Proposing Open Space Technology Sessions

When I am at conferences or events being run using Open Space Technology (learn more about attendee driven conferences), people often ask me “should I propose a open space session?” As we get into the discussion I tend to ask the same core questions:

  • Are you passionate about the topic?
  • Are you clear enough on what the topic is?
  • What would your 30-second pitch and summary of the topic to propose at the marketplace?
  • Are you comfortable hosting the session or, if not, is there 1 or 2 more that might help you?

These questions tend to lead us into a good conversation about what they are thinking about proposing. They also tend to expose some of the many questions and concerns people have about Proposing Open Space Technology Sessions. Since I am co-facilitating and facilitating a few large Open Space Technology (often simply called Open Space) events this year, I thought it would be useful to create a reference for people considering proposing sessions.

Proposing Open Space Technology Sessions

I’ve included a lot of different questions and answers related to proposing a session. I focus primarily on how these sessions are run at some of the larger conferences I attend and specifically the events I am co-facilitating (Scrum Gathering San Diego) and facilitating (Mile High Agile). There are many variations however — I try to address some of those as I go.

It is also very important to note that there are four open space principles and one law. They are included with some of the answers below, however, they may have an impact on many of the answers.

  1. Who is allowed to propose Open Space Technology sessions? Anyone attending the Open Space is allowed to propose a session. If you have never proposed a session, you can. If you have proposed sessions in the past, you can.
  2. Is my topic good enough to propose? If you have a passion for the topic, propose it. If you have a topic that is extremely specific or you are looking specifically for an answer to a very detailed issue in your organization, that might be too detailed to interest others. However, just think about the large context of your topic and propose that.
  3. Will I be presenting? No. You won’t be presenting. You will be hosting or potentially facilitating the conversation.
    Consider the law of mobility when thinking about proposing open space technology sessions.

    The one law of open space technology – consider it when thinking about what to propose – how will you engage others to learn and contribute!

    If you wanted to speak at the conference and did not get accepted  – welcome to the party! I get rejected from conferences all the time! It is part of the process. Open Space is not a replacement for that. You certainly could propose a topic around what you were going to speak about, but consider how you will engage the group in a conversation. How will you fade and let others speak and share? Remember the Law of Mobility and consider what others can contribute and learn! You might use a different structure to engage with the others in the group, but don’t expect to be sharing a slide deck of information. In a session I did last year on Agile Improvisation, we started out at lunch and only had 5 people. Others joined in as they finished lunch. We did a number of improv games related to learning and agile. I did initiate the first few games and then at one point someone who was attending had a game they wanted to play, so they took over and led that game. There are infinite possibilities.

  4. When Can I Propose My Session? Open Space begins when we ‘open the space’, that includes reviewing some of the principles of open space and talking about any themes we might have. After opening the space, the facilitators will start a marketplace. The marketplace is where we create the market of sessions for the conference. You will need to be at the marketplace if you would like to propose a session. Note that there are some open space based conferences that collect session ideas up front electronically, asking people to submit proposals of sessions they may propose. For Scrum Gathering San Diego and Mile High Agile, that will not be the case. Even for conferences that do ask people what they might propose in advance, on the day of the event, who knows what will happen!
  5. How exactly do I propose an Open Space session? When the marketplace starts, you can propose a session. There will be a short time at the beginning where the facilitators will ask people to come up and propose sessions. There will be paper (e.g. letter size – 8.5×11) and markers for you to write down your topic. Please write clearly and legibly, so people can see your topic when you post it on the wall. Include your name and some way to contact you (e.g. twitter). After you have yours written up, you walk up to a microphone and make your 20-30 second pitch! What are you calling your session, why are you passionate about it, and what are you looking for from others who might attend. You want to make it clear and simple enough that people understand what you are proposing, but also include enough passion and information that interested people will want to attend. Not always a simple thing. You will not have 1 minute or 2 or 5. There will not be enough time for everyone to propose sessions. So you have to keep it short and simple. All attendees will be there, listening to the proposals.
    Proposing open space technology sessions - we need sessions to fill the board!

    BEFORE: Empty Open Space Board waiting for sessions!

    For large events, there will be a long line of people walking up to the microphone to propose sessions while others are still writing their sessions down.

  6. Where and when will my session happen? After you propose your session at the microphone, you will take your proposal (the piece of paper you wrote up) and find an empty location and time slot on the wall. There will be a large board with locations and time slots to choose from – and someone will be available to help you. For large events like the two I’ve mentioned, we will have mirrored boards so more people can view the available sessions at the end.
    many people proposed open space technology sessions

    Many people proposed open space technology sessions! – Scrum Gathering Orlando 2016

    Technically for these larger events, people proposing a session will create two copies of their topic so one can be on each board.

    > Pro Tip: Please don’t ever move someone else’s session. If you “must” have a certain time and that time slot is not available – then it is NOT available. That means that you might have to choose a time for your session that contradicts other sessions you wanted to attend.

  7. Can I propose more than one session?  In my experience, people propose only one session. This allows as many others as possible to propose sessions. Technically you could, especially if it is a multi-day Open Space conference, but be sure you are allowing space for others!
  8. Logistically, what will the location for my session be like? Open Space sessions are usually in a part of a room, meaning that if you have a room that fits 100, there might be 4 sessions in that room, one in each corner. So you might have room “Summit A” (and there is a Summit B, C, and D) as well. You might arrive to theater seating or tables or to just a wide open room! Who knows! The group coming to that session might take a few minutes to arrange the area. That said, sometimes there is not a space or someone is in the space you thought you had. A few years back we had a session about Professional Coaching on the floor of the foyer at Scrum Gathering Vegas.
  9. Will I have a screen, projector or microphone available? No. You should have a flip chart, easel, markers, and post-it notes.
  10. What if someone else proposes the same or similar session? BUMMER! Seriously though, that happens. I find it usually happens after you write your topic down and are in line to propose it at the microphone. It has happened to me where the person three ahead of me in line proposed more or less the same topic I was going to propose!  I had 60 seconds to decide:
    • If I wanted to just step out of line and contribute to that session -or-
    • If I wanted to propose something else -or-
    • If I wanted to still propose my session because it was different enough

    I ended up getting to the microphone and proposing a different session, then wrote up a new topic sheet and went to find a time and location. Any option is fine. You just step out of the line, find the person with the duplicate proposal, and talk to them about the session.

  11. Do I have to also host or facilitate the session I proposed? I generally expect that if you propose a session you will introduce the topic a the session and host it. If you don’t want to facilitate or need help just ask the group who shows up for help! Remember think about it like a dinner party, specifically pot-luck dinner party (where everyone brings a dish!).
  12. Do I have to attend the session I proposed? In general, I would say yes.
    Keep the open space principles in mind when proposing open space sessions!

    Keep the open space principles in mind when proposing open space technology sessions!

    At least you should go to let people know that your plans have changed and you will not attend. Don’t pull the session from the wall, since others might want to attend and someone might not have proposed their session because you proposed one that was like theirs. Technically, you may decide it is no longer of interest to you – but remember Principle 1 and 2. I find that at least telling people you are not coming is courteous.

Decisions Decisions!

I do try to think a bit in advance about what I might want to propose. It helps me to consider how to frame the topic. I also find that many times I change the topic during the opening of the space. So you might certainly want to think about if you will propose a session and check out Hosting and Facilitating an Open Space Session in a few days – I’ll add a link then. It will provide some more details and tips around hosting and facilitating a session.

As I write this article, I have the feeling that I missed something. Part of that might just be that it is Saturday morning and I need to get on to the rest of my day and part might be that there is simply so many aspects of Open Space, that I can’t hope to cover it all. Remember to check out Harrison Owen’s site, the ‘discoverer’ of Open Space. Ideally, I provided answers to enough of the questions that those attending the upcoming events I mentioned can decide if they want to propose something.

However, if you have a question I missed or want a clarification, – PLEASE ask me in the comments. I’d be glad to answer!

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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), a Certified Scrum Trainer (CST), Certified Enterprise Coach (CEC), and Professional Certified Coach (PCC), and as a trainer and coach for Agile Companies (helping non-software organizations use agile). 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, neuroscience, psychology, facilitation, brain-based training, improvisation, 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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