The Tyranny of Open Space

Conference Audience

Please note: This is not a call to stop using Open Space Technology. This is a call to stop overusing a great tool and a call to start looking for alternatives.


Who remembers the run-off-the-mill agile conference from five to ten years ago? The format used to be pretty straight forward: several sessions, all of them presentations. A few questions from the audience here and there; no real interaction or participation. That had to change, obviously. And change it did with the emergence of different unconference formats from bootcamps to hackathons to startup weekends. One of the common methods used to organize these unconventional and non-traditional gatherings is Open Space Technology. In an Open Space unconference there is no predefined agenda. Instead, the audience gets to create it together.

The intentions behind that change were certainly noble: Let’s include more people! Let’s not rely on experts anymore! We preach self-organization? Let’s have that in our conferences as well!

But something happened along the way that, in my opinion, is pretty much symptomatic of the Agile movement as a whole. The well-intentioned urge to tear down structures and hierarchies often leads to them not being replaced by anything. A void is created, and within its structurelessness we find the exact same dysfunctions as before, hidden behind a veil of smugness.


Tuning Out

Here’s just one striking example: The third day of 2016’s Scrum Gathering in Orlando was Open Space Day. From the dozens of proposed sessions, just one or two marginally caught my interest. The rest were really lackluster, uninspired, drab, or simply dull in my opinion (based on the title). I made myself attend three sessions anyway. All of them were dominated by the session host. One of these sessions was an outright presentation without any participation (I’ll confess that the content was still interesting).

I walked around during sessions and in the hallways I found a whole bunch of people tuned out doing something else. When I struck up a conversation several of them told me they often didn’t get anything out of Open Space and should probably have left early. And that is exactly what a lot of other people actually did. Somewhere between a quarter and a third of the participants had gone home.

For the next Global Scrum Gathering, the organizers moved the Open Space sessions up in the agenda to the second day. I believe this was decided to “make” people stay for the whole conference, including Open Space. And, again, I get the intention behind it and I think it’s great. But, maybe the time has come to look for alternatives or tweaks that still include and engage everyone?


Open Space Dysfunctions

I respect that a lot of people do get a lot out of this tool and I would like to emphasize again that this is not a call to stop using it. But, let us examine the dysfunctions & inadequacies that can often be seen within an Open Space session:

  • The dominant host: the session host didn’t get their session proposal admitted for the conference, so the Open Space slot is his way of getting it in anyway
  • The blind leading the blind: a room full of novices giving each other advice that might turn into disaster
  • The consultant hijacking: a room full of novices and one consultant often leads to the consultant talking all the time, making outrageous claims and then distributing his business cards
  • The quiet room: the host started the session in the hope of getting advice and exploring a topic, the others were hoping for someone else to spread some wisdom, so the conversation goes nowhere
  • The constant goat rodeo: everyone has something to say but it’s not necessarily connected to anything else, not even the initial topic

These are the exact same dysfunctions we see in any type of meeting. The only difference is that the agenda wasn’t set in advance and it is much easier for people to simply leave. I have been guilty of causing many of these dysfunctions myself in the past, simply because I wasn’t aware of it.

The big issue, in my opinion, is that while Open Space addresses a big problem on a structural level of large group gatherings, it doesn’t offer anything on the microstructural level. We’re still blind to the way we interact in the smaller groups and often fall back to the outlined dysfunctional patterns as a result.


A Call to Action

So how can we make it better? Here are four suggestions that might be helpful:

  • Use Liberating Structures within sessions. The inventors Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz actually encourage people to specify the microstructure of each individual session when placing your proposal in the marketplace so that people know what awaits them. A simple 1-2-4-All may help already. Or maybe What, So What, Now What? to find out what the current status is, what that means and what next steps make sense.
  • Draw attention to the way people interact within each session. If someone dominates, call it out! If it goes nowhere, call it out! Call it out and propose other solutions.
  • Lead by example: show people in your session what a well-run Open Space session looks like.
  • Use other structures (again, Liberating Structures really help) instead of Open Space. It’s a great tool but not the only one for large groups. If you want to tap the wisdom of a group, use Wise Crowds (the version for large groups). If you want to spread ideas and innovation, use Shift & Share. If you’re looking for the boldest ideas the group can realistically put into action, use 25/10 Crowd Sourcing.


Whatever you do, don’t stop using Open Space Technology. But start seeing it for what it is: a great tool among many.