As an Open Space attendee, I find myself wondering how different spaces may impact the sessions I convene or participate in. Over the last two months, I’ve attended 3 “unconference” events in different cities. One was held in a conference center, another in a sound studio, and the third in a navigation training facility. The locations provided different atmospheres. A conference center can be like a blank canvas. Sound studios are already a place for creative work to happen, and I enjoyed the jam-like vibe of sessions in the space. Noise from a session was isolated from other sessions downstairs, whereas sessions in the main room could be heard freely. Finding one’s way around a navigation training facility can be tricky, however, there are some nice gathering spots that can be found down the various hallways if you wander around a bit.
Organizers often help indicate which spaces may have tables or projectors for sessions that may want to use them; the marketplace may have icons to indicate this, or a map may be posted nearby with details. In many cases, the marketplace wall shows a grid of times and locations that leaves little (if any) room for deviations from the named locations. Organizers and facilitators take note: there might be other really cool spaces available nearby that have not been named explicitly in your grid. Leave possibility open in the marketplace for attendees to expand where sessions happen.
At a glance, the marketplace typically looks like firmly timeboxed sessions. Seeing that, my inner rebel wants to break through the perceived boundaries there. The Greeks had 2 words for time—kronos and kairos—and I long for the latter in Open Space. Let’s move away from the experience of sequential time, the time of clocks and calendars that can be quantified and measured, and choose to experience time that is creative and serendipitous. Embrace “time that is energized by the living dream of the future and presents us with unlimited possibility.” The marketplace does not have to be posted as a traditional grid:
In the past, I’ve attended sessions in a hallway, the bean bag chair area of an office, outside at a campground, at a brewery next to the facility, and at the Kurt Vonnegut museum that was within walking distance. Those conversations and experiences stand out for me as rich and engaging. I remember opting out from participating in unconference sessions that were part of a larger conference and going to the coffee shop within the conference hotel to hang out. There, I found others doing the same. We’d un-unconferenced and found ourselves together in the same space. We were then closer to the spirit that Open Space originated from: the rich conversations that happen in the hallways.
Coffee and snack areas are helpful, as well as other quieter areas for reflection. Personally, I end up being a butterfly for some period of time at many open spaces. Maybe I felt a need to hibernate (rest away from people), retreat to my own thoughts (and created a future blog post), or didn’t find a “thing” to connect to at that time (so I wandered around or read instead). I could be sitting back and taking in the energy of the room. I could be scanning for something to attract my attention further. I could be taking advantage of the location to do something really geeky like listen to my Spotify playlist while I’m at the Spotify office.
Reflecting on the influence of location and experience of time as an attendee highlights what makes Open Space special compared to other events. When we facilitate Open Space, our fundamental job is to honor the space for the people; putting care into the location, how time is modeled, and structure of the marketplace can have a significant impact on the overall experience.