Archive for February, 2007

The shortest open space how-to that could possibly work

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

A friend of a friend asked me: How do I prepare for my first open space event?.

surprised to prepared be...

Here is my zeroth draft answer to her:

Short answer: Decide what the theme for your meeting is, book a room and invite participants. Then create a context that gets everyone into creative flow, and at the start of the meeting explain the mechanics of open space. This way, your meeting is very likely to generate useful results for everyone and … be a lot of fun.

Open space is the simplest meeting format that could possibly work.

It is based on (un)common sense of what people do naturally in productive meetings.

Long answer:

A clear theme is important, as are the principles. For me the principles are the most important, I’ll explain the open space conference format ‘by the book’ after the principles. If you understand the principles and have some experience running open space, you can adapt the format to fit more situations.

Principles (from Wikipedia on Open_Space_Technology):

While the mechanics of Open Space provide a simple means to self-organize, it is the underlying principles that make it effective both for meetings and as a guidepost for individual and collectiveeffectiveness.

The Law of Two Feet — a foot of passion and a foot of responsibility — expresses the core idea of taking responsibility for what you love. In practical terms, the law says that if you’re neither contributing nor getting value where you are, use your two feet (or available form of mobility) and go somewhere where you can. It is also a reminder to stand up for your passion.

From the law flow four principles:

  • Whoever comes is the right people
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have
  • Whenever it starts is the right time
  • When it’s over, it’s over

And finally, the open space rallying cry:

prepare to be surprised

Since the meeting is supposed to be self-organising, the conveners put their energy _not in running the meeting_ but creating a setting that gets everyone’s creative energy flowing.

before-meeting preparation, on-site preparation, Opening, marketplace of ideas, break-out sessions, closing, (optional action planning session).

Before-meeting preparation:
Decide on the theme. Possibly appoint someone to be a sponsor (the person that introduces the theme of the meeting) and facilitator(s) – the people who create the context before and guide participants during the meeting. Book a suitable venue, decide on size etc. (room/rooms). Invite people. You may or may not have formal registration, sometimes having people sign up on a wiki can be enough.

Preparation on the (first) day:

Put chairs in a circle for the start of the meeting. If you have more than seven participants, make a big circle for the start and create circles of chairs elsewhere for the break-out spaces.
Break-out-spaces are where the bulk of the meeting, after the theme setting and creation of the agenda takes place.


Have bold markers and pieces of paper ready. Prepare a wall where people can post their issues for break-out-sessions. Divide the wall into a matrix of timeslots and break-out spaces.


If possible, have food and drinks on-site, so that people don’t have to wait or go elsewhere for that. This helps the attendees gel more. Also, try to have a space for your group only.


  1. Show the timeline, how the event breaks down into Opening, Marketplace of ideas, break-out-session, closing.
  2. Sponsor introduces the theme. Briefly. One or two minutes max. Long openings drain the energy of the meeting quickly. Get participants to work ASAP.
  3. Facilitators introduce the principles and the format. Explain how the marketplace of ideas works.

Marketplace of ideas:

  1. Participants write ‘issues’ on pieces of paper. Preferably with bold markers, so they are easy to read from a distance.
  2. Participants choose a timeslot for their topic on the agenda wall.
  3. One by one, participants explain their issue to the others, with the aim of drawing the right people to their break-out-session.

Break-out sessions:
Once people do not come up with new issues (wait a little bit, and ask ‘are we done?’. I find the silence that often happens at the beginning and end of the marketplace the scariest. However, this silence seems to be very productive.
You may ask people to put their name on sessions they want to attend. More than one session per slot is OK… (law of two feet :) ). This gives conveners an idea of how busy their session is going to be. It gives participants an image of how the break-out session is going.

People may shuffle sessions around, or merge sessions as they are deciding where to go.
Have a wiki where people can record outcomes of sessions, or provide paper forms for note-taking during sessions (recording who attended, a summary of the session and outcomes/questions for further work) that you
can collect into a ‘book of proceedings’.

The facilitators’ role in this bit of the conference is to answer questions, and make sure everyone has the materials they need to run their break-out session. They do not (in principle) intervene in the sessions – the participants are supposed to self-organize.

Have everyone back in the circle. A simple and effective way to close is to have the participants pass a ‘talking stick’ around, and let them (briefly, e.g. in a sentence or a word) say what they feel about the day.

Optional: action planning.
Have a bit where people can convene around flipcharts to plan actions for things that came out of the break-out sessions. This uses a mini-marketplace (since there is just one timeslot). I’m not entirely convinced this works wel, although I’ve seen it work well recently at Agile Open Northwest. Maybe more on this later.


The book Open Space Technology by Harrison Owen uses more text to explain open space. I’ve left some things out, to make this howto short – some people may feel that this is stripped beyond the bare necessities… :) Oh well, I believe this is enough to get started. I may pontificate on subtleties and my experiences later… Or I may find a way to make the how-to even shorter.

surprised, prepare to be...

Is this helpful?

More sensemaking

Friday, February 9th, 2007

I’m enjoying and making sense of Dan Russell’s posts on sensemaking:

What’s always struck me about sensemaking behavior is this: People just don’t seem to be all that good at it. They take notes on the topic, then never go over them, or lose them in the shuffle of life.

I resonate with that. I’ve learnt a couple of approaches to make sense of where I am, where the organisation is, and where it’s context is, for instance systems thinking tools such as the Cynefin model. Whenever I’m confronted with a problem, I may or may not reach for my tools. Often, I get stuck in a situation, and _then_ reach for my tools and think “why did I not think of that before…”
For instance, I’m working on a product where the self-organizing team has not been able to agree on a direction and a planning method for a while. I look at the context – it is new product development, something like whatever we are going to make does not exist. If I get the Cynefin model out of the box, we find ourselves in the “Complex” domain, where cause and effect are only coherent in retrospect and do not repeat. The appropriate approach (according to the Cynefin model) is to create a bunch of products instead of one.

So it may not be a wonder that the team can’t agree on an approach – we shouldn’t. We are not blind men looking at different sides of an elephant – we are looking at several elephants, and each may require their own approach…

Agile Open NorthWest was a blast!

Friday, February 9th, 2007

Agile Open NorthWest gave me a lot of energy. The participants were amazing, newbies and old hands alike – because everyone was actually doing stuff with it in the real world, following the theme “Agile for Real”. I got some answers on questions I had and I came out with stuff to continue working on.

This blog entry is a bit late, which is in no small part due to the fact that I’m still buzzed by this event…

I did not take many photos during the event, as I was too busy participating. I enjoyed most of the sessions I went to, and at several timeslots wished I could be in multiple places at the same time, so I could go to other sessions.

Sessions I enjoyed & gave me almost instant business value:

FunctionalTestingTools, Agile Testing with Testers, TDD for Managers (I still have to post the notes for that one… a session on how to let non-technical people experience Test Driven Development), Green Eggs and Ham, Tools/Techniques for Distributed Communication, Filling out SCRUM with XP, CoEvolutionPicnic. Two sessions I wished I could have also gone: AppreciatoriumProject, and FutureOfUnitTesting .

The action planning at the end of the event turned out to be pretty succesful. Future of Unit testing is getting its’ own workshop (hosted by Kent Beck), some people started preparing a product owners’ workshop, to collect experiences from product owners and… yet another Agile Open got initiated – a group from the San Francisco Bay Area got together to plan one :) .

This goes to show that open space can be very goal- and action-oriented, and that whatever happens in the sessions is actionable – because people do what matters most to them, just in time.

Some of the few photos.


Elizabeth Hendrickson hosting a session on educational games


Charlie Poole welcomes the participants