Harrison Owen periodically restates his invitation to the world to not only join in Open Space but to go as far as you can in Open Space and see where it takes you. I feel like my work of late has been about this in many ways, and Harrison’s recent post to the OSLIST came at just the right time for me. Here is what he says:
A long time ago a good friend, Ralph Copleman, was to be found in the middle of a large circle of peers dressed in a flowing cape and repeating the words, “Everything is moving, Everything is moving.” Odd to say the least and some doubted Ralph’s sanity. Some still do, but that image has stuck in my febrile brain ever since – and as time has passed it occurs to me that Ralph had it precisely right: This is an energetic cosmos. The problem arises when we (and that includes all of us some of the time) desperately want everything to stop and stand still. So desperately in fact that we have created a mental image of our environment exclusively populated by static things which include everything from mountains to super nova along with the oddments of our life like professions, chairs, relationships, organizational structures, corporations, countries and empires. Unfortunately this mental image is a radical illusion, one might say delusion. Ralph is right. Everything is moving and what we perceive as stable structures are but the momentary, slice in time, freeze-frame constructs of our imagination.
Heresy? Psychobabble? Advanced esoteric insight? – None of the above, I think. As a matter of fact, Ralph’s observation is nothing but a short (poetic?) version of the (now) standard scientific understanding of the nature of the cosmos. Starting with the Big Bang it is all flowing energy, albeit now clumped in momentary configurations – but still flowing energy for all of that. Scratch any rock hard enough and its essential nature comes through – a whirring bunch of quarks and neutrons doing the cosmic dance. Doubtless my physicist friends would take issue with my phrasing – but not, I think, with the core message. Everything is moving.
So what does all this have to do with the price of eggs? Or for that matter – Open Space and our role as facilitators and consultants? A lot, I believe.
Starting with Open Space which is many things to different people. For some it is a Large Group Intervention. Others might see it as an aberrant phenomenon peculiar to a cultish few. For myself Open Space is a trial ride in the flow of life which has a lot of similarities to my boat.
My boat is smallish in size (32 feet) but definitely larger than the average punt. She is very seaworthy and shares a common heritage with the local Lobster Boats here in Maine. We have many visitors, most of whom have never been on a boat such as the Ethelyn Rose. When you walk on board, things look sort of familiar. Chairs for sitting, a comfortable nook for dining, and even an oriental rug on the floor – excuse me, sole. If you look further there are the standard amenities such as a shower and commode, all sequestered in their separate quarters. Even a complete landlubber will feel more or less at home.
But the moment we leave the dock the world changes – apparent stability yields to constant motion. Everything is moving even if it seems to be staying in the same place! In the harbor motion is minimal, but the moment we clear the breakwater marking the harbor entrance the experience can be radically different. Sea swells from the open Atlantic Ocean take us up and down in distances measured in yards, and should we have a good cross wind the surface chop adds an interesting side to side motion. The Ethelyn Rose is right at home, but some of our visitors have a different impression. And navigating in these conditions is a definite learning experience. Even a simple walk through the main cabin can be a challenge. Hand holds that you had carefully plotted at the start of your journey suddenly changed position relative to you as you made your way. What was up is now down and who knows what is happening in between. Interesting, and as they say, It ain’t Kansas.
Most people meet the challenge and after a few educational bumps to various parts of their anatomy they learn not to fight reality. No matter what you may have thought you were going to do, the only useful option is to go with the flow. And the next level of learning is that when you do that well (flow) you can actually arrive where you need to be. Wonderful! Sounds a lot like Open Space.
We start in the static stability of a circle. This may seem strange to some, but there is a place for everybody and everybody finds a place. A familiar and enduring structure for sure. Then it happens. The circle crumbles in bits and pieces as people come to center, announcing their passions – only to be briefly restored as they return to their seats. However the restoration is but momentary. Shortly everybody leaves their seats to join a chaotic gaggle at the wall. So much for static structure, and it goes downhill from there.
Ebbing and flowing, groups form and reform all without benefit of the standard constraints essential for orderly organizational life–or so we might have thought. Pre-arranged agenda (sometimes called Mission, Goals, Objectives) is nonexistent. The Schedule might be posted but never followed – things start when they start. Assigned participation is nowhere to be found, and yet the right people show up. And to make things even worse, the air is filled with buzzing and flutters as Bees and Butterflies do their thing. Madness! To be sure there may be a few people who are utterly flummoxed as the hand holds they may have expected (see above under “Ethelyn Rose at Sea”) disappear . . . or reappear in unexpected places. Their condition is not helped, for should they ask what to do the answer is likely to come back as a question – What would they care to do?
A trifling few will lose heart and head for the shore – perceived stability. But the vast majority, as we have seen over the years and around the globe, will be totally captivated by the moment, and a smaller group will experience that moment as total exhilaration. They are doing what their prior life experience taught them could not be done – seriously and intentionally going with the flow. And rather than being rank hedonism, the experience proves to be massively productive and fulfilling. Doing well and good – and feeling great. A hard to beat combination.
And then we come to Monday Morning. Back to reality, as they say. But is it? The truth, I believe is rather different. They have experienced reality and come to the edge of shedding illusion/delusion. In the words of friend Ralph, “Everything is moving” – and this is now a fact of life to be savored and enjoyed. No longer a terrifying unknown, it is to be affirmed and embraced. Not without a few “white knuckle” moments to be sure – but infinitely better than hanging onto the (illusory) rock of stability.
So what about us – those privileged folks who have accepted the honor of opening space in people’s lives? Short answer: Invite our guests over the edge. Please note I did not say, Push them over the edge.
Crafting this invitation is always a matter of personal style and must come from the heart. The invitation I have in mind never appears on a piece of paper (or the electronic equivalent). It arrives in our personhood – who we are and how we present ourselves, which is to say, from the heart. Not to be confused with a gushy valentine or formulaic presentation, the invitation manifests in our simple presence, revealing our own acceptance and joy in the moving flow of life. Without words we express the swimmer’s call: Come on in, the water is fine! Of course you have to be in the water for that call to have any credibility.
It is perhaps easier to say how NOT to create this invitation. First off, it is not a matter of rational argument and presentation of facts. Most people already know the facts at some level, and I think the case could be made that it was “rational argument” that has gotten us into the bind we experience. Given the “fact” of a moving, changing world which can be very uncomfortable, it is quite “rational” to define that world in terms of controllable static chunks that may be contained, or better, bent to our specifications. This has led us to such wonderful things as “Flood Control” which works until such time as Mother Nature and Old Man River decide to take a different course. It turns out that The River is not a static, definable thing but part of a vast ever changing system. Effective Flood Control would require close management of the Planet’s atmosphere to say nothing of the cosmos beyond. Good luck!
Also under the heading of “NOT to be included” are well intentioned efforts to sugar coat the pill, as it were. Which is to say that we might propose certain limitations that will restrict the possibility of change in Open Space. Some of us have called these “givens” but so far as I can tell the only given is change itself. And to suggest otherwise is not so much to violate the “Spirit of Open Space” but rather the essence of the cosmos itself. Ralph had it right: Everything is moving. In this context, Open Space Technology is a minimal consideration.
I am by no means suggesting that our invitation look like the back panel of some medication listing every possible adverce reaction, if in fact unexpected change is such an adverce reaction. And truth to tell I find the appearance of unexpected change in the midst of an Open Space to be one of its (OS’s) most delightful consequences. I also think that it is important to note the OS is not the engine of change. It simply provides the space for change to show up and the cosmos (or whatever) takes care of all the heavy lifting.
For me an invitation to Open Space is an opportunity to include friends and strangers in the deepest experience of (my) life. It has little to do with selling a product, doing a process, excersizing some sort of professional competence – although there are doubtless elements of all of that. Fundamentally it is my invitation to experience life at its fullest in which chanagability is not the enemy to be suppressed but rather the rich tapestry of an evolving future. I don’t make it, I can’t predict it – but I can participate both as a sojourner and a co-creator. Stuart Kauffman speaks of being “At Home in the Universe.” That is my elemental experience, and I am always looking for playmates.