Recently we discovered we live on the Cheese Trail. Sonoma and Marin counties are at the center of a renaissance in artisanal cheese–making brought about by a perfect storm of place and passions. No one person or group could have planned such a richly complex pathway to deliciousness. It evolved as personal enthusiasms bubbled into collective actions in an atmosphere of open space, literally and figuratively. The wide open spaces in this region are perfect for grazing cows, sheep, and goats. Less obvious, but equally important is the open space in the lives of the people and the communities here that welcome the emergence of something new and innovative. (Read more of this fascinating story here.)
Thirty years ago Harrison Owen observed what many of us have noticed time and again at conferences: the juiciest moments take place during coffee breaks when we are all free to follow our interests and share them with others. Over time Owen developed his ideas into a full blown approach to self-organizing activities called Open Space Technology (OST). The principles and techniques can be applied to everything from meetings and conferences to organizational and community development.
One of Owen's keenest observations was to recognize the degree of openness of a particular time and place, or in OST parlance 'space'. Space is said to be 'open' when what might happen is not predetermined or known. Space becomes increasingly 'closed' when what can happen is prescribed and controlled. For example a tightly scheduled meeting full of selected speakers is a closed space. Alternatively, a classroom where students learn what they want when they want it is a more open space. One is not better than the other; the issue is what's appropriate. Closed space works well when we want to do something very specific and defined. Opening the space is helpful when that something is ambiguous or complex and we are looking for new ideas, solutions and ways of doing things.
As individuals we have some say over how open or closed the space is around us. Pack your day with 'things to do' and your space is not so open. Let go of a few of these things and the space around you opens up. Of course we are not always in control of how open a space is such as at work, city council meetings, or during prison visits (for example). What determines the degree of openness is the nature of the 'givens'. Givens are those factors that are fixed and cannot be changed, and they range from laws of nature (Hi, gravity!) to specific facts (I'm allergic to dogs!), to our attitudes (I'm in charge!). Givens are not always obvious or openly acknowledged, and people may not always share the same assumptions about a situation. Finding out what are the givens for yourself and others is the first step towards defining how open the space is.
The other two ingredients necessary for successful self organizing are passion and responsibility. Watching kids at play you realize how intense and focused we are when we connect with our favorite activities. As we grow up, the power of this flame may flicker with the pressures of life, but given the right circumstances it is readily rekindled. Think of the energy you have when you are free to do what you want such during recess, the weekend, vacations, or the aforementioned coffee breaks. That's the power of passion.
Even so, our unexpressed passions will not have an impact unless we take responsibility and act. Your action may be as straightforward as showing up at the right time, or as simple as expressing yourself through talking, writing, singing, etc. Over time you may find yourself creating, destroying, taking, giving, making, consuming and so on. The possibilities of what to do are endless, and it is likely that they will change as you figure your way forward. What matters most is that you have committed to making your passion a verb.
We no longer have the luxury (or the burden) of old answers that adequately address the issues of the day. The complexity of overhauling our financial systems, healthcare, agriculture, etc. is overwhelming. The Occupy Movement is one example of a self–organizing effort seeking new approaches to, well, everything. This is likely the thin edge of the wedge of what we will be called upon to do in the coming years. So here's our suggestion: learn about open space, get in touch with your passions, and take responsibility for what you care about. This is how we will together birth new systems for food (yum!), education (yeah!), transportation (please!), and local economies (ready, set, go!).
We have just scratched the surface of OST in this essay. There is a rich body of knowledge and a very experienced community of people using OST.
For a general overview: Wikipedia on Open Space Technology
To begin linking to the community: www.openspaceworld.org
As you go about your day notice how open or closed the space feels in different situations-at work, at dinner, talking with a friend. How does your energy shift in these situations? When do your passions show up? When are you moved to take responsibility?
May your passion and responsibility burn brightly in the oxygen of open space!
Beth and Eric
This monthly slow essay is from Beth Meredith & Eric Storm of Create The Good Life.
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