Open Space, what happens why does it work

The first open space that I ever lead was for the Internet Identity Workshop (IIW) in 2005. Since then I have lead many events in professional technical communities. This is a description that I typed up to explain open space and the particularities we have found work when using them in a professional technical communities and standards creation processes.

How Open Space got going in the Identity Commons Community
Well Phil and I first brought folks who were all on this mailing list the Identity Gang together at the IIW. We did so because we would meet in small groups for an hour or two at other events but never have enough time to really hear what each other was saying.

For this first meeting in October 2005 we did forma presentations for one day 45 min each for all the different ‘things’ in the “User-Centric Identity” space. Then we stuck around one more day and did Open Space. This allowed all the technical people to talk with each other about what they had just learned about the others stuff and begin working on new things together – like how it would all interoperate.

It is hard to believe that first meeting was only a year ago in October. Since then we had IIW2006 in May, and 2 day Identity Open Space after the Liberty Alliance meeting in Vancouver in July and a 3/4 day one before DIDW. We had IIW2006b in December and amazing things were happening. We had speed geeking with about 10 different demos of very early prototypes of things working together. Our goal for the next one in May is to have more robust systems truly working together.

So What Happens?
Open Space is a way to bring people who have a shared interest or who want to work together to work on something. The invitation is very important and helps frame the whole thing - Who do you want to be there and why? One way to frame this is we want to have a group representative of many organizations that have a stake in X and will gather to acomplish these deliverables.
How Does It Work?
Open Space opens up the agenda creation process so that all those gathered can put forward ideas for sessions. Because the agenda is made live in real time it is direct relevance to those gathered that day (or at least for the person calling the session).

For technical communities that are collaborating and cooperating via, IRC, Conference Calls, Wiki’s, Blog’s. and other media it is virtually impossible to figure out the topics that will be hot and need face time six months, three months or even one month prior to an event. Live agenda creations helps them make effective use of face-time during the day of conferences instead of around the edges of events programed many months ahead of time.

Even if there is committee of 1 or 3 or 10 they can’t ‘know’ all of what 50-300 people coming to an event around a topic need to talk about ahead of time. One way to address the putting forward of what might be talked about is to post it on a wiki so that people can get a sense of the topics that are of interest.

Space Needed for Open Space
There are several ways you can host space for open space one way is in a large room where you have all sessions going on around the edges. You can also have breakout rooms where different meetings happen. It is good if these can be as close together as possible. You can also do a mixture of a large room and breakouts.

Agenda Creation
You put up a blank schedule of rooms and times. When we do IIW’s we typically have 5 or 6 one hour sessions in a day with 15 min breaks and a one hour lunch.

Then the facilitator or holder of the space invites those who have something they want talk about related to the overall theme come to the the front write on an 8×11 sheet of paper the title of the topic and their name. They annouce this to the room…folks can ask questions about what the session is about and then they put in a slot on the blank schedule. This goes on for about 15-30 min and voila now you have a full schedule. Those gathered then break up and go to the sessions they want.

(If you are thinking about leading this process you need to read more about the Open Space Technology method and how to facilitate it because this description alone is not enough for you to be able to “hold the space open” – Please See Open Space World, Opening Space, and Open Space Technology a Users Guide)

What happens During Sessions?
As sessions happen it is important to document at the very least the outcomes on a wiki (The notes of what was said is even better). Photos of any whiteboards are also important along with any slides that were presented.

End of the Day – Beginning of the Next
At the end of the day everyone gathers in one place to share highlights of the day. Then the next morning everyone gathers and participates in adding to the agenda for the day with new ideas they have (some slots may have been filled with sessions in the first agenda creating session). Then repeat – those gathered go and do the sessions that interest them…documenting them and cycling back at the end of the day.

Modifications for Technical Communities – On Ramps…Next Action Circles
For technical communities it is good to have some ‘on-ramp’ time where the speakers are chosen and everyone is in the same room. This could be anywhere from one hour to a whole day. If you are seeking to accomplish particular goals or deliverables it is good to spend time any where form an hour to whole day to focus on coalescing project teams or working groups that will move forward beyond the gathering and ‘deliver.’

The Internet Identity Workshops have had some amazing reviews that have been aggregated on our wiki. 2006, 2006b.

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