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Open Space

What is Open Space? You can think of it as a self organising conference. People decide what they want to talk about, and when and where they will do so.

We’ve held a few at SUGSA meetings in Cape Town. But at the Orlando Scrum Gathering, I attended a full day of Open Space facilitated by Harrison Owen. It was a different experience for me, and I think I’m starting to get what this open space thing is about. Hopefully this blog post can help to spread the idea, because more open space is a good thing in my book.

The opening circle

It all starts with the opening circle. Everyone sits in a circle, so that they can see every other participant. The circle is powerful. It reminds us that we are all equal. The facilitator sets the scene and introduces the over arching theme for the open space.

The marketplace at Orlando Scrum Gathering

The Marketplace

After the opening, we get started with a marketplace. Imagine a large blank wall, a large group of people, and a facilitator with a cowboy hat and a microphone. Okay the cowboy hat is optional, but Harrison makes it look good! Anyone with a topic they want to talk about comes up to the mic, introduces themselves, and announces the topic they want to talk about. You don’t need to be an expert to raise a topic, you can raise it even if you know nothing about it but want to find out more. All you are doing is committing to convening a session about it. After announcing it, you place a piece of paper with your topic on the marketplace wall. You also grab a sticky note which gives you a time and location slot and stick that up next to your topic.

After topics have started to emerge, people can gather around the wall, to take a look at which sessions they would like to attend. If 2 sessions seem similar you could ask the conveners to combine them. If 2 different sessions are at the same time and you really want to go to both, you can ask one of the conveners to move to a later slot. This is self organisation at it’s best. In an amazingly short period of time, an agenda is decided. There are several sessions for each time slot (usually an hour each), all in different locations (although often in different corners of the same room), and people who’ve got a rough idea of which sessions they are interested.The market place is not fixed. People can add sessions throughout the day as they think of more things.

The wall of topics

The Sessions

After the market place, the sessions begin. There is no announcement or remind of what’s starting when and where. You read the wall, decide when and where you’ll be and off you go. Or you can just wander around and see what takes your fancy. The sessions are small groups, where everyone can contribute. This is not a lecture, it’s a discussion. Everyone can contribute.

The News Room

Each convener commits to ensuring their session has a scribe, and the scribe commits to taking notes of the salient points and providing them either in hand written or typed format as soon as possible after their session. All these notes are then published on a news room wall, so that the outcome of each session is transparent to all. Also all the attendees should have access to these notes when they leave.


The Principles

There are only a few principles of Open Space. They really highlight the idea of accepting the present for what it is and not wishing for anything different.

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

The law of two feet

The law of two feet is simple. If you are neither contributing nor learning in any situation, you use your two feet to walk somewhere new. It is not a reflection on the convener, the topic or the group. It’s about what’s right for you. The law of two feet gives rise to two different species which can be observed at Open Space. The Bumblebees and the Butterflies. Bumblebees move from group to group in the same timeslot, and pick up just a bit from each conversation, they might then interject something in the next group. The provide cross-pollination. Butterflies do what butterflies do best. They look beautiful. At some point you might decide you need a break, so you sit in the lobby and drink a martini with Harrison:) That’s okay too. You are being a butterfly. Butterflies mean that interesting conversations even if you aren’t in a session from the market place.

The Law of Two Feet


The closing circle

At the end everyone gathers together again for the closing. Again we used a circle so that everyone is equal. People might share a few words of how they havve experienced the event. At Orlando I was overwhelmed by the positivity that was expressed in the closing circle. It was truely moving.

That about sums it up. I hope you are now keen to participate in Open Space. If you are in South Africa, there is a full day of Open Space coming up at the South African Scrum Gathering in September.


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