Archive for the ‘Open Space’ Category

Compiling Tales of Open Space

Open Space | Posted by Doc
May 16 2010

Here’s an email I just sent to a few people…

I’ve decided to collect and compile stories about Open Space events.

What I’m looking for is experience:

  • skepticism
  • excitement
  • frustration
  • revelation
  • exhaustion
  • experience
  • community
  • learning
  • disappointment

Whatever people have experienced, I’d like to have it. My goal is to compile them and publish them.

I’m asking for a few things:

  • If you, personally, have a story you’re willing to share, please share it with me.
  • If you were an organizer of an event, or a participant at an event, please share this email with the list of participants.
  • Have people respond directly to me with the following information:
    • Name
    • Contact info (email, phone, mailing)
    • Employer/organization
    • Whether they are willing to have their name used, or would prefer that it be anonymized
    • Whether they are willing to have their employer/organization used, or not
    • What the event was, and when and where

I know this is a lot to ask. My goal is to contribute to or create a work that helps others understand the WHY of Open Space through the experiences of others.

I’m not asking anyone to write a dissertation. A paragraph or two will suffice. I may do some editing, in which case I will send the edited material back to the submitter for approval.

At some point, I’ll put these up on a blog or wiki, but initially I’m just going to collect them.

People can send their stories to doc at thoughtworks dot com

Open Space facilitation

Facilitation, Open Space | Posted by Doc
May 05 2010

Dan Mezick, a colleague who had engaged me to facilitate an event (Agile Boston Open 2010), asked me about my behavior during the event. That is, he noted “As a practitioner, I noticed that during the event, you stayed in a neutral space and did not circulate when not doing facilitation tasks. I am eager to discuss this with you at some point.”

In fact, while I did circulate (he was very busy as the organizer and a participant), that circulation fit within my concept of my role. Here’s what I wrote to Dan:

Regarding my behavior at the event…

Harrison Owen talks about what I refer to as “invisible presence”. I remain very conscious that the event is not mine, nor about me. My value lies in holding space and holding time, as well as “igniting the spirit” (my term) and providing the opportunity for closure and continuation.

The opening: this is where I believe my responsibility is to ignite the spirit of the community, and to connect the individuals into something larger than themselves. While that responsibility includes guiding the process, my focus remains on helping the community that is present to form and grow.

The closing: “When it’s over, it’s over,” as Harrison Owen says. “And when it’s not over, it’s not over,” as Doc says. 😉 That is, the end of the event is an opportunity for people to share, and to absorb from other people’s sharing. The closing circle has a different flow of energy than that experienced at the opening, and it’s no less important. The chance to share one’s thoughts and feelings, and to feel a connection with others who share those thoughts and feelings, is extremely powerful. My responsibility is to guide them, encourage them, and to assure them that it’s all right to share and to feel.

In between: This is the interesting part. Harrison often says “find more ways to do less.” My focus during this time is on the process, and in allowing the participants to self-organize. It might be tempting to engage with the participants, to join sessions, or to otherwise be a part of the event. I believe that my role is not to do any of those, although on occasion I have participated in a session. Mostly, though, I take responsibility for making sure that things keep moving, that the participants have a sense of ownership, and for helping to keep things clean. That’s not to say that I’m disengaged. Rather, I have a vision, a sense, of what my role is and what my responsibilities are, and that’s where I try to stay. That’s why the place I choose to spend my time is generally out of the direct flow of traffic, but visible and accessible. It’s important to me that people know where to find me, are aware that I’m there and available, but do not feel that I’m trying to control things or in any way intrude on their event/experience.

Free Open Space Conferences

Facilitation, Open Space | Posted by Doc
Mar 28 2010

I find it fascinating that there’s a common attitude amongst various of the communities I work with that Open Space events should be free. In fact, I just had a conversation* about this with a friend in Austin. It stumps me that people have this attitude.

First of all, most of the people who attend Open Space events would tell you that these are among the most valuable events they attend. Then, I also find that people are coming to some of these Open Spaces from all over the world, because they know how valuable they will be. Whether they drive or fly, they are typically spending their own money to get their, and sometimes substantial amounts of money.

It does cost money to put these events on. So let’s do a little bit of math…

Let’s say that it costs $5K to put on an event, and the organizers decide to cap attendance at 150 people. The hardest part of these things is to find sponsors – someone to cover the venue, someone to cover food, and someone to cover supplies and such. In my experience, the organizers spend substantial time just trying to find sponsors.

$5K, 150 people. Hmm – if 150 people paid $50 each, that’d be $7500, which is probably enough. And if they paid $100 each, that should be more than enough, depending on the venue and the cost of the food.

How much would you spend for a weekend event that you knew would be particularly valuable? $250? $500? $1000? So why not $50 or $100?

The example I gave to my friend was this: suppose that 20 of the colleagues that you like and respect most said “Let’s get together and talk about stuff we really care about, and let’s split the cost.” How much would you be willing to put up? $25? $50? $100?

I’m not suggesting that the organizers of these events should be looking to make money. I am suggesting a model in which they break even by sharing the cost with the participants. Is that unreasonable?

We won’t even talk about PAYING for the facilitator, who is a professional, eh? 😉


* Okay, I ranted and he listened politely. And then he said “oh – I get it – that makes sense!”

Interviewed at CodeMash 2010 about Open Space

Events, Facilitation, Open Space | Posted by Doc
Feb 01 2010

I love talking about this stuff, and David Giard gave me the opportunity at the CodeMash 2010 conference.

Pablo’s Fiesta Open Space in Austin

Events, Facilitation, Open Space | Posted by Doc
Jan 27 2010

I get to facilitate an Open Space in my own home town! Woohoo!

Facilitating Open Space at Alt.Net Seattle again!

Events, Facilitation, Open Space | Posted by Doc
Jan 26 2010

It was sad for me – I couldn’t do it last year because I was already booked for another Open Space. I’m delighted that they’ve invited me again this year, and that I’m available. This is my people!

The Unconference: Where Geeks JIT Together

Open Space | Posted by Doc
Apr 21 2009

The Unconference: Where Geeks JIT Together

Steven M List

More collaboration and less imposed structure. That’s where technology is leading us. Whether it’s Wikipedia’s collaborative bottom-up organization or the Unconference’s on-the-fly topic and presentation planning, the trend is clearly about less prescription and more participation.

Just a few years ago, there were no Unconferences, Open Spaces, BarCamp, FOO Camp, or DemoCamp. So why does it seem like today there’s another Unconference or Open Space every other week? What’s so compelling about geeky, nerdy, tech folks getting together just to talk about whatever’s on their minds?

via The Unconference: Where Geeks JIT Together.

I just had to share – coming out in the May issue of MSDN magazine.

ALT.NET Houston Open Space is done, and…

Events, Open Space | Posted by Doc
Apr 06 2009

for me, this event exemplified some of the best things about Open Space events.

It was a “typical” weekend event – we opened and created the agenda on Friday evening, sessions all day Saturday, and sessions and closing on Sunday.

The great majority of the 100 participants had never attended an Open Space before, mostly had no clue what it was about, and many came in skeptical. I love it when they start out skeptical. 😉

I was a bit worried (as always) that there wouldn’t be enough topics. Was I ever wrong to worry! We had more overflow than any other event I’ve facilitated. The newbies got the idea quickly and the topics kept on flowing.

The energy was outstanding. Once things got rolling, the bumblebees were pollinating, the butterflies were flitting, and the conversations moved up and down the halls.

Topics spanned everything from how to expand the community to programming in F# to discussing BDD (and TDD and DDDD).

For me, the best part was, as usual, the closing circle.

The words I heard included “open” and “respect” and “sharing” and “wow”. The skeptical had become the converted.

On top of all of that, this group was one of the most eager and effective in not only getting proceedings up on their wiki, but also in sharing videos and far more information than just came out of the event. Plus the amount of tweeting that went on and the people who were connecting and watching streaming video and tweets around the world, was impressive.

It was a joy and a delight to be allowed to facilitate this event, and to share in the energy and excitement.


Retrospecting on ITARC Atlanta

Events, Facilitation, Musings, Open Space | Posted by Doc
Mar 06 2009

Each new Open Space and variation on Open Space is a learning opportunity. ITARC Atlanta was no exception. Of course, there was the added note that in order to do ITARC Atlanta, I had to pass on ALT.NET Seattle.  I’ll come back to that.

ITARC Atlanta was another hybrid event – a day of workshops, a day and a half of presentations (including me 😉 ), and a half day of Open Space.

Presenting: Facilitation Patterns and Antipatterns

I presented my new-and-improved version of Facilitation Patterns and Antipatterns (PDF). I’d finished reading Presentation Zen (also see Garr Reynolds’s blog of the same name), completely revamped the visual aspect of the presentation, reordered it to make it flow better (thanks to valuable input from  Patrick Kua and Glenn Kapetansky of ThoughtWorks), and was all ready to wow ’em. I started off, got through the first 4 – 5 slides, and one of the attendees raised  his hand to ask a question. And that’s the way it went – one or two or three slides, then another question. Somehow, I made it through all my slides (although very briefly, for some), as well as answering questions and carrying on some very interesting exchanges with the participants (who shifted from attendees to participants very rapidly 😉 ).  Needless to say, I came away with fodder for some new antipatterns and patterns.

Embedded Open Space

There is a pattern emerging in the technology and technology-related events I’ve been involved with. I’m referring to it as “embedded open space.” At these events, the organizers embrace the ideas both of Open Space Technology (OST) and eyes-front presentations.  The MDCs were an example of this, as was Microsoft PDC – at these events, they tried to do it in parallel (as my twitter friends (“tweeps”) say, FAIL). Folks in the OST community will assure you that parallel doesn’t work. There is no sense of community, no consistent body of people who share commitment, and competition between the two different parallel events.

At KaizenConf and ALT.NET Seattle, they were structured to have workshops first, followed by “pure” Open Space – sequential.

At the Microsoft Strategic Architect Forum (September 2008, San Francisco), it was structured as split days – mornings were presentations, afternoons were Open Space.

ITARC Atlanta was done as a sequential – first they did workshops, then they did presentations, and finally on the last afternoon we did an Open Space. There was good and bad about this. As always, a substantial number of the participants had never been to or heard of Open Space Technology. They had some loose preconceptions, but nothing that matched to reality.

The context was that this was Friday afternoon at the end of a very valuable conference, it was raining and chilly in Atlanta, and many people didn’t stay for the Open Space. I’m guessing, and would say that their thinking was something like “I don’t know what this is – I can stay for what might be a waste of time, or start my weekend early.” Out of around 160 people who attended the whole event, about 40 stayed for the Open Space.

As always, those who stayed were surprised (“Be prepared to be surprised!“) and got way more out of it than they expected.

The organizers were Joseph DeCarlo of Turner and Paul Preiss, founder and CEO of IASA. Joe and I have known each other for about a year, and Joe had been at the Microsoft Strategic Architect Forum, which was his first experience of Open Space. He became a convert, and was the driving force behind adding OST to the ITARC. Paul was a skeptic, and therefore wanted to limit what he saw as an experiment.  I’m happy to say that Paul is now a believer, too. :).

Passing on ALT.NET Seattle

I got my start as an Open Space Facilitator at the first ALT.NET Open Space in Austin in 2007. It was a wonderful experience for me, and formed a bond between the ALT.NET community (and the individuals that comprise it) and me. I frequently think of them as “my family” or even “my chldren”. It’s a special relationship, both because of the community and because of the blend of technology and OST and agile that occurs there, all of which delight me.

I facilitated last year’s Seattle ALT.NET Open Space, and it was good.

We had talked about this year’s, but a date had not been set when I was invited to ITARC Atlanta.

When Glenn Block contacted me about this year’s event, I learned that it was to begin on Friday evening, February 27. That was when I would be finishing up ITARC Atlanta. Needless to say, there was no way to be in Seattle to open the conference. Glenn asked if it would work for them to open and create the agenda without me, and then have me arrive on Saturday morning.  Ignoring the logistics of taking a red-eye to get to Seattle, I still had to say no. The facilitator must be there for the opening – it’s part of the spirit of the event.

After considering his options, Glenn got Diana Larsen to come and facilitate. I was both delighted and dismayed. Delighted because Diana is a friend and a highly experienced and skilled Open Space Facilitator, so I knew she would take proper care of my family. Dismayed because I feared “what if they like her better?!?!?!?!” After all, I have facilitated most of the major ALT.NET events in North America, and most of them have never experienced anyone but me. What if…?

Having survived my attack of insecurity and anxiety, I’m delighted to say that Diana was as good as expected, and my family still loves me nonetheless. 🙂

One of my favorite comments was this: “I’d say that Diana embodies ceremony, while you embody essence.” I’m still not quite sure what it means, but I like it!

Next time, hopefully they’ll pick a date farther in advance so I can commit.

I’m planning on facilitating ALT.NET Houston in April, unless I go to China. Really.

The Margolis Wheel

Facilitation, Open Space | Posted by Doc
Feb 15 2009

This is a technique that I got from the marvelous book Participatory Workshops: A Sourcebook of 21 Sets of Ideas and Activities by Robert Chambers*.

Quoted from the book:

An intense and good experience to come near the end**. This enables participants to share and receive advice on real problems and opportunities. It reinforces solidarity and mutual support. It can also surprise people with their own ability to counsel others.

You need four-six pairs of chairs, facing each other, arranged in a circle. As many circles of pairs of chairs as fit the number taking part. Allow ten minutes for briefing and reflection, plus:

4 pairs of chairs – 25-30 minutes
5 paris of chairs – 30-35 minutes
6 pairs of chairs – 35-40 minutes

  1. Ask participants to reflect and choose a problem or opportunity they face or will face. This can be in their work and/or when they return to their institutions, or be any personal problem on which they would like advice. Stress that everything that passes is in confidence between friends.
  2. Ask everyone to sit in a chair, any chair. Those on the inner ring are counsellors, and those on the outer ring their clients. There are three minutes only for each round of advice, roughly one minute for posing the problem, and two minutes for the advice.
  3. After two minutes warn that only one minute is left. After three minutes, all the outer ring (clients) move one seat in the same direction. The inner ring (counsellors) stays put. Repeat the procedure.
  4. When the outer ring has gone round, counsellors and clients swap seats. The process is repeated with the roles changed.

Tips and Options

  • Encourage note-taking, otherwise much will be forgotten. Notes can be taken on the run, or two minutes or so can be set aside at the end of each full circuit for making a personal record.
  • It may be wise to place people from the same organization or department into different clusters of chairs.
  • If numbers do not fit, facilitators can take part, or volunteers can sit out and observe, or an extra pair of chairs can be added to one or more circles (in which case stop the bigger circles when the smaller circles have finished their round).
  • Write down the times when change-overs must take place. (Otherwise it is easy to mess up the timing).

Source: Participatory Learning and Action: A Trainer’s Guide citing Alan Margolis, personal communication.

* Robert Chambers is a research associate of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, England. He is one of the world’s most influential proponents of participatory development. His other books include “Whose Reality Counts?”, and “Challenging the Professions.”

** While Chambers suggests this for the end, I think that this can effectively be used as part of a progressive approach to larger meetings. For instance, start with Open Space, then integrate activities like The World Café and the Margolis Wheel to refine communication and understanding.

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