Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage Podcasts Daniel Mezick & Mark Sheffield on Open Space Using Zoom

Daniel Mezick & Mark Sheffield on Open Space Using Zoom

In this episode Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, first spoke to Daniel Mezick & Mark Sheffield about using Zoom for Open Space events.  They have release a set of guidelines and a checklist for online Open Space events under a Creative Commons license.

Key Takeaways

  • Open space technology is a way to engage people in collaborative problem solving
  • Open space has traditionally been used for in-person events
  • Mark & Dan have released guidelines and a checklist for using Open Space technology with Zoom
  • Prepared and managed well, an online Open Space event can be even better than an in-person event
  • The value of releasing IP like the Online Open Space Guidelines with an open source/creative commons license allows for innovation and attribution



00:16 Shane: Good day folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture podcast. I'm sitting down across the miles with Dan Mezick and Mark Sheffield. Dan, Mark, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.

00:34 Mark: Thank you, Shane.

00:35 Introducing Dan & Mark

00:35 Shane: Now we're going to talk about some of the stuff you've been doing with online Open Space, but before we get into that, who's Dan who's Mark? Why are you here?

00:44 Mark: This is Mark. I am here because I've been studying Open Space, been facilitating Open Space for several years. Been doing it online with Daniel since 2017. I am also an agile coach and an instructor and trainer, and absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to be here today on the podcast with you.

01:06 Dan: Yeah. And Mark is also a board member of the Open Space Institute in the United States. So there's that, and I'm Daniel Mezick and I'm a friend of Mark, and I've written three books on organizational change and I'm a fan of Open Space.

01:21 Shane: So perhaps a step back,  for quite a few of our audience probably haven't really come across, or they might've heard the term, Open Space; it is a technology, it has got some structure, what is it?

01:23 Describing Open Space Technology

01:23 Mark: It does have a structure and it's a very lightweight structure. It's an opportunity for a group of people who were interested in a theme to bring the topics that they want to talk about, to propose those topics in a whole group setting. And then everybody there has the opportunity to attend and engage in whatever conversations interest them the most and move about from one conversation to the next, as their interests might change. And then what happens at the end, is the artifacts that are accumulated during the session or compiled into a book of proceedings. And that's a historical record. It also gives an opportunity for recording action items.  Proposed action items that then if it's in an organization, if the Open Space was in an organization, then leadership can act on those suggestions, can decide how to proceed with those suggestions. So it's a tremendous record of what happened as people were engaging, as they were feeling passionate and responsible about their piece of the theme.

02:40 Shane: Traditionally, or historically I suppose we could say, one of the characteristics of Open Space is they have been done in person because of the circle where you sit around, you pose the question, then you break up into small groups and close intimate conversations.

03:09 That's a little bit more difficult when you're totally remote, we're in the midst of COVID-19 things have changed. How does Open Space work when you're remote?

03:09 Mark: There's a lot of connection that's established in person, as you mentioned, sitting in a circle, being able to interact with the people around you. And so when we're doing this online, we work very hard to make sure there's an opportunity for people to connect, as much as possible. We don't have a circle, we have a grid of faces and we can't really tell who's sitting where, but we concentrate on increasing the ability to connect and with people, having their cameras on, with the opportunity to introduce themselves in the participants document in advance and making it very easy for them to navigate from one session to another. And it is different than being in person very, very much so.

03:54 Shane: Remind me of the document that you've released for us.

03,58 Dan & Mark have Released Guidelines & a Checklist for Open Space using Zoom

03:58 Mark: It's Open Space Online Using Zoom. There are two parts to it. It's a guide and there's also a checklist that we've developed over the several years that we've been doing these and teaching how to do these online.

04:10 Shane: What are some of the key things that you would do differently? And if somebody hasn't done it before, why would they bother using an Open Space approach?

04:19 Describing Key Differences for Online Events

04:19 Mark: An Open Space approach is so freeing to the participants, because the total premise is they have everything they need be able to explore a topic, to come up with the best ideas for leaders to emerge. And so that's the magic of Open Space, the self-organization that happens. And there's a lot of self-organization that can happen in an in person Open Space. For example, if there's another meeting space where people would like to gather, they can just go there in an in person Open Space.  But in online, it's important that we've already planned ahead for the fact that there may need to be some additional meeting spaces. We might not reveal them yet, but when the need arises, then we can those visible to the participants so that they can then do the self-organization that they are there to do.

05:18 Dan: Yeah, so for example, you might have a particular Zoom room or space labelled Lobby and another one labelled Hallway which are overflow spaces where people can go if they get kicked out of their corner cause the next session is going on, that kind of thing.

05:34 Shane: Oh, I remember when we were allowed to be in person in the good old days, the number of great conversations that happened in the spaces between the spaces. So that sort of thing is a lot harder to achieve online, and the one thing you're suggesting there is just to have some extra space. How about letting people in and out? This is one of the challenges that I've seen, is you've got to move people, you lose some of that spontaneity, or do you? How do you overcome that?

06:04 Mark: Well, the way we set them up is that there is the agenda wall where people have posted the sessions that they've proposed and in each cell that’s describing each session, there is a link to the Zoom Meeting where that will be held, there's a link to the notes document where they will capture their ideas and at the bottom of each notes document there's a link back to the main room and a link to the agenda wall. So wherever anybody is, they can always get back to home and then they can see what their options are of other places to go. And that's how we have attempted, and I think we've been very successful, making it easy for people to navigate from one place to the next.

06:51 Ways where Online Events are Better than In-Person

06:51 Dan: Yeah and Shane, while you're talking about like, how is it different? How is it the same? One of the things is the closing circle, right? So the closing circle, you know, you've experienced that dozens of times in your life and you know how it goes, the listeners and readers also who know Open Space will know how that goes typically, depending on, you know, different ways to end it, depending on the size of the audience. Online we can just ask people to type into the chat, into the Everyone chat, or into a shared Google doc and watch that, in parallel, feedback come in, instead of it's being serialized, like it usually is at the end where the microphone goes around in some way. It's everyone speaking at once and it's extremely fun to watch that document just expand.

07:34 Mark: It's like watching popcorn. If there's one thing about Open Space, that's better online than in person, I would say it's actually watching that closing document as people are typing into it and it just comes to life and then we also give the opportunity for people to seek something out verbally, as they'd like to. We're doing what we can to embrace the capabilities of the online medium.

07:59 Dan: Yeah, and you know, what's really interesting about this Shane, think about it, in a regular traditional face to face Open Space you don't get to document every single thing everyone said at the end, but online you do, and you can just cut it and paste it right into the proceedings. And people really have something, especially if they contributed at the end, they'll go looking for what they said and they'll see what all the other said. It's actually a very interesting improvement over what we can do face to face.

08:26 Shane: Self-organization is key to Open Space. How do we encourage self-organization when people are remote?

08:33 Mark: Very much as we do it in person. When I'm facilitating, I'm making it as clear as I can, and that it's up to the people to make their decisions to go where they want us to go. And if they ever find themselves in a position where they're neither contributing or benefiting from the conversations to use their mobility, which of course online involves mouse clicks, and go to a better place.  Just reinforcing the importance of that. Daniel, do you have anything that you'd like to add?

09:04 Dan: Yeah, this is a little bit off topic, but just like, imagine Shane for a minute that, like, the current situation where all businesses are doing a COVID related adjustment and all that that implies and how online all of a sudden is front and centre and centre stage. And what better way to figure out as a group, how are you going to do things or to disseminate information, than to get the whole system in the room, get folks in online, invited not compelled and figure it out, figure it out together and make action plans and make changes where everyone had at least an ear, if not a voice, in the outcome, they got to hear everything and the whole org figured out what the best ideas were. You know, Open Space is a beautiful application for a situation like we're in today. How ironic that now we've delivered this open source licensed guide to how to do all this online. And it's really not that tough actually on the surface, it looks pretty simple, right?  Until you try to do it. Mark's really the technical architect of how we do this. So you might have a question or two about that and Mark definitely is the answer man for those questions.

10:15 Shane: What are some of the gotchas? What are the things that can go wrong, both in person and even more so with remote Open Spaces?

10:23 Common Gotcha’s of Online Open Space Events

10:23 Mark: In person, anything can happen and of course the slogan of Open Space, I think it's an informal slogan, but it's still up on the poster on the wall is be prepared to be surprised. And in an in person Open Space the system, the people always take care of whatever the issue is.  In an online Open Space where we're, depending on technology, the technology can go sideways. We had an early experience where the tool that we were using for the agenda wall, the bulletin board, it was possible for people connecting from one kind of device to inadvertently click on a button that would rearrange everything on the board and it was terrible. 

11:08 Dan: That's when we had about 80 people going.

11:12 Mark: Yeah, we were scurrying around in the background, reassembling it, rebuilding it as it needed to be done.  Which highlights a couple of things, one of them is the importance of having a person, or a couple of people, behind the scenes ready to recover from whatever goes wrong technically. The second thing is to prefer a as low tech an approach as possible so that there's less that can go wrong.

11:41 Dan: Failure, points, and work with stuff that people already know, like, most people understand the sheet and if they've never even seen a Google sheet, they probably know what to do with a spreadsheet cell. You know, so that's an interface everyone understands and while it's kind of low tech and not sexy looking, it also gets the job done and you don't have to teach people how to navigate around. That's also a very big deal too. So we try to make it so that it's simple for people to skip around. I can give you a classic gotcha on online video over Zoom if you want, you want to hear it? All right. Here's how it goes. You're in a current room and while you're listening in the current room you go to the marketplace to see what else you can do, cause it's kind of boring and you want to get out and then you click the other link to the next place to go. But you don't go anywhere, so you've cut out of the whole meeting and you come back to the main hall where the facilitator and friends are at and they're hanging out and like, Hey, I can't get to my current room or what, you know, what's up, you know, how come I can't do it, I'm trying to go from one room to another. We ask them, do you have a lot of windows open? They always say yes, say close, 'em or get them out of the way, like peel them back until you see what I'm going to show you. And then they go, Oh, I see it now - there is a dialog box that comes up. You can only be in one Zoom meeting at a time so when you're in one meeting and you click another link, Zoom goes, you're in a meeting now, are you sure you want to leave? But it's not modal. So it stays behind all the other windows. So we don't actually teach that or like explain it upfront, cause it would detract from the theme of the Open Space, but when people get stuck, it's always that gotcha. It's little things like that.

13:10 Mark: And we also, when we set up the sheet, we're very careful to test all of the links. I mentioned the links earlier, links to the individual meeting rooms, links to the documents, and we test them, make sure that they're working. And then we protect everything on the sheet, except the cells where people can enter the topic name and the convener name. So, it's more difficult for them to make a mistake that would cause problems.

13:37 The Benefits of Open Source/Creative Commons Approach to Releasing Content

13:37 Dan: Things are moving quickly in the tool space. So, we published this and within a couple of days, a friend of mine in Europe published some Miro boards around the work that we did. And we said, listen, why don't just publish open source and just derive from our work and replace the Google doc with this Miro template that you got going. And that's what they're doing and we're publishing that on the, on progress page. And that's another thing that's actually pretty cool is that as the tools move forward, it's going to become easier and easier to do Open Space, whole group, large group facilitated meetings, like Open Space. It's just going to get easier and easier to do.

14:13 Shane: Now open source. I know that this is something that you care about and you have deliberately released this, why?

14:21 Mark: Well, it really boils down to two words, innovation and attribution, and so spreading the word, having great ideas and also acknowledging what those ideas have been built on that contributes to the community, it provides acknowledgement of where the ideas have come from for everyone in the chain. And it also acknowledges that this is important work that is easily accessible and is actually we're inviting people to make it better. We've just said, this is what we've been doing, this is what we've discovered that we see as important, now you may take it and make it even better and share that also with the world.

15:06 Dan: Yeah. But before you do that, try it our way. Cause that's actually works pretty good. And instead of going down the sidetrack to the dead end, why don't you try it our way, one time and then riff on it a little bit.

15:19 Mark: And the reason that I would say to try it our way is that there are a lot of subtleties that have guided how we've chosen to go about doing these things. And we suggest that, or state at least implicitly, that taking care of those subtleties is important. Do it with another tool, that's fine, but if you ignore that subtlety, if you ignore, for example, the ability to protect everything on the agenda wall, that you don't want people to be able to change there's an opportunity for having a whole lot of extra work rebuilding, for example.

15:56 Dan: Yeah. So trust with verify, try our stuff first. And I want to join with Mark with what he said earlier about innovation. So we need more innovation, not less. We need more progress, not less progress, right? We need a focus on improving things, not a focus on the status quo and tolerating that, we can do a lot better and Open Space can help in online is here. How can we get more innovation, more progress growing? We believe that open source licensing is the name of the game. And I want to share a screen with you, Shane, that I think you'll enjoy, which is on the open leadership network site. And I'm going to just make it big so you can see it. And I'm going to scroll it for you.  It's this page right here called On Progress

16:44 Shane: For social technologies to rapidly advance human progress they must be published in a way that allows for their free derivation, innovation and combination. The open source licensing of social technology allows this and thereby encourages genuine and lasting human progress. That's a beautiful sentiment.

17:03 Dan: Thank you, sir.

17:04 We'll include the links.

17:06 Dan: Composed by several, and then we say, look, this is what we'd like to say, this is what we believe that they carry with them great potential to improve human conditions. Like Open Space itself, that its impeded when we're closed to derivation, especially commercialization because the incentive isn't there. It's important for people to be able to pay their creditors, you need to be able to commercialize. I mean, that's just called survival being the first law of nature, right. And third, that human progress is encouraged when social technologies are published in an open way. And then that open source licensing arrangements represent a very large opportunity to accelerate human progress. So that's the idea. And then we invite the reader to sign it. And Harrison Owen's there and Michelle and James McCarthy, myself, Mike Burrows, and then there's a list of the people. At the end there. So thank you for saying that you enjoyed that particular paragraph because I think a big part of what could be better in the world is the way licensing and publishing is done and especially with social and cultural technology, like Open Space and other kinds of meeting designs, I think it's a crime to publish them under anything except. The CC BY SA 4.0. SA meaning Share Alike. Creative commons, CC, being the author of the license. And they also have licenses that they say are not free culture licenses, and there have been no commercialization licenses and you've got a grant that right. If we're gonna spread things and once things spread there's progress, there's an acceleration of idea, velocity like in economics, you have the velocity of money, right. And in sort of the ideation innovation space, it's the velocity of idea, spread, transfer recombination. We believe open source licensing can go a very, very long way. And we're very excited to see what people do with what we've already done here.

19:01 Mark: We have also had several conversations; Daniel and I have with Harrison Owen who formulated Open Space Technology back in 1985 and conversations around how do we open space? How does one open space? What does that mean for someone to open space and without fail Harrison chuckles and he says it's already open. The space is already open the thing for us to do is to stop closing it down. Stop doing the things that are restricting the innovation, that are restricting people from self-organizing, that are restricting the best ideas from emerging and so I think it's only appropriate that Open Space is being published, open source and our approach to doing Open Space online is being published open source.

19:58 Shane: Tell us a little bit more about the Open Leadership Network.

20:01 Describing the Open Leadership Network

20:01 Dan: Yeah. So that's about spreading and amplifying ideas around open patterns and practices defined as behaviours, mostly leadership behaviours, that encourage higher levels of employee engagement. Engagement's the name of the game with the open leadership network. That's the idea? How do we improve the engagement levels? Because we know from the Gallup data, that engagement's associated with every good thing that organizations say they want everything from customer satisfaction to a higher stock price, employee satisfaction, morale. We know that it's all related to engagement. So how do we engage people? Open leadership network, the idea is we engage people primarily by giving them at least some decisions to make,  because decisions turn out to be very engaging. So really the open leadership network is about the art of this decision distribution in a way that engages the maximum number of people. That's really what it's all about. So, we teach Open Space. We teach Open Space Agility, which you interviewed me on years ago, we teach no limits self-management, which is from Doug Kirkpatrick. You might know him and his books. He's an expert in the self-management space. So all of those kinds of things, you know, the inviting leadership, all of that. What can we do to engage more people? How can we be selective but aggressive in a way in the distribution of decision making authority?

21:30 Mark: And the decision-making rights, those rights sometimes they are actually making, making the decisions and sometimes they're influencing the making of the decisions. And each of those are very important and we certainly highlight the influence rights as we're working with leaders to help them understand that by allowing others to participate in the decision doesn't mean that the leader has actually abdicated their total authority for making the decision.  So they can get increased engagement and still retain some decision making authority that they feel is important and may be necessary for various reasons.

22:10 The Conditions Needed for Open Space to be Effective

22:10 Shane: Back to Open Space. One of the things that we touched on before we started recording was the conditions for Open Space. So what are the conditions that need to be in place for Open Space to be effective?

22:23 Mark: There are five. There has to be a real business issue, not something that's manufactured, but something that is is real that the group is facing.It  needs to be complex. No simple answer. No one person has the answer to it. There has to be a great deal of diversity amongst the people who are participating. Diversity in all kinds of dimensions, backgrounds, approaches, ideas, experience, as much diversity as possible. There has to be some real passion around that theme, and there's often conflict. Conflict is great because through the conflict people will be getting to more clarity, getting to a better place on the other side. And the fifth condition is a decision time of yesterday, real urgency. This is an important thing. We're here, we're in the room. We all have great ideas.  We care about getting to the best actions, the best outcomes, and we've got to do it now or yesterday.

23:30 Shane: That sounds like pretty much every situation every company in the world is in right now.

23:36 Mark: Very much.

23:38 Shane: So the ground is fertile for Open Space. What about other types of online engagement? So Open Space is one, what are some of the other things that are out there, or that you see in terms of bringing people together, virtually.

23:54 Mark: I have not seen a lot. I have seen various classes and learning opportunities being offered by people, but those have tended to be more heavily one way, one directional and not as inclusive of the whole group, than Open Space is. And so they're limited. I think a lot of that comes from a good place. People wanting to be helpful, but it's limiting to the richness of the conversation that could happen in an Open Space environment.

24:22 Dan: You know, it's interesting that the whole Open Space thing is coming online and everything is super diverse and there's a demand now to have whole group meeting types, but ironically, the more rigid your structure is, the more people are going to check out and disengage on you. And I'm going to tell you why. Okay. Here's why, because the entire library of Alexandria, past present, and future is one click away when you're sitting in front of that keyboard and that mouse. And if you start boring me, you know what I'm going to do, I'm going to click away and start reading something else and playing online poker or whatever, watching some vids or listening to some podcasts and I'm going to check out on this meeting. Open Space maps beautifully to the online medium, where a lot of default reality does not. So attempting the default reality meeting formats, which companies got away with, even though they were incredibly boring, will not pass muster online. Open Space basically connects people through a theme and an invitation and a series of decision making that they do, because every invitation triggers a decision. I want the listeners to understand that, that Open Space is completely invitational and it triggers a lot of engagement through the decision-making mechanism. It's a mechanical thing, when you put someone on a decision, they start thinking about it. Okay. Now, you've got some space in their mind, you've got some Mindshare. This is what happens. All of a sudden Open Space is the online medium for the very reason that it puts people at a series of engaging decisions. For example, if we try to facilitate and lead typical keynote, blah, blah, blah, followed by. you know, a panel of experts, we'd all be somewhere else within probably 20 seconds. But Open Space is just social. It's a lot of social learning. It's all volitional. It's got a lot of randomness, , but it's got also some interesting patterns within the constraints of the five principles and the one law, so, it's just beautifully adapted for the online medium. How beautiful is that?

26:22 The Principles and Law of Open Space

26:22 Mark: You mentioned the principles and the law, Daniel. The principles of whoever comes is the right people. And whenever it starts is the right time, wherever it happens is the right place. And when it's over, it's over, that's a description of how a conversation emerges, has life and then dies so the next conversation can happen and the law actually embraces people's ability to check out and do something better. And I think it's interesting that it's called the law. That's the one rule of Open Space. And I mentioned it earlier.

27:01 Dan: Yeah. And it's immutable and non negotiable.

27:03 Mark: It is completely non negotiable. If at any time you find yourself neither benefiting from nor contributing to the current conversation, use your mobility and go to a better place. What could be more transparent than that?

27:19 Dan: Yeah. You know, Shane, one of the things I want to bring up for the listeners, and I'm hoping that it making it into the transcript as well is Open Space in an organization versus Open Space at our conference.

27:26 The Difference Between Open Space at a Conference and Open Space Used inside an Organisation

27:26 I mean, Open Space was spawned in the organizational design space. Harrison was a member of the ODA, I believe, and it was busy developing a conference and initially it was used in the public, even though it was in the organizational design space, and then immediately people started using it inside organizations and that's where it really has Zenith or its ability to do the most. It's a very different situation when people know that they have to learn how to work together after the meeting that they're going to see each other, again, unlike in a conference with his very low cohesion, we're only together for two or three days or whatever it is. And, you know, I'm going to be around the people I like to be around and I'm going to avoid the ones that I don't want to be around. And that's okay because we're not going to see each other for awhile. But in a company, it's more like a real social system. It's almost infinite. It never ends company keeps going until it's acquired or whatever. So all of that is lending itself to the use of Open Space. It's actually a pretty interesting way of running a company, like you said, everyone's got those issues today. This COVID upset and surprise, and also the social unrest that's going on. We're actually in a space where Open Space is about all you can really do right now.

28:44 Mark: And the main energy in an Open Space, 98% or more of the energy in the Open Space is, the people are there because they care there and they want to talk about, about the theme and what they care about with the theme. There can be a temptation with traditional facilitation to make it the facilitators show and that just does not work with Open Space. The whole job of the Open Space facilitator is to get people started and get out of the way and then hold the space. By holding the space what we mean is continuing to protect that time and place for people to be able to continue to have their conversations. And an in person Open Space that can mean walking around and picking up coffee cups, picking up the trash, just making sure that there's a supply of markers that people can come and get, or supply of other materials. In an online Open Space, holding the space means staying in the main room where people can come home to get what they need and then go off to do what they're doing ,its not the facilitator's show. The best compliment to a facilitator is to encounter a participant later on who's talking about the event and who has no recollection of who facilitated that event, because the event was so tremendous.

30:20 Shane: Thank you for that ,gents. If people want to, one, get hold of the Open Space, using zoom documentation that you shared, and also continue the conversation, where did they find you and where do they find it?

30:33 I just put some links in the chat that you can publish. One is that declaration on progress and the other is off of that page, the actual guide and the actual checklist are at the second link and those are PDFs.

30:45 Shane: Thank you so much for your time.

30:47 Dan: Thanks Shane.

30:48 Mark: Thank you, Shane.


More about our podcasts

You can keep up-to-date with the podcasts via our RSS Feed, and they are available via SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast and the Google Podcast. From this page you also have access to our recorded show notes. They all have clickable links that will take you directly to that part of the audio.

Previous podcasts

Rate this Article