Open Space Conferences – Attendee Created Conferences!

Open Space is one of my favorite types of conferences. I was under the impression that most people in the agile, coaching, and leadership communities knew what Open Space was. I was wrong. Many have never experienced it.I_heart_openspace That is sad, to an extent, but that also means there are many people who will experience it for the first time this year (I hope!).

I am co-facilitating, with Allison Pollard, Open Space on Day 2 of the Scrum Gathering San Diego this year.  This will be a very large event, we are guessing 1000-1200 people will participate! Super excited to be co-facilitating with Allison, since she is an amazing coach and facilitator, funny, and intuitive – someone who can observe a group interacting and engage with them in just the right way!  

I am also facilitating Open Space at Mile High Agile 2017 in Denver, Colorado on Day 2. Mile High Agile has traditionally been a one-day conference and is moving to a two-day conference this year. Both conferences will actually have some opening and closing talks to add even more fun and flavor to the Open Space day!

If you have not experienced Open Space this will be a great opportunity to do so. There are many other options, as we note below, if you can’t make it to these events.

We get many questions on Open Space, so we wanted to take some time to answer some of them here.  Allison and I wrote the below post together.

What is Open Space Technology (OST)?

Open Space near Jake's house, but not the Open Space we are talking about!

Open Space near Jake’s house, but not the Open Space we are talking about!

Open Space is not that open park near your house! Well, it could be, but it is not the Open Space we are talking about. We are talking about Open Space Technology (OST). Most people simply call it Open Space, however, if you want to search for more information on it, you might want to Google “Open Space Technology” which is the fancier name. You can also take a look at Harrison Owen’s website. He discovered Open Space in the early 8o’s! Amazing discovery!!

Open Space is a straightforward way to create participant-driven conference sessions (or an entire conference). Open Space is an opportunity to engage in learning, listening, and discussions around topics that interest you. Open Space is a process that allows everyone to participate in sessions with others whom you may not normally have a chance to talk with.

As an attendee, you will have an opportunity to propose and attend sessions on the topics that are most important to YOU!

How does Open Space work?

Open Space begins with an opening session where attendees propose topics for sessions they would like to host and engage in.

Open Space Marketplace before attendees proposed sessions - Scrum Gathering Orlando 2016

Open Space Marketplace BEFORE attendees proposed sessions – Scrum Gathering Orlando 2016

After they propose a topic, they select a time-slot and room for the session.

  • You might propose a session on a topic you feel passionate about and have some knowledge around -OR-
  • You might propose a session that you don’t know a lot about but want to invite others to dig into the topic with you -OR-
  • You might simply listen to the proposals and attend sessions that sound valuable and interesting to you!

What conversation are you willing to propose, initiate, listen to, or engage in?

Anyone may propose a session – YES, even YOU. You don’t have to be the author, expert, or guru — often the best sessions come from those who say, “I know a little on this topic and want to know more!” When you propose a session, your role is to be a host who gets the topic rolling and engages others to contribute their thoughts!  We would add that if you are an author, expert or guru, you are welcome to propose sessions as well!!

Open Space Marketplace AFTER attendees proposed sessions - So Many options! - Scrum Gathering Orlando 2016

Open Space Marketplace AFTER attendees proposed sessions – So Many options! – Scrum Gathering Orlando 2016

After the opening and the creation of the session marketplace, attendees review what is available and choose the sessions they want to attend.

They find the sessions they want to attend, the time, and location – then simply show up, listen, share, and learn!

Does Open Space Really Work?

The short answer is ABSOLUTELY! It works all the time! Many companies run internal Open Space conferences and many public conferences are run only with Open Space — meaning there is no list of speakers or sessions in advance! All the sessions are created the day of the conference!

Check out Agile Open NorthwestAgile Open CaliforniaAgile Open Florida, Agile Coach Camp Canada, many other Agile Coach Camps, Retrospective Facilitator Gathering, Play For Agile, Play4Agile North America, and many more. Other conferences like the Scrum Gathering and Agile2017 – Agile Alliance, and Mile High Agile have a part of the conference dedicated to Open Space.

Many people find that they learn as much or more in Open Space when compared to traditional conference sessions! You also have an opportunity to build on ideas from traditional conference sessions during Open Space sessions (for conferences that offer both types of sessions). Open Space sessions we have hosted and participated in have surprised us and created new insights and ideas — well beyond what we expected going in!

Prepare to Be Surprised and to Surprise others!

You know the types of conversations you have over dinner with friends? Deep, rich, informal conversations where everyone is enjoying themselves in the moment? Open Space is much like that… because it creates a place that is safe to step in and either listen or participate.

Open Space is a place where you can engage in a session but don’t need to be the expert or guru on the topic. Open Space celebrates that we all are creative and intelligent and have amazing ideas and things to share (yes everyone!).

Surprise yourself and others during Open Space!

Surprise yourself and others during Open Space!

Everyone has the choice to participate to the extent that they want to. You might find that you plan to listen, but end up jumping into the conversation. You might find that you plan to jump in the conversation, and find that you are just listening! There’s an important place for active and engaged listeners. By choosing to be a listener, others are invited to share more deeply and contribute more on the topic.

Some people compare open space to “hallway conversations” however hallway conversations can sometimes be intimidating – especially when you don’t know a lot of people. Most of us are not going to just walk up and start talking to a group of people, even if we overhear them talking about something we are really interested in. Open Space provides an opportunity to hear about and see a list of topics that interest you, and create an “open space” where you can step into amazing sessions to listen, engage, and learn.

Now What?

Look for conferences that include Open Space formats or that are run exclusively via Open Space. Feel free to ask us more about Open Space or running Open Space events if you run into us or via comments here or social media! We would love to help answer questions or point you to more information. You might want to take a look at Proposing Open Space Sessions as well.


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Jake Calabrese

Jake Calabrese is a coach, trainer, and coach-consultant working to help organizations meet the promise of agile by going beyond agile practices to address culture challenges and help teams and leaders reach and maintain high performance. He has unique expertise as an Organization & Relationship Systems Certified Coach (ORSCC) and as a coach for Agile adoptions beyond software development that he brings to each client engagement. Jake created the AgileSafari cartoon series to introduce humor into the more challenging issues we have to tackle. Jake uses ideas from various areas of thinking such as: Lean, professional coaching, psychology, facilitation, brain-based training, improvisational, agile, kanban, and scrum. Jake regularly speaks at local and national conferences including Mile High Agile, Scrum Gathering, and Agile Alliance Agile20xx conferences.

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