More Lessons from Open Space Technology
One of my favorite sayings is “you can’t push a river.” The image of people, their faces contorted in concentration, arms flailing, trying to push the river always makes me smile. The river has its own time, its own rhythm. It will be ready to move when it’s ready. The lesson is clear, things move with their own timeline, it works better to learn to be attentive to the moment and learn to harmonize your actions to that natural timing.
Maybe the river metaphor sounds simplistic, “of course you can’t push a river” you say, “everyone knows that.” But when you take this to your own projects I often see people exerting enormous energy pushing rivers. Sometimes they even get some things done by pushing it, although they tend to deplete themselves because all that pushing is exhausting. The results they get are also often are not what they had hoped or the consequences of such intense energy use don’t feel worth it. Still, the drive to push that river is strong.
One of the methods that I use in to support organizations in developing their organizational health is called Open Space Technology, (OST). Within OST one of the principles you invite people to live by during an OST meeting is:
Whenever it starts is the right time.
Basically, don’t push the river, don’t push your energy to do things just because some timeline or external pressure says it “should be done now” or because you’re excited about something so you want to “make it happen…NOW.” If something doesn't happen, don’t push it, learn to wait and notice when the time is right to do it. This simple principle has several powerful effects.
It frees people to listen individually to what they feel is right in the moment and listen to what their mind, heart, and body are telling them to do. It releases them from the guilt of not acting when for whatever reason they couldn’t. At a more subtle level, it helps them become attentive to when the time is right to take action and when the time is right not to take action or to do something else.
Within OST meetings, I watch as people embrace this principle. They experience it both as liberating and frightening. In the meeting, which may last up to 3 days, they are able to immerse themselves in learning what the benefits can be of following that rhythm of energy. They also learn on a visceral level what this feels like, exhilarating, challenging, frustrating, confusing, liberating, and more. They also learn to listen to both their individual and the collective sense of timing.
Taking this principle out into life beyond the OST meeting it is equally powerful. Acknowledging that things happen when the time is right is an invitation to stop pushing and start paying attention.
In my experience, it has meant that without knowing the outcome of my decisions at any given moment I have to surrender to the truth that if something isn’t happening, the time is obviously not right. I have to trust in the larger mysterious rhythm of (organizational) life, for the river to take its course, and wait for when the time is right. I have had a deep experience of this over the past years within an organization I am a part of. In this organization, we recently implemented a large shift in our organizational structure. This shift in structure was collectively agreed upon many years ago. It felt right and necessary to do it and do it fast. So right back at the start many people stepped up and started pouring their heart and intellect into designing the new structure. And yet, for reasons too numerous to name, for years the work didn’t yield the new structure. There was confusion, anger, and frustration, there were more attempts, there were moments of activity and of dormancy while it stayed on our radar even though no one was actively working on it.
Then, about 7 years after initiating the idea, something shifted, the initiative that had been so elusive for so long was taken up by people in a new moment with new insights and the new structure was created, approved and set in motion in a matter of months. The final structure was the result of all the work through the years building previous insights and integrating new ones to create something that fits in a way we could never have known all those years ago. The time was ripe, and we had enough presence of mind and heart to listen and take the opportunity to act.
Working with OST was a great teacher for us. In the many OST meetings, our organization has participated in (and many of us facilitate them with others) we built our capacity to practice the principle of Whenever it Starts is the Right Time. Our muscles for paying attention to — what a friend of mine calls — the “time spirit” helped us to persevere without pushing, to put the idea aside but not to throw it out, and to wait until the time was right, and go for it. It didn’t take away the discomfort, the doubt, the confusion and frustration. Instead helped us stay open in the face of all that to the possibility that if things were meant to shift, a time would come when that became possible. And it helped us to notice when the time came and go for it.
Organizations can benefit so much from learning to practice this natural process of paying attention to the time spirit and noticing when the time is ripe and when it is not. They can have so much benefit by learning to accept and work with energy instead of trying to control it. They can learn so much from letting go of blame or shame when things don’t go according to what our plans dictate. In short, when we learn to work with nature (of the organization) instead of trying to work against it.
Imagine the energy we would save and what new opportunities would arise for our organizations, our families, our communities if we took this principle to heart.