Like many of the open space principles, they are true at an archetypal level. The people who are in the room to get to work together on something are the people we have. Where attendance in that room is voluntary, we have a community formed out of freedom, and that commitment means the right people are in the room. The rightness here is born of free commitment. There’s also a more pragmatic perspective that says: Here we are, here and right now, and this is who we have, so let’s get to work!
Some open space facilitators misunderstand this “rightness” and suggest to participants that we should just accept who is here as the right people and get on with things, stifling any conversation or regret about who isn’t in the room. They then present this principle as a kind of dogma as follows: Whoever didn’t come, clearly didn’t need to be here. This is a pity as reflection on who isn’t here and even freely chosen attempts during the open space event itself to contact those absent and attempt to bring them into the space, or at least involve them in some way, is then stifled.
Whoever comes are the right people, but that statement isn’t rendered any less true if we ponder on who isn’t there and at least acknowledge absence. This can actually be empowering and energising, as long as we don’t stay away from what we can do together in the room by becoming blocked or paralysed by who isn’t in the room.
Let me offer a couple of examples to prove this.
Someone doesn’t attend who is ill. They wanted to come. They couldn’t. In the feeling of the community, this is still one of the “right” people. We mention them. We might even read out a good will message from them, sent by text. They might even email a few suggestions for what sessions they might have offered at the open space, had they been able to attend. We still have the right people in the room, but we can now imagine an empty chair, and also fold in what the person who might have occupied that chair might have brought. This can enhance and raise awareness in the community.
Here’s another example. A key decision maker prioritises a different meeting from the open space they were intending to attend. A group at the open space explore a challenge of product redesign and reach a key decision point halfway through their session that needs the yes or no from the absent key decision maker. The group acknowledges that absence to each other. In one case, a member of the group contacts the decision maker and gets their input remotely, just for five minutes, and the group can then progress to further action around the product redesign. In another case they agree to meet with the decision maker as soon as possible after the open space event and, in the meantime, make a provisional decision, then proceeding on the assumption that the decision maker will say yes, but also creating a “plan B” in case of a no.
In both cases there are, at least in one sense, “right” people who are have not come. Holding them in mind, involving them where possible can help the space to further open.
So, when introducing the principle “whoever comes are the right people”, it is important not to present this as “we are the good guys who came, and the bad guys didn’t so they are irrelevant to our work here” or as “they ain’t here, now shut up and get over it”. This principle is not there to stifle either regret or reflection. It is there to affirm the value of being in the present, and with committing to who and what we have right now. It is no accident that the people who are here are here. They responded to the invitation in freedom. Yet we can also “involve” those outside the circle by filling the empty chairs with creativity and care. “What would John have said had he been able to be here?” “Is there anyway we can get Steve in for the afternoon session?”
Don’t fear flexibility and also the notion that presence at an open space doesn’t only have to be physical.