Last week for two days at the Kennedy School in Portland 100 people discussed agile software development at the Agile Open Northwest conference. Open spaces don’t have a set agenda; instead people propose topics around which they have a passion. That’s the beauty of an open space— the agenda is formed on the spot. We’re talking, not just listening. Conversations and sharing are key. I enjoyed Dale Emery’s session where he led us in reading Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham and we discussed how to overcome resistence. I learned about the role of games and simulations in training and had fun playing a couple. Thanks Elisabeth! And I felt the pain in a session where we discussed how to sort out differences of opinion on a dev team.
Open spaces aren’t just someone talking and everyone else listening (although some sessions were more one-sided exchanges of information than others). The place was abuzz with conversation. As one of the hosts for the event, I was nervous about whether enough people would show up and whether they’d have enough to talk about for two days. I shouldn’t have worried. People were engaged, excited, rejuvenated, and happy but tired at the end.
Is there a secret sauce that makes an open space work? Probably no one factor is “the secret”, but there seem to be several key ingredients. First, the open space needs to be “open”. People need to be encouraged and empowered to take responsibility to make the conference what they want it to be. There is a structure into which open conversations can be fitted. At the beginning, attendees propose topics and session times which are posted on a big schedule board. People are encouraged to get what they want out of any session. It’s perfectly OK to vote with your feet and leave a session to attend another, or to flit from one to another. It’s OK to sit out and just hang out for a while (I got tired and needed a break on that second afternoon). And throughout the conference new sessions were proposed and times reshuffled.
A good facilitator is invaluable in setting the tone and expectations. Diana Larson, another conference co-host, convened the open space and ran the daily news and closing. She was fabulous. It helps if the open space has a theme or burning question to explore. For us, it was “Agile for real.” Originally, we thought it should be posed as a question. But we left it as a statement that could be interpreted as a challenge— what does it take for agile practices to really work. Get real.
A comfortable location helps. The Kennedy School had a funky charm that is hard to match in a convention center or hotel. Coffee, tea, and bottled water were available throughout the day. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were included so people didn’t have to break their stride to find nourishment. Finally (and this was really nice), there was wireless and computers were provided so people could record their session notes on the conference wiki or check on email.
While the face-to-face discussions are over, things that came out of the open space continue. The Portland XP group is being revived; an open space is being planned for the bay area; the next generation of testing frameworks is kicking off serious discussions… It may be over, but stay tuned for Agile Open Northwest 2008. This was too good to be a one time event.