Open Space Refined

A few years ago I started the Agile Management Conference here in Seattle. I organized it as an Open Space conference. I had seen how other open space conferences worked and it all seemed pretty straightforward:

  • Opening Orientation to OS and how it works
  • Introduce the Theme
  • Open the Marketplace
  • Magic Happens
  • Closing Circle

Easy, right? At least that’s what I remember. I’m sure Harrison Owen felt a disturbance in the force as I described it. Anyway, you do a few of these and they can fall into an easy to recognize pattern. Sometimes it’s not very good. It goes like this:

  • Opening Orientation – One hour of everyone desperately avoiding eye contact as the facilitator relentlessly orbits the room
  • Introduce the Theme – Which we all immediately forget
  • Open the Marketplace – In which we face the terrifying prospect of speaking in front of 200 people
  • Magic Happens – Maybe? Let’s face it, that’s what we all hope will happen, but you never know…
  • Closing Circle – The attendees who weren’t quick-witted enough to leave early are corralled into the circle where they have to hastily make up appreciations for the sessions they can’t remember attending

That’s a pretty cynical and snarky way to put it, but I think it’s OK to point out that the baby may have some ugly spots if we can learn from it. Let’s face it, not every open space is equally successful. I think there are two ways to try to approach this and each has some trade offs.

First, we can attempt to change the structure of Open Space. For example, I can tell you from personal experience that the first time that you try to run a new open space, you may very likely feel pressure to try and provide a keynote speaker of some kind. Why? Basically because a conventional conference sells itself based on its fabulous speaker lineup, where an open space can’t do that. You have no idea who’s coming, let alone who is going to talk. As an organizer, that makes selling the event a little bit harder. Why come to my open space? Because it’s just going to be awesome! Who’s going to be there? I don’t know! That right there is a recipe for some sleepless nights as an organizer who has to pay for the caterer, venue, etc. in advance.

Now using a keynote speaker is one well known way to attract people to your conference, but it’s definitely not part of Open Space. Open Space is intended to be self organizing and by its very nature is designed to avoid situations where everyone just comes to listen to some appointed expert. It’s really founded in community conversation, so bringing in outside experts and giving them a special place in the conference potentially jeopardizes ability of others to bring their own voice to the discussion. Again, this is an example where we attempt to change the structure of Open Space by adding something new or removing an element.

While I appreciate how tempting this is and even tried it to some modest degree, I’ve come to realize that there is another way to ‘customize’ open space that is perhaps more in the spirit of what Harrison Own intended. It wasn’t until I saw a few recent examples that the light bulb finally came on for me. Instead of changing the structure, we really need to zoom in on the theme and the experience.

I saw this recently with the AONW 2019 conference in Portland, where the organizers and facilitators made an extra effort to reinforce the theme and asked the participants very explicitly to address the theme in their conversations. They asked someone from the community to share their perspective on the theme, which brought home the message with some real personal impact. And they repeated the theme. Every. Single. Day. That definitely changed the experience of the conference. I saw another example of this in the Play4Agile conference. I wasn’t there, but apparently they used illustrations and quotes from The Little Prince on posters throughout the conference. I love that idea and it reminds me that we can use the way we decorate and structure the space to reinforce the theme. Is there food that would compliment the theme? We can invite people from the community related to the theme. It seems to me that there is ample opportunity for enhancement and richness within the framework of open space as it is. I just didn’t know that that might look like. Now I do.

There is one more thing that I think may be important. Size. I’ve been in small conferences where I can name everyone in the room. I’ve been in large open spaces where there are hundreds of people in the room. To me, knowing the participants is important. There is a level of intimacy and shared experience that I feel can get lost when we have really large groups in open space. I lose the feeling of diversity and start to see everyone as relatively faceless. Maybe it’s just me and I’m easily overwhelmed, but I struggle more in larger groups. As a conference organizer, I was definitely of the bigger is better variety. But lately, I’ve started to reconsider that emphasis on size. I’ve found that I kind of thrive on the energy in small groups. I know that open space can be big. But I’ve started to lean toward small. Small is beautiful.

It’s becoming clear to me now that like with many self-organizing systems, the rules are simple, but using them well is complicated.

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