LearnFwd: An opening move

I walk into a conference room. It’s a little stuffed with furniture, but that can be moved.

I’ve just met my lead contact face to face for the first time. I’m here at an arts organization that I don’t know too well yet, though I’ve read their materials and spoken on the phone to my contact a few times. I ask if we might move the chairs and tables into a more human-centered, convivial set-up.

I’m awaiting about a dozen people, and I wonder which of my “opening moves” might best set the tone for the adaptive change quest that we all are about to begin together.

I’ve experienced this situation many dozens of time over more than a decade as an EmcArts process facilitator. It’s so exciting. It’s intimidating. Each time, it’s a new beginning for me – and for those I’m about to be working with.

So, how do I begin this multi-session process to address complexity and incubate some new, discontinuous, radical responses within this organization?

I begin by being both humble and curious. I can own that I have some expertise regarding this journey in and through complexity, while inviting each participant’s voice to come into the room more than my own. With this in mind, I’m always on the lookout for a good prompt, a curious yet gentle way to encourage everyone’s passion for this organization, this art-form, this group of people to be visible as we begin.

So, as I begin this blog post series (Oh, yikes – I’m not a writer! Other people at EmcArts do the real writing!) I offer this opening move:

Line Up and Share

Why use this activity?:  It’s a “move” to bring everyone’s voice into the room, sharing a meaningful but brief moment of connection.

When?: Use it as a newly constituted team is forming, usually at the first meeting. Within the first 30 minutes is very effective.

Materials Needed:  None

Space Needed:  A space long enough for all participants to line up. A horseshoe shape can be best, so everyone can see each other yet still feel the linear progression.

Participants:  Everyone on the team, everyone in the room. This works best when you have a team representing multiple constituents: board, staff, artists, partners. It’s not as effective if it’s all staff (unless there’s a very wide gap of length of service that would be useful to explore).

Duration:  About 1 minute per person + 15 minutes (i.e. 15 people + 15 min = 30 min). It can feel like it will take “too long,” but if your new team will be meeting for at least 8 hours, over multiple sessions, it’s really not that long, and I have seen the investment pay off in team “connective tissue” time and time again.


  1. Introduce the move: “Maybe you all know each other already, but it would be helpful for me to learn something about your individual connections to this organization. And I bet that you’ll learn something new about at least one person today!”
  2. Invite everyone take a moment to consider silently their response to the question that you share, in this case: “When did you first come into significant contact with this organization?” (repeat a few times, as needed). It is up to each participant to determine what “significant” means to them—that’s one of the keys of this move. For some people it will be when they joined the staff or a new production, for some it will be when they joined a committee or the board, while for others it will be when they attended a performance for the first time (possibly well before they became formally affiliated).
  3. When everybody’s ready, ask them to silently stand up and form a line against the wall (or some other location that works in the room or a nearby hallway). Have them form the line in order from earliest to most recent first significant contact. Make sure they don’t speak while doing this.
  4. Once they’re all lined up, ask them if they’re happy with this order. Are there any adjustments they want to make?
  5. Then, starting with the person with the earliest contact, ask them one by one to share their name, what their role is with the organization, and how they first came into contact with the organization.
  6. After all have shared their stories, and they’ve made any adjustments in the line order as a result, then open things up for a group discussion. Ask the participants, “What do you see? What do you notice? Are there similar characteristics of “significant contact” among the group?”

Enjoy the stories–they will lay a great emotional and purposeful foundation for the quest you are about to begin!

Lastly, please let me know if you try this move, and how it goes. I’d love to hear from you!

Melissa Dibble is the Managing Director and Lead Facilitator at EmcArts, bringing over two decades of experience in cultural administration and development of new strategies in organizational innovation within the arts sector.