SAFe Mix-in’s: Open Space

April 22, 2019


One of the interesting things about SAFe is how it has evolved over the years. The story there is very interesting. More so than any other framework that I’ve witnessed, SAFe has very definitely changed since its beginnings through what it has become today. For example, early on, it didn’t have the levels of work that it does today, and certainly the terminology has evolved. Furthermore, many of the roles have been added and changed. To a very real degree, things like DevOps and Continuous Integration and deployment have been added as well. These new additions were nowhere to be found in the early years of SAFe. 

So, all of this is to say that SAFe has evolved in terms of its framework and structure quite dramatically from its early beginnings. And in fact, it continues to do so, which is what I find so beneficial about it. Furthermore, the way that we perform certain ceremonies in SAFe has changed. For instance, a good example of this change is how we prepare for and run a PI planning event. Originally, PI planning was a very quick event. You oriented the teams in a SAFe for Teams workshop and then right after that, you started PI Planning with no other preparation than that. You could go from zero to SAFe PI Planning in a week. As a result, the planning event was very intense, open and collaborative. There was none of the long, drawn out planning cycles that you typically see in PI planning today.

Over time that has turned into a much more deliberate sort of event. So now PI planning typically involves months of preparation as you prepare initiatives, and features, and stories for use in the upcoming PI planning. There’s lots of review and refinement that goes along with that. But originally, PI planning wasn’t like that. Originally PI Planning was much simpler and was more similar to what you and I might think of as an Open Space event.

You can find out more about Open Space here:

An open space event is where we go into the event with what we hope is some sort of compelling theme that’s going to drive the conversation. That’s all we have to start with. We have a stakeholder who delivers that theme and tries to provide as much color and context as they can to make the theme as vivid as possible. Then everyone in the room is responsible for coming up with how they are going to address that theme. From there, we leave it up to them. In the case of a business, you might put a key deliverable or initiative forward as your driving theme. It could be a key set of features – whatever compelling idea that you believe the market needs. You put it in front of the group and then you leave it to the teams for those two days to figure out how to proceed and let them organize the work as they see fit. The teams are responsible for taking that initiative, breaking the features down, identifying the stories, working out the dependencies and planning the work. They keep track of their work by putting it up on a big wall which looks a lot like an open space marketplace. After two days, you review your plan and you are done and ready to get started.

Running PI Planning as an Open Space would have some interesting implications:

  1. Open Space makes it clear that anyone can contribute ideas, not just particular people in a given role. PI Planning depends on initiatives and features provided mainly by key stakeholders and product management. I think Open Space would promote a more democratic input process where teams, who often know a great deal about the business domain, would be more able to contribute their own ideas for features, etc.
  2. Open Space has no formal collaboration structure beyond the marketplace. Wherever you meet is the “right place” whatever time is the “right time” and whoever shows up are the “right people.” That’s terrifying level of informality for most organizations, but it also opens up a great deal of freedom for those who can own their work. There are synchronization points in Open Space, like the morning and evening “news” where everyone gets to see what others have done and see changes in direction. My intuition is that I would want to spend time getting folks used to Open Space first (on other topics), before trying to substitute it for PI Planning.
  3. Open Space has the concepts of the “Butterfly” and the “Bumble Bee” – those people who flit from group to group, perhaps pollenating an idea or two. Even if we don’t use Open Space, I think these ideas by themselves would be useful to introduce to PI Planning.
  4. Open Space does not dictate the kind of work that can be done. Teams can write code, call customers, leave the room – anything that enables them to best pursue their ideas. This form of hybrid working/planning could be much more powerful than focusing exclusively on estimation and planning. 

If you find that your PI Planning has become very rigid and stale, you could try using Open Space to free things up. You have the option of incorporating just a few of the elements of Open Space, or you can go “All in” and completely replace PI Planning with Open Space. Or, you could keep PI Planning, but introduce Open Space in a separate forum. There are a lot of great options here for us to explore.


  • PI Planning feels stale and rigid
  • You’re looking for way to foster innovation

Framework Impacts

  • Replace the PI Planning with Open Space (same time commitment as PI planning, but less structure)
  • Less pre-PI Planning effort


  • More ownership of team direction and work
  • Potentially better plans because work can be actively investigated alongside planning (due to loose Open Space structure)

Interested in more Mix-ins? Join Ron Quartel and I for a 3 day workshop on SAFe+FAST Agile. Combine the 2 to get max value from your agile transformation. It’s an opportunity to explore the latest scaled agile processes and practices with other agile innovators on May 15, 16, 17. ‪ ‬

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 Day 1

February 6, 2019

The theme for this year’s Agile Open Northwest is “Finding your agility in the unheard voices.” The opening for this year’s open space was a bit different than previous years. April Jefferson, our facilitator, asked us to take the time to write down what “Finding your agility in the unheard voices” meant to us. We did that, and then she asked us to look at what we had written and see if we could find the questions that we wanted answered at this year’s conference. 

This initial focus on the theme is very new. We’ve had themes in years past, but once they were mentioned they were quite quickly forgotten. Not so this year. Instead we had someone from a local Indian tribe come out to talk about their history as “unheard voices.” It was a curious way to start the conference, but…very effective. As someone who had come prepared with topics that didn’t necessarily relate to the theme, it gave me pause.

I took the time to re-evaluate my ideas in the new light of the conference theme. I realized that one of my ideas fit very well with the theme and put the topic in a much more interesting light, so I retitled it, “Using Thermodynamics of Emotion to reveal unheard voices.” That focus on the theme of the conference helped me to adjust my approach to match the theme of the conference. 

We kicked off the conference in the usual fashion and I started with my talk on the thermodynamics of emotion. I found that my session only had about 20 minutes because things were running a little late, so I had to run through my material super-fast. I quickly discovered that it is complex enough that I really couldn’t do it very well. So, lesson learned, either distill the message down further or use a longer session time. The nice thing about open space is that you can always try again. I had someone ask me to do just that, so I’ll take another pass at it tomorrow. We’ll see how it goes. I’m convinced I can do much better.

Afterwards I sat in on a session on writing techniques by David Bernstein. He is a big advocate of using narration and dictation to write his books. I think that might be a very useful technique for me, given my predilection for public speaking (and generally talking to myself a lot).

In the afternoon I co-led a session called “Beyond Budgeting” There were a couple of things that were interesting about this session. First, there was a surprising amount of interest. We had a fairly large group of people there to talk about it. Second, when I was asked to partner on the talk, I didn’t think that I had much to offer, but I had some experience dealing with finance, so I thought I would try to help. It turns out that I knew a lot more than I realized. As soon as people started asking questions, I had no difficulty at all with examples and providing answers for people. I actually have a lot of experience with agile finance. So I learned a little about myself. The lesson there is that partnering with someone on a presentation, even when you don’t feel like an expert, can reveal expertise you didn’t know you have.

Another session in the afternoon was about “Failure Stories.” I figured I was a pro at failure, so I definitely needed to attend. I told a story about a project failure and the curious thing was that the story sounded a lot like a success when it was all done. Now, if you had asked me a few years ago to tell that same story, it’s highly likely that it would not have come out as nearly such a happy tale. It seems that as time goes by, I’m able to tell a more evenly balanced story. A story that is not all bad or all good. That’s kind of reassuring. 

So that’s day one in the bag. I’m impressed with where this open space conference appears to be moving. I think it will benefit our PNW agile community.

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.

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!

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

August 20, 2011

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.


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.