Author: Patryk Nosalik, PMP
Including interview with Matteo Mazzeri, DevOps & Open Spaces visionary
Have you ever taken part in an Open Space? And I’m not referring to an open space office floorplan, but a meeting organised by the principles and law of Open Spaces Technology. From my sharing the idea with the Events team at PMI, or posing the question on Linkedin recently, seems that very few have.
So to set the scene, we all know about waterfall vs agile, so what about applying this to the meeting itself? Think about a classic well planned business meeting. With predetermined invitees – how long does it take you to get everyone on board, match calendars etc? And nothing worse than unengaged people not knowing why they’re there, right? Of course the meeting needs a defined agenda, best sent out in advance aiming for a specific goal – get a decision, come up with a solution, whatever is the main thing we want out of the meeting, as nothing worse than a meeting without conclusion, right? Of course meetings are always at a given time and usually set for an hour or other predefined time. Finally how often have you sat at a meeting because it was the done thing, you felt you had to (e.g. your boss is there).
So imagine breaking all of these traditional meeting rules, and as with agile, not replacing them with rules, but with principles, of which here the main ones are:
- whoever comes is the right people,
- whatever happens is the only thing that could have,
- when it starts is the right time,
- when it’s over it’s over.
Plus law of two feet – if you’re not gaining or adding to the meeting, feel free to use your two feet to go elsewhere.
I’d find it hard to imagine the productivity if you told me about this, but I stumbled upon it at an Agile meetup in Geneva who were using this, they made me welcome, and it was a very engaging experience. Since then I have also seen Open Spaces at the Geneva DevOpsDays this year, a 300+ person 2 day conference, where the Open Spaces were made possible on the second day as alternatives to some of the speeches, and I saw 30+ attendees in one session. Interested in the dynamics of this type of meeting, I reached out to Matteo Mazzeri who was responsible for both the events I mentioned here.
- Matteo, tell me, when did you first find out about Open Spaces?
- It’s been a long time, I can’t pinpoint it, I find it so enriching, I started doing something called Unconferences 10 years ago. I started doing different formats to find way more interaction with people. With traditional conferences it’s really interesting to receive information but after some time you want to start sharing, and so I really needed to find a format that wasn’t unidirectional and Open Spaces was enriching in that.
- Why did you choose to do Open Spaces at the DevOpsDays?
- DevOpsDays is a global conference started in Belgium some 10 years ago, I’m not one of the creators, I just do it in Geneva, but the creators started with Open Spaces in their events straight away,because they also come from the free software philosophy and open source movement, and Unconferences and Open Spaces are very much a thing in free software peoplethe so they promoted it from the beginning of their event, so now when you do a DevOpsDays in your city, Open Spaces are automatic, or at least a strong suggestion to do them.
- Are you happy with how the Open Spaces were done in the DevOpsDays?
- Yes, we adapted a little bit how we did it in Geneva, to make it fit well the Geneva community, so slightly different than elsewhere but people that took part were extremely happy.
- So what did you adapt?
- We chose to have in parallel conferences and Open Spaces instead of a whole day Open Spaces, plus also experienced facilitators for the two open space rooms we had, and a list of topics which is normal, but what we didn’t do is to have every participant talking about their proposal in front of the public, which is sort of a tradition with Open Spaces, you have everyone presenting in front of the full audience.
- But in the Agile meetup we didn’t do this, all the ideas on post-sticks went to the moderator and the moderator read out the ideas almost anonymously…
- There are different flavours, and several different factors can impact how the flavour of the moment goes, there are some general guidelines and then there’s the sensibilities of organiser and people present, not a fixed rulebook to follow.
- Ok, so a bit like Agile in general has a common manifesto and principles but there are 70 frameworks, so is there how far can you go before you start losing the benefits?
- Yeah, important to have a good facilitator to avoid having a single person or two who monopolise the discussion as otherwise it will go sterile, important to get everyone participating. Also if you really want an outcome at the end, then through the facilitator you have a little format that allows first a phase where everyone is sharing experience, ideas about a topic, then the most organically interesting topics go into discussion phase, then before the end we like some actions that should emerge, so the facilitator will explain the structure of the Open Space and why actions at the end, so at the end a restitution, a delivery of all the different Open Space topics from different places in a common setting, and benefit of outcome to whole group. For example a company for a specific reason, be it: a problem they need to solve; or reorganise themselves; or they need to discuss ideas that are to become projects, it’s a very good way to capitalise on the collective intelligence, and to not lose the dynamic that is generated and make it a common knowledge. But the limits would be just do the exercise and have someone talk about whatever he wants over everyone else, so there is no dialogue, or people who feel they are not useful but they don’t risk moving away like mobility rule of two feet, maybe because the rules weren’t explained at the beginning. There are some details that need to be taken into account to ensure everyone is having a good time so it is important at the beginning to share a minimum set of principles and make sure everyone is feeling at ease and good in a benevolent space, to avoid any internal fighting.
- Ok, but then also you have the defined time slot 5-10min per topic so if there’s something bad happening between two people then the others can vote to stop this topic and move on
- Since they are by definition quite unstructured in terms of a prioriagenda points, what benefits do the organisers and sponsors get out of these?
- The whole philosophy of the DevOpsDays more than just the Open Space itself was to create a community, so for sponsors we had a dialogue, to not actively have sales pitches but to build relations, and Open Spaces are best way to build relations, so if the sponsors really believe in what they are doing, they really have a product that is useful for the community, so they don’t need to sell it, they just need to make sure they create relations, and then the sale will happen afterwards in a much more healthy way than pushing. The sponsors need to know what the philosophy and spirit is, and agree to come on that basis, then they will be happy building real relations with the community.
- On openspaceworld.org they talk about the benefit of Open Spaces being when urgency is paramount, conflict is present, complexity is huge, and there are diverse stakeholder
- So in these exceptionally VUCA times, are you seeing a rise in uptake or interest in Open Spaces?
- Yes, we have been believers in Open Spaces for a long time, we try to diffuse them for as long time, initially there was more scepticism to the strange structure, but now people are more receptive, I cannot put any numbers, but a great way to put different profiles together for fruitful discussion.
- When I started reading around the topic, Open Spaces have been around for 25+ years, yet I get the impression that very few people are familiar with the idea, so are Open Spaces too Agile, too “new age” for the organised corporate world?
- I don’t think they are too Agile or New Age I think there is a friction in the corporate world where if you have a classic hierarchical system where managers are there to dictate work to others, and that is their power, then they will fear the loss of power from dictator to facilitator, a risk of feeling useless. However if they have some agile background, or have read about the mind-set, then they are more open from understanding the benefits for themselves directly, the company and the team. A more horizontal ground, no stars, everyone same level, everyone sharing knowledge, a shift of mind-set is necessary. Usually everyone who has faced Open Spaces says they really love them.
- So any specific advice how can enterprises better benefit from this type of meeting structure?
- Try it (laughs) best thing is to try it!
- How can project managers utilise OS for the benefit of the projects they lead?
- Yes, during a retrospective, when taking the time to analyse the process, there are several ways, e.g. games, tools, and possible Open Spaces if you have a diversified team, that’s where you get the richness. If homogenous team that all think the same way maybe not so much benefit from Open Spaces. So at the end when analysing the developed process, but also at the beginning, to emerge how to solve problems, so e.g. on new project, where many complexities and you don’t know how to go about solving it, that could be a great thing to get all the stakeholders together to bring about some solutions. Also sharing knowledge, like the collective intelligence.
- Oh and why the Technology in Open Spaces Technology?
- That’s a good question, I don’t know (laughs)
To illustrate some of what Matteo mentioned I found an example of a past Open space facilitated meeting held in in Poland at the Empathy Festival in 2019 where multiple topics were raised, working to fight discrimination in multiple forms (so a complex topic), where over 50 participants from backgrounds such as commerce, finance, training, cosmetics, banking, charities, museums (i.e diversity) a were arranged in a circle all supplied with note pads and pens to add their items for discussion (facilitation of all to participate equally, no hierarchy). Katarzyna Kaźmierczak, a social psychologist that took part relates the WOW effect of such truly sincere human interaction with no pressure yet highly productive time spent realising that empathy isn’t just passive charity but also a need for self-awareness which allows for assertiveness.
PMI Switzerland Chapter will hold its first ever Open Space meeting on 28/05/2020, virtually (of course!) where up to 50 active participants are welcome to try out the format, for more details see:
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If you’d like to participate in a future Open Space meeting, want help in setting up your own Open Space, or would like to know more on the topic, or know why Open Spaces are sometimes called Open Space Technology ;) please contact the author (
Multicultural and multidisciplinary, with an agile and appreciative approach Matteo facilitates the re-organization of businesses and administrations in order to thrive in the digital age. Organizer of DevopsDays Geneva, TEDxGeneva, Responsive City Camps with Grégoire Japiot and of several open spaces and barcamps on agility and collective intelligence, Matteo often intervenes as a speaker on themes related to the impact of digital technology and positive economy.
Patryk Nosalik, MBA, PMP
18+ years international experience in B2B sales, vendor & project management, implementing: partner co-operation programmes, IT systems, regulatory compliance, products distribution in complex operating environments in a multiple entity organisations for financial services and B2B.
Sources / further reading (links valid 21/04/2020):