The Art of Hosting

Sharing the story of a two-day offsite with Collective Story Harvest, World Cafe and OST

This past June I had the opportunity to work with a team designing a two-day off-site for a group of leaders. This is not a group familiar with the Art of Hosting patterns - at most some of them have been in World Cafes with me in different gatherings and contexts. Their normal mode of meeting (which isn't usually the whole group) is a one-to-many format: all presentations, very little time for connection and conversation.
As the principles of the off-site came into clarity some of the core methods emerged as good possibilities for the design. So I went for it! A chance to open a crack of possibility in how they meet. You'll notice a little bit of language tweaks where the team better understood different descriptors than typically used. This is a little harvest of the day - a small gift back and a big thanks to this community for continually inspiring my practice.  I've posted it on my blog and will add it to the ning; copied below for you.... 

Designing for Turn-Towards-Each-Other

One of the principles of a two-day offsite meeting for 50+ leaders was to create space to connect with each other, share knowledge, challenges and ideas. It was a lovely opportunity to use the Collective Story Harvest process to connect and learn from each other, as well as an Open Space Technology session to raise challenges and further the connections and ideas.

The leaders all held the same role but were distributed geographically and the last time they had all been together in one room was over seven years ago. The Collective Story Harvest and Open Space were held on the second day of their gathering, with the first day a full agenda of updates and presentations.

In the organizing team’s invitation and outreach work they had surfaced a number of topics that the group was hungry to learn more about. And in many instances ‘the wisdom was in the room, it just needed to be connected’. They selected six broad topics that had resonance with the group and supported the theme of the off-site: What do we need to know as we journey on in 2012? How can we equip ourselves as leaders for the next leg of the journey to move our business forward?


Next was to think about the storytellers and the arcs that we wanted to harvest. The invitation here for the organizing team to think about what do we most want to learn from the stories? Where do we want to focus our learning? From these we created arcs that would be listened for during each story. Volunteers will become “wisdom catchers”, listening for these particular arcs.

With the storytellers invited into the fold we held a conference call to welcome them into their role and explained the process, what the story arcs were and the flow of the process on the day. We also talked about what happens in their circle after they shared their story, and a bit about the World Café after the storytellers, hosts and circles came back together.

We talked about how they might prepare to tell their stories, and I drew from Christina Baldwin’s work in Storycatcher. We explored what a story is, how some reflective journaling might help them to write their story using the elements of story: chronology (it begins and ends), character (it happens to somebody), scene (it happens some place), and insight (it offers a point/lesson). We emphasized that this wasn’t about sharing only a positive story – pains and failures were important to talk about as well. And it did not need to be a success story.

During the process there would be a host with each of the storytellers. This was an opportunity for some of the other leaders in the room to step into more of a hosting role, holding space and process instead of being ‘the one with all the answers’. They were equipped with a little process guide on how to support their storyteller and host their circle well, and we huddled-up at the start of the day to go over the flow and talk it through (the last minute “touch the ticket” as Chris would say).

I introduced the context and process to the group and shared the arcs:

  1. Pivotal Moments & Breakthroughs: What are the pivotal moments or breakthrough moments in this story? What can we learn from them?
  2. Resources & Resourcefulness: What can we learn from this story about the skillful finding and use of resources or about how to be resourceful from this story?
  3. Relationships – Working Collaboratively and Effectively: What can we learn from this story about the importance and tending of relationships, and how we can work effectively as partners or step into partnership?
  4. Overcoming Barriers: What barriers were encountered in this story and what can we learn from them?
  5. Employee and Customer Experience: What does our story tell us about how we can make a difference in our employee and customer experience?
  6. Being a Leader: What is the thread of leadership in this story? What was needed in our leadership?
  7. Questions: What big questions arise for me from this story that I can apply to our/my work?

Then each storyteller gave a little descriptor of their story. Around the room we had large posters with the story theme and storyteller names with circles of chairs waiting for them. In that moment of self-organization the room went ‘whoosh’ as people went to where they were called to be. And what you would have seen was about sixty people convened in six circles, all leaning in, giving the gift of their attention to listen and catch the story.

After the time in the smaller circles we flowed into a World Café that was creative to orchestrate as all the tables from the day before had been banished (on purpose) and our center seating was in the concentric circle format for the afternoon’s Open Space. I put little tent cards over some of the chair backs to mark sections for the storytellers to convene, each of the arc wisdom catchers, and the hosts (colour coordinated to the wisdom catcher sheets). After sharing the World Café principles, and the tweak that instead of using tablecloths and markers they would use a notepad where they would tear off their sheet to give to the host who stays behind to welcome the next group of travellers.

The question in the first round of the World Café was: “What did you learn from the lens of your arc that can help all of us lead our teams to success?” And for the Storytellers, “What did you learn from sharing your stories that can help all of us lead our teams to success?”

In the second round everyone intermingled and explored the question again, surfacing more wisdom, patterns and insights. In round three we asked “How might these learning’s and insights be translated into action? What can you take back with you?” We were very short on time due to some start-of-the-day activities that went much longer than anticipated so just did a little popcorn harvest of “What are you taking away from this session?” Then a thank you to the Storytellers, hosts, wisdom catchers and it was time to lunch. The vibe of connection and sharing carried through lunch; little circles and big circles everywhere.

After lunch we moved into an Open Space Technology session around the question: “What issues or questions are we facing as leaders, where we can co-create solutions for success in 2012 and beyond?” We had two very very short 35 minute sessions (way shorter than I would ever prefer!). 20 topics were posted very quickly and they got to work. There was a delightful moment when the second timeslot was to begin but a very intense conversation from the first round was still happening in space “B”. The group came to me “They won’t leave”. What do you want to do? They went and tried to interrupt and ask them to move. No movement. So they took the “B” off the wall and created a new place for “B” a little ways beside it!

No time for a newsroom but most of the session notes were provided to me and I scanned and emailed them out that same night. We did hold a closing circle and the group did a great job honouring the time-math as we had folks needing to leave to catch ferries and flights. The group left energized, with new ideas, new friends to call on, and new insights on what happens when we are invited to turn-towards-each-other instead of listening to the sages-on-the-stage. Sweetness.

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