A year or so ago I had a very heated discussion about what are the defining characteristics of Open Space Technology and how to leverage it for Agile Transformation in product development teams, technology, or the enterprise in general. Much to my chagrin I found that the harder I looked for explicit rules, practices and procedures, the more elusive it became to grok it. I was prone to overlook opportunities to leverage the greater Laws of Open Space and miss out on its contributions toward feeding the human Spirit; the fuel which burns most brightly comes from Communitas.
My attempts to codify what constitutes Open Space gave false rigidity to what I understood to be necessary conditions that give rise to its effects, and my colleague grew more and more frustrated with each question (or conjecture) that I posed. I was drifting further and further from the mark. Sullen, I vowed to stop seeking for boundaries, hallmarks and guideposts to help me identify it the wild, and to never again attempt to tutor others on what gives rise to it in the field of group relations. I later had many poignant experiences making me keenly aware of what Open Space is not.
Then today, on site with a client, completely oblivious to what was about to happen, I witnessed a surprise appearance of Open Space in the most brilliant form I have experienced. The CEO of my client company, had created a tradition: an Open Invitation to all employees who wished to attend, a public Declaration of Kudos Awards from one employee to another, for “performance of valuable work above and beyond the call of duty.”
The meeting began as what seemed just like any instance of the weekly gathering. From the 40 employees there were about 20 Kudos Cards written out beforehand, with each presenter reading aloud to everyone in the Circle the brief story of the works of Greatness deserving public acknowledgement and applause.
Then something new started. The CEO held the space for any acknowledgement of anyone who had done something worthy of note. About a half dozen spontaneous mentions of individual contributions were called out, and followed by applause again.
Finally the CEO invited anyone to share News to announce to the Circle. One after another the workers began sharing News of a spouse graduating from nursing school, newly expectant mothers, or wedding engagements, and in turn received congratulatory recognition or amusing quips from friends.
Finally a young man stepped forward from the Circle, with a trembling voice in halting cadence he first offered an apology, “I’m sorry…to spoil the festive mood that’s been building here just now.” (A company Birthday lunch banquet had been prepared in the next room over.)
A few voices emerged from the Circle, “That’s alright. Go on and say it, bro.” A familiar arm from behind him reaches forward and squeezes his shoulder.”
He continues, “This is very difficult for me to talk about. I have a sister who’s been worried for a long time about the baby she’s carried just 6 months. It was born a few days ago, and we thought we might lose the baby. Immediately after delivery they began surgery to try to save her. We’re still worried and don’t know what will happen. They could use some help if anyone can…”
A flood of tears ensued, followed by many hugs from empathetic friends in the Circle. A woman finished his sentence for him, “I’ll send out an email with a link to a donations page.” From that point, words were no longer needed. Everything that could be said was expressed in the moment by silent presence and compassionate countenances.
I don’t remember the last time I’ve ever felt more a part of something. This is Communitas. This is the product of Open Space. From a Clearing of people, anything is possible, especially Greatness. It burns brighter than the tallest flame, and warmer than the noon-day sun. The greatest human experience, springing from a Circle of co-workers gathering to celebrate life and triumph amidst adversity.
I wish I could give just a glimpse of it to the people that I really care about, and those whom I’ve never met, who are looking for the tell-tales of what it means to “Hold Space“, as I was. But, there is no substitute or proxy. My charge to you is to keep searching, and someday Open Space will find you first, pull you in by surprise, and show you another side of itself that’s still a secret story hidden to all the rest of us; until you feel the Clearing pull for the sharing of it.