Trapped by Complexity – the role of the Physical Space


Some of my favourite stories of Open Space events are those where the whole thing was “cobbled together” and turned out to be all the better for it. Often it wasn’t cobbled together at all; there was simply plenty of self-organisation on the day, rather than lots of pre-design and organisation.

What we are really talking about is living the idea of looking for one less thing to do by letting the community do more. That means not looking for one extra thing to do in the first place!

Opening space for opening space

The more you leave “open”, the more you leave for everyone on the day to help out, the more potential there is for self-organisation on the day AND, the more the programme itself will tend to range more widely and deeply. Why is that? Because self-organisation is permission to self-organise more. And you need to open the space for that. Space can open before we have entered the room. Space can stay open long after. I am aware there are often “clients” involved. However, personally, I tend to see ‘potential’ as my main client, humanity and our Earth as another biggie, and the organisational client is but one of those. It all seems to work out in the long run.

Now, a room, some chairs (not even laid out), a few places we might have lunch, some paper, boards and stuff waiting to be put up – here’s a space ready to open. Oh, and me, the facilitator, and I might say a thing or two. I’ll know what I need to say when I’m in the space. I might imagine or dream it a bit in advance. But I’ll be emergent too.

The Danger of Trying to Control Complexity

Now, here’s the danger of complexity. You design it beautifully. Lunch is laid on and it’s coming at 12.30 (A number of staff not in the space will bring it and clear it by 2.30pm at the latest as they have to get paid overtime otherwise). You’ve designed a lovely programme board in advance for everyone. Oh my! It looks GRRRREAT! But it is only so big. And you have to use THESE pens and not THOSE pens and we have to use pins because sticky tack won’t work. Oh, and you’ve organised parking vouchers but if people haven’t ordered one in advance then they might not get parked. You email that out to everyone.

Then there’s your plan. You are going to walk the circle ANTI-CLOCKWISE and you’ve got a gong at the ready. It cost you a fortune online and you feel this NEED to use it.

Oh, and now the space. What dust! What a mess. You start sweeping it to make it squeaky clean, coughing as the dust enters your nostrils. Oh, and the printers! We don’t have enough cables, and there’s a poor Wifi connection! (Do we need to offer Wifi?)

It’s all necessary, you think. I want this space to be so perfect for this community. I’m going to give them a good day. Give them?

Becoming Entangled for Good Reasons

The trap is closing and here is its name: Benevolent Entanglement. Benevolent because the motive of the facilitator and organisers of the Open Space is to do good. Entanglement because paraphenalia is blooming likes weeds in and around the space. Be in no doubt, the space might well open anyway and be what it is. But it might be a space that needs more light and air for things to grow.

Benevolently entangled, the facilitator becomes trapped by attempts to organise the space. What then can happen is that the participants become inhabitants of the benevolent entanglement and become a bit entangled themselves or, at least, passive participants in this newly “modelled” space. When problems arise – technical, organisational and otherwise, they tend to leave it to the benevolent “leaders” to sort out, or to only the movers and shakers among them to “self-organise”. They feel they are guests in a space rather than self-organisers of it and in it. Eventually, focus turns to the programme on the wall, and this becomes the prime place for self-organisation to happen. The Space opens on the wall, but less in the room. And, being on paper, on a wall, it often retreats into the head, and the intellect and we also become benevolently entangled in conversation.

Just open the space

Just open the space!

Just open the space!!!

Oh, and by the way: Just open the space.

There are a number of specific ways in which a facilitator can become benevolently entangled. Here they are:

1. Becoming entangled with the sponsor and their organisational culture’s need to over-elaborate.

Here the “client” seeks reassurance that this “risky” approach will deliver. This leads to the over-elaboration of the space. Because we have agreed to leave the programme open to self-organisation, everything else if pre-fixed, over-designed and elaborated as a kind of comfort factor, a form of reassurance. If this is the only way the event is going to happen, and the facilitator has made attempts to keep it simple but will “lose the gig” unless they collude with this, then it becomes a choice for the facilitator to either use their two feet and walk away before it all kicks off, or to make the sometimes easy, sometimes tougher judgement to dive in anyway and to trust that the space will be open anyway, in its own way, given what is there and can’t be changed. If this happens a few times in a row, the facilitator should take a few naps in between and try gently to shake off any habits that might develop where they start to become a habitual over-organiser.

2. Never really trusting the space to open without a bit of pre”help”.

Here the facilitator, who may well have come from a background away from Open Space, finds it hard to just open a space. They have busy-body qualities and aren’t at ease with not being very visible or important. Often this leads to an Opening Circle that has a bit of the Shakespearean epic about it, because they are aware it is their only chance to “establish” themselves in the process. This then isn’t just about opening the space; it becomes about opening the audience to the various important and valuable qualities of the facilitator. Again, I’m not sure it is always that important as spaces tend to open anyway, despite the Wagnerian desperateness of the presenter. But occasionally, it can to lead to a muted market place, or one of polite conformance, especially is the facilitator’s introduction has wrapped OS in sacred mystery or even hinted at personal failure and sadness if there aren’t many offered sessions. As the market place opens, the facilitator sometimes turns into a kind of friendly and humorous “bingo caller” trying to get a “full house” of sessions up on the wall. Again, often it all fills up despite the facilitator anyway because when potential is flowing, and space is opening, no one can dam up the river that is flowing.

3. The facilitator is chained to the “Basic” process as religious dogma

Here the facilitator has adopted the minimal and basic Open Space Technology Process as always needed, never changeable, and vital to opening the space. This becomes a kind of fundamentalist behaviour pattern, blinkering the facilitator to what is emerging in the room. I’ve said this and experienced this before. Sometimes as space can open with a sneeze, or just a few words. Often it opens with the classic “script” (because Open Space is a bit of process genius that is mostly standing the test of time). The problem is that the facilitator has forgotten that things that we repeat, can also become mechanical and compulsive. The facilitator needs to meet the space anew, refresh their relation to the basic process, and be open to speaking differently. It must never be a routine, unless that routine makes sense at the time. What needs to be done, right now? Invent if its needed. Making it up. Then make it up again. And, if you’ve done it many times before, make that up again too.

De-complicating is easy

Just drop stuff. Simplicity, space and breathing. Look for one less thing to do, but don’t look too hard. Don’t turn “look for one less thing to do” as another habitual rule. Go in there, and open the space.

Opening a space is always better when it is as simple as possible. It is also better when it is a bit clumsy and rough around the edges, for we are human.

Complexity rarely serves an Open Space unless it is truly needed in those moments. Open Space Technology is a fine process for opening spaces. But spaces can be opened without its rules. In my own working experience, OST often turns out to be the right way to do it. It creeps up on me like an old friend, taps me on the shoulder, and I look back and say: Hey, we did it that way again.

But not always. The physical space doesn’t matter as much as we think it does. Sometimes it plays a big part. But sometimes a hundred people open the space on the head of a pin.

Visit the Open Space Realm.

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2 thoughts on “Trapped by Complexity – the role of the Physical Space

  1. Thank you for this post Paul. I will carry the essence of it at our World of Open Space. Smiled at the parking ticket issue which happened Saturday when I facilitated. We had anticipated it which I hope was not in the category of benevolent engagement though I think not because it was the client that did much of this pre-work in the spirit of “one less thing to do” and they doing the things that they were to do as hosts.

    I resonated much with what you wrote, the intention of it and the complex execution of it, the depth which invites a “being” from nothing when we open space so that it becomes as open as possible or as open as it was meant to be.

    What I will carry with me most from your post Paul is this: “The facilitator needs to meet the space anew, refresh their relation to the basic process, and be open to speaking differently. It must never be a routine, unless that routine makes sense at the time. What needs to be done, right now? Invent if its needed. Making it up. Then make it up again. And, if you’ve done it many times before, make that up again too.” True emergence… just beautiful stuff. Thank you.


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