Open Space Technology: Introduction

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Introduction

Last fall I facilitated an Open Space track at our Tyson Development Conference.  The Tyson Development Conference is a 1-2 day internal conference for Tyson Team Members held at our Springdale Corporate offices.  We had over 50 sessions and 200+ attendees.  This was the first conference of it kind at our company and I wanted to take the opportunity to introduce Open Space Technology to our organization.  To get start getting everyone excited about the Open Space Technology I did a series of short articles for our newsletter, I have decided to take that series and post it as a series of blog post with some added commentary and understanding that I have gained since then.  This is the first in the series enjoy!

Other Post in this series:

  1. Open Space Technology: Introduction
  2. Open Space Technology: Opening Circle
  3. Open Space Technology: Sessions, where the sharing happens 

A Little History

In 1985 Harrison Owen, the creator of Open Space Technology, spent a year organizing a huge visioning conference for his then employer. Comments he received from attendees surprised him. Their favorite parts of the conference were the side conversations, the ones that happened between or after the sessions. Harrison set out to find a way to have a conference that embodied the essence of the between session discussions. Thus, Open Space Technology was born. Open Space Technology is at its core, the essence of the conversation at the water cooler.

Open Spaces are self organized by the attendees. Everything from the who participates, what is discussed, when it starts and when it is over is controlled by the participants.

I had the chance to experience an Open Spaces at the devLink this year. DevLink is a community based 3 day developer conference which also had an Open Space track. I participated in the Opening and Closing Circles as well as some of the sessions. This was a great experience and felt very organic; I felt that it was ok to sit and listen or to contribute to the discussion.

The 4 Principles

These are like the pirates code from Pirates of the Caribbean, more a set of guidelines rather than hard fast rules that must be obeyed.

Principle 1: Whoever comes are the right people

The belief is that if you singed up to participate in a session you are going to get something out of it, either by being part of the discussion or listening. Many times when I explain this I hear, “Yeah, but then only the really passionate people will show up”. To which I reply, “Yes, that is the point”, it is expected that the people passionate about the topic would be interested in discussing it, therefore they are the right people.

Principle 2: Whatever happens is the only thing that could have

There are no foregone conclusions in these sessions. In a typical presenter lead session, the presenter stands at the front and goes through his practiced presentation. Yes, there is some input from the attendees but to the presenter the eventual outcome is known. In an Open Space session the participants are in control of where the discussion goes. As long as it is related to the topic, it is fair game and whatever happens is the only thing that could have.

Principle 3: Whenever it starts is the right time

Ok, so this one sounds a little silly, right? I mean you said there were time slots on the agenda board to there is a time to start, right? Well yes, but remember that part about the participants being in control, if they want to delay 30 minutes to start, they can. Just as long as they are ready to conclude or move their session to another location when the next session is ready to start.

Principle 4: When it is over, it’s over

Yes, in the last principle I said move the discussion. There is no reason to stop a really good discussion just because the clock on the wall said to. Just because time is up does not mean the discussion is stale, if it isn’t over, participants will be asked to move it to a different location so they can continue. It is that simple.

The 1 Law

The 1 Law: The Law of Two Feet

The law of two feet gives participants the right to vote with their two feet and is worded as follows.

If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet. Go to some other place where you may learn and contribute.

Summary

I have found that there is a very organic, liberating feeling of an Open Space event.  How many times to you go to conferences and spend the whole week experience only a few sessions that resonate with you or provide a deep passionate experience.  Every Open Space I have attended has had this feeling at the core of every session.  Why?  Because it is the attendees who decide what the content will be for the give subject, they are part of the conversation, the speakers, the scribe, the reason the event exist.

In the next post we will look at how this self-organized event get, well gets organized as we discuss what goes on during the Opening Circle.

Resources
Open Space Technology on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Space_Technology
Open Space World: http://www.openspaceworld.org/

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