Facilitating An Open Space Conference (A Handy Guide For The Neurotic)

Recently we were putting together an offsite meeting for our program management team. This was our first ever offsite, so expectations were high. The idea was to get everyone together, share our ideas/experiences, and make plans for the coming year. Prior to the event, we solicited the group for presentations. What the response was lukewarm at best: a few tentative ideas for presentations that no one was volunteering to give themselves.

With the offsite date swiftly approaching, we were in the uncomfortable position of not having a full agenda, and no budget to fill it with outside speakers. That is when we shifted gears and decided to use an Open Space format instead of the traditional fixed format, presentation-driven approach.

I was nervous the night before, having never facilitated an Open Space before. I did a search on the internet for suggestions/templates for how to run an Open Space session. I found a lot of different resources were available. Here are a few that I used:

And I’m sure there are many more. A quick review of the guides gave me a pretty good idea of what to do and what to avoid as I facilitated the session the next day.

The preparation for the event was pretty low key. I didn’t have to worry about setting up a lot of high tech equipment. All I had to do was make sure that there were plenty of flip charts, post-it notes, and sharpies.

I had three fears going into the day:

  1. I’d open up the Open Space Market Place and nobody would volunteer to give sessions.
  2. The sessions would not be compelling and the group would feel cheated.
  3. People wouldn’t follow up after the event and continue to pursue their passions.

The trick with an open space, the magic if you will, is that moment when you ask the audience to step forward and make their own sessions. I know it sounds crazy, but what if they don’t? What if they just sit there and stare at me? That’s enough neurosis for any facilitator. I’ve got more, but they mostly involve my mother.

As if that’s not enough, what if the sessions suck? I like to give conference talks and I have a certain skill for it, but that’s not true for most people. Most people are terrified of talking in front of their peers! And here I’m going to ask them to do just that!

Finally, even if fear 1 and fear 2 don’t come to fruition, what about afterwards? How many times have you gone to a great conference, learned something fantastic and compelling, and then proceeded to go back to your day to day job without carrying any of that learning forward? Getting the organization to agree to get a bunch of us together in an offsite location to pow wow requires some promise of return benefit for the company. How am I going to follow up on that assurance?

Alright, well that’s enough neurosis for one day. So, how did it actually play out? Well, when the time came to ask people to announce their own sessions, every single person in the room stepped forward. Not only that, the ideas were great! These were compelling ideas, the kinds of sessions that you can’t find at the big conferences, but perhaps you wish you could. We had more sessions that we had open slots to fill. In short, it was fantastic.

Now, having a bunch of great ideas is a long ways from actually having high quality presentations. However, the beauty of the open space format is that you really don’t need to be the world’s best presenter. You just need to be passionate about the topic. Everyone who attends can help contribute to the conversation. As a result, we don’t have the typical teacher/student kind of relationship. It’s much more of a collaboration. The energy that it can generate is really amazing.

The sessions were intense and well attended. Everybody was focused and contributed to the sessions in a variety of ways. Debate was fast and furious. Here are some of the topics that the group came up with:

  • Empowering the Team
  • Team Motivation
  • Requirements Analysis & Story Creation
  • Release Planning – How Do We Execute This in each centre?
  • Breaking the Mini-Waterfall
  • Minimum Viable Product
  • Working With Distributed Teams
  • Rally- The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
  • Working with non-Agile Teams
  • Role of Scrum Master
  • Retrospectives
  • Transforming a Product Owner to be Communicative, Understanding, & in Tune with the Team
  • Eliminating Waste, Value Stream Mapping
  • Balanced Score Card
  • How can Kanban Help my team?
  • Agile Database Design

These topics are the sorts of things that you would find at many of the big conferences around the country. In this case though, they were being given by people who were part of the company, had a shared business domain, and knew each other. That’s a powerful synthesis.

Addendum

Two months later and we continue to have follow up meetings where we update each other on our progress on things we started at our first open space. It all adds up to about a handful of pet projects that we are all involved in to some small degree or another.

 

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