Unconference Methods: Open Space Technology

Open Space Technology created originally by Harrison Owen, is a great process to support agenda formation amongst technical communities meeting to accomplish work together. Before the day of the meeting participants can put forward ideas they have about sessions they want to present or hope others will present on a wiki. This helps give everyone a picture of what will be talked about. The wiki can also have a list of who is coming to the event – this is sort of inn loo of speakers. You can as the organizer solicit specific people to come and present (just as you would at a regular conference) instead of being put on the ‘schedule’ by you they simply with the rest of the participants come forward to the front of the room and propose the session you invited them to present.
Open Space is good because it helps avoid the problem of ‘one person’ or a ‘small committee’ deciding who should be speaking about what and is a lot less work for the organizers.
It is called “technology” because it is a process. It was innovated in the mid 80’s before the world wide web, and like a lot of good ideas is still important.

The Opening Session
This is where everyone will get oriented to who is there and share the topics they want to discuss. Traditionally Open Space uses a circle to but this can get unwieldy above about 50 people so I usually go with theater style seating. I get everyone in the room to say there name and where they are from (either the company or the place – there choosing). You can also invite people to share a thought about what they hope to get out of the day or a question they hope to get answered. It is good to limit this to a sentence though. You want to make this energizing for the group.

The Day of the Event
The grid – Two pieces of 3’ or 3.5’ wide roles of paper to make a 6 foot high grid. I fold the paper to form the rows (about 9” so that 8.5” paper can fit into the grid) then I just use a maker to make the 12” grid. Along the top you have the breakout rooms listed. (These can actually be small rooms, corners of bigger rooms or even locations like under a certain tree outside). Along the side of the paper you can have the times of sessions.

Session length – I like to use 1 hour sessions with 15 min breaks. You can use up to 2 hour sessions if you know there are a lot of in-depth discussions to have.

Making the Agenda – Participants who want to present, demo or lead a discussion are then invited to come to the front of the room. They get a 8.5×11 piece of paper and landscape style they write with a marker the name of there session topic and their name.

They announce the title of their session to the whole room (maybe into a mic). At this point people can ask the session leader questions. Those who have similar topics know who they are and can speak to them about combining there topic in with there session.

Then once all the sessions have been posted the community standing in front of the schedule wall negotiates the schedule and moves sessions around. The session leader gets to decide whether or not to combine with others and when the session will be held.
If others want to move their session they need to check in with the session leader.

The schedule will likely be made in less then an hour and you can release participants to mingle until the first session.

Closing – The day closes with the all participants gathering in a circle one room and sharing for 20 -30 min the highlights of the day. You can invite people to share critical insights or breakthroughs they had that day. It is also good to invite people who know the have a session they want to lead the next day (if there is a next day) to articulate that.

Day Two – Day two of an open space starts out like the first inviting participants to come forward and put sessions on the agenda. The fist day agenda making includes putting up sessions on day 2 so this morning session is just building on the already proposed schedule.

The morning agenda creation will likely be a lot less time consuming then the first day. I often use the extra time between making the agenda and the first session to do a group process like the spectrogram or a fishbowl.

Food – I like to self cater the breakfast (begels, cream cheese, yogurt and fruit) and snacks (nuts, fuiet, dried fruit, chocolates, muffins) and drinks (soda, juice etc) of a conference because it is so inexpensive to do so. If you can get coffee made and brought in that can work great. You can buy fruit in boxes at the markets where grocers get there fruits. Trader Joes has nuts and other snacky things that are great. I like to bring in a catered buffet style lunch so that food is not wasted.

Documentation – It is important to document the outcomes of these sessions on a wiki. You can also do podcasting of certain sessions including day closings.

The principles of Open Space are important to remember and share with those participating.

  • Whoever comes are the right people.
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could hvae.
  • Whenever it starts is the right time.
  • When its over, its over.
  • Document on the Wiki

Law of two feet: If you find yourself not learning or contributing at any time it is your responsibility to use your two feet to take and fine somewhere you are learning or contributing.
They originated to help the day move forward without people getting upset about things being exactly on time or that so-and-so was at there session. The law of two feet is meant to create a social norm about following your inner voice and passion to be in a session or doing something else that you get value out of. It is not meant to condone belligerence towards sessions one is not getting something out of.

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