Open space technology, principle 2: “Whatever happens is the only thing that could have”

Planning for a facilitated event involves being ready to throw the plan away.

Open space technology, principle 2: “Whatever happens is the only thing that could have”
Photo by Brian Kerr. 

A few years ago, client asked me to run a half-day lean (A3) workshop with her team. I knew my client and a few of her staff, but hadn’t spent much time with the whole team before. And it turned out… neither had they.

As we did introductions and settled in, I noticed a few things:

  • Several people were new to the team and/or the department.
  • Everyone was learning a lot about their colleagues.
  • There were urgent topics that seemed due to get sorted out.

After conferring with my client, we quickly scrapped the morning’s plan. Instead, I guided the crew into lean coffee—a simple method for letting participants organize and run their own structured discussion.

And it was great. They got to talk about the stuff they needed to. My appearance in their conference room had the important effect of bringing them together in a slightly unusual context, with their boss participating as part of the circle rather than running the show. At the end of the morning, they decided they needed to meet more often. (Which they continued to do, without me. Success!)

Two things made this possible.

  1. First, my client had the awareness to shift things around a bit, and willingness to use the opportunity as soon as we saw it. That’s because she’s awesome.
  2. Second, I trusted this group to find its own way, using the second principle of open space technology: “Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.” That’s because—remember “see one, do one, teach one”—I’d been lucky enough to have previously seen this put into action by a very skilled facilitator.

“Whatever happens is the only thing that could have”

Ten years earlier, I’d participated in my first open space technology gathering—a three-day technology event hosted by Michael Herman. (RecentChangesCamp 2007 in Portland, for all ya nerds.) Watching the way Herman embodied the principles of open space helped me see how powerful it was at letting a group become itself.

Here’s what Harrison Owen’s Brief User’s Guide has to say about the principle of “Whatever happens is the only thing that could have”—

It is the special function of the leader to raise the expectations of the group, and heighten their sensitivity to the opportunities at hand, whatever they may be. … The leader must truly trust the group to find its own way. … Any person who is not fully prepared to let go of their own detailed agenda should not lead.

In open space, the role Owen calls “leader” is really half host, half facilitator. Ideally, leadership arises from the entire group. When I am preparing for facilitated events, I think of this aside from John Fowles’ “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”—

I said earlier that we are all poets, though not many of us write poetry; and so are we all novelists, that is, we have a habit of writing fictional futures for ourselves, although perhaps today we incline more to put ourselves into a film. We screen in our minds hypotheses about how we might behave, about what might happen to us; and these novelistic or cinematic hypotheses often have very much more effect on how we actually do behave, when the real future becomes the present, than we generally allow.

All the time I spend planning for facilitated meetings—prepping agendas, arranging materials, booking rooms, and (in simpler times) gathering snacks and beverages—is critical to the “cinematic hypotheses” of how I imagine the day could go and the outcomes that might arise from it. It’s important to do this work.

And it’s important to be prepared to immediately discard any  “cinematic hypotheses” whenever a group arises and is ready to find its own way.

  • In a better world, that would happen every single time.
  • In our given world, we must encourage this arising wherever it is found.

Whatever happens is the only thing that could have…
as long as you get out of happening’s way.