Reflecting as an Attendee on Open Space Events

Photo by Mark Faviell

Photo by Mark Faviell

Attending and participating in an Open Space event is quite different from facilitating one, and I think taking notice of our experiences as attendees can help us prepare to be better facilitators.

As an Open Space attendee, I show up looking forward to connecting with others based on the ideas that we propose—ideas that hold meaning for us in that moment. My brain may be wanting to further process concepts that I’ve been reading or I may be excited to share something I’ve found useful or an idea that might serve this newly formed community may pop up for me.

Bob Galen wrote,

I have mixed feelings about Open Space events and I’m not sure why. My personal experience with them is two-fold. Either they are wonderful and powerful or they are terrible. There is sort of nothing in between.

There is skill to facilitating Open Space such that attendees can be present to one another and to themselves. Saying the Open Space principles aloud can be like an incantation that sparks magic in the room (witnessed as creativity and passion in the marketplace creation). Or it can be like a recitation of the safety procedures at the beginning of a flight—the scripted message we’ve heard before and are likely to tune out. A marketplace still comes into being, albeit less energetically, less populated, or with less innovative thinking.

The notion behind Open Space was inspired by the hallway conversations that occurred at traditional conferences. Open Space organizers do work to take care of logistics for attendees—we are informed of where and when to show up, how meals will be handled, and that might be enough. Some groups plan for ice breakers, games, or lightning talks beforehand—I imagine this is to help me feel more connected and present as an attendee than (1) letting us gather naturally at a meal or (2) jumping straight into opening the space. Defining and stating a clear goal for these pre-Open Space activities can help both the facilitator and attendees connect them to the overall event experience. Provide enough structure to the activities to create the desired outcomes of building connections between people or priming creative thinking. Asking people to mingle openly can feel awkward for introverts.

Attendees often experience a strong sense of FOMO (fear of missing out) at conferences, and Open Space is not immune. Would I feel better to hear that experience is normal? What responsibility do I need to take as an attendee to further get what I want from the event? I often forget that I can ask someone to move their session in the marketplace to accommodate my ability to attend. There’s no guarantee they’ll do it, but I will have at least tried.

Attending an Open Space event can be exciting, inspiring, confusing, or even off-putting for people. Facilitators prepare a lot beforehand and can make what they do look easy—walking around a circle a few times and reading posters. There’s much more to it than that, I assure you. Thinking about the experience I want attendees to have gives me clarity on what I need to do as a facilitator. For resources to prepare as a facilitator, check out Michael Herman’s site.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.