Open Space as we do it: good, but not for me

I’ve come to think of Open Space workshops, as used in the Agile community, as having three purposes.

  1. They give people a sense of belonging — “I’ve finally met people who care about what I care about! / are grappling with the problems I’m having!” This is by far, to my mind, the most noticeable result.

  2. They provide individuals who have problems with help. The effect can be anything from a shallow “I could try this…” to a real Aha! moment.

  3. On rarer occasions, people who have decided to devote themselves to a broader topic can get, over the course of the workshop, a solid sense of what the most important issues are. That issue survey informs their later efforts, though I don’t think it itself provides a solution or a plan toward a solution. (The survey of Agile testing issues that Bret Pettichord, a few others, and I got at the 2004 XP/AU Open Space was invaluable.)

I think Open Space in our community is not a tool for solving a big problem by gathering together a group of people devoted to it and having them tackle, in small & fluctuating groups, those parts or aspects of it where they can best apply their talents. I believe that was Open Space’s original purpose.

My disenchantment with Open Space is mostly a result of my own poor expectations and personality traits. I am by nature a “let’s solve some big problem” kind of person in any group setting, so I’m attracted to that original purpose of Open Space Technology and disappointed when it doesn’t emerge. I’m also not a person who’s moved by a sense of belonging (except in an abstract, “community of ideas” way).

For large-scale problem-solving and the pushing of abstract ideas, I prefer the LAWST format. Because the sessions are focused on asking questions of a particular person who thinks she has an idea to share, you can get a longer and more in-depth understanding of a topic. But because the schedule is even less planned than in Open Space, there’s more opportunity for the different sessions to cohere into a sense that the workshop was about some-thing and that conclusions were reached about that thing.

How that works:

  1. In one of the presentations, someone says something that strikes a chord.
  2. The collective intelligence amplifies that chord through questioning.
  3. People who have more to say about that chord put themselves on the schedule.
  4. People who don’t take themselves off, or desultory question shortens their time.

LAWST is a pretty effective blend of structure and not-structure. Good job, Brian and Cem.

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