An Open Spaces Conference

What’s the best thing that happened at the last conference you attended? It’s very likely that 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 for self-organizing conference tracks. 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.

View a brief screencast about Open Spaces

(Open Spaces conferences have also been called “Unconferences.” Here’s a Business Week Article).

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 be surprised that you may know something that others may 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 such a thing, 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.

How Open Spaces Works

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

The Fundamental “Rules” 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.

To lead an Open Spaces Talk

  • Come up with an interesting topic and title for your discussion.
    • You don’t need to develop these before the conference; most of the ideas will come to you during the event.
  • Fill out a schedule Post-It for your topic.
  • Place the topic on the schedule.
  • If you see topics that have something in common, consider combining them into a single time slot.
  • If a significant number of people want to attend 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 Talk

  • Check the schedule and sign up for a talk or just drop in if you wish.
  • Use the ‘Law of two feet.’ If you feel that you are not contributing or benefiting from a presentation, please feel free to move on to something else.
  • Allow the discussion convener to steer his or her topic. If you have an opposing opinion that needs a full time slot you should feel free to add your own Open Space slot to discuss the topic.

A Note to Lecturers

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.
  • 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’ve convened the session, “steering” is OK).
  • When you do talk, 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 that you do for public speaking. Attendees 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.
  • 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.”