Opening Space for the Open Space Principles

One of my favourite memories of Open Space events occurs when you see some peoples’ reactions to seeing the “Principles” for the first time. Of course, these principles are…

Whenever it starts is the right time.

Whoever comes are the right people.

Whatever happens, is the only thing that could have.

When it’s over, it’s over.

And… the Law of Two Feet.

There’s a palpable sense of release, a palpable sense of relief, a feeling of exhilaration, and even a sense of happy disbelief among many participants. Yes! We really do get to play here… We really can organise ourselves, because we are released from formality, and we are finally free of too many limiting rules..

What I sometimes sense is the space opening, there and then.

It’s one reason why these simple principles have taken such a firm hold in the world of Open Space, and why many practitioners are reluctant to change even a word of them. Only the Law of Two Feet has morphed into The Law of Mobility (for reasons of political correctness, for what if you physically, don’t have two feet to use? blah, bleh).

(Oh and there’s also the new kid on the principles block: “Wherever it happens is the right place” but we’ll leave that one to bed in for a few years).

But these principles are powerful, and valuable, BECAUSE they are principles. They lose their power when they are imposed (even accidentally) as rules. These principles are invitations, and when a community self-organises, it often accepts these invitations warmly, and then they look like rules that are being followed. And they are rules that are being followed, via a self-organised re-creation of them in practice. The community chooses to be guided by them and to behave according to them. The community freely “buys in” to them through adopting them for the Open Space event.

Following them becomes an act of self-organisation.

However, going into the event, they are NOT rules. They are invitations – invitations to be guided by these principles – principles which help the space to open. And that’s all.

The problem of walking into a room where these principles are already posted onto the walls, is that they then appear like tablets of stone. It becomes hard to see them as invitations. They look more like calls to comply. I want to suggest that an Open Space facilitator should always meet them, as if for the first time, as an emergent act. He/she should write them up WITH the community there, in their own gloriously shaky handwriting, (or even just speak them), and taste them anew, meet them with freshness, and offer them with openness as an invitation, not part of the “tool’s unchanging architecture” (unless that feels like the right thing to do at the time). And they might also find they go a bit off script!

The space itself, and the people who form it, will tell you how to speak the principles. You are not there to preach them, you are there to offer them with humility as a response to the unique configuration of physical space, human souls and circumstances that is emerging before you.

More often than not, you will speak those principles in the exact form they have existed in for many years. But sometimes, you’ll find that you need to re-organise, to adapt, and creatively respond.

The Open Space principles are, in my view and experience, true at the level of “motive”. They are rich in truthful intention.

“Whenever it starts is the right time”, is an invitation to not get over-focused on start and end times, not to worry about the timetable too much and to allow things to begin when they will. A meeting that begins with irritation that we were “three minutes late” can suffocate a more open readiness to self-organise the emerging “whatever”. We no longer become victims of the clock, but instead, willing travellers along the line of temporal flow, surfing, rather than frowningly navigating to the last second or degree.

And yet, in some Open Spaces, I have found myself surprised into saying something like this instead : “Go with the flow of when it starts” or “Be at ease with whenever it starts”. Same positive effect on the group, whereas, in some groups, “Whenever it starts is the right time” comes across as a bit directive, a bit parental, especially in groups who don’t take kindly to absolutes (such as a bunch of philosophers). Keeping the spirit true, but adapting to the emerging situation is fine, and is important.

“Whoever comes are the right people.” Again, the spirit of this principle rings true. We are the people who have chosen to attend, and there’s no use becoming paralysed or irritated by the non-showers. “Go where the energy is”, says creativity writer, Finn Kollerup. This principle is a glorious acceptance of the present time and place, with “what and who we have is what and who we have” capturing the essence of it. It also feels a bit “evolutionary” (in a cranky social Darwinistic sense) – those who didn’t come are quickly selected out of the consciousness of those who are in the room, “the right people”. This is a shame as I don’t think that is what the spirit of the principle intends. An “involutionary” perspective is also about those who are not in the room and what isn’t being said or contributed as a result. And that wish to “involve” and “include” is positive, exciting and optimistic. In an involutionary frame there is permission to hold those perspectives in mind, even of dead people. What did I just say? Did you read that right? DEAD PEOPLE? Yes! It can even be useful to ask “If the founder of the company (deceased) were part of this group session, what might SHE day? Holding in mind that there are people not here, people absent, can lead us to making a few self-organised phone calls, and getting them to join the party. It can also be useful and valuable to imagine those not here IN the room and to include their perspectives in our collective imaginations. And we only do it if we want to at the time.

Too often this principle shuts out an inclusive mood, because, once again, it turns into a rule rather than a warm, ongoing invitation. Whoever comes ARE the right people. Equally, whoever doesn’t come are also the RIGHT people, and they may well be worth including in whatever way we can or choose. It’s a lot less predictable, but a lot more potentially valuable to recognise that everyone in the world is potentially the right person and, if they aren’t in the room, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to include “whoever” in our emerging “whatever”, as long as it doesn’t create blockage or regret, but actually aids our self-organising flow. When that happens, the wonderful technologies in our hands are suddenly pulled out, and we suddenly have George in the room, who didn’t come, but is suddenly on ‘voice’, and one more of the “right people”.

So, sometimes I find the space telling me to say this:

“The people in the room, are the people we have.”

or

“Do whatever you need to do to get the people in the room that need to be in the room.”

Again, you’ll speak out of the group, not only to the group. The spirit of “Whoever comes are the right people” is affirming and accepting, positive and aimed at flow. Encouraging and self-organising further involvement in real time, strengthens that affirmation.

Now we skip towards “Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.” I’ve written about this elsewhere (You can listen to it here.) Here again we have a principle that rings true at an Open Space event. Surely it makes sense that, if we keep worrying about what went before, if we are full of regret, and keep looking back over our shoulder, the potential that lies ahead will not be fully embraced; we may be delayed, distracted or weakened by what might have been. So, the spirit of assuming that what is done is done was meant to be done that way because THAT is what happened, is another “serviceable” truth. Elsewhere I have written about this and it seems appropriate to repeat it here.

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.

So, often I find myself offering one of these as principles and these seem to work in favour of opening space effectively too:

“Whatever happens, happens.”

And also

“Put whatever you need before you.”

Then we come to “When it’s over, it’s over”. I love that one and have never changed a word of it. It’s refreshing, and it always seems to help space open, and also to flow onwards or elsewhere, where it needs to.

Now, the “Law of Two Feet”. This is a glorious “law” and, when it was first articulated, it encapsulated something that was really of its time. People sat in meetings, too polite to leave. At conferences, people found themselves in sessions that weren’t what they expected and few if any got up and went somewhere they might find of more value. The Law of Two Feet became a powerful permission to follow one’s feet towards value. People loved it. It’s often one of the most quoted of the Open Space principles.

Interestingly, rather a lot of people at Open Space events still stay put in sessions, self-glued to their chairs, and don’t use their two feet. But this says more about cultural habits than about the Law of Two Feet.

It is also interestingly strange to call it a “Law”. I think it is meant largely as a tongue-in-cheek use of the word. There are no formal consequences for breaking the law. Breaking the law means you don’t move when you really ought to. You “stay put” when you’d rather move elsewhere. But there’s no formal or external punishment for breaking this law. The “law” is a suggestion, an invitation, wrapped in weighty wording, that you set it as a kind of “inner” law, or that we all behave together as if the Law of Two Feet were a real law and then, following it during an Open Space collectively, is part of self-organisation.

Over the years, I’ve noticed the word “Law” not always travel well. Some have changed it to the “Law of Mobility” for reasons of political correctness. How silly. Even those in wheelchairs are perfectly able to travel in their minds and make inner decisions to move. Indeed, some people deprived of physical mobility develop even greater creative mobility and spiritual feet, than those of us who can use our physical feet. Anyway, still the word “law” prevails and I’ve seen it irritate some people and groups in a way that undermines the intended spirit. Sometimes I simply verbally remind people that it is quite okay at an Open Space to “use your two feet at any time and not feel you are being impolite” or, more broadly, I might write up Finn Kollerup’s “Go where your energy is, where you want, any time you want”. And sometimes The Law of Two Feet works perfectly well too.

So, what do you think? I have dared to adapt the tool. I’ve tinkered with the technology. It is usually the Space that is opening that tells me when and how to. I don’t stand outside of the group always and,as Jack Martin Leith recently reminded me, I am often, as facilitator, part of the group. (he says always). I don’t just adapt how I use the technology; sometimes I finesse the technology itself. The Open Space principles are not rules. As principles they are better when they dance a little with what is emerging – with the space that is opening. Sometimes silence is better, sometimes they are better whispered. Sometimes, they are perfect in their original form. Even the shovel, though it might look just like a shovel from the 1700s, has been improved over the centuries, finessed and adapted, albeit it looks pretty much like a shovel. The Open Space principles have a timeless feel about them (at least for the time being!). They capture some archetypal qualities when opening space about not being hampered by regret, or chained to time or place. Yet the form they take needs to be as emergent as the space that is opening, even if they often reappear in the same form. They don’t need changing for the sake of changing them, but that doesn’t mean they should be fixed in stone forever.

But dare you take a leap of faith and forget them, only to find you have met them anew, afresh, and once again, emergently alive, and possibly a little transformed?

In 2008, on the OST List, Harrison Owen said:

“My experience with most of the 2nd Generation Open Spaces is that they seem to involve more and different doing and believing.” He never elaborated on what these 2nd Generation Open Spaces were. I’d like to venture they are actually 1st Generation Open Spaces that have institutionalised. They’ve turned principles into rules and often wrapped these rules up in unnecessary, over-elaborated training and fussiness. Quite simply, the “second” or dare I say “new” generation open spacers are simplifying Open Space further, truly self-organising, being emergent and space-opening, and, quite rightly, leaving the first generation behind. Here’s to more opening space.


Visit the Open Space Realm.

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