Tova Averbuch

A Personal Perspective: 20 years of Opening Space for Myself and Others

1988 was my first year of choosing self employment as a consultant. I was open and ready to do professional Organizational Development work exactly and precisely as I saw fit. The expansion from working exclusively with the High Tech industry to working in more fields, such as educational systems and teaching, caused me to revise the paradigms I was using at that time.

Ten years of working with highly intelligent and successful start-up and industry people, where my role as an OD consultant was executed very much from a standpoint of a “conventional doctor,” left me with a good reputation in the field and a sense of missing something. At this point in my life I knew it was not skill and expertise that I was lacking; it was more basic than that. There was something partial and maybe totally off in the basic paradigm and modus operandi I (as most of the OD practitioners) was using: Putting too much time and effort on diagnosis left too little energy and space for imagining and realizing better futures; creating diagnosis by listening to 20 different people or more, usually one at a time, and compiling it into a clever diagnostic paper and feedback conversation did not give way to a lot of the wisdom held there. The profound knowledge and wisdom of my interviewees was reduced to what I could understand. Even if we take into account my wisdom and respect the asset of my “objectivity” (a professional expert external to the system) we still lose a lot in this process. This didn’t make sense.

This insight became stronger as I started training school principals in the educational systems. I was quite surprised to find that people who passionately agree that the educational system must be “child-centered,” could not find any practice that they agree upon to actually do it. Two parties could find some common ground and celebrate it just to find that all they had established was blown away the minute a third party came to play… I started fantasizing: What if we bring all school members and Community of Care – teachers, pupils, etc., and put them together for three days in Yad Eliyahu (a stadium in Tel-Aviv)? Would they come to an agreement of “how” over a matter they principally care about? I was desperate. Like Jacob awaiting Rachel, I knew there was a finer match for me out there. It took me ten more years of working and yearning to shift my basic work paradigm.

In 1998 I first met OST at work, and it felt like a missing piece finding its place – here was a way of holding ground for every voice to be expressed and heard with all its uniqueness, and at the same time contribute to the collective creation of wisdom. What a joy to find a practical way, teachers and road companions! I was ready to come back home in many ways. 2000, coming home from the US to Israel, aligning with Avner Haramati as a major road companion yet keeping a wide open contact with Harrison and the OST community, made it possible to initiate and hold Open Space in Israel. Always challenged by the density of the energies, the layers of history and multi-claim of every centimeter of the land, we kept trying to find and refine our way, carving and experimenting so we could call it our own. Ten years from 2000 on I had spent being a member of OST community and “lineage”, learning and teaching while attempting to reach precision in intention and way of conduct.

I chose to bring a story of our recent work in Israel, completing a cycle that started 20 years ago.

A Story of Nationwide Education System Renewal, Israel 2008 In September 2007, the new General Manager of the Ministry of Education assumed her position believing in the great qualities of its people and their professional knowledge, yet knowing there was a lack of meaningful conversations and cooperation across the organization. Experienced with OST events and with our work, she called Avner and me to help her in the creation of a process that will enable networks to emerge and blossom. Knowing the Israeli political system, we knew we could only plan for one year.

A month later, in October 2007, a teacher’s strike that would end up lasting over two months was announced in high schools all over the country. During this long strike, a growing public discourse on education began to take place, along with a real concern and care for the future of education. The feeling was that something urgent should and can be done, and the time was right.

This is how Hannah Shadmi, our professional partner in the ministry of education, describes the beginning in a summarizing document of our joint work a year later: “Shlomit’s (the GM) phone call and her inviting me to partner in leading the Open Spaces for educational dialogue were for me a meeting with an old dream… in 2002 I participated …. in OST training conducted by Tova Averbuch, Avner Haramati and Harrison Owen… Later on we took part in AI training with Peggy Holman…My sense was that in these two approaches I found a response to my personal belief concerning organizations and these two approaches had also found me…”

Our attempt was to create a self sustainable field for genuine and continuous dialogue that will serve as a ground for sprouting local and nation wide initiatives; cross-pollination between people, and motion of ideas and creative energy throughout the system. We felt threatened by the improbability and attracted by the opportunity of trying to move a heavy and inerratic system in one year’s time. The basic approach and methodology used was an Open Space Technology, scaling it up to leverage a rapid change attempt in a large, heavy system with continuous inertia: • Focal attractor, common theme: “What is the desired change in the education system 2008? What must we do in order to realize it?”. • Self organizing: A voluntary, participatory method (OST) was implemented and encouraged within and on the boundaries of a hierarchical structure. This enabled personal movement motivated by passion to take responsibility. • Simple fractal intervention unit: OST was repeated in preparation processes, in nationwide and local gatherings and in training, repletion of pattern served to promote direct knowing. • Setting a field of resonance by using synchronization of time, place and focus on the same question together with a constant flow of people, energy and information/ideas.

Process Milestones (in chronological order): A. Preparation/Co creation on every step: an inquiry of the purpose and intentions of this process with the Ministry of Education staff and management (40 people); a management commitment to genuine and generative dialogues; and an Open Space gathering for the large steering committee (120) of the process, in which different stakeholders of the educational system in Israel took part. Every OST event out of the total of 11 OST events had a preparatory process by which it was co-created. B. A two-day initial national OST gathering in February 2008, with 420 participants from all over the country: 260 people from the Ministry (teachers, school masters, supervisors, staff and management), about 40 pupils and parents, and 120 stakeholders external to the education system (NGOs, academy, industry, training institutes, army, government and municipalities, youth movements and more, GM and minister of education included). They were all gathered around the question: “What is the change to which we aspire in the education system? And what should we do in order to implement it?” 14 implementation teams were formed, and within a year’s time they created solid results in the educational system, not letting the bureaucracy run them down, and incorporating external and field leadership into the hierarchical system. Three more cross organization Open Spaces were born as initiatives for action in the initial OST: the first focused on teachers, the second on pupils, and the third on the Arabic sector. The leadres of the implementation teams and some staff members of the educational systems met every 6-8 weeks as the steering committee throughout the year. The next two milestones were essential for scaling up rapidly and required a new level of faith and clarity alongside with a new level of letting go…

C. “The Butterfly Tree” intervention – a synchronized motion of multiple local OST events: six local Open Space Technology gathering events operated in sync in different parts of Israel for two weeks in June 2008, all with the same question facilitated by volunteer graduates of Israeli training over the years. I named this “the Butterfly Tree” to induce a pictorial image of monarch butterflies resting on a tree as they migrate every year. They look like beautiful flowers, and if you look long enough they all take off at once in flight. They make a synchronized effort in which they are not necessarily living to see the end of the effort, trusting the common sense of purpose and direction. Using this model required a huge leap of faith on my part, since we did not have the time or money to do the preparatory process we usually believe is needed, we made this jump and never regretted it. D. 45 people, educational system employees chose to train and serve as OST facilitators for the system alongside their regular job, as needed. When Avner and I offered the training we were glad to discover the ministries’ commitment to opening space by funding this training and we also posed one condition: part of the pay would be participant’s personal money. Though salaries in the educational system are very low, we felt it was essential that people pay some money as a personal statement of passion to take responsibility. After we had to close the list with 45 registered participants, we knew that some personal leadership and passion for the creation of spaces that welcome self organization was alive and kicking.

Each of the 45 had opened space upon request at least once, continuing the flight of the monarch butterflies.

Results and Consequences

In March 2009 the minister and GM were replaced by a new regime, and a completely different set of objectives and new leadership style were installed. In March 2009 we also stopped collecting data systematically, but via the inquiry for this paper I found that more than half of the 14 major initiatives are integrated and institutionalized ( i.e. bringing academics from all fields into teaching; value driven educational system, etc.). They have become part of the new organization in a way that does not trace them back as initiatives born in the open space. They survive and flourish over time and changes. Some initiatives made an interesting twist in terms of implementation; as an illustration we can take the story of eight high school teachers who created an initiative to institutionalize a process in which teachers in the field will be active in ministry decision making processes. I am not sure how much of their idea was implemented as institutional tool yet seven of them chose to become school principals this year! I believe they are walking their talk, opening space in many ways for themselves and others.

There are probably many more monarch butterflies with same sense of purpose and direction opening and holding space for self organization and emergence of wisdom in the educational system of Israel 2010.

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