This is another one of those principles that is useful and true in the practice of open space though, of all the open space principles, it reveals a certain “take” on how the universe operates. Personally I find it works more on a creative and practical level, than as an absolute statement of truth about how our world operates. Indeed, there are alternative view points, currently located in philosophy and the new physics that plausibly contradict it.
Why didn’t Sheila show up?
The session started out as a discussion about our product performance but ended up as an argument about what kind of a team we are.
Dan stormed out half way through the session, leaving everyone else very downhearted and worried.
Are these things the only things that could have happened? One thing is for sure: they happened. Time proceeded, as it always does, and we moved on with it. Behaving as if the above principle is true can be remarkably freeing. We do not get paralysed by regret, nor do we go into a kind of negative post-mortem state, picking over the corpse of what happened and wondering how things might have gone differently. Accepting what happened as the only thing that could have makes that event into a clear place of starting afresh or as a foundation stone to build upon.
It is also a statement of belief in how the world operates. And this statement is not agreed with by everyone in the world. If it is true that whatever happens is the only thing that could have – because it DID – then whatever happens in the present then gains an authority in our reflection and our action in the now and the future. We take whatever happened as a firm given.
Yet we know from learning theory that there is much to be gained from different kinds of reflection. This happened – yes. But what would have happened if…? This is a powerful and often useful question. Paradoxically, if we ask it at an open space, then the very asking of it is, according to the principle, the only thing that could have happened! So, it’s okay to ask it!
There are also there views that whatever happens is one of MANY things that could have happened, and some people even speculate that all those other possibilities exist in parallel universes, all happening at the same time, part of a “multiverse”. This is relevant to us if these other possibilities play into our current reality when we include them in our creative thinking. Certainly awareness of them can fire that creativity and lead to innovation and experiments in our future action. Whatever happened, for many people, is certainly NOT the only thing that could haven happened.
Now, coming back to the principle. Something happened. If we focus with regret on what didn’t happen, if we get distracted by that regret and it takes us away from what we’d really like to be focusing on, and if that focus depresses us, then accepting what happened as a “given” can actually help us to remain focused, and can even energise us. Acceptance of what happened and the giving it an authority as the only thing that could have (because it DID), de-clutters the space.
In my own experience, I tend to edit this principle and offer this instead: Whatever happens, happens. I encourage people to accept the things that happen, reflect on them as they need, but to let those happenings serve the flow of their conversations and work, and not block or distract them. If we decide to explore alternative scenarios, we should do this because it feels right to do so, not because we are refusing to accept what clearly just happened.
Here’s what happened: Sheila didn’t show up. She would have been able to contribute and would have enjoyed it. We reflect that we didn’t brief her well enough on the reason for the open space. We resolve to include her in more and better next time. We move on. Now we have a new “whatever happened”: Sheila didn’t show up and we drew some useful lessons from it and set an action for the future. Then we moved on.
As you can see, accepting happenings as if they were the only thing that could have, because they did, actually opens up the space for creative reflection. The fact that they did, and even if they were the only thing that could have because they did, doesn’t mean we can’t creatively reflect and learn from alternative scenarios.
Some open space facilitators tend to use this principle (for good motives) to stifle any attempts to reflect on what might have happened. They even present it as a bit of a waste of time and effort. It isn’t. Reflection, during an open space, is also one of the only things that could have happened!
Enjoy this paradox, embrace it!