Open Space Conferences Aren’t

Two years ago, I wrote the following blog post discussing my general dislike for the Open Space conferences I’ve attended. While I attempted to convey a logical reason for my feelingsand how I propose a remedythe post sat in my drafts list for concern of upsetting folks, or generally coming off as an incoherent rant.

Recently, I’ve observed a few folks I admire state concern over the prevailing use of Open Space, as well. This has given me courage to add my voice to the mix, as I believe Open Space conferences really aren’t.

I don’t remember the year I first attended an Open Space conference, however the event was a local gathering of approximately 100 people in the Southern California area. I want to say it was around 2012 and the format was new to me at the time: we were to gather—apparently under some notion of open participation—and self-organize the conference program together. Anyone could convene a session and attendees were permitted to migrate from room to room as they desired. The idea sounded interesting and I had heard good things about Open Space, so I joined a group of friends and dove in.

After two days, I was convinced this conference format built on “whatever happens is the only thing that could” was the way forward. Unlike my prior years’ experience with standard speaker-driven conference programs, I felt satisfied with nearly every experience I wished to have: just the right amount of listening to knowledge, sharing my thoughts with others, and networking felt far more intimate and rewarding. I resolved to attend the conference every year and expand my adventures to other Open Space gatherings emerging across North America. My first Open Space conference was a golden experience and I “filled my tank” of energy for work, people, and personal projects.

Somewhere along the way (and in quite a short period of time) something changed. As I increased my attendance of Open Space events, my reflections on each event became rapidly plain and uneventful. Where I once marveled at ideas that expanded my thoughts about software organizations, I found myself settling for feeling happy to see old friends. The notes I would scribble down and pictures snapped on my phone began to dwindle. Worse, I found myself in opt-out mode for entire blocks of Open Space, choosing instead to chit-chat with friends and fellows (time that, while valuable, didn’t realistically require money spent on a conference registration).

After an Open Space conference in 2016, it finally happened: as the two-day period concluded, I had taken no notes, snapped no interesting pictures (other than social/casual shots), and I felt burdened (expected?) to convene rather than excited to explore. The conference had a strange anti-social feel in the air and I heard negativity and dissatisfaction from people who typically energized me. As I flew home, I reflected on the experience and decided the time had come to put Open Space on indefinite leave until I had better understanding of why I felt so dissatisfied.

Since the conference in 2016, I have continued my hiatus and discussed Open Space at length with a wide variety of friends and colleagues, reflecting on their experiences to better comprehend mine. In compiling our thoughts, the following patterns have emerged:

  • An overabundance of novice, or misguided topics (e.g., “How to standardize story points across teams” was a session shared by three different conferences in the same year).

Note: I’m aware this could be perceived as elitist and I do not intend to be critical of those learning or new to agile principles… I’m simply stating an observed pattern.

  • The diminishing returns of familiar, over-discussed sessions. While I greatly value the knowledge acquired through topics like #NoEstimates and Mob Programming, they are also certain to appear in the marketplace.
  • Convening sessions often takes the form of “sage on a stage.” When I walk into an Open Space session and see PowerPoint slides with someone standing at front (i.e, a classroom), I turn around and exit.
  • Sales pitches on the marketplace. Examples from memory such as, “What’s new with SAFe 4.0?”, are outright theft of marketplace capacity.
  • The absence of a compelling theme or problem to solve that creates a sense of urgency for people to come together and explore a solution.

And, with this last pattern, the deterioration of agile Open Space events becomes clear. In random order, the organizing “theme” of the five most recent Open Space events I attended (or observed) were:

  1. Just in time.
  2. None. Literally no theme for the Open Space.
  3. Cultivating agile.
  4. The power of agile.
  5. Agile longevity.

With all due respect to the conference organizers—and I truly mean no ill intent—these are generic, uninspiring (or completely missing!) themes. They are so open-ended and vague, nearly any session proposal could fit under the guise of “problem solving.” It’s very possible I’m difficult to please, however I don’t find themes like those listed compelling or igniting my imagination.

If you attended an agile Open Space event recently, I’d like you to consider the organizing theme which brought you together with those who attended. Was this question or story to explore the rallying cry which inspired you to attend? Are you able to recall the “problem” for Open Space to untangle? I suspect the answer for most of you will be, “no.” Taking a step further, did the marketplace ultimately center on this theme? Or was the program a mashup of unrelated, off-topic sessions? If so—and I strongly suspect the clear majority of you will answer in favor of the “anything goes” marketplace—did anyone care?

I’ve concluded this is the systemic failure of our Open Space organizers and those that often attend: a disregard for the very principles that fuel the creative power of Open Space Technology. Rather than joining together for collective collaboration and focused problem solving (or experimentation), our emphasis appears to be about conference popularity, sponsorship money, networking and social perception. Year over year, I watch Open Space events grow in size (and sponsorship), rewarding participants with swag-bags, tech demos, and ensuring a well-known figurehead opens the conference. With an emphasis on creating validity (of perception) and meeting registration goals, rather than emphasizing why people will come together, “the only thing that happens is the only thing that could”: an inconsistent experience devoid of meaningful structure, goals, and purpose.

To the best that I’m able to decipher the patterns of my experiences (and others that I’ve discussed this topic in detail with), the widespread use of Open Space Technology as a conference format for agile tends to regularly produce the following outcomes:

  • An engaging experience for first-time participants, who find the unfamiliar structure interesting and different.
  • A satisfying experience for people who seek a sense of being the expert, as they convene a session and spend most of the time talking.
  • A highly informative experience for people curious about agile in general, or very new to its associated practices.
  • An enjoyable, relaxing experience for people who wish to network, see friends and fellows, and share conversations.

Unfortunately, for me in particular, the list above also includes a disappointing experience for someone looking to use the collective knowledge of “we” to cut into real challenges in our organizations.

I’ve heard the retort to my complaint many times: “So, convene the session you want/need!” and “be prepared to be surprised!”

These are reasonable responses and I have a hard time ignoring the systemic error, though: “whoever comes are the right people” is effective when the gathering body shares a common purpose. Without the knowledge the open space has gathered with urgency to explore solutions, can I really believe in the principle of “the right people?”

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3 thoughts on “Open Space Conferences Aren’t

  1. jasonlittle April 15, 2019 / 4:41 pm

    For me, the first open space I went to was soooo good (they had an experienced facilitator who was trained in OS) that future events lost their shininess after a period of time. Most of these events have become selling festivals or places where people try to one-up each other. This is why I started Spark the Change in Toronto. No sponsors, no selling, just a a small-ish (100 ppl) group of change agents from all disciplines talking about how to be awesome.

    I don’t think is OS in general, I think it’s a natural evolution of being in the ‘late majority’ phase of agile.

    Like

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