A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to facilitate Open Spaces for three different guild conferences. I’ve hosted Open Spaces several times before but this intense week added enough to my personal data that I feel it deserves a blog post that might help future unconference organizers make some important decisions. Other people have written extensively about the entire Opens Space concept so I will just go straight into some observations of mine that might add to or strengthen some concepts.
The beauty of Open Space unconferences is that the process always seem to work and they’re truly self organizing events where the role of the facilitator is as simple as it gets. But, a prerequisite for the this beautiful self organization to happen is that it gets a carefully designed container to flourish in. Carefully designed physically as well as psychologically since we need to be comfortable in both dimensions in order to be at our best.
Two levels of Open Space
There seems to be a scale of possible outcomes from Open Space unconferences but I’ll simplify and name the two end points of that scale that I’ve observed. Shallow Open Space and Deep Open Space.
Depending on how we tend to the details and ceremony around the Open Space, attendees will submerge, open up and share to different degrees. Depending on our expectations all different degrees might be useful but the true strength of an Open Space is something we reach when people feel an absolute safety in the group and don’t feel a need to hold back on anything in the sessions.
If we just provide some basic physical settings; a wall with time/room slots and matching discussion areas, we will most likely get some people to suggest topics and the topics will be discussed in some basic way, The Shallow Open Space. Deep conversations can be sparked spontaneously of course but we’re not doing much to helping this happen. These sessions usually become presentations by one person complemented with a few questions rather than as true dialogues or discussions where everyone participates with insights. When we put even more attention to the physical settings and also pay attention to psychological safety, we are more likely to get to sessions that really matter and where everyone can add dimensions and insights to the discussions, The Deep Open Space. Depending on the preconditions we give, the results will vary on a scale between these two end points.
Providing Physical and Psychological Settings
Since Open Spaces almost always give positive results through self organization, they can look deceptively easy to set up. And they are quite easy to set up but there is some structure to it that is easy to miss as an observer.
The Power of the Circle
Circles are a recurring theme in Open Spaces and that’s because they are powerful. When we’re standing or sitting in a circle, everyone can see everyone else and we become included and connected to each other. We are all equal parts of the same group and on the same terms. This is why it’s so important that we can stand in a large circle around the market place during the opening ceremony of the open space. This is the time when we set the spirit of this gathering and we want everyone to be seen and to feel seen so that we understand that each and every one is a contributor and that we are all responsible for the outcome.
If we put the facilitator up on a stage, everyone will see one person that is responsible for this and then the backs of everyone else. It becomes easy for us to hide and abdicate responsibility. If noone sees me I can just listen in on a couple of talks and then go back to my ordinary job at my desk.
Make sure that everyone can gather in a big circle around the market place and begin by having the facilitator slowly walk around the inside of the circle acknowledging the presence of every single person in the room. When this happens, not only will the person be seen by the facilitator but also by everyone else in the room. This is to let us know that we are all equally important and equally responsible for what is going to happen. People will also realize that this is something different, this will not just be your any ordinary conference, today we will create something new.
Good Things Take Time
Under some conditions, some people perform better with tight deadlines. However, Open Space is not the context where we should be frugal with time. Open Spaces are not our everyday setting and for participants to get comfortable with the format and with each other we will have to provide the essential ingredient of time. Two of the guiding principles for Open Space are “Whenever it starts is the right time” and “Whenever it’s over, it’s over”. Taking these to heart means that we should focus on what’s important and not on the clock. Problems aren’t necessarily solved in 45 minute time slots (or whatever length is being used), creativity doesn’t start on the count of three and a difficult discussion might need to extend beyond the time allotted. In order to embrace these principles fully, an Open Space needs slack in the schedule.
Setting a tight schedule for the opening session will only allow for the most obvious topics to enter the matrix and instead of setting the spirit of common ownership we throw people into just another meeting without an agenda.
Not allowing for some time in between sessions might force people to interrupt mid sentence and almost certainly make all sessions start later than planned since people might have to switch rooms and perhaps take another look at the schedule.
Allow a generous amount of time for the opening ceremony. This is after all where we set the spirit of the entire Open Space. Getting a proper understanding of what is expected from everyone is essential and for that to happen, we need to allow for some ceremony that might look a bit corny but really fills a purpose of transitioning the participants from their ordinary routines to a new setting where they will merge some their own great ideas with those of their peers.
Allow for slack in between sessions. If a participants of a session is in the middle of an interesting dialogue we want to give them the chance to find a proper time for a pause before moving to another area where they can finish what they started even if it wasn’t scheduled in the planning session. This will also let participants for the next session move from their previous settings, take a bathroom break or perhaps fetch a cup of coffee. Every new session will also be a context switch and if we want the participants to be present we must also give them the possibility to center themselves for the new context.
Open Space means Open Space
Venues and meeting rooms are very often designed with aesthetics and not Open Spaces in mind. You will find furniture that is fixed to the walls or floors, walls or windows where you can’t put things up and pillars that block our view standing in the middle of the rooms. The ultimate setting for an Open Space is an open space. A large open area that we can use as a canvas for our ideas and where we can create our circle without any physical boundaries between the people in the circle.
Participants get to sit around a table. People will have to step out of the circle if they want to draw or write something on a whiteboard or flipchart and some people will have to turn their backs to the others in order to see what is happening.
The breakout room for the session is open so we can recreate the circle from the opening ceremony but in this smaller context. People will sit comfortably in a new powerful circle where not just the person who suggested the topic is expected to contribute but actually everyone in the room is bringing something to the (non-existent) table. When someone speaks it’s easy for everyone else to see and hear this person, except for the person sitting just next to him/her but then the physical closeness compensates.
Provide even More Space
One of the trademarks of Open Space is that they aren’t predictable. We don’t know who’s going to join a session, we don’t know what the outcome will be and we don’t know when the outcome will happen. In order to facilitate for this uncertainty we need to provide slack in all dimensions, not only timewise.
The unconference is being held in a setting where the entire available area is being used for the planned sessions and as soon as a session time end, the discussion dies. When we cut discussions mid sentence it often means that we never got to the point where action steps are being decided.
We will also need to provide the extra space where discussions can continue if people need to give up a breakout area to the next planned session. It doesn’t have to be fancy meeting rooms but there should be some room for spontaneous discussions to happen outside of the schedule as well.
Open Space can be done with groups ranging in size from 5 to 2000 people but creating the safety needed to reach Deep Open Space will be harder and take longer time the larger the group. Depending on expectations we might be fine with not having everyone feel safe enough to share everything in the sessions but don’t expect the same level of participation and sharing in a larger group unless we spend heavily on making everyone feel psychologically safe. This is not something that happens in a quick opening ceremony. I will not provide an anti pattern here because there are not right or wrongs, but be sure to match expectations to the environment that’s been created.
Depending on the size of the unconference, how well participants share the same values and how well people know each other beforehand, it can be good to adjust the length of the sessions. For people who are comfortable with each other to begin with and where psychological safety isn’t an issue, shorter sessions lengths might be useful since we can go into a deep conversation quite fast. For unconferences where participants don’t necessarily feel comfortable with each other from the onset, we probably want to schedule longer sessions to allow for a slower start.
Trust Self Organization
Facilitators and organizers might itch to help out with the facilitation and poke at the sessions when things aren’t looking as good as one could wish. But if we’ve done a good job during the opening ceremony in explaining the principles of Open Space and especially the “Law of Two Feet”, then behaviours will self regulate. When people feel that a session is not providing them the value that they hoped for, perhaps because airtime isn’t distributed in a fair way, they will leave the session and go somewhere else where they get the right value. If participants see that people are leaving the session, they will realize that some behaviour needs to be adjusted.
Sharing Outside the Sessions
If there’s an expectation on sharing what’s been happening in the sessions with the rest of the world, this will come with a toll on the psychological safety in the group and we can expect participants to be holding back more. Maximum safety will only happen if everyone trusts that the sessions obey to Vegas rules; “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”. This is not because the sessions will be scandalous or contain secret discussions, rather that people can’t feel as safe in sharing if their ideas and experiences get a life outside of the context and outside of their control.
Once again, there is no right or wrong here but we can’t expect the same level of sharing and learning to come out of a session where the notes will be published to everyone afterwards as from a session where all attendees know each other and trust that what was said in the room will stay in the room.
There will always be trade-offs when setting up an Open Space and it’s good to be aware of what’s being traded away when we cut back on time and/or physical space. Not every Open Space needs to be a place where the participants feel that they can share their innermost feelings but neither do we want our Open Space to become just another agenda-less meeting or a bunch of presentations. So when planning your next Open Space, decide in advance on what depth you want it to reach and design the circumstances that will allow for it to happen.