Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage Interviews Steven "Doc" List About Open Spaces

Steven "Doc" List About Open Spaces


1. I am sitting here with Steven "Doc" List and we are going to talk a bit about Open Spaces because we've got the Open Spaces going on here on .NET. Why Open Spaces?

Open Spaces have become the way to create clever, different, creative solutions that doesn't involve sitting in preplanned agenda driven talking head presentations. And so, community like these, what they were trying to do is define and create the community and exchange ideas and concepts. It's perfect because the attendees get to choose what is going to be discussed.


2. How do you find over time that you end up with a lower quality of presentations since people don't have time to prepare for it the way they would for the talking head?

The truth is that some do come with a prepared presentation so for those few who do the quality of them is at least as good because it's the same presentation. However, the nature of this is such that it's not really about presentations so much is conversations and so what you get is people who are more invested, more engaged and have more energy about it. In fact two of the buzz words in Open Space are "passion" and "responsibility" and what happens is, instead of somebody saying: "I think they will be interested in mocking", the attendees say: "I really care about these particular aspect of mocking" or "I really care about TDD or BDD or one of the other subjects", and if there is enough interest, enough passion people go and the energy and the excitement and the information comes from people's engagement and their investment.


3. How does this all work, for instance when we started out the old .NET we had the opening of the spaces, and a lot of us came and we talked about what we wanted to do, what we wanted to hear and eventually we ended up with what sessions we wanted to go to. So why don't we talk a little about that process and how it works?

The way an Open Space starts is first of all, as you saw, the facilitator lays down the ground rules, the guideline. Of course there's the 4 principles and the one law, the four principles being: whoever comes is the right people, whatever happens is the only thing that could have, when it starts it's the right time and when it's over, it's over. And that is really all we lay down and then the one law which is the law of two feet: if at any time you feel like you are not learning or contributing in those current circumstances, go somewhere else; it could be the hallway, it could be another session, it could be go and get a cup of coffee.

Once the facilitator has laid that down, then the participants come up, we put a piece of paper in the middle of the room and markers. They write down the topics they are interested in and their name, and then they stand up and say: "My name is "Doc" List and I want to talk about TDD and how we use it in particular environment." And I go put on a schedule, and that schedule is simply a slot for each room at each time that we made available. The community then decides what is going to happen because they all go up after the agenda is created this way and they put their initials or a mark on each session they are interested in and it could be like we have 6 concurrent sessions right now.

They could mark all 6 because they are interested in all 6 and in fact they can go to all 6 because they can spend 5 minutes in each. One of the things I get excited about with this is that there's relatively little ego on the parts of the conveners or presenters. So when we refer to the people that come up with the topic as conveners. So their responsibility is simply to be the one who pulls the conversation together; they don't have to be and expert, don't have to do presentation, don't even have to know anything about the subject, just something that they want to have discussed.

So they have a responsibility to pull it together. The conveners can negotiate with each other in terms of what session is scheduled when, do we want to merge some; we had several, four that got merged together, three that got merged together because the people who presented the topics felt that there was a lot of overlap and they'd be better served by being together.


4. You mentioned a few personas, different types of people who exist within the space. Would you care to discuss some of that?

Sure. We referred to two in particular: one is Bumblebees; Bumblebees are those people who love the law of two feet, if you will, and they are inclined to go from session to session. We call them Bumblebees because they go to one session, they'll get some ides, they get some information, they take that with them to the next one. And so they cross fertilize, they cross pollinate by carrying ideas from session to session. The second is Butterflies. Butterflies like to lie somewhere they may have an idea they wanted to talk about but they didn't call a session and people will come talk to them. They might go sit in a break room or an empty room, and other people come and they talk and they may talk about something relevant to the event, they may talk about something else altogether. We refer to them as butterflies.


5. You've run many Open Spaces in the past. Are there any places where you found they don't work well?

Open Spaces work best when there is a challenge problem issue to be dealt with: strategy, in this case creating community. They don't work well when somebody has a planned goal or somebody has created specific constraints and restricted the creativity in the freedom of discussion. If I am in an organization and I put together an Open Space and I say: "I want you to figure out how do deliver this by March 31st, that may or may not be a viable theme for an Open Space because I am constrained so tightly." On the other hand it might be great, but the places where it doesn't work so well are the ones where it really is satisfying either a hidden agenda, alterio motive and not really free to be creative, to have the conversations that are needed.


6. What does it take to be a good facilitator?

First of all I describe it as part of it, as what I call "invisible presence". So part of my role as a facilitator or a good facilitator is to be present without being intrusive. So when I say ‘invisible presence', I am there all the time, people know that they can find me for whatever is needed, they'll see me picking up garbage, checking on time, holding space and time, which is the way that Harrison Owen described it in his book, without intruding, without participating because again my role is not to be part of the content, but rather to help the process move forward. In addition. I believe that a good facilitator sets the tone by communicating effectively to the attendees. It's partially why they are there in terms of the content, so for the old .NET conference, they are here about the old .NET community, but also about what it means to be there together for a common purpose to talk about the shared responsibility and so forth.


7. Turning it around a lot of it seems to fall back in the attendees, so what really makes a good attendee in one of these events?

That is actually one of my favorite questions because I think that it's a combination of a number of things. Two of them are passion and responsibility and again this comes right out of Harrison Owen's writing. Passion for the topic; we talked earlier the first principle is basically whoever shows up is the right people because they bring some kind of interest, some kind of passion, some kind of investment in the topic. So to be a good attendee you have to bring that interest, that investment, that passion. Second is responsibility, because the event is largely self organizing. We talked about how the agenda is created and in the event sometimes you negotiate: well let's combine sessions, let's move a session so it's not opposite to another popular session. That is all done by the attendees, so the attendees have to be willing to step up and take and demonstrate responsibility for the success of the event. Additionally I think there is a large element of respect; I think the participants in an Open Space have to bring respect for each other and for the process, the Open Space process itself in order to make it succeed.

Nov 06, 2008