The Opening Circle that Never Closes

This little article is a kind of reminder.

Several recent open space events I participated in opened the market place at the beginning of the day. Good oh!

But there was then a distinct feeling that lip service was then paid to the idea that the space was open all day. Of course, when you open the market place as a facilitator, there’s a hope that people will get up and start offering sessions – that the programme will start to fill up.

Whoosh. It always does. Doesn’t it?

One facilitator couldn’t bear the silence and started pacing and speaking. It was almost a pleading invocation by the end. “The programme is yours to fill. No one has to offer a session, but here we all are, and there is our programme, and we will have a few empty slots…”

I love the silence. It is the silence out of which self-organisation will bloom. It might feel like the silence of of the empty programme, the silence of looming disaster, the silence of no one is going to get up so I’d better give it a nudge. But it isn’t. It’s the silence of potential.

There is the circle. There is the programme. There are the pens and the bits of paper in the middle. There is the possibility. There is the potential.

The market place – the invitation to get up, go into the circle and offer a session. The invitation for the programme to emerge out of this circle and not out of any group that cooked up the programme before we all arrived.

Now, a lot of OS facilitators report the whoosh. Some own up to a real feeling of relief when the whoosh emerges out of the silence. The programme begins to fill, and often the whoosh is a wave that washed over the whole timetable and, by the end of the timetable, it is full or nearly full.

(Harrison Owen recently suggested a cheeky trick – to keep part of the programme at the bottom of the pages hidden, perhaps rolled up, and then to unroll it to allow even more emergence, and also to ensure that later time slots are also filled rather than just the first time slots.)

But, either way, what often seems to happen is that the market place then closes. Everyone heads off, having chosen their sessions, and there are few if any sessions added. If any are, it becomes hard to get the attention of the whole community to see that new sessions have been added. They are all now in their flow, in their zone.

Of course, a lot of facilitators reconvene the circle and the marketplace re-opens, say after lunch, or at the beginning of the second day (if there is one). Several facilitators I’ve spoken to point to the lack of new sessions that are offered, especially after lunch.

Yet the market place never formally closes. This is our programme and the marketplace, though usually an enormous and breathtaking whoosh of content self-organisation near the start, is never closed. The sessions evolve. The original ideas for sessions may change through dialogue. Some folk may get more restless about action and notice there are few sessions about action in our originally cast agenda.

The facilitator reminds people they can add new sessions at any time, especially if there is space in the programme. So, why does the market place tend to over-fix the agenda?

I want to suggest why. And there are a couple of reasons.

The first is that the minimal structure, being minimal (and therefore a bit hairy and scary for the many not used to it), tends to atrophy. It tends to turn into an overly important structure that people treat in a polarising way. So the market place becomes either a one or a zero – an on or an off. And this isn’t helped if the facilitators attempts to big up and squeeze out the whoosh with well intended banter, instead of letting the silent potential self-organise. Too often people get up and do offer sessions they really want to offer but the actual doing of it – the getting up, the announcing, the writing and sticking up on the wall, and the sitting down – this all becomes an act of compliance with a fixed process. It can become a bit unnecessarily scary and the sitting down has a relieved finality about it for some in the circle. However, when you, as facilitator, allow the silence to sing its own tune beyond the human physical ear, the getting up tends to be different, freer, more flowy, and more out of a mood of collective self-organisation and a joint taking ownership of the space.

When the marketplace is opened too much as a structural process, we tend to get compliance and polarity and the market place is then in a state of on or off, open OR closed. So, when it closes, it tends to close with a bit of finality, because the minimal structure that has been overplayed tends to close it with a loud bang.

Leave that door open. For the whole time. It is more likely to stay open if the sessions truly emerge out of the silence, and less out of a facilitators’s misguided but well intentioned call for compliance.

Another reason is that the agenda itself – the wall, the timetable is often over-designed and over-elaborated by the facilitator or the “hosts”. Once again, ownership of the framework then tends to rest unnecessarily with the “organising circle” and not the circle that sits in the opening space.

The more people walk into a minimally prepared room, the more people in the circle self-organise that room, even unto the agenda itself, the more the market place is likely to stay open all day. And when it does, we really get a self-organising agenda, one that evolves, responds, dances and morphs. The market place is open because it is ours to share and also because it is “always on”, always in flow and change – just like life.

So, here it is: the silence of self-organisation, the facilitator who steps back to allow rather than who steps forward to entreat. The sense that the whole space, not just the content of the agenda, is ours to self-organise. All of these will tend to keep the market place in flow, in change, in creative and emergent “who knows”?

I’ve seen this happen and often it has led to a lot more sessions evolving out of each other, and also a restlessness to add new action-focused and prioritising and “what next” sessions.

The market place opens at the start and there is a whoosh. But let the tide go in and out, just as the self-organising ocean loves to do.

 


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