Open Space Technology. If you’ve been to any agile conference, chances are you’ve encountered it: a format that allows crowd-sourcing of session topics in a conference setting. Participants can suggest topics, and attendees then pick and choose which sessions they’d like to attend. The format allows any individual the opportunity to discuss issues important to him or her, and to vote on a topic simply by moving to a new session if nothing’s being learned in a different one.
I have enjoyed this format and think it brings to light some topics that might not otherwise get illuminated. At the same time, I have been disappointed in at least half the sessions I’ve attended. Open Space can be a great format but there seems to be room to enhance it further to ensure that the time is maximized in each session. In an effort to improve this process then and to help make the best use of every participant’s time, I would offer the following suggestions, then, for an Open Space 2.0.
1. Sessions should be presented with a type label to allow attendees to know what to expect.
When someone proposes a topic in the current format, no other information is given on what you might expect when you attend. I’ve found these sessions can be broken down to the following loose categories:
Teaching - the organizer feels they have knowledge on the topic and would like to present that information to whomever is interested. There might be some level of interaction with the attendees but in general this is lecturing on the topic from the presenter to the audience.
Discussion – the organizer might have some opinions on the topic but has called the session to get feedback and to have an open discussion about the topic. There may be little to no introduction on the topic and go straight to the discussion. Attendees can expect to discuss the topic and have their voices heard on it as well.
Interest – the organizer of the session is interested in gathering like-minded individuals around a topic or event. This could be to organize a future event or gather names for future work.
Play - the organizer of this session has a very loose theme they want to focus on and the primary focus of the session is to play around that theme. This differs from discussion in that it’s less of a conversation and more of a hands-on experience.
2. Session schedules need to be built around the most popular topics.
Currently in OST, topics are placed on open slots in the conference schedule in the order in which they are suggested. This often leads to several popular topics being presented in the same time slot. I would suggest that there be some type of voting (dot voting for example) on the topics so that the most popular ones are spread out over the course of the conference schedule. This would allow the majority of attendees to attend the topics they care about most and not have to miss others simply because of bad timing.
3. Build in time to allow for coordination of the facilitation of topics with more than one interested facilitator.
In today’s OST, whoever suggests the topic runs the session. In some cases this is not an issue but when you consider that some topics could have multiple participants that have expert knowledge on the topic, it seems a shame that you could lose that experience and knowledge simply because a less qualified individual spoke up first. I would propose that after topics are suggested there would be a brief period (15-20 minutes) where any interested in facilitating the discussion meet and decide as a team how to best run the session.
Open Space Technologies has proven to be an amazing tool for organizing an event with very little preparation while surfacing topics important to the participants. A few small tweaks to the setup of the events could enhance the time spent at these sessions.
What do you think of these ideas? What suggestions would you have to improve your next Open Space Technologies experience?