Follow-up or Flow in Open Space

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What you are about to read might turn your view of facilitating action on its head.

“Time runs backwards in the spiritual world.”

No, don’t stop reading. Not yet.

There’s a lot of debate in the field of emergence focused on “when things open up, how do you close them down?”.

In the realm of Open Space, often the textbook reply is not to close down at all but simply to open some more space for closing down…

In other words, if we are worried about outcomes from an open space – what will happen back at base, the actions, the commitments in practice, then all we need to do is to follow up with an invitation to another Open Space that focuses on the question of action. So you need at least two open spaces to get stuff done.

Another view is that one should trust the open space itself – whatever happens of course is the only thing that could have. And many open spaces do self-organise sessions about action so… just trust the process. It always works.

A third view is that these are paying clients we are usually talking about. As facilitators we can’t just leave the organisation “up in the air”, walk away and let them do what they will with the space we’ve opened up! Many facilitators then reach for the post-it notes, often in the last hour, and start to draw out (or bleed?) actions from the meeting. All kinds of clever prioritising and voting ensues. Elsewhere I’ve suggested this might be a counter-productive way of going about things. (More here.)

Now, here’s an alternative view and its based on the idea that time runs backwards in the spiritual world. No! Stay with me. Just for a bit longer. Imagine you put what went “before” you (past), before you (in front of you.

For those of you still here, read on…

I am going to suggest that follow up is often best at the start, not after the event. I’ve tried it. It works. If the client is very concerned, even at the planning stage, that action must result, then, of course, include the invite to decide and commit to actions in the invitation to the open space. Make that call to action explicit and that will help to set the path for the right people to come. Some open space invitations are very “theme” focused and it is easy when we immerse in self-organising conversation, to forget the element of our will that sometimes sleeps a bit when we go into the head space of sitting in circles, self-organising the content of what is often talk, talk, talk.

So, build the reminder of action in the invitation before the event. Put action before the event, not after it.

Yet even then it is easy to forget when the space opens. Not always, but often.

Now, stop reading if you don’t like apparent craziness.

Try this. Before the event, invite those coming to share what they think the actions should be arising from the Open Space. Ask them to come up with actions before the event has started. This can be done online or at a pre-meeting. Get the actions out. When an open space is commissioned, it is often because a critical issue or challenge in the organisation or community has given rise to it. It is born out of restlessness. And restlessness is often takes the form of blocked flow. People often know (or think they know) what the actions and priorities are. Not everyone, but some. They may not be correct, but they sit there, bubbling behind the damn of “not yet” or “no”.

If certain actions have already been fixed and decided by leaders, be open and transparent and build them into the invitation. If the actions are to be arrived through community and organisational input then use a method to surface them – but not after the open space – BEFORE it. The reason is because a lot of the future already sits as potential in the word, hidden, waiting to emerge. Human beings often tap into this and know what needs to be done, before they explore how, and verify why, sometimes deciding against anyway. The bubbling potential underneath is the potential for “realisation” and it is mostly about action. The release of potential is often exhilarating. Often at open space events, that potential for action gets lost in the self-organising gorgeous chaos of of emergent head-talk. Especially in the West.

Get them out on the table BEFORE the event. Put them up on the wall. THEN open the market place. The suggested “follow-up” actions will then be “incomes” not “outcomes” of the event. They will be there, not bubbling underneath, but instead shared consciously, and they will irritate and inspire. And often sessions well self-organise around them. By the end of the day, what we put “before” us, before the event started, now stand “Before” us as commitments after the event.

Trust the self-organising nature of open space and also trust the inherent knowingness of the human collective and individual will. There’s often no need to worry about actions not arising from an event, if we accept that those actions were largely already there in the collective story and flow AND genius of the community.

Some of those actions going in will be thrown out, others re-affirmed, others changed and played with, and new actions will also come into being.

I’m not suggesting this for all Open Spaces. Actually it works best where action forms the main part of the invitation, is vital to the sponsor and the community and also where there’s an intuition that many of the actions are already known and the open space overall theme is really more about the who, when, where, why and how.

Put the ending at the beginning, the imagined actions as the inspiration and input. Then space will open around what we already think and feel needs to happen. It might not. But then, again, it just might.

But please, ditch the post-its and the after-event prioritising. It has nothing to do with opening space.

I believe that when we start an emergent conversation we may well have a blank page. But usually organisations and communities travel along timelines of past into present into future that are more like tapestries than lines. Linear is but one way we experience life. Yet past is always playing into the present, the future in the form of the unrealised and the potential inspires us in the know. Often something in the future will be a direct transformation or culmination of something that began in the past. We are also past, present, AND future, which is more of a picture rather than something linear. In open space, the action often precedes the word. Allowing those actions to speak in the past of the open space often creates a marvelous alchemy of flow where past and future meet in open space in the present.

Nuts? Try it.


Visit the Open Space Realm.

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2 thoughts on “Follow-up or Flow in Open Space

  1. Brilliant, this really inspired me in how to use open space honestly by placing my agenda right up front.

  2. Paul, I’ve left a comment in open space and art of hosting (waiting to be accepted). In summary – great insight and pragmatic as we need these sessions to hit the mark or challenge the assumptions of what is to come out of the session. How often is there really a blank page.

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