Retrospecting on the Community Courtyards

Posted by Doc
Jan 29 2009

First, since I would wonder and will therefore assume that you do too…

“Community Courtyard” is the name that Bob Familiar of Microsoft came up with to describe the space – physical and mental – that is set aside at an event for self-organizing, community-driven discussions. Bob came up with the name because I told him “You may not call it Open Space, because it is not Open Space and if you call it Open Space people will be angry with Microsoft for ‘doing it again’!”

This discussion occurred at the Microsoft Professional Developer Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles in October, 2008 where I was “facilitating” an “Open Space” that should have been called a “Community Courtyard”. We were experimenting with the idea of providing a space and a framework for supporting self-organizing, community-driven discussion running in parallel with an event filled with stand-up, eyes-front presentations, labs, workshops, and other stuff that was the real reason that people were there.

At the PDC, it was okay, but not a big success.  There was nothing wrong with it – it just didn’t get used much.  And it wasn’t an Open Space.

So for the series of events called the MSDN Developer Conference (MDC), we called it Community Courtyard. I kinda like the name. Well done, Bob!

We’ve done ten of them so far – the MDCs. There’s one more to go, in San Francisco.

I have participated in six of the ten, Alan Stevens has done two of them, and Microsoft staff have done a couple of them. They’ve been more or less successful. I’d have to say that there are a few key lessons to be learned, should anyone else out there want to try the same thing. Lessons particularly about holding a space like this in parallel with an … event.

  • The speakers must come. If the speakers come to the CC, the attendees will come. At the end of each presentation, the speaker should say “I’ll be going to the CC after this session. If you’d like to talk more about the material, please join me there.” This will draw people into the space, stir up some energy there, and maybe lead to unexpected results.
  • There must be some way for the participants to communicate with each other, if they want to have a conversation. We tried word of mouth, whiteboards, and Twitter. Unfortunately, those don’t work well in these kinds of situations. At the PDC, we had the topics proposed by attendees displayed on a plasma TV screen – that worked MUCH better. At some of the MDCs, there was no wireless, or no mobile phone service, so Twitter and other electronic media didn’t work. There must be some way for (a) attendees to propose discussion topics and (b) other attendees to know what they are.
  • Holding a Tweetup works! In Orlando, Joe (sorry, Joe, I don’t remember your last name) from Microsoft called a Tweetup. Fortunately there was wi-fi and mobile service, and a sizable group of people showed up. It led to some community discussions, including one about Open Space!

The main lesson for me, though, which other members of the Open Space community have expressed, is that you can’t do an Open Space in parallel with something else. You can do it before, after, or even as split days (half presentations, half Open Space). But you can’t effectively do it in parallel, because you can’t form the kind of community that is at the heart of Open Space events.

2 Responses

  1. Diana says:

    “…you can’t do an Open Space in parallel with something else.” Sad, and so true. I’ve heard of no (zero, zip, nada, goose-egg, etc.) events where this worked.

    • The problem I saw, early on when discussing this with Microsoft folks, was that the essence of Open Space is in the community that comes together, forms, and stays together for the duration. These other things don’t have any sense of community, in that sense.

      Open discussion? Sure. Community-driven? Sure. Community? Nope.

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