Wednesday, February 7, 2007

A better way for conferences

Ever heard of Open Space? If you haven't heard about it and experienced it, you will never think of a conference the same way again. I had the pleasure to attend a 2-day conference here in Portland for Agile Open Northwest.

Here's how it works, according to Wikipedia:

In Open Space, a facilitator explains the process and then participants are invited to co-create the agenda and host their own discussion groups. Discussions are held in designated areas or separate rooms known as 'breakout spaces' and participants are free to move amongst the discussion groups. Each group records the conversations in a form which can be used to distribute or broadcast the proceedings of the meeting (in hard copy, blog, podcast, video, etc). Online networking can occur both before and following the actual face-to-face meetings so discussions can continue seamlessly. In a multi-day Open Space, participants have the opportunity to announce new discussion topics / late-breaking sessions each new morning. At the end of the day (or 2 days or 2.5 days) the full group reconvenes for comments and reflection. This helps participants to re-engage in the full group over the duration of the meeting.

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 collective effectiveness. 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

The organizing theme of an Open Space meeting is that people who care about the subject will come together. The initial meeting notice takes the form of an invitation, thus the people who have attended have chosen to be there and are willing to contribute. The objectives for the meeting and the time available affect design decisions such as whether action planning is included in the Open Space or not.

What did I like about it?

1) The content was tailored to the audience. Nobody selling their services or products that people may not care about. Topics were relevant to the desires of the people attending. Otherwise, nobody attended!

2) Many different perspectives were represented. I had expected that it may be more developer-centric, but there were several sessions for customers, product owners, testers and other roles. People attending also came from all of those perspectives.

3) Great respect for everybody in each session. I truly expected hidden agenda, egos, holy wars, and other things to dominant discussions. Never happened! Differences of opinions were just that - differences! No question was stupid, no perspective was invalid.

4) You could decide how much you wanted to participate. There were many that didn't say a word (or not much). Others felt very comfortable from the beginning. Some got more comfortable (like me) after some time had passed. Sometimes the experts talked. Sometimes they listened. It was very comfortable.

5) Tremendous sense of energy and community. I really can't describe it, but I never felt there was a slow time. Lots of things happening. You could feel the energy. I felt at the end a sort of sadness that the two days were ending. In most other conferences, I couldn't wait for it to end!

What could have been improved?

1) Some of the meeting rooms had more that one session in it and one of the them was also the gathering place for people between sessions. This made it very difficult to focus at times. Felt like we were on a party line competing with each other to talk. It would have been better to have one session per room and the general communal place to be located away from sessions.

2) Some of the sessions I felt that we talked problems but little solutions. Perhaps it was to be that way so that we could all go back to the real world and come up with solutions. Not sure I expected all of the problems solved but was a little frustrated because of that.

3) I didn't take any notes because all notes were to be gathered by each of the session "hosts" and placed on a common wiki for everybody to access. Unfortunately, some of the sessions never made it to the wiki or didn't have complete information. I would have filled in the blanks, but didn't take notes to focus on the conversation. This might have been just this conference as I have seen notes from other ones that seemed more complete.

If you have a chance to go to a conference or seminar that is set up this way, I highly recommend it. Don't come with too many expectations. Be open to anything happening. And hopefully my experience will encourage you to go. You will find those conferences to be the best you have attended. You will also wonder why you ever did conferences a different way. Lastly, you will probably never go to a typical conference again!


Wes said...


How did you describe your role there? Customer? Manager? Other?


Skip Angel said...


My functional role here is both Agile coach and functional manager. As manager, my focus was more on the people side of life. As coach, I was really learning all aspects of Agile - roles, people, projects, processes, etc.

There were others in the same boat as me, but most people came from a particular area - most seemed to come from a developer, QA or tester type of role.

Hope this helps,