Open space technology, principle 3: “Whenever it starts is the right time”

Each moment prefigures the next. But in certain moments, a huge change can begin.

A stand of trees somewhat precariously leaning out over the water. They are grown into a sandy, slowly eroding embankment.
Photo by Brian Kerr.

I’ve been visiting these particular trees for years. Each time, I wonder: is this a view of perfect stability, or of a system building up potential until it changes—collapses, in this case—into something new?

There’s a lot of tension here, and a lot of strength.

When I see these trees I also see Stewart Brand’s pace layers:

Stewart Brand's "pace layering" figure from "The Clock of the Long Now." Things change at different rates, and are layered. From inner/slowest to outer/fastest: nature, culture, governance, infrastructure, commerce, fashion.
Figure by Stewart Brand, in his book The Clock of the Long Now.

Some things are moving faster than those trees. Animals. Water. Me. You. And other things are moving slower.

The more you sit with this, the more beautiful it becomes.

And then we go to work, where projects are shuffled around in tidy little intervals, even though “whenever it starts is the right time.”

New beginnings are not linear

Transformation happens when it’s going to happen… and when it’s time, it happens fast, noisily, and irreversibly, like a tree falling.

When a sandy bank erodes and trees slip into the saltwater, we tend to think that’s bad. The tides and the weather and the climate got to ‘em.

When a group of people get to a moment of shared insight and identity and possibility, we tend to think that’s good. The choreography and structure and careful engagement got to ‘em.

Either way, what happens is a sudden shift from one state to another. The visible shift is a result of accumulated actions over time.

Not everything starts at the same time

Seven years ago I tossed out the “house of Lean”—with its ossified, layered columns and foundations, it was a powerful vision poorly communicated.

Instead, I taught for a while from this doodle:

A shearing layer model of a house, with CI concepts as the foundation, ways of thinking as the exterior structure, and collection of tools as the interior "style" elements.
Figure by Brian Kerr. Old thinking but I stand by about 50% of it.

(Aside: these are shearing layers, after Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn.)

What I liked about this little house is that it helped people sort out their approach to continuous improvement as a collection of things that start and stop and change over time and at different rates.

These days, I tend to get people to the same point using ecocycle planning:

An eco cycle planning template, showing a figure-eight loop from birth, through maturity, to creative destruction, and back to gestation. At each state there is a drawing of a tree growing from an acorn into a large tree and then being harvested or burned at the end of its life.
An ecocycle planning template, from a document shared by Fisher Qua.

I guess I’ve reached the point where I want to work from a picture of trees growing, rather than a picture of a little house.

In my imagination, though, creative destruction is not “plowing” or the little controlled burn in the image above, but rather a huge tree slipping off and down into the tide, where it will drift and—at its own pace—break down and provide shelter, enrich the food web, become the beginning of many things. Whenever it starts will be the right time.