This is a transcript of episode 295 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick, Douglas Squirrel.

Get a behind-the-scenes look at Open Space in action from CITCON organiser, our own Jeffrey Fredrick.

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Listen to the episode on SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts.

Open Spaces Methodology - Opening

Listen to this section at 00:14

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi, Squirrel.

Squirrel: So last week we got into the topic of CITCON, a conference that you have run and I have attended for… I think it’s getting on toward 20 years now, which seems astonishing. And we talked about how it was a free conference with people from all different parts of the organization. So not just developers, but testers and all kinds of people who use the software and how they talk about improvements to software growing way beyond what it originally was, which is a continuous integration conference about a particular tool, but it’s grown way beyond that. And one of the key things we talked about was this very interesting notion of an open space or an unconference which had allowed the conference to grow and evolve in this very organic, surprising way because it could easily have died five years in when continuous integration became standard. But it didn’t. And we left listeners hanging and we said, “Oh, there’s this wonderful way of running a conference and we’ll tell you about it next week.” Well, it’s next week. So, Jeffrey, if listeners come to CITCON or any other Open Spaces type conference, what will they experience? What’s different? Because there’s no keynote speakers, there’s no sponsored content. And the other sorts of things that you get at a conference and workshops and so on. So what do you do?

Jeffrey: Well, I’m going to cover two elements here. And there’s first of all, there’s the mechanics. And I think the mechanics can vary a bit from instance to instance because I’ve seen open spaces and there’s various conferences that do something similar. So I think Socrates conference, for example, has this, and I know DevOps Days would have an open space section, not a whole day, but part of what they do. And I’ve attended other open space conferences by other people that were in totally different domains. So the mechanics can vary a bit, but there’s a common spirit. And so I’ll talk about both.

Jeffrey: The way that we run it mechanically - and remember our context here is that we’re doing this agenda creation on Friday night - is we will first of all, we have everyone introduce themselves to each other. And usually it’s something very simple like my name is X, I do Y as my role and I’m most excited to talk about Z.

Squirrel: And when Jeffrey says everyone, he means everyone. Remember, we’re capping the number of participants at 150. If people know about Dunbar’s number, might know where that comes from, but there might be 110 or so who actually turn up, and every single one of them makes that statement. So it’s very different from a 2000 person conference where it’s just the luck of the draw. Whether you meet somebody interesting in the hallway, everyone gets to hear everyone else talk about not only who they are, but the next part that Jeffrey’s going to describe what they’re interested in.

Jeffrey: Yeah. And that. And that and that. Just that little bit. This is not a proposal. You’re not proposing what to talk about. You’re just saying in general, I’m most excited on this topic.

Squirrel: Oh yeah, exactly. But there’s the next stage. So I was, I was jumping ahead because I’m excited. Keep going.

Jeffrey: But but I think your point here that you’re emphasizing is a really key element, which is that you now have a name to go with the face and a little bit of information. And as you go through the 50, 70, 80, 100 people, a few names probably come out to you right away like, oh, that person is interested in what I’m in! Oh, I want to talk to that person about this! And you already have thoughts about conversations you want to have maybe over drinks or over lunch.

Squirrel: The names never stuck in my head, Jeffrey. That never worked. And I don’t think we ever did-.

Jeffrey: But the face!

Squirrel: -Exactly. The guy in the blue shirt, the woman in the bright yellow dress. That’s what I remembered.

Open Spaces Methodology - Agenda Creation

Listen to this section at 04:06

Jeffrey: Exactly. And then, you know, to go up and talk to those people. But then we get to the actual agenda creation part. And the way we do it is basically we have a bunch of Post-it notes and a grid, which is our our available slot, time slots, and sort of like, we’re going to end up filling this grid with topics, but we don’t know what they’re going to be yet. So what we want you to do is come up and propose a topic. And there’ll be a bunch of people get up and who know what they’re doing and they’ll start, they’ll go up and write down their session topic. And then one at a time, people come up and say, you know, “Reminder, my name is X and I want to, I’m here, I want to run a session on…” And they describe what they want to do. And it could be something like, “I want to share the experience we had of doing this. It’s been fantastic for us and we think other people could benefit.” Or someone might say, “I want to talk about this. We have this problem and we don’t know how to solve it. So when you come into this session, I’m hoping to bring your ideas. I’d love if you have already solved this to come bring me a solution. But just so you know, when you come, I don’t know the answer.” And then after people introduce their topic, there might be a question from the audience to clarify. And the post-it note with their idea goes on the board and it comes up time for the next person and the next person, the next person. And this continues until no one else gets up. So-

Squirrel: And I think it’s fair to say the vast majority of participants propose something. Some people don’t. And that’s absolutely fine. But most people propose some kind of session.

Jeffrey: Yeah, I would say at least half and up to two thirds.

Squirrel: And many propose multiples.

Jeffrey: That’s right. Exactly. And so what this means is we typically have five rooms and five time slots, so 25 possible agenda items, but we’ll end up with 45 or 60 topic proposals. And by the time that we’re done, we have all these on board. And again, if the spirit doesn’t move you and you don’t have a particular topic or someone else proposed the topic you’re interested in, you’re not required to do anything.

Jeffrey: And now we get up and that’s after all the topics are done, then we have voting and basically people go up to the board now, which has all these Post-it notes on it, and they add a tally mark, which is to say just a vertical line on all of the topics they’re interested in. So the the rules are simple. You can vote as many times as you want, but only once per topic. So if you wanted to, you could go and put your mark on every single card, but that would be like doing nothing. So people don’t really do that. But you go through and just tally the ones that you want. And then once that’s done, we now have, you know, 60 cards with a whole range of votes on it. Then people and by people I mean all the attendees can start arranging the agenda by taking the cards with the top votes and putting them on the agenda in the rooms at the time slots. And anyone can come up and rearrange the cards at any time.

Squirrel: And you can combine cards in one room, for example. So you could say, Oh, that topic sounds like my topic.

Jeffrey: That’s right. And you usually say if you’re going to combine cards, talk to the other, you know, the people whose topics they are. And that’s very common is that people will say like, “Hey, aren’t these two the same?” And the two people oppose the topic say, “Oh yeah, yeah, exactly. I’m happy to talk about those two things together.”

Squirrel: Yeah, I never knew about that rule. I just move them myself. So maybe I’m just more of an anarchist.

Jeffrey: It could be. And the word anarchy is a good one here because there’s not restrictions on people. And yet what comes out is kind of an emergent property that there’s an agenda that kind of works for everyone. I mean it won’t work for for everyone. And there can be kind of like wiki edit wars where people are moving between two agendas, but usually people will find a way to settle that. And and there you go. And now we have an agenda which, and the thing here is the organizers didn’t create, it was created by the attendees.

Open Spaces Methodology - The Law of Two Feet

Listen to this section at 07:57

Jeffrey: And then there you go, now you have it laid out and people now then go through and go to their topics. And they’re in each room and the number of people in each room will vary dramatically. The most popular topics might have 20, 30, 40, 50, half the conference in it, and at the same time slot you’ll have other sessions and you might have just 2 or 3 people in a room. But you know what? Those sessions can sometimes be the most memorable and the most fun because if there’s only three people at this conference who care about this particular niche topic and they can find each other and have a dedicated hour, well, man, they’re so excited.

Squirrel: And they didn’t have to rely on just running into each other in the hallway or happening to be sitting next to each other at somebody else’s talk.

Jeffrey: That’s right. And so it’s really comes together. And and we go through the different sessions. People are going from topic to topic, always choosing the one that they most care about. And if none of them really speak to you, then you then you just go to the hallway track and find other people who weren’t particularly excited by any ones at that time. And that’s that’s fine.

Jeffrey: And at the end we do a closing session and have people share their Aha! Moments. And that’s always what’s so exciting for me is to hear how excited people are, what their takeaways are, and it can be really surprising. Again, you can be in a session and what one person gets and another person gets are entirely different. And so those are kind of the mechanics.

Jeffrey: But I want to come back here kind of the the fundamental rules about open space. And there’s four of them, which is whoever shows up is the right group, you know. So when you’re in the room, the people who are there? Like, those are the right people. The second rule is whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened. The third rule is when it starts, it’s the right time. And number four is when it’s over, it’s over.

Squirrel: Which means the session could run over its time and spill out into the hallway, which I’ve seen happen many times. Or the people who need to talk about whatever it is, come to a conclusion, learn what they need to, and they get done and go to some other session, which they come to half of.

Jeffrey: Yep, that’s right. And and obviously there’s one other key dynamic that we haven’t mentioned, which traditionally was called the Law of Two Feet, although I’ve heard some people call it now the Law of Mobility. But the idea is if you’re in a session and you’re not getting anything out of it, then you should feel totally happy to get up and leave. And for everyone else, they should be very happy that you get up and leave because you really want the people in the room who are motivated to talk about that topic. And this is one of the things we coach people on is like, look, you might feel nervous about it, but believe me, the energy in the room gets better when the people who are less interested leave and you’re left with the most excited people. And that freedom of the Law of Two Feet really is is liberating because you can go like, “you know what this this hasn’t turned out the way I hoped but there was that other other topic that sounded interesting. I’m going to go over there.”

Squirrel: And so that’s socially acceptable and endorsed by the organizers means that you never have that experience, which many of us have had at paid fancy big conferences where you’re kind of in the middle of a sea of others, and you’d have to get them all to stand up as you kind of awkwardly make your way out of the room, because whatever it was isn’t what was advertised or isn’t interesting to you, so-

Jeffrey: That’s right.

Squirrel: -the boredom ratio is not zero, but it’s much better than at any other conference I’ve been to.

Jeffrey: Yeah, and the same thing happens when you go apply this within an internal conference within a company, is that people end up talking to people in other functions who share their concerns, who share their excitement, who share their ideas. And you really build these strong connections and these strong alliances to overcome some of the problems that have really been bothering people. Because you’ve found the people who are most excited about solving particular problems and brought them together.

Squirrel: And this is one of my favorite types of stories. When organizations have been turned around. I always talk about this because I hope somebody will tell me the origin of this story. But Nokia started as a timber company. That part I know is right. And I have a story that I think I’ve read, but I can’t track it down that there were two people in disparate parts of the organization, like a customer service person and a, you know, a forestry worker or something. People in very different parts of the organization who got together and said, you know, we’ve heard of these things called transistors. Maybe we should think about those because we’re going to run out of trees at some point. And of course, now we have Nokia, the mobile phone company. So, if you can create that kind of story, if you can create that kind of energy and excitement in your organization, you have tremendous benefits from it, but not enough people unlock that.

Squirrel: Jeffrey, I’m going to suggest something, and that is once again, we’ve got excited about this and I think we’re hitting our time limit. So we keep saying that we’re going to talk about how to apply this inside your company. If maybe we could stop here, leave people hanging one more time and come back and talk next week. But we’ll really promise to do it this time. How do you apply this within your company? And I want to bug you about some of the problems that happen and some of the things that people are probably objecting to and saying, “Well, that works. At CITCON, where Jeffrey and his clever friends get together and they have some amazing interactions, but it would never work inside my company.”

Jeffrey: Right.

Squirrel: I think there are lots of interesting responses to that. Would you be willing to to make our ever patient listeners wait one more week for for some of that material?

Jeffrey: That sounds fine with me.

Squirrel: Okay. Well, I hope it’s all right with our listeners. So we’ll see you here next week on another edition of Troubleshooting Agile. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.