I have mixed feelings about Open Space events and I’m not sure why. My personal experience with them is two-fold. Either they are wonderful and powerful or they are terrible. There is sort of nothing in between.
Sometimes I’ve gone and the Marketplace is hardly populated with any topics. So the cupboard is bare and there is little energy and focus towards the Open Space.
At other times, the energy and collaboration is so compelling that the event can be termed a “defining moment” for the theme and group.
As I talk to friends and colleagues, their experience often mirrors my own. I thought I’d share this article to explore some of the critical aspects of creating powerful Open Space events. I’ll also share some references at the end. But before we go any further, let’s explore some different types or formats that leverage Open Space technology.
The classic Open Space is essentially a theme-based meeting. It can be held in an hour, a day, or across a week. While the format is pre-defined, the organization and dynamics are flexible and based mostly on who attends.
There are several types of modified Open Space meetings:
- Unconference – this is a conference format that takes an Open Space view to a multi-day conference. The international DevOps conference takes this format and is very successful. It incredibly simplifies conference preparation and places the burden of topics and energy on the attendees.
- BAR Camp – I’ve encountered these focused on specific roles – for example, Product Management or Innovation BAR camps. The invitees seem to be inclusive of a functional group within an organization.
- Open Space as an adjunct – we’ve done this with the Scrum Coaching Retreat formats and I’ve seen it done in many other conferences. You simply “carve out” a section of the schedule in a conference and allow Open Space to emerge topics of interest.
All seem to follow the basics of the Open Space definition, which I’ll get into next.
What are the keys to Open Space
Theme & Invitation
What drives the Open Space is a theme. The theme could revolve around an experiment, a challenge, a problem, a mission, or virtually deep or meaningful endeavor. It should be declared at a relative high level and be open-ended.
And then there is an invitation. A group, the more inclusive the better, is invited to the Open Space. It is usually not a mandatory meeting; instead it’s an honest invitation. Certainly try to make it inviting and interesting, but leave the attendance as “optional”.
Simple, but some basic “Rules”
As the agile methods themselves are deceptively simply, Open Space is equally simple. But it does have some practical rules to follow.
Law of the Two Feet
If you find that the session you’re attending isn’t doing it for you, find another session – group.
Principles of Open Space
- Whoever comes is the right people
- Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened
- When it starts, is the right time
- When it’s over, it’s over
Circle & Marketplace
Form a circle of chairs. If there are lots of people, then form concentric circles. Explain how the circle will work and how topics will be offered and convened.
Explain the Marketplace (matrix on the wall) & the dynamics of it (topic scheduling, topic movement, negotiation, repeats, etc.)
As with many things in the agile community, I think the facilitator makes a huge difference in the space. Having someone who is comfortable with facilitation in general and who has facilitated an Open Space a couple of times before.
Often the size of the group is a significant part of the dynamic. I’d offer that groups of 75 or less are probably easier to facilitate than those 100+.
The Open Space ends when it ends, but it usually does fit into a schedule of some sort. Also usually there is some sort of debrief, or retrospective, or action-planning that is inspired by the Open Space.
If artifacts were created as part of the Open Space, it’s a good idea to capture them.
Usually, some sort of debrief or action planning
I’ve had some better luck of late in my Open Space sessions and I think it’s related to focusing on many of the steps above. In the end though, it’s about the people and self-organization. That’s why it aligns so nicely with the agile principles.
Stay agile my friends,
- Quick Introduction:
- User Guide:
- Harrison Owen video: