Open Space Without Proposals

The fourth annual Agile Coach Camp Canada took place last month in Toronto last month and was once again a great event for learning and sharing knowledge. I am starting a series of posts about what went on there as I want to blog it before it fades from my memory.

I took a different approach to participating in open space session this year and explained it during my lightning talk on the opening night. I actually gave three lightning talks instead of one and fit them within two minutes. The last of the three, “the lightning talk about nothing” was to explain this approach.

"The lightning talk about nothing" at ACC

“The lightning talk about nothing” at ACC

People come to conferences to have conversations, learn and share. I want to learn something and hope to meet someone who has knowledge of the subject so that I can learn from them. At the same time, someone wants to learn about a different subject that I happen to know something about. How can we find each other, how can we find time and place to talk about it, how can I tell them something about this subject that is useful to them?

Open space provides a marketplace where we can find each other. It deals with the first two problems effectively. If you want to discuss something, you can propose a topic. There are usually 7 or 8 time slots at each coach camp (the main open space part lasts a day and a half), there are many parallel tracks, so we can easily have 50-60 sessions on a variety of topics. We cannot cover everything before everyone is exhausted at the end of the camp. When it’s over, it’s over and what happened is the best thing that could have.

People who took part in the same open space events with me during the last four years know that I always propose something and sometimes than one session during the same open space event. This time I decided to change that and propose nothing. I was not satisfied with the status of the third problem – how can I tell other participants something about a subject that is useful to them?

The knowledge sharing and exchange can take place during any moment of an hour-long (typical duration) session. We can get to that moment using many ways from many starting points. Proposing a topic in open space puts a label and sets the starting points of our potential conversation. The label may attract some people and may repel others. So the theory I wanted to test during this coach camp was that if I refrain from proposing topics and labeling them, that could let the conversation start with somebody else’s proposal based on their needs. If I have anything useful to say from my experience and knowledge, then it would be in the middle of a conversation started by them, in their context and thus more useful to them.

How Did the Experiment Go?

I think the test went pretty well. A couple of sessions happened where I could offer a lot advice, but – not starting with my labelled offering was key. We discussed Scrumban in one of these sessions. The coach who proposed it worked with a Scrum team that had some problems and they were looking to find improvement options with Kanban. I could simply sit there and listen for more than half of the hour-long session about their situation. When I finally started talking, I was answering their concerns directly. We made some terminology fixes and reinforced the principles. I drew the Kanban depth model and we used it to discuss practices where adding depth might help in this particular situation. If I started this session by proposing “Scrumban”, we would likely not have made such a connection. Another session where I ended up sharing a lot was the Waste-Watchers Anonymous, where I managed to show the group how we can do better than reduce Lean to “eliminate waste” and how much more there was to it, especially in the knowledge-work fields. But I had to let someone else propose the topic, then sit, listen and understand where people were coming from.

Aside from those sessions, I managed to go to even more sessions as a listener. I finally got introduced and understood what Temenos is about (thanks to Michael Sahota), got some professional coaching insights from Sue Johnston. Declan Whelan‘s brother, Paul Whelan, who is an architect and not a software architect, led a session on Architecture and how he deals with clients, critics, engineers, contractors, concerned citizens, etc. and how work works in his world. Ellen Grove started a swashbooking session (the term coined by James Marcus Bach, a famous self-taught software tester, in his book The Buccaneer Scholar), where I discovered the previously unfamiliar ways of visual facilitation.

And there was something else that I now forget. But if I had one or two sessions to go to because I proposed them, I would have certainly missed several of those listening experiences.


Of course, we can’t run open space if everybody decided to follow a #NoProposals approach. Most participants have to propose their topics, otherwise we can’t have the marketplace. But, I definitely recommend that you try my experiment the next time you go to open space and propose nothing.

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4 Responses to Open Space Without Proposals

  1. chuzzete says:

    Thank for mention our incredible session about ScrumBan Alexei, it was simply awesome the way that you presented some solutions that in fact we put in place with one of the teams that I’m working with. Thank you again. Jesus Mendez

  2. Pingback: Something I Learned by Studying Misic as a Kid | Learning Agile and Lean

  3. You should be a part of a contest for one of the finest blogs on the web.
    I am going to recommend this blog!

  4. Pingback: The Best of 2013 | Learning Agile and Lean

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