…before the Corona crisis, we were planning an event for the school community, using the Open space method, in order to deliberate the goals of our school in the upcoming years. Now, with all the Corona restrictions, we like to perform the event on Zoom, using the principles & ideas of Open Space. We want to learn from your experience: Has it been done before? Do you have special notes how should we plan and perform it? The event is planed for the second week of July, It will be great help for us to get your thought & recommendations.

Hello, and thanks for your message.

Open Space has absolutely been done online – and it’s really not that different from opening space onsite. We did a “virtual” Open Space on Open Space practitioner’s gathering as early as 2015, with many dozens of people scattered around the world. In the closing, one of the participants told us we should not call such events “virtual” – because it was “real!” Another pointed out that wherever the technology got a little difficult for someone, people stepped in quickly to help. This, we all agreed, was part of what made it feel like real Open Space.

So i’d encourage you to think about the event you were going to have and then simply look for options to do the same functions online. To do online Open Space well, first do Open Space well. See my Inviting Leadership Guide for details on good practice.

For your onsite meeting, you were going to need an invitation that set a theme, posed a question, or otherwise set the broad need and challenge. You still need that. And then you still need an invitation list. Distribute the invitation to everyone who cares or is needed to meet the need or challenge. In schools, I always look into whether students can be included. In businesses, does it make sense to include customers or colleagues from up, down or across value streams. So this much is all the same.

online open space using mural and zoom. resolution is purposely low, but you can still see the overall layout.

Now we come to logistics. You were going to pick a meeting venue, one with a large room for the main circle. Online, that might be Zoom, Skype, Google, etc. or it might be where you can use Zoom video but also have a suite of tools to support a “Circle” of colleagues. Think about how easy each one is for your people to access. Are your people able to overcome the hurdles of joining this place or the other? Is there a place where everyone is already present?

Next, you’ll need to create an agenda and post all the topics for everyone to see. Google Docs is a workable, simultaneously editable option. Google Sheets lets you put a bit of organization in, a little graphic, grid, sense. But of course you can also paste a table into a Google Doc. The important thing is that everyone can see and edit the doc at the same time. SharePoint doesn’t work well, for instance.

Once the agenda is created, you’ll want to breakout into discussion groups. My video preference is Zoom, so I’ll describe the two options there. One is to have multiple Zoom meetings/rooms, one for the main circle and one for each breakout. You can post the links to those right in your agenda doc, at the top of each spreadsheet column, for instance. If you choose this option, you’ll want to be sure that the Zoom sessions area all set to allow participants to enter directly, no waiting, and no host required. adds an interesting twist: a wide range of on-screen floor plans that makes everyone’s movement visible to everyone.

Alternatively, you can use Zoom’s breakouts function, but you’ll need people to help the movement between sessions. (One way is to assign everyone as ‘host’ so they can move themselves. Another is for them to raise hand or change their name to indicate their room preference. But these both take extra tech skill and don’t scale very easily.) Also, it’s not easy to subdivide a zoom breakout further, so a single group can’t do things like “have a chat about this with the two people closest to you and then we’ll all come back together. While not a common form, it does happen in some onsite meetings. But it’s not supported inside of a Zoom breakout space.

Once the groups are able to meet, you’ll want a place for them to take notes. has some tools to support this and also allows linking to Google tools and other places. (But it will take some time to learn your way around.) Consider creating a folder of Google Docs and posting the links in the agenda, right along with each zoom room link. That way, the notes can be taken collaboratively and transparently. People can click into the video and the doc at the same time. Then, toward the end of the sessions, you can update the agenda to point to the next, clean doc for each room. There are a number of minor logistical issues, like making sure each doc gets a meaningful title, perhaps with time and zoom room # specified, so the aggregating is more straightforward. Depending on the size, timing and tolerance of your group, you can probably learn your way through these as you go.

There are lots of other little things to remember about working with Zoom or other platforms, like muting for background noise reduction and turning video on/off to signal “leaning forward/back” in a large group, and turning video off if someone’s signal gets weak. But those you’ll mostly figure out along the way, especially if some of your participants already have some experience with video meetings. (And isn’t everyone learning fast on this already?) Some of the technical bits will go better if you have not just one facilitator, but a technical lead as well.

You’ll want to make sure you have a backchannel that is different from your main platform, so people can contact your tech lead to help them with any connection issues. Use phone, email, or whatever else is already easy for everyone. This way, nobody gets inadvertently locked out. And sometimes you might have to get creative. I helped a family funeral happen a month ago. One cousin joined us on Zoom per the plan, but when her father couldn’t manage the tech, so they used Facetime. He was able to see and hear all of us on her laptop, as she aimed her phone at the screen. In these small ways, the people will find ways to make the coming together work. Even online.

I think that leaves only the opening and closing circles, which happen in a single video call. These can work much the same as onsite, depending on your group size and attention span (passion level). Your session will be simpler than some, because everyone will be in the same time zone. Still, there is the option to do the closing circle as a writing exercise first, and then share shorter comments aloud, if the group is large. The opening usually goes pretty much as it does in onsite gatherings.

Finally, notice that working online will release you from some constraints imposed by meeting onsite. You can spread your breakout sessions over several days or even weeks, for instance. I’d recommend doing the opening and at least one round of breakouts, just to get into the groove; two if possible. Allow some extra time for gathering, especially for the first time, if your people are new to the platform you’re using. Invite, encourage and support people visiting video spaces and shared docs before the event starts, as a pre-work task. And please don’t fall for any temptation to post session topics before you actually gather. Being together, seeing everyone, and hearing the same opening invitation briefing, at the same time, still matters for getting hearts and minds moving together.

Remember, as ever, to be prepared to be surprised. The Four Principles and One Law will be fully functioning online. So just be patient, with yourself and the group, as you find the tools, rhythm and practices that work for you.