Open Spaces aren’t for everyone

I just moderated the comments for my blog and found yet another comment on my posting about Agile Open Northwest 2008 from an anonymous poster about how crappy an experience Agile Open Northwest 2009 was for him (or her). The unconference format was particularly maddening to anonymous who,

“kept looking for something seriously implementable…we’ve gone to other tech-conferences and club meetings that were seriously more useful.”

According to anonymous,

“I think people there [at conferences or meetings with published speakers] have way more credibility to lose, so are better accountable, [have] better presentations, handouts, websites, references.”

Open spaces aren’t for everyone. If you are bored with repetitive topics or leaders of a session, it is up to you to contribute to the quality of that session (or to go somewhere else). The very first AONW conference was attended by several with folks that have published lots of books and are well-known speakers. And a few of them led a some great sessions (see my earlier blog posts on Dale Emery’s talk). But there were other great sessions that just happened, led by ordinary folks, too. Last year, in Seattle, again, there were well-known folks hosting sessions. And we got one complaint that year that too many “experts” seemed to hog center stage. You can’t please everyone.

And this year, we had well-known folks like James Shore, Ward Cunningham, and Arlo Belshee lead several sessions. Ward graciously even asked whether it was appropriate to talk about some new wiki ideas before he proposed his session. Ward didn’t want to appear too commercial as he is now working for AboutUs, a wiki-making business.

As a conference co-host, I don’t try to host any session, because the open space is something I want to foster, not crowd in to or dominate. Whenever I attend a session I do my utmost to make it worth my while. That’s one reason why I ask questions of other people and the session facilitator. I am as active as I feel comfortable with, without trying to fill all the open space. Sometimes the best conclusions and ideas happen after a conversation starts to founder…and people regroup and bring it on track.

This year, I found it just as valuable, having conversations with random folks I met in passing and in the hall as I did attending sessions. Yet I had to work at making those connections. And each day I went home tired, yet happy and filled with ideas.

Next year I might try something new and introduce a couple of sessions on topics I’ve been itching to talk about. But only a couple. I want to have plenty of time to find out what others are interested in, too.

I’m sorry anonymous didn’t enjoy the AONW open space. If the sessions anonymous attended were boring or repetitive or poorly led, well… that is what might happen. If you want to go hear experts speaking on a topic, then go to a conference, not an unconference. And if you want to be guaranteed a particular topic, then by all means attend a user group meeting or free talk. But if you want to bravely explore your ideas with others, then an open space unconference might be for you.