Charm, quirk, embellishment and artistry in Open Space

“The Lamb-Vulture is a bird far-famed,
The Vulture-Lamb is here first named;
It doesn’t say “Baa”,
It doesn’t say “Boo”,
It gobbles you up while embracing you,
Then turns pious eyes unto the Lord,
And is, by all, revered and adored.”

Christian Morgenstern

Harrison Owen, the midwife of Open Space Technology, often reminds his colleague-practitioners of Open Space to “Look for one less thing to do.” This isn’t one of the main principles of O.S because event designers and facilitators often do quite the opposite, adding process to O.S, laying out plates of food, drinks, loading the event with posters, badges, signposts, flip chats, and even cuddly toys.

And Harrison isn’t stating a rule; he is simply describing the wisdom of Nature.

In terms of processes, they often add action planning, project planning, Tibetan bells, anti-clockwise circle-walking and even singing and dancing. Now, all of this would be fine, if it were part of an open space session offered into the opening circle/market place but it is really just one MORE thing when it serves as an embellishment to the simple process known as OST.

Looking for one less thing to do in a beautifully and naturally minimal process such as OST, can be tough for facilitators schooled and groomed over decades to “intervene”. And now we arrive at an even more beautiful and natural paradox which I will frame as a question: What if looking for one less thing to do is also one less thing to do?

One less thing to do ?

Or one more thing to do just for the hell of it ?

You’ll find embellishment in design. On clothing, on jewelry, on furniture. From the point of view of pure function, (what ‘works’), embellishment is one more thing to do. And minimalist design can be as beautiful as something more complex. Yet embellishment is also often astonishingly beautiful. When functional minimalism is an artistic choice, looking for one less thing to do becomes a creative search for the beauty and function in ‘less is more’. Just the circle, in its minimal simplicity can resound with charm. Yet when the search for minimalism is dogmatic, even automatic, less can be less.

Embellishment can disempower a group when simplicity might awaken the will to self-organisation. Yet embellishment can equally awaken that very urge to self-organisation through the power of art to inspire. The exception, in this case, proves the rule and elaborations such as embellishment can awaken self-organisation, not through control (which is one less thing to do in open space) but through quirk and charm, both of which can arise out of artistic playfulness – they arise, I believe, not out of an urge to control, but simply from Nature – a nature that abounds with spontaneous natural creativity. The love of, and urge to play is in us. Such things, though they may come, in time, before an opening circle, actually and mysteriously often arise OUT OF the opening circle. Natural embellishment isn’t born of control, it is so very often an emergent property of open space itself. Though it may appear before (in time) a circle opens, it appears before (in front of) that very circle. Some conference badges you write your name on yourself, some live music playing, an ice cream seller, a relaxation room, a few yoga mats in the corner. These may be decided upon before the open space event, yet somehow they seem to arise also from the opening circle – that ciircle confirms there. What went before (back in time) arises once more before (in front of us in the circle) as we whoop with delight and seelf-organise affirmation of them.

Embellsihment and charm might both seem like one less thing to do at an open space. Yet, following that line of reasoning, even open space is ultimately one less thing to do at an open space!

Always looking for one less thing to do becomes a dogmatic behaviour, as we head, compulsively, towards the absence of even absence, a true void. Looking for one less thing to do is smart, even wise, if we are in over- or unnecessary complexity – a version of clutter – but as a hard and fast rule, we arrive at zero, and then even being in zero becomes one less thing to do! I’m serious. We cease to exist.

When we stop looking for one less thing to do, we may discover that one less thing to do emerges again in our improvised decisions and actions as wise in many situations anyway. But not always. I say not always, because when fixed rules make way for play, doing one less thing sometimes becomes one less thing to do and charm and embellishment arise out of the released playful freedom. And that is when the ringing of bells, the designing of badges, the offering of pink cotton candy, and the sticky dots and post-its appear and help the space to open, because they have suprising charm, quirk and offer possibility and potential. They are born, not of rules, but of emergent play. They are artistic embelishment as each can open space for a new universe. It is all about motive, and is even better when we realise that even motive might be one less thing to do. Then intervention transforms into invention.

Don’t look to minimmise and reduce. Don’t seek to embelish and add. Yet the glorious paradox of open space is that both can be surprising. Then embellishment, quirk and charm help the space to further open, because looking for one less thing to do becomes one less thing to do.

Paul Levy
February 2018