We can become trapped by all kinds of dogma in our lives. One of them is start times. Businesses clock people in and out and there are sanctions for poor timekeeping. We grow up with school timetables and many of us probably remember being told off or even punished for being late to class.
In music, if the orchestra doesn’t start together, the music will not sound pleasant! Yet, in purely improvised jazz, anyone can start. We join in as and when.
In open space, we are encouraged not to get hung up over time. When it starts is when it is meant to start. The dogma of starting on time is a dogma of forcing. It becomes another imposed structure. It might turn out we all do turn up for a session bang on time and start bang on time as well. Or it might be that some pre-start chit-chat turns out to be just the buzz needed for us to start a little later.
The start time of an open space session is not set and imposed. The start time in the agenda is an intention at the time the session is offered. “I’d like to offer a session on Time Management in the Red Room at 11am. The time set is experienced as true at the time it is set. And, already the world has changed; we have moved on, the narrative may shift significantly. One session may over-run and the follow-on session may wait for those people, or may not. The right time emerges out of the need of the moment.
This can and does free us up. It offers the chance to be lazily late, or to simply allow the time to start to emerge as needed by the situation. What stops this principle descending into a lazily, chaotic programme? According to Jack Martin Leith, one of the few people who has ventured to critique open space, it all comes down to awareness. At an open space event there is a collective responsibility to be aware of the reason the Open Space event was created and also of the other people attending: “I believe that each participant should maintain awareness of these outcomes throughout the conference. This awareness should extend to the conscious use of time and space, such as starting meetings on time (because people are aware that time is limited) and not letting them overrun (because they are aware that other people need the space).” (Reference, with case examples, here)
Start time should never be a rule; it is more of an impulse. It’s often remarkable how, on reflection, allowing the start time to “show itself”, is often viewed afterwards as just the right time to start.
This doesn’t come easy to those addicted to structure, those who need to know what lies up ahead in the fixed plan. It comes easier to those who like to go with the flow, who like to improviser, and also those who are lazy and also those who are relaxed. Different cultures treat start times differently and open space conferences that involve a meeting of different cultures can really show these different views and behaviours in action.
“Whenever it starts is the right time” isn’t an invitation to be lazy with time, nor to never agree a start time and stick to it. It is an invitation to view start times as emergent.
A group or community, in open space, can often sense together when something needs to start. And that isn’t always the time stated in the programme.
When we live by the principle “whenever it starts is the right time” in open space, we give permission to others to flow in their own way. We give them space to be, and in doing that, we also give the community space to be an, as a result, space for possibility opens more easily. There’s another side to this coin: When a group meets in a circle (physical or symbolic) or a conversation or to do work together, a collective responsibility can form. The group becomes an organism, even as it is made up for individuals. The group can find, often without words, the right time to start. One person can take the needed in-breath, and then we all start to sing. Sometimes we all breath together. This is captured beautiful in the words of philosopher, Rudolf Steiner:
“A healthy social life is found only, when in the mirror of each soul the whole community finds its reflection, and when in the whole community the strength of each one is living.”
So, the right time to start can be born from one person’s impulse, from the nod between two people, or even from the synchronicity of the whole group.
There’s a lovely paradox here that many open space facilitators have failed to understand. Some people hold firmly to a start time and attempt to uphold it. They create a dogma out of the start time. And this is also fine. If an individual manages to persuade or even cajole an entire room into starting at a fixed time, then this is the right time to start, if the people in the room follow that lead. Along the line of “it starts when it starts” and “it starts in exactly three an a half minutes” are all kinds of people, will impulses and skills of assertiveness. To impose the principle as a rule that excludes time fixedness is as bad as excluding the principle itself. So some sessions will start just as planed earlier in the day, down to the last second and others won’t. And both are perfectly lovely.