Open Space: Rocket Fuel for your Agile transformation
  May 26, 2017

I absolutely love open space.

Over the last couple of years, we've been privileged to be trusted by some of our best transformative coaching clients to run open space events in their organisations. I'm now convinced that these events are crucial in powering the cultural shift towards true agility in software development.

In this post I want give you a sense of what an open space is like and share some practical advice about how to run your own open space event.

Open space is sometimes also referred to as an unconference.

What is an Open Space?

Have you ever been to a conference, and discovered that your most enduring memory was not in one of the timetabled sessions, but in the hallway in between the sessions? You found yourself in a small group, all passionately interested in the topic of your conversation; great insights were shared.

Open space is a meeting structure designed to deliberately harness this energy. Using a few simple rules, a large group of people self-organises a dynamic, evolving schedule that allows every individual to contribute and learn by following their own enthusiasms and interests.

To give you a flavour, here’s a video produced by our friends at Liberty IT in Belfast, where we recently ran a two-day open space for about 120 people:

The open space format works at almost any scale, from a dozen people meeting for a half-day through to an entire division of hundreds of people organising a multi-day off-site.

The rules of open space

The self-organisation of open space needs some boundaries to work. These are often described as five principles, and one law. The five principles are:

  • Whoever comes are the right people. Whether you have 80 people at your session, or 8, don’t waste time wishing someone else was there. Those people are the people who care the most about this topic, so work with them. Even if you end up with nobody in your session, you’ll have some time to yourself to think about the topic and work on it without distraction.

  • Whenever it starts is the right time. Spirit and creativity do not run on the clock.

  • Where you are is the right place. Always be aware of what’s going on around you. Perhaps you meant to go to a session right now but you’re already in an interesting conversation where you are. Then stay where you are!

  • When it’s over, it’s over. Don’t feel forced stick to the timetable - if the conversation or session has reached a natural conclusion ahead of schedule, use the law of two feet (see below) and go find somewhere else to contribute.

  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have - prepare to be surprised! Try not to fret about what might have been. Make the most of what’s happened, and expect that things will not go according to plan.

The law is known as The law of two feet

If at any time, you don't feel you're learning or contributing anything, it's your responsibility to use your two feet to take you somewhere else where you can.

As a facilitator, you need to emphasise this element of personal responsibility. If each individual does their best to maximise their own learning and contribution, the overall event is bound to be a success.

How to facilitate an open space

Facilitating an open space can be a wonderful experience, but it does require some careful preparation.

Although stating the rules and law is an important part of making an open space work, there are a few other fundamental tips for a facilitator to be aware of to make the event a success.

Do the pre-work

Before the event, prime the audience several times by email (or any other method
at hand) to get them ready for what to expect. Do this by:

  • Inviting people who wish to attend to make an 'application' by answering a series of topic-related questions.

  • Sending round information about the principles of unconference, and any quotes or other communications from previous events.

  • Sending round a one-page session leader guide with encouragement to lead a session.

Use a theme

Having an ambitious or provocative framing question such as "How can we make continuous delivery a reality in our organisation by next January?" helps people beforehand when thinking about proposing sessions, and also helps to keep the session topics somewhat coherent.

People will always have their off-topic axes to grind and that's fine (after all, whoever comes are the right people) but having a stated theme will help to focus most of the sessions around that topic.

Do your research beforehand to choose a theme that seems to be the most pressing one for the group you want to work with. Use the theme in your pre-work.

Create a sense of safety

The magic that makes an open space work is when people there feel psychologically safe to speak their minds and follow their hearts about where they can offer the most meaningful contribution.

Many people do not start out their typical working day feeling in such a relaxed and open frame of mind. So it's up to the facilitator to engender this feeling in the attendees.

But how?

Start by explicitly stating that you want people to feel safe. Tell them that they can leave their roles at the door, and that everyone here is an equal.

Warming the group up by doing an exercise to connect them with one another, perhaps doing a playful activity like drawing, can help.

You could create an anonymous suggestion box (a pile of index cards and a cardboard box with a hole in it would do) where people can tell you what you can do to make them feel more relaxed. Often just making this offer will help people to feel more relaxed, even if they never take you up on it.

If you're seriously concerned that psychological safety may be an issue, you could consider asking managers or senior executives to exclude themselves from your first event. Ultimately, an unconference can be a great way to build trust between these groups, but you may want to build up to that gradually.

Warm up

As the facilitator, try to start the event off by getting people on their feet and doing something connected with the purpose of the event that will get them talking.

I often use Sharon Bowman's "sole mates" (find the person in the room with the shoes most like yours) but you can insert any good game here that gets people into groups of two-to-three, and ask them to share one expectation or hope for the event, or some other topic-related question.

Agenda Building

At an open space, the agenda is built by the participants themselves. This is obviously a crucial part of the event. Make sure you have plenty of paper and pens, and ask everyone who wants to lead a session to write up a card or post-it with at least the:

  • Session title
  • Intended audience / pre-requisites
  • Session leader name

Then ask them to queue up and present a 30-second pitch to the rest of the group, before placing their card on the agenda board in a particular time and place.

Work with the space

Another magic ingredient in open space is the spaces themselves. The diverse character of the individual spaces can attract and encourage different kinds of interaction, so make the most of the different strengths and weaknesses of each one. Some will have a screen and be great for presentations or coding exercises, some will be more suited to a discussion. Make the attributes of each space clear on your agenda board, and try to help people post their sessions in the appropriate space. Look for unofficial spaces in corridors that could be used for smaller discussion tracks.

Let go

In Harrison Owen's classic book on open space, he says:

To the best of my knowledge, there is exactly one way to absolutely guarantee the failure of an unconference, and that is to try and control it.

Be aware that you will have your own expectations for the event. Try to put your mind at ease and remember whatever happens is the only thing that could have.

Closing circle

At the end of the day, make sure to get everyone back in a circle and give them a chance to share what they’ve experienced. Many people will feel they’ve missed out on a lot of the conversations (you may have had at least 3-4 going on in parallel all day) so this is their chance to come back together and share those different experiences. Make the most of that.

As the facilitator, you can try to use the focussed conversation method to guide the closing circle towards actions. I like to ask every individual to write down one action on a card, and take it away with them.

Attend another open space

Open space is much easier to understand through experience than by reading these words. The agile community organise lots of these events, such as CITCON, Agile Coach Camp and our very own CukenFest coming up in April 2019.

I encourage you to attend one of these events and experience open-space for yourself. I can guarantee it'll be a memorable experience.

Of course, if you would like an experienced faciliator to run a open-space event for you, we'd be happy to help.

Further reading

Here's a great blog post from Rachel Davies with more tips on organising an unconference.

The OpenSpaceWorld website has a wealth of resources to learn about open space.