Last week I facilitated the open space for between 700 and 750 people of the 950 attendees at the Global Scrum Gathering in Vienna on 29 October 2019. This is a brief guide to what happened, what went into the process, and what I learned from the event.
On the day it all went well. The marketplace had been set up the day before. Following advice from Ellen Grove, who facilitated the similarly large open space for the Global Scrum Gathering in Orlando in 2017, we used two marketplaces so that people could look at either, and not have to crowd around one wall. The sessions were also uploaded to an online spreadsheet in the Scrum Gathering app for ease of tracking from across the large venue.
Helmut and Alex from the European Gathering team welcomed people and then introduced me before I was ‘on’ to ‘open the space’, and invite people to propose sessions to build our agenda for the day. That took maybe fifteen minutes. During their part I was able to video the ‘raise hand, close mouth’ facilitation method with this large crowd. It was great to see the crowd go from burbling voices to silence in a number of seconds.
Then we had people propose sessions. They were given 30 seconds to say their name, and propose their topic. This kept everything to one hour of pitches. I watched, guided when the microphone was too far away from the speaker and the audience couldn’t hear what was being said, and Helmut let people know when their time was up. Only a few people took longer than 30 seconds. I was also trying to keep an eye on the number of people waiting to pitch their idea, and the possible number of spaces available in the marketplace. Given it’s open space there are infinite possibilities, but people like to look at a matrix of rooms, and time slots, and think there are x sessions. We had fifteen rooms and 5 rounds of sessions for 75 sessions.
Around 10:10 I was thinking we could add another five sessions by putting four in the large space we were currently in instead of only three. A few minutes later, I noticed, as shown below, Scrum Alliance staff putting up more painters tape to extend the rooms: they added another five rooms, ie 25 more sessions by using the upstairs rooms in the venue.
As the line slowed down, I reminded people that this was the day when we’re all here. Now is the time to offer a session, so that they don’t look back on the day tomorrow and wish they’d had been braver and offered a session. This brought forward enough to fill the marketplace. We now had space for 100 sessions on the day. We filled them all by 10:30 and finished on time for people to grab a coffee and head to the first sessions, which started at 10:45.
We had everyone back in the room at 16:00 to close the space by sharing insights with each other, and then using a ‘throwable’ mic to share thoughts publicly. Happily no one was hurt, although a few were surprised when the mic didn’t go where I hoped it would when I threw it. It’s best to throw it higher with more arc I think. When this was done I mentioned two announcements about powerpoint karaoke, and werewolf sessions being offered later. Then it was off to the ‘happy hour’ drinks and nibbles to chat to people before heading out for dinner.
It was a good day, and I’d happily do it again. Thanks to those of you, who also gave me feedback on the day. It meant a lot to me hearing that you found my facilitating worked well for you.
What went into the process
Stating what happens overlooks the work and planning that went into making the day work so well. In July I was asked about being the open space facilitator for SGVIE19. I asked around my community – speaking to Ellen and Steve Holyer and found that open space for the Scrum Gatherings had not run as smoothly as desired. Some participants thought they could ‘present’ their rejection sessions, or didn’t know what it was, and sometimes ran in parallel to other sessions. In other words, the open space was not the great thing it could be. I also reflected on what I’d learned from the two-day open space training that I’d had with Deborah Preuss some years previously. That training is now available online, or in-person via Steve and Deb at Coaching Cocktails. I found reviewing these things, reading Harrison Owen’s book, helped centre me, and remind that being the facilatator was about helping others to have a good experience. This is not about you, it’s about helping them to have success.
Ever the optimist, I agreed on the condition that together with the Scrum Alliance team of John and Tanya we’d do the following:
- Remove breaks in the day apart from lunch so that sessions would run more smoothly. we need the coffee, tea and snacks, but let’s not stop the conversations.
- Put content about open space on the website so that people know more about it, and come with an idea, and then follow the website content through with at least one email to participants in the ‘Know before you go’ section as a reminder.
- Make the open space more visible in the programme so that people find the sessions that interest them.
- Provide volunteers to help set up the space and manage the time boxing of pitches.
In the end, Tanya and John had found a good open space video, which I supplemented with more material for the website and in the email/Facebook page with light editing by one of the Scrum Alliance team. This helped to frame the conversation about what open space is, and how it would be useful for them as participants. With this happening I also had to decide what the ‘theme’ might be for the sessions, and for the ‘intro’ part that I’d speak. The conference already had a wide-ranging list of themes that people could use for inspiration of their sessions, and it seemed to me that we could also say ‘ask about issues you have’ given all of these people with experience here.
I wondered which book, or theme that I could use to guide the participants. At Play4Agile I’ve seen many different approaches to this with most memorably, and beautifully done with Ellen and Glenn riffing on The Little Prince to start our sessions at #p4a19. However, I knew that I wouldn’t have that long to speak. I had to keep my part short. In the end the Grateful Dead song ‘Ripple’ with these lines kept coming back to me:
"Reach out your hand if your cup be empty If your cup is full may it be again”
This spiritual aspect of open space – come and get ideas to help you – were what I wanted to have people take away from the day. But this was only the start. I looked at a few other Dead lyrics but couldn’t decide what the playlist should be for people to hear as they gathered before the start. In the end, it was easier to find a concert, and if it’s an acoustic song, then that meant finding an acoustic Dead set. In the end we used the concert from 26 October 1980 – almost 39 years earlier to the day. From this it was but a small jump to a key reason that I love the Dead and jazz – improvisation. Each song is never quite the same as the previous version as each person responds to what the others are doing, and no one person is the ‘star’. Thus ‘build on the ideas of others. Respond to the offers made to you’ became the theme I wanted to use for inspiration of participants. This could be stated easily and told in a few minutes too.
All that remained for me to decide was how to have people relax and talk to each other a bit before I did my monologue part. In the end, Alex and Herbert did this for me, and my planning for that was put on hold. I was going to add a few questions to the slide deck from SoCards as someone suggested to me while at #play4innovation in the days before SGVIE19. I had a deck with me so just needed to pick a few questions to get people relaxed, laughing, and talking before pitching sessions. I’ve come to realise recently that getting people to laugh early on in sessions helps them relax, and a friend mentioned this too, and I noticed that the first keynote did it too when he started.
With the participants relaxed, I was able to do my part. Just before going on I realised that I’d ended up with the situation in my control, even more than I realised, as I paused and listened to the audience and the music. The music was there to support them, and was music that I liked. I didn’t have to struggle with something that the PA people might have chosen. It was under my control, and knowing this helped relax me. I could do this, this was my moment. I had my note cards, which I’d written a few hours earlier, and knew the stories that I was going to use to inspire people that today was their day to rise above any nerves they might be feeling and pitch a session, which they could lead later.
The headset mic bugged me with an echo. Maybe this is only something that you notice as the person with the mic; a small lag between what you say and then hearing your voice from the PA system. After shrugging this off I carried on and told people the purpose of open space and how ‘open space technology’ will help them fill the marketplace with wonderful sessions that they will propose shortly. For me, this anticipation of what was to come is always the exciting part of the open space. What will people propose, who will propose things. How much ‘oh no, not then’ will I encounter and then have to decide between competing sessions.
My goal was to inspire them to propose sessions based around questions they might have so that they could have conversations with others in sessions. Now was the time for them to ask all of the people in the room for their help in finding possible answers to their questions, or to share what they knew on a topic with others, who might also be wondering about this topic too. I had to calmly inspire and encourage them to pitch sessions and let them learn the basics of open space technology, that I had on a slide deck in powerpoint:
- Whoever comes are the right people
- Whatever happens is the only thing that could happen
- Whenever it starts is the right time
- When it’s over, it’s over
And, the ‘law of two feet’ – that it’s your responsibility to go to where you can contribute and learn the most.
I reminded them that nothing would happen if they ended up with no one at their session. I also said that we’re all there looking to see them succeed, and told the story about my second stand up comedy episode where I had to restart a number of times, and didn’t die. I was still there with them. If I can do that, then they could pitch a session. And they did. We had our full marketplace of sessions and then people went on their way to talk and listen, and share ideas. All that we had put in place fell into place to keep the people talking and learning from each other.
What I learned from the event
What I learned from the process
I had a few takeaways from this session. Nothing too profound, but more practical.
First, you need to plan on explaining why they should take part, and to encourage them to pitch sessions.
Second, you need to make the day as open as possible with as few ‘interruptions’ as possible so that food and drink can be picked up as needed, and the conversations can flow as nicely as a cold drink.
Third, two marketplaces, and a digital version that’s easy to find is useful. A key part of the digital one is that session proposers are captured along with the title of the sessions so that people can find the right person if they have a question later.
Fourth, be human and present as you show your excitement about the possibilities that exist in that open space as you walk the circle and tell them what’s important on the day.
Fifth, talk to others who’ve done something similar to give you ideas and make you aware of possible issues based on their experience.
Sixth, consider how you might gather feedback on the usefulness of the day both for participants, and organisers. This came up as feedback in Twitter. You could have people ‘mark’ + or – perhaps, on the flipcharts that are returned to the main area to let others know what happened, or ask for this in any retrospective you might do with participants. For the organisers, they might ‘see’ happy people, or like me, hear happy sounds when participants are sharing what they learned durign the day with others in the ‘evening news’, and that might be enough for them. Others might want to know more of what follows afterwards via feedback forms, or actions taken. In any case, this is something to consider.
Seventh, this is fun, but hard work helping groups achieve their goals.