“Sort of” Open Space

Nadia Waber, on the Open Space Technology Linkedin Group posted the question, “What are the uncompromisable elements of Open Space Technology?” and, on the same group, Viv McWaters, quotes a facilitator who refers to a “sort of” Open Space. Many replies followed that report, with a number essentially taking up what, in other fields, would be called a “purist” stance. There are those, apparently who “get it” (Open Space) and those who don’t.

Open Space puritans believe there is a baseline set of unchange-ables in Open Space Technology practice. It’s referred to by Harrison Owen as a “Technology”, and by Lisa Heft as a “tool”. Now, technologies and tools can take different forms. “A spade is a spade is a spade”, is often Harrison Owen’s description of the technology that is Open Space (My interpretation). It is a tool that is what it is, that does the job that it does. Like a spade, there’s little need to change much, if at all, or even use it in too many different styles, because there are literally thousands of examples of this spade in use, where it is shown to work again and again and again – so why change it?

That viewpoint really is at the heart of the purist stance on Open Space. Why change it, when it works? (and works all over the place at that!) It is viewed as a fairly timeless tool for “Opening space”. It is often characterised in Grail-like terms, simple yet biblically miraculous (and like all good Grails, labelled by its grail knights as really quite ordinary) Sure there are others ways of “opening space”, but these “other ways” are “not true Open Space Technology”. (How interesting that people in this field, of all fields, use the word “not” so much in relation to OST). These are “other” tools. “Sort of” open space suggests to the purists that the ‘sort-of’-facilitators simply “don’t get it.” This has been a feature, sadly, of Open Space cultishness amongst some of its thought-leaders for quite a few years – the unnecessary mystique built around “Open Space” where you either “get it” or “don’t get it”, where you are either an Open Space “officianado” who has “done the training” and “gets it” or whether you are an outsider, a pretender or a rookie or, perish the thought, a self-organising innovator.

Of course. there really are people who don’t “get” Open Space, and who think they do. A number of people see Open Space through the eyes of control and are happy to plunder and blunder it. Open Space is often mashed up with top-down methods and over-control and becomes a kind of tokenistic, mock dose of openness or empowerment (Even so, spaces sneakily often open anyway within these prison bars). In some cases the motives are manipulative, and in others, they are just well-intentioned short-sightedness and clumsiness. I am in no doubt that some Open Spacers also play the “tool” so by the book or, worse, over-design it, that what emerges sometimes is as sterile and mediocre as the damage done by the souls who tinker with it beyond recognition.

At this point I’d like to introduce a very shocking concept. The concept is the “self-referential model”. Self-referential models refer to mindsets that contain a way to explain away anything from outside that model (including challenge or critique) in terms of the model itself, indeed as proof of the veracity and unchangeability of the model itself. For example, some fundamentalist Christians explain any attempts to challenge or question their beliefs as “proof of the temptation of the Devil”, and a reinforcement of their continued need and duty to “believe”. (And they may well be right!) Any critique, no matter how powerful or compelling, is simply an example of its opposite. Self-referential models are either examples of timeless, eternal genius, or are models which essentially disappear up their own asses. (Or both).

Open Space, according to Harrison Owen “is what it is”, and also “whatever it is” is “perfect”. Questioning the “basic model” is a ‘waste of time’, ‘time lost’ when we could just be “opening more space”. There is little point in “Learning lessons from the past” because the present is far more compelling. Hey, shaddup already and open some more space…

The idea basically run thus: don’t question or critique Open Space Technology (Or at least not for very long) because you could be spending that time on the far more worthy and valuable activity of using Open Space Technology to OPEN MORE SPACE! (A self-referential model methinks?)

Here we come to the cultishly and devilishly difficult aspect of Open Space, at least as it has manifested in a big part of its community, namely, that the above is all true, even as it is a bit nuts. The paradox is that the spirit of Open Space and its “principles” are true, whilst, at the same time, the many applied human contexts need to be allowed to be emergent and variable, which even need to allow the basic “model” to flex with emerging reality. They are indeed so right generically, that they have to emerge sometimes as wrong (or at least not needed) specifically. Without the right (and even the loving nudge) to self-organise in ANY WAY even out of using the technology model itself, the Open Space Technology turns into a benevolent cage, and disappears up its own arse.

When Harrison Owen says “whatever happened is the only thing that could have happened”, this is a very serviceable truth. Instead of becoming entangled with regret, we accept the past quickly, and simply focus on opening more space in the present and into the future. However, most common sense theories of learning (such as Kolb’s Learning Cycle and Schon’s Reflective Practice, as well as human experience and common sense) demonstrate again and again how asking questions such as “What would have happened if…?” and “What do we wish had happened…?) can feed into the flow of passion and resolution for future action. We can learn from the past and the different “happentracks” of parallel and alternative possibilities can be part of joyous, emergent, and self-organised creative thinking. Timelines are vital, beautiful and musical in a way for they are part of our emerging song of life. Watch out here because dogmatic Open Spacers accidentally steal from us our right to a past, present and future timeline. In Dante’s Inferno, Dante steps through that timeline and experiences “time” becoming “space”. The past, present, future timeline becomes a kind of spacial tapestry, and often we can use a very magic word, one of the most unique words in language to open more space. That word is “before”. It is one of the few words that can be used in different contexts to mean complete opposites! For what went “before” us (behind us in time, in the past), we can put “before us” (in front of us, in the present and the future), and transform the timeline, by opening space for newness. Jack Martin Leith used to call that “Now to New”.

Harrison Owen got it so right when he hinted through the “What happened….” principle that space doesn’t open so easily if we get bogged down in regret, and when we look behind instead of ahead. The Open Space principle, “whatever happened is the only thing that could have happened” can be very releasing for those chained to regret, and past-focus as a habit. Yet, once we have accepted that as a PRINCIPLE, we don’t have to adopt it as a commandment cast in stone (as so many OST facilitators do). Actually, by accepting the principle that we shouldn’t keep looking at the past in an obsessive way, we can find that when we put what went “before”, “before us”, the past becomes miraculously transformed, full of treasure-insights, and then the past seems to lie strangely and wonderfully in the future, as a new opportunity to create new history. Get this: The Past can Open More Space! This is glorious when it happens. Whatever happened IS the only thing that could have happened, yet whatever happened also happened, and what now lies ahead is what could happen. And what could happen lies before us, on a time line of what went before. Dogmatic Open Space Technology disciples simply don’t get this and turn the principle into a rule that robs the community of its ability to self-organise, not just its present and future, but also its past – it’s entire story. And we all have a right to our story.

Here’s the irony: OST practitioners who dogmatise the principles into habitual rules, are the ones who are doing “sort of” Open Space. Open Space Puritanism defeats itself on its own ground. They often justify this to themselves as being gatekeepers for the preciousness of this so very simple “tool”, a tool whose simple purity needs to be protected from “degradation”. And by doing so, they cast it into tablets of stone.

But here’s the more practical paradox. There are a lot of closed spaces. There are a lot of fixed, overstructured, chained organisations. “Basic”, even dogmantic, open space, often works, even when delivered dogmatically. It opens a lot of space, and is nearly always successful – relatively leaving a lot more space opened than was there before. As such, it becomes hard to question the “basic” model. A lot of people find their lives changed by it, also relatively to what was there for them personally before. In some developing countries, even basic medicines are better than no medicines – medicines which we, in the West, would hardly notice in our medicine cabinets. Open Space is great. Open Space Technology and its basic model (which remains unchanged since its inception) is a kind of panacea in the eyes of its followers, that proves itself again and again. And, if anyone were to suggest that “More space could have been opened” if the basic model was adapted or innovated, its own self-referential model kicks in: “It was what it was, and what it was was perfect” and, of course, “Whatever happened is the only thing that could have happened”. This is propounded most of all by Harrison Owen himself. Often OST discussions end up with a “final pronouncement” from the great man himself who, in a friendly way, tells everyone to can it, and get on and open some more space. He is so very right, and so very wrong, for we become robbed of our still living, still playing into the present, heritage. And, our heritage, our fuller stories of the whole timeline, lie up ahead, before us, like waiting treasure, in our future. It’s a compelling truth that the emergent “whatever” is perfect. It is also a less compelling but vital truth that whatever happened lies “before us” as potential. Opening Space is limited when the past is shut out through a well intentioned fear of regret.

“Sort of” Open Spacers fill the “classic” Open Spacers with a mix of horror, disappointment or zen-like sighing. Anyone who varies Open Space from its core, “doesn’t get it”, is diluting something that needs to remain universally unchanged (forever?). “Sort of” Open Spacers are kind of betraying Open Space, diluting it, inhibiting the “proper” opening of space. It is ultimately a futile thing to do, a waste of time and “space”, according to the fundamentalists. The trainings become a days-long heady mix of general emergence training mixed with Open Space Technology templating.

And articles such as the one you are reading now are viewed as miserable, spoiling, ruining a field that needs to be maintained as unadulturated joy. Open Space has, apparently, an unalienable right to optimism and positivity. “Sort of” Open Spacers, when all is said and done, are “Letting the team down”, or “aren’t part of the team in the first place.” As I’ve repeated elsewhere, I love the spirit of Open Space and, more often than not, find myself watching it escape emergently and taking on (through my own facilitation of it) that wonderfully simple form of Open Space Technology with its eloquent principles and graceful process.

It is true, a lot of Open Space “sort ofs” really don’t get it. It is also true that a lot of “by the book” Open Spacers “get it” even less. Open Space Technology is a tool indeed, and I don’t believe it is a tool that can’t be varied, improved upon and innovated, especially if it is ice we need to break in the Arctic, or lava we need to shovel, in a volcano’s heart. The “spade” may remain unchanged for many needs. But not all.

Open Space is owned by no one. It was invented by no one. It’s territory belongs to no man, woman or country. Open Space Technology is not a final revelation, nor can it or should it be. “Sort of” Open Space often opens space as well. Open Space serves no ego, nor exists for the aggrandisement of any individual, group or community. Open Space is what it is, which includes what Open Space dogmatists think it is not. Harrison Owen is not the final arbiter on what is true or what isn’t true in Open Space (though he is a wise and respected elder in its impulse). Open Space is free to humanity, and transhuman. Open Space only fixes for a time as an emergent property of nature.

Open Space Technology works and is a very applicable “tool” and can be applied as a technology in so many communities and situations. But it isn’t you nor me who will tell Open Space how to be in the next moment. We will self-organise around what needs to be done. And, if space opens, only then will we sit, sharing a Martini, smile and say: Well, that was some Open Space!


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