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.

Agile Open Northwest 2019

January 31, 2019

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.


Agile Open Northwest is a conference themed around agile software development that is run using an unorthodox style called Open Space (sometimes referred to as an un-conference). Open space is a facilitated meeting where the topics are introduced by the audience on the first morning of the event. There is no canned, pre-set agenda. There are no keynote addresses. None of the traditional elements of a conference are present. Instead, you build the agenda collaboratively on the spot that morning with the group that shows up. If you have a talk you want to share, go for it. If you have a question you’d like answered, go for it. If you want to play with an idea or a short workshop, again, go for it. Anything you can imagine that relates to the central theme of the conference is fair game. You don’t have to be an expert. You don’t have to have experience. You just have to have an interest in a topic or question that you would like to share with others. That’s it. No more. No less.

You never know what sort of topics people will present. Every year I’m surprised by something new and interesting that I never anticipated. Some examples from past years include:

  • A marvelous workshop on mind mapping 
  • An introduction to the Thermodynamics of Emotion
  • PowerPoint Karaoke
  • And many more…

Many of the faces are familiar. I think of this group as my Pacific Northwest tribe. I guess that’s why I find that much of my time at the conference these days is simply meeting with folks and catching up on what’s happening. We have a really amazing group of people here in the northwest who have been innovating and helping others for as long as agile has been around (and longer…). So it’s reinvigorating to be able to join the circle and sit with wonderful people you admire. If you haven’t been to this conference before, then you owe it to yourself to give it a try. If you are a veteran, then I look forward to seeing you there.

If you are looking for more information, check out 

There are still a few seats left!

Open Agile Management 2016

August 12, 2016


This September 16th we are going to hold a brand new conference in Seattle. It’s a conference dedicated to Agile Management. It’s for managers, executives, coaches, consultants and leaders (lots of folks!) who use agile practices and techniques to help organizations find a better way of working. If you read this blog, that’s probably you. This conference is intended to create a place to have conversations with leading agile practitioners, share stories, and explore new ideas.

The Vision

When you arrive, the first thing that strikes you is the sense of history in the building. The next thing that stands out is the circle of chairs. They’re right in the middle of the space and they seem to draw you in.

People start to filter in, some grabbing a cup of coffee and a pastry. Some chatting and exploring the space. Soon, everyone gathers at the chairs and grabs a seat. Things get kicked off with a short keynote from Ray Arell. It’s really just a story. A fireside chat. Sharing an experience – sharing the theme for the day.

Shortly afterward, the open space bulletin board opens and people add their topics. The marketplace opens and the conference starts in earnest.

The marketplace wall is the focal point for a series of conversations. It starts off in the morning being completely blank. They started off with a set of proposed ideas – each idea written on a colored thought bubble. The thought bubbles were taped to the wall. Throughout the day, people connect the bubbles using yarn. Or they add new bubbles. Runners keep the wall up to date, moving back and forth from ongoing conversations.

At the end of the day there is a synthesis. The participants use a single sheet of flip chart paper to summarize their favorite ideas. Working groups form, emails are shared, agendas proposed, and meeting times set.

In the evening, there is a closing, a retrospective, and appetizers and drinks.

That’s not a bad vision, but all of that just captures the superficial stuff. The stuff that we can control. The rest? Well, that’s the “open” part of open space. I don’t know what people will bring. What I do know is it works. I never fail to be surprised.

Event Overview

When is it?

Friday September 16th, 2016 8:30 AM to 7:00 PM

Where is it?

AXIS Pioneer Square, Seattle

Where Can I Find Out More?

The Open Agile Management Website


XP2011 Day 4

May 13, 2011


Silo Busting w/Tom Perry and Lourdes Vidueira

Yeah, that’s me. It was our big session. And just for the record, we rocked the house. In fact, the people attending our session made so much noise that people in sessions in the rooms adjacent to us complained about all the noise. What did I think? I think that means I’m doing a good job as a facilitator. Especially given the fact that there were only 10 people in the session. It was awesome! The feedback we received was nothing short of phenomenal. I’m extremely grateful to those who participated.

I was pretty exhausted after running the session. 4 hours seems like the equivalent of running a 220 yard dash. It’s not a sprint and it’s not a marathon. You have to keep things moving fast and you can’t lose your focus. We went out on the town afterward in Madrid and had a grand celebration. I had seafood that would give Louisiana a run for its money, and the people were just as friendly, if not more so.

The conference has been a good one. I’m probably too tired to do a decent recap of everything that happened today, but I’ll give it a shot tomorrow. Signing off from Madrid.

XP2011 Day 3

May 12, 2011


What can I say? The restaurant open bar last night was epic. Actually I wasn’t saying very much at all to anyone this morning…


Keynote: What Forms of Work and Life Make Sense for Us? w/Brian Marick

As usual Brian’s keynote was eccentric, enlightening, and above all else, unique. At about the halfway point he actually had the entire room stand up and he gave a tango lesson (which was no surprise, he had been talking about it on twitter for weeks). Still, there were a lot of European men arm-in-arm dancing with each other. Perhaps not so unusual. The talk itself covered some interesting subjects.

First he talked about gift economies vs. money economies. The way I understood it, he described the agile team as using a gift economy. Favors are exchanged freely with no exchange of money. However outside the team and especially within the corporation at large, it is a money economy. I think the point was to suggest that we need to be conscious of the different economies at work and adjust our expectations and behavior accordingly.

He also talked about the influence of context on behavior, basically debunking using assessments like Myers-Briggs for any predictive purpose. Instead, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that context matters much more when it comes to predicting people’s behavior. So, my take away from that is that we need to create the right environments for people to be successful.

Grumpy Old Agile Coaches w/Rachel Davies

This was a fun session with Olav Lewitz, JB Rainsberger, Kati Vikki, Mike Hill all sitting on park benches and Rachel Davies acting as moderator. While the conversation was good, I have to agree with some of the participants, that the grumpy old agile coaches looked pretty happy for a bunch of grumps! I was interested to hear about the lonely-coaches-sodality google group which I definitely want to check out.

Agile at Scale

Apparently this was another fishbowl – I enjoyed it and jumped right in with the big fish. It was fun to bounce some of my thoughts off the group and get their perspective. Mary Poppendieck was a hoot and provided some lively conterpoint and tough questions of her own. Jutta Eckstein was the moderator and did a great job.

After Hours

It’s a quiet evening for me. I have to give my Silo Busting tutorial tomorrow morning, so it’s early to bed.

XP2011 Day 2

May 11, 2011

First a brief note on the important things:

  1. The breakfasts: While I don’t think anyone is going to beat last year’s xp2010 hotel in Trondheim for its extravagant breakfast buffet, it’s hard not to love having a churro and coffee for breakfast. Mmmm…churros!
  2. The timing: Just for the record – having your presentation take place on the last day of the conference sucks. I know, somebody has to draw the short straw, but I hate all the waiting. I just can’t relax and enjoy myself until I get it done.


Met some of my favorite coaches again – you know who you are…and Nils I owe you a beer…


Keynote: Still no Silver Bullets – Esther Derby

In multiple sessions this conference Esther has been talking about a model for finding and managing polarizing behaviors in organizations. It seems to be a way of visualizing and identifying ways of managing based on a systems thinking approach (a la Peter Senge). One of the failure modes that she identifies is the oscillation between polar behaviors or states in the system. This oscillation can disrupt the flow of value through the system. The solution seems to be to put in feedback mechanisms that serve to mitigate the oscillation. That’s really a lot of four syllable words to toss around (which is usually an indication that I don’t understand something well). I think I like the model she uses, but I need to try and put it into practice and see how it plays for me. Then maybe I can explain it using one or two syllable words…

One other model that I took away from her talk was that there are two kinds of knowledge that need to be shared in an organization: Contextual Knowledge – the kind of knowledge that CEOs and management have, and Day to Day knowledge – the kind of knowledge that teams have. I think there is a lot of focus on making the knowledge that the team have transparent, however I think there needs to be an equal focus on making the contextual knowledge that executives have transparent too. I’ve realized that I may have been focusing on only one half of the equation. Thank you Esther!

No Silver Bullets. Now What?

This session seemed to be an effort to explore different polarities and examine how to put appropriate feedback mechanisms in place for them. I didn’t feel like it went very well though. I personally found it hard to identify polarities. Furthermore, I wasn’t really all that familiar with the model, so I felt like I was having difficulty making a contribution to the discussion. Still a little thrashing can go a long way toward understanding, so perhaps it was useful in the end.

The Purpose of Leadership and Governance – Jurgen Appelo

Wow! I’d heard good things about Jurgen’s book and I’m here to tell you that they are all true…

Decision Making (Lightning talks)

Man, leave it to xp2011 to make even lightning talks boring. Congrats guys…

After Hours

Conference Dinner

I saw things no sane man should see. After I describe what I saw I will promise to poke my own eyes out with broaches. Or at least have a beer before getting on the plane…One or the other. Right now I’m leaning toward the broaches. Send me email if you feel differently…

XP2011 Day 1

May 10, 2011

The first day of XP2011 got off to a good start today. As your roaming reporter I think I will break down my experience of day one into the following categories: Conversations, Tutorials, & After hours.


Starting your own conference – Beer in hand, I stumbled into a conversation about holding a future XP conference in Vienna. What a fabulous idea! I’m currently playing a small role in helping with site selection for a conference in the pacific northwest, so I’m particularly interested in this topic. Setting up a conference is a very complicated affair. It involves many different factors that I’m only now coming to appreciate: site location, catering, services (wifi, etc.) atmosphere, organization type, and the list goes on. The more I get to know people who take on this challenging task, the more I respect them and the work that they do.

On a related note, I see small conferences as a critical part of the overall conference ecosystem and a vital source of originality for the overall conference system. I see ideas get introduced and developed (0r killed) in small conferences that then evolve into the new ideas that pop up in the larger conferences. So I think we need to encourage more small conferences.

ALE Network – Those crazy Europeans are at it again! Being an American I didn’t participate, but I really like the energy that I feel behind this movement. I wasn’t in the super secret meeting, but I wholeheartedly support whatever those wacky Europeans come up with! Apparently they are going to take over the world with LEGOs. Let’s see if this movement has momentum. I know my kids are on board.

Vegetarians starve in Madrid – Yes, this is my exclusive scoop for the conference. I spoke with a few vegetarians tonight. Apparently there are no vegetables in Madrid. None. The poor bastards are starving. It’s quite sad. A moment of silence for the vegetarians please. The good news for the rest of us carnivores: vegetarians are really very tasty.


Agile Software Development with Distributed Teams w/Jutta Eckstein

This topic isn’t a new one for me. In fact, this session was one of those where you come to realize that you know quite a lot on the subject. Then the hard part is to balance letting the speaker talk with your own desire to contribute your own point of view. I also felt like there were some key points that I really needed to explore in much more detail, but perhaps that wasn’t as relevant to others in the room. I think Jutta did a great job in presenting a comprehensive overview of many of the key issues to address in working with distributed/dispersed teams. She obviously has a lot of experience in the domain and has written two books on the topic.

However…this topic is insanely complex and I think it deserves even more attention than it currently gets. The real questions that I encounter with distributed teams are wicked hard and they don’t give way to simple, stock agile answers. Strangely enough, when she addressed trust the conversation started to sound a lot like the introduction to my Silo Busting tutorial – so I invited her to come! I think trust is a very important and under appreciated topic for inter team communication.

The Other Session

I have a confession to make. I saw myself in the second session today and I felt more than a little uncomfortable. The speaker was skilled – he really had a talent for speaking to a crowd, but you could see that the ideas were still being worked out. I saw a bit of myself in that speaker today and quite frankly, it made me feel awkward. I will not criticize – to do so would only be to criticize myself. But at the same time I wanted so badly to jump up and help out. Sometimes the hardest sessions to attend are those where the potential of the speaker and the subject are the most obvious. I’m still processing my feelings on this one. Perhaps this is more about me and less about the speaker. Hmmm…food for thought.

So I took a nap.

After Hours

Welcome Reception

Well, after the obligatory speeches from boring people you’d rather not listen too, the beer poured freely and the tapas kept coming. It was a relatively small crowd as these things go, but it kept going for a good three hours. It was nice to drift in and out of some very engaging conversations. I talked about everything from basketball, to ice hockey, to Madrid weather, to sessions held today, to the future of the Agile Manifesto (I think we agreed that after 10 years those particular stone tablets should be smashed). All in all, not a bad way to spend an evening with a drink in each hand.