Over-Control and Open Space


I’ve often wondered why it is that people who are committed to self-organisation processes (such as Open Space Technology) often turn out to be the biggest organisers of other people of them all!

I think there are a number of reasons why facilitators of self-organisation fall into the trap of well-intentioned over-organisation.

One reason is rooted in the notion of facilitation itself. Many facilitators see themselves as helpful souls who stand outside a group and help from outside. Organisationally they might appear to be “in” and “with” the group but often this is just role playing and this can often be exposed in the language the facilitators themselves use:

“I like to get the group warmed up”
“I take the group to a better place”
“I bring X out of the group”

Here the group is an object and the facilitator is a well-motived “do-er”. Even when the facilitator works “with” a group, their reported self-image is often as a subject with the group as object.

Now, what is wrong with this, if it “gets the group to where they need to be” ? Well, firstly, who defines where they need to be? And can a group self-organise that “definition” AND feel ownership of it, if the process for defining has been “done to” them? I’d say, yes, if that process is as minimal as possible – the minimum necessary for self-organisation to occur. But no if they feel they are simply the conforming part of an already desiged, tried and tested process.

In the case of Open Space Technology, the facilitator must not be confused with the process, as the do-er of it. The facilitator is the minimal agent or even channel for self-organisation to “escape” into the world. The more the facilitator organises, the more any arising self-organisation will be limited to a Nightingale’s Cage of the facilitator’s organisation process and attachment, a designed and proscribed play space. If the facilitator commands too well, and emotionally entreats, we often end up with attempts by participants to conform by wishing to please the facilitator and not to self-organise at all. Then the group “plays along”.

The second reason lies in a paradox. Here the facilitator believes that “everything in the end is self-organisation”. The group has attended freely and willingly and therefore the right of the facilitator to overcontrol and take over the Opening Circle (and sometimes much of the rest of the day) is seen as simply part of self-organisation. It’s ALL self-organisation at the end of the day, ain’t it? This is akin to Goering’s Leadership Principle, where one final act of democracy, votes out democracy itself, and votes dictatorship in. It is seen as the ultimate act of people power – for the people to give up their own power! Thus came a dictator to the throne.

What happens next at an Open Space event is that the organising “committee” and the facilitator see their over-control – over-design and holding on to large parts of the rules, the room design, the flow of the day, the breaks etc – as simply part of the self-organising process. They “take” permission to make all kinds of benevolently motivated decisions for the group. Then the role of the participants is simply to offer up sessions for the programme and agenda. And nothing more. Everything else is left to the benevolent leaders. It ultimately results in an Open Space that falls far short of its potential and everyone passively labels the mediocrity up as transformation and five star revolution because they’ve been told by the leaders that they are the “right people” and “whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened” – a travesty of the true spirit of these two principles.

Put another way: the facilitator is a self-important, do-gooding busy-body who ends up over-organising and suffocating the breath of self-organisation. The facilitator ends up like an artificial respirator, breathing for the group. Some of these facilitators can be real devils.

Another reason is fear. Self-organisation is unpredictable, emergent, and realising potential doesn’t like to be chained by unnecessary structure. Even though Open Space has been replicated hundreds, if not thousands of times, around the world, and proved itself to work again and again, many facilitators and sponsors fear that unpredictability, so they “engineer” it to work. The Opening Circle is overdone, and a needy pressure is created for people to come up with sessions. Worst of all, silence is feared, and the facilitator keeps commentating as sessions are offered (often through a loud microphone). The facilitator often wafts around the room, aping new age calm and spirituality, pretending to look and sound more developed than they really are, gonging bells and trying to whip up some cultish conformance. Yet it is out of the real silence that Spirit often reveals itself, and it is often in no hurry to do so. The facilitator simply buggers up the process with noise.

Also, what should be a minimal physical space that might become self-organised by the community as the event progresses, is over-decorated and all kinds of paraphernalia is added from the start to “beef up” the event from fear that the empty space is to be avoided at all costs. Yet this clutter simply generates a feeling by the group of Pre-design and is a force against emergent self-organisation. The space needs to be silent, ready, a blankish canvas of possibility. Simple. Minimal. I’d suggest that even the circle itself need not be preset. Let the community take their chairs (or whatever) and come together in their own way. At least let them be part of that process. Less isn’t definitely more in a self-organising group, but less is definitely the potential for more. And some facilitators (often playing to the fears of their sponsor or funder) fear the possibility of less not being more, then they lose faith in self-organization, banishing it to only the generation of session content. Then there is still potential for much self-organisation, but now in a gilded cage, and not stretching out in all directions to the horizon of possibility.

Too many facilitators feel their role is to fill the “embarrassing” silences. They can’t wait and forget that silence is still vital activity. Yet the silences we often need here are often the tones of the Music of the Unrevealed. The deep listening of the Aborigines can last for hundreds of years. We may not have that length of time at an Open Space but we don’t need to fear the minutes that roll by quietly. Those minutes are part of the energy and intention of self-organization.

So, I’m suggesting this: Open Space is better when the facilitator doesn’t interfere. Open Space is better when self-organisation isn’t limited to the Programme alone. Open Space needs time for silence and space for emergence.

It bothers me that some facilitators misuse and misunderstand the principles of Open Space in order to justify over-intervention and control. It bothers me even more that many facilitators claim to recognize these behaviors and yet they don’t recognize they are doing them themselves.

And now we come to the final reason why Open Space is over-controlled. “Open Space” saved my life” one facilitator told me, and she is now on a mission, to spread the OS gospel, to bring Open Space to the world. Structure is a disease. Open Space is the antidote.

How dangerous. How clumsy. And how silly.

Many Open Space enthusiasts frame it all as so good, so very very kindhearted and needed in a world in pain from overstructure, that is should be beyond criticism. Open Space lies outside of criticism. As a result, even though it is a practice willingly commercialized, trained, sold, conferenced and even called a “technology” (by its own founder), there is virtually no public critique of it, almost no academic research compared to other fields of practice and other technologies applied to the improvement of the Human Condition. And that is a downright shame. It’s a field that tends to confer with itself in tones of mutual admiration and celebration, and in terms of incremental, cosmetic change only. The lack of self-examination and belief that its core process lies outside of innovation, is timeless and beyond critique, is one reason that it remains largely a small field. It isn’t a niche because it ‘flows wherever it flows’. It’s a niche because it has been caged by too many of its own community. Luckily, self-organisation is bigger than Open Space. And luckily, many Open Space practitioners know how to really facilitate and when and how to let the Space Open and when to get the hell out of the way. I do hope a little bit more critique is heard and entertained openly. The “Technology” will be all the better for it.

Now, do I only have grump to offer? What if the above is in truth a deeper celebration of Open Space ? Hm ?

And, just one or two suggestions – ideas for over-facilitating facilitators. Embrace one less thing to do and apply it to yourself. Then, explore the notion of you being spaceless and timeless in the Open Space. You are not the cause, nor the effect; you are but one ingredient in the gorgeous brew; you aren’t the originator of the flow but you are part of it. You are not the wizard nor witch, but part of the magic. You are there to serve by listening deeply and humbly and not by delivering. You aren’t the manager of self-organisation – you are the temporary steward of the space.

About the author
Paul Levy is a writer and facilitator who has worked in collaboration with groups and organizations on over fifty Open Space events over the last twenty years. He is founder of Cats3000 and is passionate about emergence and self-organisation

Visit the Open Space Realm.

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