Michael Herman
Inviting Agility

 
 
 

Living in Open Space

I first heard about Open Space in 1994 or 1995. My facilitator friends were experimenting with it as a tool for organizing meetings. Mostly we practiced on ourselves, trying to figure out how it was supposed to work. Mostly, I think, we were working too hard, trying to get it right! In 1996, I fell headlong into the Open Space community, met Harrison Owen, attended training, a couple of conferences, and was invited to join an online learning forum. Some clients showed up and I "did" it for real.

Over the next ten years, I facilitated and documented and taught rather extensively on the subject, what I call the "practice" of open space. But more and more, in the last few years now, Open Space is disappearing. I think less and less about it, talk less, write less. This question about living open space is almost unanswerable. And yet, when I look across what I'm doing, in my life and my work, the Open Space imprint(?) is clear. It just doesn't matter so much anymore. It's no longer part of my thinking. It's not what I do. It's just sort of how I am.

Early on, one Saturday afternoon, I think, I found myself feeling a bit down. I recognized my state as some mix of confusion, longing, anxiety, sadness and restlessness. Maybe a bit hungry. Anyway, some familiar flavor of confusion, too many desires and not enough resources, bumping up against my own personal limits, again. But this time I recognized this state as familiar. It's how I often felt on the afternoon of Day 2, in Open Space. Like a little kid, burned out, over-stimulated, and still wanting more. So I did what I had learned to do in Open Space: I reviewed all the obvious options, things I thought I could do, or worse, should do, and then I went and took a nap -- which is exactly the thing I really wanted to do.

Another day, somewhere about that same time, I found myself fretting about the future of my business. I sat down at my desk and began making a list of "what's working" -- right NOW. It didn't take long to remember that I had resources, skills, relationships and successes. Soon enough, I was wondering what could be done to grow more of the same. For some time after that, whenever I noticed this anxiety return, mostly about the future, I would sit down and make a new list of "what's working now." Eventually the list-making fell away. "What's working" has become my everyday view, the base from which I habitually work, in my life and with my clients.

Now I do routinely keep a set of lists, which looks very much like the "to do" list many people keep. But for me, it's more of a "could do" list. I hold it as a personal version of the wall in Open Space. I can't possibly do everything that's on it, so I pick one thing, work at it until I'm tired or bored or done, then use the Law of Two Feet and move on to the next thing. As much as I can, I let Whenver it Starts and When it's Over it's Over be true of my daily work. Sometimes things even fall off the list without action. And that's okay. When I find things to do that are bigger than I am, I make invitations. And I pay attention to invitations that come from others. I don't always show up to everything I'm invited, but I always put these things on my list, on my wall, in my marketplace of possibilities. And when I do show up, it's because whatever the event, it's the thing I most want to do just then.

I never really know what's going to happen, what can get done, who will turn up, or what I can do to help with anything, in any given moment or day. I never have known these things, of course, but mostly I think I went around thinking that I did, acting like I did, planning and designing like I did. Sometimes, sure enough, I was right. And sometimes I've been very wrong. Sometimes I'm still wrong, of course. This is my practice, not my perfection, after all. And when I do forget, when I fall back into thinking I know what is really happening, it's almost always more work -- mostly on the inside, but soon enough on the outside, too -- than I know it really needs to be.

Open Space gives me the context and experience for letting things be easier. It's how I live and work, when life really works.