Open Space Refined

February 22, 2019

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.


Preparing for Open Space

February 5, 2019

I’m getting ready for Agile Open Northwest tomorrow. It’s definitely not my first open space conference. I’ve been attending open space conferences for a while now, so I have some idea what to expect.

I’ll start off my morning with that panicky, I-don’t-know-anyone-here moment. I do that at the beginning of every conference. I’ll suffer through that for about 15 minutes before I realize that I do know someone. In fact, I realize they are some kind of an agile rock star. Someone I really admire…and look, OMG there’s another one! This is where I transition into my imposter syndrome. So, I sit with that for a while, just kind of stewing in my own inadequacy. Then some kind soul will announce that the Danishes and coffee are available. That generally leads to a transitory sugar and caffeine high. This is where I switch, ever so fleetingly, from an introvert to an extrovert. It’s not that hard for me, just add sugar and caffeine.

Once my 5 minutes of extroversion are complete, the opening circle usually gets started. So I sit in the circle and try not to look at the 200 people who are not looking at me. Then they open the marketplace. At this point, my imposter syndrome comes roaring back as I try to write up a title for my talk I’m interested in leading that day. Then, just like everyone else, I have to stand up in front of 200 people and announce my name and the title of the talk I’m inviting them to. Some days this is easy – Especially if I have a friend or two sniggering in the crowd. Nothing mellows me out like being laughed at. I figure if they can’t take me seriously, then I certainly can’t either. However, there are other days where it’s all I can do to squeak out my name in front of a room full of poker-faced strangers. As an experienced public speaker, I know anxiety well, so I usually have my lines written down somewhere just in case, even if it is just on the palm of my sweaty hand.

That’s the toughest part of the whole event right there. After that, it’s all downhill. I give the talks, I listen to others, and I generally relax and enjoy myself. Usually I leave the event feeling pretty gosh darn smart and usually pretty appreciative for all of the things I’ve learned from other folks. 

It’s with that in mind that I sit here the night before the event. The emotions are familiar. I’m resolved not to let my anxieties throw me around too much, but they will be there like old friends. 

If this is your first or even second open space, a few thoughts to help you get the most out of it:

  • Try not to let the people jitters get in the way too much. You aren’t really required to get to know everyone. In fact, give yourself the space to not do that. One of the beauties of open space is its flexibility. You don’t have to participate until you feel the urge take you. If you are an introvert like me, give yourself the space to decide when to be sociable and when to go for a walk.
  • Impostor syndrome affects nearly everyone, even the rock stars. So don’t throw away those ideas for talks because you suddenly think they are stupid in comparison to others. I did that once and felt awful. Stick with your plans – one of the common open space sayings is to “be prepared to be surprised!” I would add, be ready to be surprised by yourself and what you can do. A seemingly lame idea can transform itself into something wonderful quite unexpectedly. I gave a session once called, “Slowing down” that was probably one of the best, most effective talks I’ve ever done. If you had asked me if it was going to be good beforehand, I probably would have said, “No chance.”
  • If you are prone to nerves (and seriously, who isn’t?) then jot down your name and your talk title in advance on a 3×5 card. That way, when the nerves hit, you can muddle through it. One year at the conference I was on a steroid prescription for a mild infection. I didn’t realize how a steroid like that messes with your brain. Unsuspecting, I got up in front of a crowd of 200 people and was hit with a positively mind-blowing panic attack induced by the steroids. Shaking and sweating, in a raw panic, I held up my 3×5 card and read directly off it. Nobody noticed it but me. I nearly had to go breathe into a paper bag to calm down afterward, but I got the job done. So be prepared. You can get through anxiety just fine if you have a script.

The open space community that I have experienced has been one of the most supportive and helpful groups I have ever encountered. Perhaps it’s because open space is so inclusive. If you invite everyone to be a speaker, then you need to have a community that will eagerly support everyone, no matter how unskilled, uncomfortable or inexperienced. That’s a pretty high bar for safety, and somehow, they manage to do it.