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Open Space Technology Goes Mainstream

by Dan Mezick on Jul 01, 2010 |

Just a few short years ago, "open space" and similiar formats like the "un conference" and "bar camp" were considered edgy-- and mostly unknown to the average person attending technology conferences. All that has changed. Open space events are now commonplace and the most progressive companies are using Open Space for decision-making.

The Open Space conference format is unique in that the conference agenda is largely unknown to participants in advance of the event, because the agenda is built in real-time, by the participants themselves, just before the conference starts.

A facilitator lays out the Open Space ground rules when he or she "opens the space". Participants then use the ground rules to create the agenda in a self-organizing series of activities. The entire building of the agenda typically is completed in less than 90 minutes. The result is dozens of learning sessions.

Those proposing sessions are called "conveners"; the sessions in practice are actually more like conversations-- in small groups. Each session might have 3 to 5 percent of the total attendance, so for an event with 200 people, a typical convened session might have 6 to 10 people participating.

The end result is a large volume of learning and the opportunity to connect with others at a very personal level.

 

Harrison Owen, the "Chief" of the Open Space Tribe

The Open Space seating format is the circle. According to Open Space pioneer Harrison Owen,

Inspiration for Open Space came from a small village in West Africa called Balmah where I was privileged to be a guest of the Chief for a period of time. I noticed that everything of importance happened in a circle. The elders met in a circle, the village danced in a circle. The men held council in a circle, and the women gathered for their tasks and conversations in a circle as well. It seemed that there was some magic in a circle.

Modern-day facilitators of Open Space meetings convene these Open Space circles and help to guide a self-organizing and emergent learning experience. Notable leaders in the field include Michael Herman and "Doc" List. Doc List most recently facilitated the Agile Boston Open Space on 4/28, one of the largest Open Space events ever held in Boston.

According to Open Space facilitator Steven "Doc" List,

Harrison Owen first codified the concepts in 1989, followed by the book "Open Space Technology: A User's Guide". So how is it that you and I have not heard of it prior to the last few years? My belief is that it's because it has been building toward a tipping point. It is so totally counter to the way that Western business has run meetings and events, that it makes organizers and managers nervous. Truly. We live in a command and control culture, where the manager/leader/organizer expects to decide who and what and where and when. Schedules, project plans, organization, staff, materials...

Further, Harrison Owen, the actual formulator of Open Space, told InfoQ the following about modern meetings and organizations:

Open Space always works, and it shouldn't. At least, it shouldn't work if everything most of us have been taught about organization and organizing meetings still applies.

 

The Tipping Point

We seem to be at a real tipping point for Open Space going mainstream. Data points include:

1. Scrum Alliance's Scrum Gatherings are featuring Open Space as a standard part of the last several Gathering events. There was a "guerilla" (100% unscheduled) Open Space organized by Deb Hartman-Preuss at the Munich Scrum Gathering in 2009. The Orlando Scrum Gathering in March of 2010 featured the formulator of OST, Harrison Owen.

2. User groups have figured out the power of Open Space. As mentioned previously, progressive user groups like Agile Boston are running Open Space events with as many as 250 people attending. This group is planning an event for up to 500 people in September. Groups like BayAPLN have been running Open Space events for years. Agile Open California has been running large Open Space events since 2007.

3. Scrum Alliance is scheduling pure Open Space events. Example: The "Scrum beyond Software Development" event scheduled in Chandler Arizona on the 25 and 26 of September 2010. This is a pure, 2-day Open Space event focused on a specific Scrum theme.

4. Facilitation of Open Space has emerged as a distinct skill, a competency-- even a profession. Skilled individuals like Steven "Doc" List of ThoughtWorks are now in demand-- in part because the Open Space facilitation is the facilitation of group process "at scale". More than mere facilitation, Open Space work is "facilitation at scale", As such, it is THE critical success factor in creating successful Open Space events.

Open Space events are becoming standard as part of most Agile conferences, and it is probably just a matter of time before most technical conferences incorporate Open Space into their formal agenda. The larger question is when Open Space Technology goes mainstream in organizations.

Michael Herman is a well-known Open Space facilitator and writer. In one of his publications, we writes about the observable "discomfort with the increasingly turbulent evolution of organization and community life." His article on the web entitled Inviting Organization is a story for understanding organization and leadership in times of rapid change and uncertainty.

According to Herman,

For years we've been surfing the edge of a space that's beyond command and control, often wondering who's in command and feeling quite out of control. In some business organizations, we've come as far as 'the learning organization' -- supposedly able to educate and re-educate itself -- but as often as not this shows up as preach and teach, plan and sell, ask then tell -- all watered-down versions of command and control.

The literal meaning of 'education,' however, is 'to draw out' -- which starts to sound a lot like invitation to me. And as command and control continue to slip away -- into the vast open space of global business, international politics, and worldwide uncertainty -- the bad news is that invitation may very well be all that we have left. The good news, however, is that it may be all that we need. The same can be said about Open Space Technology.

  

Open Space is a way of organizing a meeting that leads to a high volume of learning and the establishment of real connections between individuals, and between people and the organizations they populate. So far, we have experienced the widespread adoption or 'mainstreaming' of Open Space in Agile conferences.

When are 'mainstream' conferences going to tip, and begin promoting and executing on Open Space conferences?

Can business organizations stop Open Space from permeating their organizational boundaries?

Can Open Space go mainstream in corporate America?

Are multinational corporations ready to use Open Space Technology to make wide-scope direction-setting decisions that effect the entire enterprise?

Will the most progressive and innovative employees be drawn to work in organizations that use Open Space, in effect creating a stronger workforce in these organizations? Is the result not just more engaged workers, but in fact better corporate decisions?

Time always tells.

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