An Open Spaces Conference

What’s the best thing that happened at the last conference you attended? It’s very likely you’ll remember one or more “hallway conversations,” or perhaps a “Birds-Of-A-Feather” session. An Open Spaces conference creates that experience for the entire conference, by ensuring that you are always having the most interesting conversation possible. The emphasis is on discussion, instead of listening to eyes-forward presentations.

Open Spaces is a simple methodology to create a self-organizing conference. It relies on participation by people who have a passion for the topics to be discussed. There is no preplanned list of topics, only time slots and a space in the main meeting room where interested participants propose topics and pick time slots.

Open Spaces conferences have also been called Unconferences.

View a brief screencast about Open Spaces

Open Spaces have been used for conferences and as a facilitation technique for company meetings, community organizations, and other groups that wish to explore the emergent ideas and agendas of their members. I have organized a number of Open Spaces events which have been far and away the best meeting experiences I’ve ever had (I think I’d put on Open Spaces all the time if I could).

Prepare to be surprised by the depth and breadth of topics that are discussed in Open Spaces. Each Open Space experience is unique in some way. Quite often topics are raised in Open Spaces that are off the radar of the original meeting — this spontaneity is part of the benefit.

Some people have found this concept to be intimidating. In particular, questions like the following may arise:

  • Can I contribute anything of value?
  • Do I need to come with some kind of prepared presentation?

It doesn’t matter if you contribute a little or a lot. And you’ll probably discover that you know things that others do not. Everyone has something to give, whether they know it or not — even if it’s the “beginner’s mind” that asks the right questions.

One of the greatest things about an Open Space is that it’s spontaneous. It’s not about traditional “eyes-forward” presentations, so if you go to the trouble of creating a formal presentation, it’s likely it won’t get used. On the other hand, if you are familiar with some technology that others might like to learn about, we might end up asking you to show us. But not in a formal way. So all you really need to bring is your brain.

Open Spaces Guidelines

Open Spaces is a small set of guidelines that allow groups of people to interact and connect in a simple, productive, organized way, creating valuable dialogs that address the participants’ most important issues.

The fundamental guidelines of the sessions that happen during Open Spaces conferences are:

  • Whoever shows up is the right group.
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
  • Whenever it starts is the right time.
  • When it’s over, it’s over.

The Law of Two Feet

If you feel you are not contributing or benefiting from a presentation, please feel free to move on to something else:

  • Move to another open spaces session.
  • Start a conversation with someone.
  • Go to one of the nearby coffee places; often there are other attendees there in spontaneous conversation.
  • Post notes from a session. There are folks who couldn’t make it who would love to know what’s happening.
  • Take a walk, or a nap.

In an Open Spaces conference it is decidedly not rude to get up and leave (although it might take awhile for you to get used to doing it). On the contrary, if you are in a session and disengaged, you are sucking energy out of the room — in that case you’re actually helping by using the law of two feet.

To Lead an Open Spaces Discussion

  • Come up with an interesting topic and title for your discussion.
    You don’t need to be knowledgeable on the topic, just interested in having a discussion about it.
    Most of the ideas will come to you during the event so you don’t need to think of them ahead of time.

  • Fill out a Post-It for your topic. Put your name on it so people know who to talk to about it.

  • Place the topic on the schedule.

  • If you see topics that have something in common, consider combining them into a single time slot by talking to the convener of the other topic(s).

  • If a significant number of people want to attend both your discussion and another discussion in the same time slot, try to trade into another time slot to ensure maximum dialog and participation.

To Attend an Open Spaces Discussion

  • Check the board and just show up. It’s OK to drop in once the discussion starts.

  • Use the Law of two feet if the session isn’t doing it for you.

  • Allow the discussion convener to steer the topic.
    If you have a different perspective that needs a full time slot, feel free to add your own Open Space slot to discuss the topic.

Invert Your Participation Mode

Open Spaces are about participation. Your natural mode might be to participate, or it might be to sit back and listen. Regardless of your natural mode, you will benefit hugely if you make an effort to invert it.

If You Naturally Participate

As someone who often presents to groups, I find it easy to slip into lecturing mode. I resist this impulse, because that’s not what Open Spaces are about. General things to remember:

  • This is a discussion, and you learn more in an Open Space from listening than by talking (You have two ears, but only one mouth).

  • If you’re used to lecturing, pretend you’re in the audience.

  • Let go and let it happen. It will.

  • Try not to control the conversation (if you’re the convener of the session, “steering” is OK).

  • When you do speak, know your audience and don’t talk down to them. If people need clarification, they will ask for it.

  • Just say it; try not to use the entertaining embellishments (like those you might for public speaking). The other participants are smart enough to get it unadorned.

  • If you find yourself writing notes or flipcharts beforehand, step back and take a breath. You’re probably preparing a lecture. You’ll learn that it’s far more interesting to let the conversation unfold on its own.

  • If you absolutely must give an introduction, make it no longer than 5 minutes, and note it on the session announcement so that people can choose not to come until the discussion starts. If it’s longer than 5 minutes, this probably isn’t the right forum.

If you’re in a session and a lecturer needs help stopping, raise your hand and say “I’d like to hear what everyone else has to say about this.”

If You Naturally Sit Back and Listen

  • Try to participate, even if you think you don’t have anything to contribute. People are often surprised to discover they know something that others want to understand.

  • Ask questions if someone talks about a topic you don’t understand. This conference is about information sharing. People are not intentionally trying to be obtuse if they use an acronym or talk about a topic as if everyone knows it. Not only will you learn the most if you say “I don’t know what that is,” you’ll often find that others don’t know either and will appreciate you asking the question. The person who brought up the topic will be glad to explain it — we’re not in a hurry to get through some arbitrary amount of information.