On the way to Agile NYC Open 2012, even though I was prepared to be surprised (as per the ground rules of open space, pictured below), I was taken off guard by this surprise. Open Spaces are a meeting format that promote learning and engagement--using simple ground rules like "The law of two feet"--when you're not getting what you need from a particular topic, move on! Other rules help us stay present without judging: "Whatever happens is all that could have"; "Whoever comes is the right people"; "Whenever it starts is the right time" and "When it's over, it's over". Open Spaces can be used at conferences or in the office--they're dynamic and fast-paced, and at Monday's event, learning/decisions were captured during the day in a "news room" as well as reported on in a photocopied packet that attendees took home.
In the past when I've attended Open Space events, I've been a bumble bee. This means I sample one topic after another, moving like a bee buzzing from flower to flower, collecting nectar, and maybe even dusting other flowers with pollen. The surprise for me this time is I felt like being a butterfly. Butterflies don't really participate in the open spaces at all, instead they socialize at the periphery. One could argue the peripheral discussions became their own open spaces--it's just that the topic wandered and wasn't posted at the market place. Part of what makes Open Space so powerful is that there's an opportunity cost to participating in any given topic--at Agile NYC Open, there were always 5-7 topics running in parallel, as pictured below, with 1-hour session slots. This can be frustrating for attendees when there are several interesting topics--but it also means that participants tend to be only where they really want to be--and this fosters open communication, connection, and passionate discussion.
Topics at an Open Space conference can be convened by experts or novices alike. The magic is that the right people show up, and everyone learns. To propose a topic, the day begins with a quick introduction of proposed topics, posting of topic titles on the Market Place (a grid of time & location), then a round of sign-ups or dot-voting to show how many people are interested in the topic. Topics can also be proposed later in the day--it's just that these late topics aren't accompanied by a verbal introduction to the topic. Then at the appointed time, conveners show up at the Open Space they signed up for with a clipboard to record attendees' names and major insights of the discussion.
As I mentioned previously, I was a butterfly this time. I spent most of my time with fellow boot campers Frank Saucier, Dan Mezick, and Venessa Miemis. While there were plenty of topics we discussed, what I'm most excited about is a project we're working on for Agile NE Corridor... ultimately it's a way to find out who's willing to commit to producing great work, who's willing to commit to change in the workplace, and who will help us make work more fun and life-giving. We're working on ideas that anyone can implement now at work, and we'll have a strong bias toward action over theorizing and planning. Stay tuned for more, or contact me to help out!