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Guest Blog Post: Reflections On Creating Space | Odin Zackman

By Odin Zackman


When you change the way you look at things,

the things you look at change.

Max Planck


If we are to create the kind of leadership we need to affect transformative change in ourselves, our workplaces, and our communities, we need to create space—regularly—in our lives. We need to claim a time in our day and in our week to do what I call “big thinking” or just to be silent. We need to weave this space into our meetings with colleagues, so that we are not only focused on “getting things done” but in understanding why and how we are achieving our goals. And we need places annually or semi-annually that can serve as a pilgrimage of sorts—a place to return to that helps reconfirm our purpose in the world, reconnects us with colleagues aligned with our efforts, and renews us along the challenging path of seeking greater health, sustainability and justice.

Creating Space is a gathering that offers this place for my work. Whether I have been facilitating or participating, I am provided with a clearing for new perspectives and tools, an opportunity to learn with colleagues familiar and new, and a place to reconfirm and recommit to the values central to my work—including collaboration, equity, and health. In structuring this year’s gathering, there was particular attention paid to honoring the idea of “creating space”—the authentic time with colleagues we most yearn for which is often lost amidst presentations and working sessions. There was also emphasis on scale, reducing the number of participants from well over 100 last year to a maximum of 60 this year. And, as always, our theme explored innovative ways to deepen leadership that can achieve transformative change…though this year, we focused more intently on engaging participants in sharing or designing tools and approaches to do so.


The experience crafting the agenda and facilitating this year’s gathering led me to reflect on some of the principles I often use for creating space and designing dialogue, using the mnemonic “CREATE” :


Clarity. Defining why a particular meeting or gathering needs to occur—either for one hour or over the course of three days—is critical. What is the purpose of bringing people together? Clear outcomes (and the right number of them) help structure a meaningful agenda and allow for dialogue and connection among participants.


Room. The space that is used for any meeting creates a mood for that meeting. One of my mentors, David Orr, speaks about “architecture as pedagogy”—we learn from the rooms and buildings we occupy. Is there natural light? Is the space large enough for the number of people? The right answers to these and similar questions can make or break any gathering.


Expectations. While the first and most important question asked about any gathering is about its purpose, this MUST go hand-in-hand with participant expectations. If we are to genuinely create space for transformative conversations and results, we cannot design for people…we need to design with them in partnership. Getting input—through surveys, interviews, and pre-meetings—is essential for success.


Agenda. The path through any gathering needs to provide ample time for each topic, a graceful balance of content to ground a common experience and opportunity for dialogue, regular rituals—whether for short, recurring, or multi-day meetings (think poetry or getting reflections from participants)—as well as breaks to allow for integration. The intensity of a meeting is much different than the work done sitting alone at a computer or on a call with a colleague…and we need to pay attention to this difference in how we map out and balance the time for any size group.


Team. As critical to success as a clear purpose and well-crafted agenda is a facilitation team appropriate for the group and topic. While I often facilitate alone, and solo facilitators can be very successful, larger gatherings require two or more co-facilitators who have worked on designing the experience and who can share the tasks of leading discussion, documenting ideas, and resolving challenges. Equally important—particularly in conversations around social change—is the ability of a facilitator or team to address issues such as race and equity, and the important conversations and emotions that can seem like “off-topic” distractions but actually are core to success.


Evolution. I don’t think any meeting I’ve facilitated has gone exactly as planned, and as a colleague of mine once shared—“it’s not knowing what to do, it’s knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.” Having the flexibility to evolve with the group—as a facilitator or a participant—AND remain focused on getting to clear outcomes and next steps is the real challenge and magic when coming together with a group of people.


This post is adapted from a longer blog post on the topic of “Creating Space.”