This is a transcript of episode 296 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 in Companies

Listen to this section at 00:14

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

Jeffrey: Hi, Squirrel.

Squirrel: You know, when we started talking about this topic all of two weeks ago now, we thought, “Oh yeah, maybe we can talk about CITCON and the upcoming events in Berlin in October. Boy, maybe that will occupy a bit of an episode. We’ll have to pad it out with some more.” Two episodes later, now, in the third one, we’re finally going to talk about how you might apply some of these tools internally. So some of our listeners aren’t going to make it to Berlin in October, and that’s fine, but they might still learn a lot from how Jeffrey and his coconspirator, PJ, Paul Julius, have put together this fascinating conference I’ve been coming to for nearly 20 years and how they can use those same tools internally. So that’s what we’re going to talk about today. Jeffrey, how do you feel about that?

Jeffrey: I think that sounds great. It’s a very exciting topic.

Squirrel: Excellent. And you’ve run lots of these within companies. In other words, you run the conference, which is open to everyone. And we talked last week about how the participants create the agenda, which sounds anarchic and counterintuitive and strange but really works. And how people have the law of two feet, which allows them to move around and go to parts of the conference or sessions that are interesting to them, which makes people not get bored. And you’ve run these internally as well, because it seems like it would work for some conference you go to on a Saturday to, to meet your friends and learn new things. Does it work when you show up on a Tuesday afternoon with colleagues from parts of the business you don’t know?

Jeffrey: Yeah, it does. And it works really surprisingly well. And one thing I’ll say is it can scale. And I mentioned this in our first episode on this, that when I had first heard about Open Space, the context that I heard it described in was a 2,000 person company that was talking about how they were going to change their strategy. And basically the exec team came in and said, “we’re facing some real problems. Here’s the real challenges. We want all of you to talk about how we might change the company direction. We have this giant space for the 2,000 of you. We have some facilitators who know this thing called open space technology. You know, go figure it out and let us know what you think.” And and- that was that, to me, that was a mind blowing idea. It was really attractive for me because I’ve always been really excited in the idea of collective intelligence and how do we get more out of the group? By getting everyone to contribute what they know and what they can bring to the party. And this is very much tied to the stone soup story you heard earlier, which where the villagers get this amazing-

Squirrel: That was in a previous episode. We’ll have the links in the show notes. Keep going.

Jeffrey: That’s right. So that people get this amazing pot of of soup that they didn’t expect to get because each villager brought something and no one knew what they were going to bring ahead of time. They didn’t know what each person had to contribute. But it turned out when they pooled their resources, they had this serendipitous result that was fantastic.

Squirrel: And so mechanically what you do, I take it, is whether you have 2,000 or 20 or 2 is you get them together. You run the mechanics like we talked about last week with the voting, proposing different sessions, voting on them, putting them in different categories and different times, same slots on the board, and then using the law of mobility or the law of two feet to ensure that people who don’t find a session valuable can go to another one and people will find a session really valuable, can stay in there and get a lot of information from it.

Jeffrey: That’s right.

Squirrel: If I got the mechanics right?

Jeffrey: You have the mechanics right. And also, one of the thing is the kind of scope of discussion can be bounded, you know, and it’s important as the organizer, especially within a company, to kind of say, what are we here to discuss? And so it’s possible to do, for example, say we’re not going to do it for the whole company. We’re doing it just within our product and engineering group, you know, and or just our engineering group. And we’re talking just about technical problems. This is a place for us to talk about maybe how we feel about how things are going technically and what we might do differently in the future.

Squirrel: And if I show up and propose a session on how I feel about Baldur’s Gate 3 and the new exciting video games, and I’m not working in a video game company, but a company that does, I don’t know, e-commerce or something, somebody can shut that down for me and say, “Squirrel, that’s a great thing to talk about. How about we do that over lunch? I’m taking this off the board,” so that’s not something you do at CITCON think somebody really could- People do- PJ has-

Jeffrey: -Talked about beekeeping-

Squirrel: Beekeeping! Some of the most fascinating sessions at CITCON, but not part of the official agenda. Not what people expect when they come to CITCON. That’s valuable at CITCON. But your company might say, hang on, we’re not going to talk about beekeeping here.

Jeffrey: Exactly. And and that kind of addresses some of the concerns that management might have where they’re like they might have heard the description before of sort of the anarchy involved in this. It’s like, well, there are some it’s totally fine and valid to put in constraints to say, look, we are in a business context. Let’s make sure things are relevant to to us in the business. It can also be, you know, the whole company. You can be talking about this in terms of generally speaking, what is the company thinking? And what are your top problems? It could be, you know, what are the opportunities? So it’s okay to have a theme or to just leave it open to say you can talk about anything in the company. I’ve seen both of those work.

Long Term Impact of Open Spaces

Listen to this section at 06:31

Jeffrey: Um, one thing I’ll say about in the company is that I often see a concern from management that there is a work product and that the idea and especially people when they’ve done it once and they had I’ve seen this for example at Tim, the company I was part of, we ran the first time internally. We ran it across the whole company and we did this as part of our company offsite. Once a year, everyone would come into the headquarters in London. We’d fly people from all around the world for multiple days, and we, one year, we had our first time we ran it for the whole company as part of one of the day activities and management, the founders were very excited by the energy and excitement created, but they were also a bit concerned like, “Well, where is the- What’s durable? What can I point to afterwards to capture all the great ideas that came out of it?” And so they wanted to make sure that there were documents. And I’ll say I didn’t see that as being very effective.

Jeffrey: And I’ve never seen it when management are trying to define what the output is. I’ve never seen that have a very much long term impact. But what does have impact is the ideas and connections and relationships that are now forged between, for example, people in the customer service department and people who, you know, the people who are answering phones from clients, plus the people in sales, plus the someone in product, plus someone in engineering, all get excited about, you know, this thing keeps coming up. What can we do differently? How might we present this differently to our clients? How could we improve their experience?

Jeffrey: And you get this sort of amazing creative energy and that definitely leads to changes in outcomes, but it’s not something that’s easy to capture in a document at the time because a lot of the subsequent work will be done outside the conference. When people go back to their jobs, they don’t go just back to their silos. They don’t go, you know, they’ve changed the relationships they have. So they change the dynamics within the company, because of the relationships they’ve made in these discussions.

Squirrel: Now, that makes me think of a couple of my clients who just in the last year have run these kinds of off sites. And I think that when people set things up, you know, one client rented, I don’t understand quite how this worked, but they rented an entire Italian village and brought their people from around the world to live in the village. I’m not sure. Where did the villagers go? I’m not sure I understand. They didn’t invite me, so I didn’t get to see it, but that was okay. And another sent everyone to Panama for doing lots of whitewater rafting and things. And all of those sound really fun.

Squirrel: And you certainly could point to things like employee satisfaction as measurable results, but I always worry that that kind of thing can turn into a perk and it sort of how you reward the team. It’s maybe, maybe cheaper than giving them all pay rises because you only do it once. I’m not quite sure what the finance department thinks about it, but what you don’t typically have- Well, sometimes you you try to force it into creating some kind of strategy document or something like that, which is hard when you’re whitewater rafting anyway. So you can try to force those kinds of things and that doesn’t work so well. But if it’s purely a perk, if it’s just a fun thing, we’re going to get the teams together. They may become best friends because they share an interest in curling or football or something, or whitewater rafting, but they don’t necessarily then have some exciting work related activity to to work on.

Squirrel: So the thing that I like to see and I’m curious how you’ve seen this happen, Jeffrey, is to make sure there is someone giving an account. There is some accountability, in our terms, not someone holding someone else to account, but someone who gives an account of, and maybe many someones, of the value that was created as a result of having this big expensive activity. And when you just have bonding exercises and things and, I don’t know, ropes courses or something terrifying, I can’t normally point to something as a result of that. But I have the feeling, and I don’t know this, when you do an open space and you get this energy created, you’re going to get projects out of that, aren’t you? You’re going to get materials. You may not know what it is, but you’re going to get a new feature, a new product, some new collaboration. You’re going to get rid of something that isn’t working, a procedure or a process or a product. It feels to me that there’s more natural accountability than for the kind of perk based, exciting, fun thing that’s supposed to make people better friends.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Squirrel: What do you find in that in that direction?

Jeffrey: I think you’re hitting something that’s really interesting and really important, and I think it’s a really good contrast. A traditional company offsite event is usually this mix of a structured agenda that management have set. “We’re going to talk about these things, and then the social activities.” And the goal of the social activities is to, as you said, to build bonds and build relationships. And you hope that carries over into the working relationships. And I think it often does. But I think what’s often not appreciated is those structured agendas, those structured times are often much less fruitful than you might hope for.

Jeffrey: People often say like, these are very valuable events because they do get people together to talk about similar things, but often it’s like a big conference. The really exciting things that happen end up happening in the hallway rather than in the bulk of the time that management has structured ahead of time according to their preconceived ideas of what would be valuable to discuss. And what I see different in the open space approach is you have people building relationships while talking about the business problems of interest. And so I think it’s a much better use of time because you’re both getting the relationship building while focused on business topics that people are excited about. Because guess what? Executives are allowed to propose topics. So if you’re worried. But hey, look, it’s really important, as you know, me, as the head of sales that we talk about this topic. Put it on the board.

Squirrel: Of course, it may not get enough votes, which would tell you something in itself.

Accountability and Aha! Moments

Listen to this section at 12:02

Jeffrey: And that’s really interesting, exactly what I was going to say. And the second thing I’ll mention about accountability is you can really, in my experience, you get the accountability because we have this closing session where we go around and again, everyone has a chance to speak and they share their Aha! Moment. And it’s really important here. The Aha! Moment is not a commitment to do something. It’s not the most valuable thing you heard. It’s not anything specific. It’s something that struck you as important. But as you go around and you hear those Aha! Moments, you’re hearing the account from everyone essentially, of what they found valuable, exciting, interesting, memorable about the day. And in that you get a very strong sense of business value and then you can observe the follow up, what comes out of those discussions. So in my experience, that definitely happens.

Jeffrey: I do think there’s one important thing we should bring up here, because we’ve talked about this in terms of this sort of whole company open space type thing or even a whole department, maybe. Maybe not a whole company, but a department. But you can do this on a smaller scale. It doesn’t require a whole day. It doesn’t require multiple days. There’s a small version. We’ve used the phrase a couple of times, but we haven’t explained it, which is this thing called lean coffee. And lean coffee, and I really don’t quite understand where the name came from, but it’s basically like a meeting run, in an open space style. So it has the same type of idea where you’re having people propose topics and then vote on what they want to discuss. And the difference here is that because you’re all in the same room, you’re not breaking out separately, but then you’ll go through the topics in order of which they they got votes.

Jeffrey: And the difference is in protocol because you are kind of single tracked, you instead vote frequently on ‘Do we want to continue with this topic?’ So your top vote getting topic and then after a few minutes you have a timer go off and you just have people hold a Roman vote, you know, thumbs up or thumbs down. Do you want to continue and you only continue on a topic that gets a majority of people voting thumbs up. And interestingly, in my experience, every topic that we discuss gets one thumbs up. In other words, it gets, say, a five minute initial increment plus another three minutes, almost none get a second and and virtually none get a third. In other words, people usually get what they’re most interested in hearing about a given topic in the first eight minutes and then they’re on to the next topic.

Jeffrey: And so over the course of an hour you cover several of these topics - the ones that people were most interested in discussing. And you have much of the same dynamics that you get from the open space. And again, I would typically close with Aha! Moments. What did we get out of this? And it can be really energizing and exciting for people who’ve never experienced this and kind of be a taster of what you can get from the larger format. So that’s my kind of, you know, easy entry version to the idea of agenda-less conferences is the agenda-less meeting, or rather you create the agenda on the fly and really being driven by interest and excitement. So that’s my pitch for lean coffees as a gateway drug to open space.

Squirrel: Excellent. Well, and there’s another very good. Gateway method, which is to come along to CITCON, which is coming up real soon now. So when’s the next one? Where is it? Where do people find out more?

Jeffrey: So the next one will be CITCON Europe. We had the CITCON US in February. Now we’re doing on CITCON Europe. It’s going to be in Berlin. It’ll be Friday and Saturday, October 13th and 14th. Registration is open. You can find it at CITCON. The website is ‘’ and then there’ll be a link to the Berlin episode and also a link to the wiki which has all the past topics. So if you want to see what are example topics, you can find that there on the on the CITCON wiki.

Squirrel: Fantastic. Very important point for those of our listeners who are driving or running or doing something else. It is not spelt like the small thin chocolate item with a k yours, Jeffrey, is spelled with two Cs.

Jeffrey: Yes.

Squirrel: And of course you can also get in touch with us and there’s email and X or whatever it’s called today, and probably five other ways of getting in touch with us. And we really like it when listeners do that. So if you found value in these three episodes and if you disagree with us, if you don’t see how to apply this, if you think it’s too, too anarchic to work in your organization, we’d sure love to hear from you. And of course, the other way to keep in touch with us is to come back for another episode of Troubleshooting Agile. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.