Online Conference Report

The most remarkable thing about the four-day, online Open Space conference I ran with Lucas Cioffi at last week is how strongly it replicated what so many of us have experienced in face-to-face open space meetings and events.  See the complete proceedings document here. From my Summary…

The intention was to extend and expand the best of the Organization Transformation symposium (where OST started), Open Space on Open Space, and OSLIST and support the sharing of all manner of practices, innovations and learnings. The invitation was to bring forth what’s been working – and learn together how to make more of it…

The plan was simple: Invite the world. Do three Openings, with start times spaced evenly around the clock, around the world, each one followed immediately by a Discussion Session with multiple breakouts possible. Then twelve more Discussion rounds evenly spaced over forty-eight hours. Finally, we’d close with a series of three Closing Circles, starting eight hours apart in our fourth day. All sessions were scheduled for two hours, space evenly across all time zones. We didn’t know if we’d have four, forty or four hundred participants…

The invitation went out just about a month before the start of the event. Forty-five participants were registered by the first Opening and sixty by the first Closing. Together, they created, managed and documented 22 working/learning sessions to address their most important issues and situations. The live action was a rich mix of voices and faces, participating by phone and computer, audio and video, reading and typing, link and file sharing. Notes were taken in a Collaborative Notes tool available in every breakout session. The Openings and Closings, and really the entire event, unfolded in ways remarkably similar to how face-to-face gatherings do. We made several important technical adaptations to the platform, and how we used it along the way, each time making it even more like face-to-face gatherings…

The conference agenda wall and proceedings document were open for public viewing throughout the event, and remain open at

Invisible but Undeniable Impact

Very fun to discover that an event I facilitated, the Open Space portion of the 2008 Scrum Alliance conference here in Chicago, had a big impact.

I just recently met someone who was among 200+ participants. After that event, he and two colleagues went back to their organization and ran a 2-day Open Space to save the day for a large software development project. What they did seems a textbook-perfect application of Open Space. But it’s just crazy lucky that I got to hear about it, for the first time, seven years later!

This sort of invisible impact highlights why it’s so hard to “track,” in conventional ways and terms, the value of Open Space.

Devoted and Disgruntled, an Open Space Roadshow

Improbable Road Movie from Improbable on Vimeo.

Here is a fantastic video made about an “open space roadshow” put on by Improbable Theatre Company in the UK, led by friend and colleague Phelim McDermott. Their theme was “Devoted and Disgruntled” and it all began as a single event seeking to rekindle the “community” in “the London theatre community.”

The roadtrip that emerged ended with Wosonos 2012 (World Open Space on Open Space practitioners’ conference) last year. This year they also did a mini roadshow so in all D&D Roadshow has done over 30 different open spaces nationwide in the last year and a half! Over 800 individual intertagged breakout session reports about theatre issues are posted online.

This particular video pulled together footage from three events, plus WOSonOS, but it’s more about Open Space than about theatre. This sort of open space roadshow could be replicated on any issue, in any sector or community, anywhere.

successful leadership cafe

the open space approach is best known for inviting meeting participants to craft their own agenda by taking personal responsiblity for issues they care about. the “world cafe” approach to “conversations that matter” is characterized by larger groups gathering in few-somes around bistro tables for several short rounds of conversation. usually there are several rounds, with table-mixing in between each, addressing a series of questions. sometimes the ever-shifting groups take successively deeper cuts on the same basic question.

last weekend we did something a bit different.

we hosted 100 scholarship finalists (high school seniors) and another 20 scholarship recipient students and alumni, in four rounds of conversations, each lasting 25-30 minutes, in a 20-table cafe. we had several purposes to accomplish. we wanted to promote the two hosting universities, give finalists a good taste of what it would be like to be part of this leadership scholars community, have conversations that mattered so that they would be genuine and useful (even to those who didn’t win the scholarships), and finally, this was still part of gathering data for evaluation and selection of scholarship winners.

the process

in the first round, we did something rather like open space. the question was, essentially, “what are the question(s)? or what should they be?” the task for each table was to generate a list of questions about leadership, community, how the world is, and how it should be. we asked, “what do young people know that nobody else seems to be noticing? what questions you are already living in, caring about and looking for ways to do something about? what questions do young people need to address on the way to leadership? what questions are you wrestling with and want to raise with your peers? what questions must young people raise in the organizations and communities you come from?” during this round, i went from table to table with a small tray, noticing progress and clearing away the last bits of box lunch trash. this round and three subsequent rounds lasted 25-30 minutes each.

in round two, each table chose one person to stay on at that table, and choose one question from their table’s list for the next round of discussion at that table. everybody else changed tables and twenty different, but important, conversations sprang up. notes were taken on flipchart paper, one sheet per table.

in round three, a new host stayed put while everyone else moved. the new host chose a new question, from the questions list at that table, from the list at their original table, or they could choose to recap and continue the previous conversation with new tablemates. again, 20 different conversations sprung up, as i pulled and posted the session two notes from each table. where a topic was continued, the group often kept their old notes for reference.

in round four, we changed hosts and tables as before, and asked one person from each new table to visit the snacks table, bringing some of everything to their tablemates. we also asked that the questions be chosen and conversations proceed with special emphasis on taking action in the next year or so, the first year of campus life.

at the end of that round, we invited everyone to turn toward the center, creating so many loosely concentric circles, sort of one big huddle. the task for the next 30-40 minutes was proposed as a whole-group conversation about “what happened here? what did you see, hear, feel, think, …notice? what did you learn? what do you want to remember or do as a result of what happened here today?”

as a finishing exercise, everyone was asked to reflect and write briefly on two questions… “what will you remember or do as a result of these conversations?” and “who were the 2 or 3 people who were most important to your experience today?” in this way, all of the scholarship finalists were included in the evaluation and selection process.

results …and replication

the individual tables buzzed through each round and i thought the plenary was remarkable for the level of ownership, engagement, and the genuine sense of community that had emerged. days later, my client confirmed a resounding success. turns out that several university and scholarship groups, and even some of the participating students, are eager to replicate what we did. the notes from each round will be shared with all participants, as fodder for reference and replication.

having a room full of “high potential” scholarship-seeking youth certainly didn’t hurt the quality of the conversation, but judging by what i’ve seen youth do in other places, this sort of competition is not the essential element for success. i’d expect any replications to meet with similar success, and the absence of the competition would allow for some tweaking of things like the evaluative writing task, which could become more of a moment of recognition, thanks and appreciation.

Economic Development in Buffalo

I was in Buffalo NY last week and facilitated a number of meetings for the City of Buffalo’s Department of Economic Development. We did a tenant meeting at the historic Broadway Market. We did a networking session for commercial development leaders. We did another session on housing and that got documented nicely by Buffalo Rising.

Buffalo’s lost half its population in the last 30-40 years. Lost lots of other things, too, as housing stock and jobs and tax revenues declined. That said, there are many good things happening there. And good people. We’re looking for next opportunities for bringing them together. We’re building a blogsite to support that togethering, as well. I’ll post that link when the site’s ready.

UPDATE: is now up and running, with reports from our first three meetings. Here’s the report from the largest of the meetings, with a video of the closing circle.

San Diego

Opening Space in San Diego this week. I did a large-ish department’s annual meeting last year and that is being repeated in OS this year, finished this morning. Wonderful to sit in the circle and talk “practice” with 30 or 40 people who’ve now done this twice and are keen to soak it into the rest of their year and work.

Keen too, to share it with the rest of the organizaiton. We’re going to do that in a couple days, when we open again for 100 or so of the management team. This is a new one for me, opening for subset and then opening just days later for the whole (and many people totally new to Open Space). Already, it’s made for good conversation about what this department has learned, and how it will be same and familiar and also very new and different to go now into Open Space with the larger organization.

Also… Hoping to meet up with OS friend and colleague Raffi Aftandelian while I’m here. Went over with the meeting group for dinner on the deck of the USS Midway. (a very BIG boat, but very small airport. amazing.) A bit more noodling on the Four Practices (previous post), too, which I’ll see about posting later.



Here’s a pretty good shot of me Opening Space at the Scrum Alliance gathering I facilitated recently in Chicago. This is a pretty good view of open space about to happen. Circle of 200+ people, many of them leaning in, listening. A big blank wall, grid of post-it notes at the end of the wall, me in the middle doing a quick briefing. Then they filled the wall with dozens of sessions, scheduled, conversed, typed, posted.

The remarkable thing about this particular gathering is the number of people who came up to me along the way, or mentioned in the large group comments, that they are using open space technology as a regular part of their business practice. Monthly meetings, staff meetings, project kick-off meetings, crisis pow-wows. All sorts. All very encouraging, too.

opening space for appreciative inquiry — and peace — in nepal and its government

romy shovelton emailed today, from her farm in wales, asking about mixing open space and appreciative inquiry. it turns out i have a pretty good story of such mixing, from grassroots to new national government, that i’d been meaning to update here.

on my third visit to nepal, i helped convene and facilitate a third open space event there, this one a first national summit for peaceful development. the first two meetings were a classroom presentation/demonstration of open space technology, for about 20 students and faculty at kathmandu college. the second was a city-wide event, organized on the success and with the skills gained in the first session, looking at the 20-year future of kathmandu.

at this second event, i made a point of having side conversations with as many of the 40 participants as i could, suggesting that we might do 4 days the following year, two days of open space, followed by two days of ost training. this was a model we’d used elsewhere and i thought it could give the depth of experience needed to accomplish the things that were being discussed for the next 20 years in kathmandu.

when i contacted my colleagues about returning for a third visit, they began organizing the event we’d discussed the previous year, with some important changes. it was to be four days, but it would be national in scope. it would be held in open space, but it would be based also on AI principles and the 4-D process. it would include training, as well, on both ost and ai.

i never would have believed it was possible, but my nepali colleagues never thought otherwise. so we did four one-day open space events, one on each of the four D’s, the first one shortened by opening speeches, the last one shortened by a grand closing ceremony that included gifts and acknowledgements and official thank yous in addition to the usual comments in a circle. the middle days opened with ost training observations and closed with evening sessions on how to do AI. we also started a blog that they used for several years.

since then they have had second, third and fourth national summits, sometimes in open space, sometimes with appreciative inquiry facilitated by ai originator, david cooperrider.

along the way, in the midst of the sometimes violent maoist resistance, a 6000(?)-year old landmark gate was destroyed in an explosion that also destroyed part of one of the organizers’ homes. the village where this happened was devastated by the loss, but this organizer emailed me almost immediately, saying that they were planning an open space to talk about rebuilding gate. i don’t know if that event ever formally happened, but having it there as a possibility in such a moment is surely worth something.

and now, after a fifth summit event just held in january, this one also in open space, and run totally on their own, without outside facilitators or consultants, they are planning a sixth national summit — this one for the 601 members of the soon-to-be-elected “constituent assembly” that is the budding solution to more than a decade of political, sometimes armed, in-fighting, and the governmental structure that will replace the ages-old nepali monarchy. the sixth summit will seek to infuse the new government with open space and appreciative inquiry.

Leave No Child INSIDE

I’m off tomorrow for Columbus Ohio, to open space for the Central Ohio Collaborative’s “Leave No Child INSIDE” Summit, part of a national movement in response to what Richard Louv has called “nature deficit disorder.”

I’ve built a blogsite for the summit and we expect to post proceedings, after we get back from camp. Looking forward to a couple of days at Campfire camp, no computer, and I’m told my cellphone won’t work there either. Nice.

Inviting Sales

Last September I ran into the people who make these cool (hot?) Sun Ovens. Turns out they have reps in Nepal, where I was set to do an Open Space training day in November. We made some connections and got the Nepali Sun Oven guys invited to come demo the ovens at the conference day, hoping that some of the community organizations attending would be good contacts.

The day of the event, I thought the Sun Oven guys spent most of the time out on the terrace, cooking up momos for the 40-50 people who came for the conference. Now they write to say that they haven’t heard back from any of the contacts they made on this day, but…

Everything is fine out here. It really snowed in kathmandu after 62 years yesterday, It was really cold, may be it was gift from the god as it was valentine’s day….Ha ha…
I really learned a great deal from the conference, me and my friend manish was there to attend the conference and we have used the open space technique in our office and it is really wonderful that we are comming out with wonderful ideas to boost up the sales of our products…especially the condom as you might not have yet known that i do the marketing of condoms imported from malaysia and also doing the marketing of Oxygen concentrators as well and i have been telling my friends about the conference and the open space techniques as well…

Yet another case of “whoever comes is the right people” … “whatever happens is the only thing that could have” …and “be prepared to be surprised.”

Inviting Aspen


This was the scene last night at the high school in Aspen, Colorado, in the first of two open space meetings to address a set of transportation issues that has generated 26 ballot initiatives in 37 years. This is the kind of space that you do the opening, unplug the microphone, and keep it with you, just in case. Participants posted 27 issues, which after combinations generated 18 working sessions. The Aspen Times (photo) and Aspen Daily News both had good things to say about our progess on their front pages this morning. We’ll have another round on Saturday.

In the meantime, today was my first time on skis in 10 or 12 years. Let’s just say that nobody skied the Greens at Buttermilk as hard as I did today! Hoping to make it a big Blues day tomorrow at Snowmass.

Inviting Positive Societal Transformation
in Nepal

This in from my colleagues in Nepal last week, the third iteration of the Summit meeting we started in 2004:

It is our great pleasure to inform you that the third national summit of imagine initiatives of Nepal is successfully concluded on 10 September,2006 in Pokhara. The three day summit made a clear way about how NAINN, Regional Networks and Imagine Initiatives have to move forward in the changed context of Nepal.

The participants discussed on the roles of AI people and organizations. The entire nation is eagerly waiting for ‘NEW NEPAL’ (NAINN’s Ultimate Goal, set in the first summit, 2004). The election of Constituent Assembly and new constitution are at the gate. We AI people and organizations have to play a vital role now so that the election and constituent will be able to address the desire, wishes and need of people.

We can go to the people in the grassroots, every corner of the country and every individual. We can make the people clear how they can make their nation and future bright being positive. NAINN and Imagine Initiatives can facilitate to make the best constituent. This is what discussed in the summit.

The second important thing we discussed in the summit is that we all will continue gearing up the ‘positive mind setting’ and ‘positive societal transformation’ movements this year as well but faster…

Looking forward to joining them in November, for one-day Open Space meeting to follow up on this and other work.

Inviting the World We Want

Two years ago I worked with Phil Cubeta and some others to create something we called The Giving Conference. Since then, at least two Omidyar Network member conferences, something called Recent Changes Camp, staff meetings in Rio de Janeiro, and a bunch of other things have happened as results. Now there are conferences trying to happen in Thailand and Chicago.

Phil offered the following in the Thailand planning thread. This is why my facilitation of Open Space Technology is morphing into a larger practice of Inviting Leadership.

…the secret to a good open space is the invitation and also the invitation list. “Whoever comes are the right people,” but be sure to invite the right people. Go for broke would be my suggestion. Go for significant potential funders, political leaders, media, civic leaders, nonprofit professionals, thought leaders, moral leaders and religious leaders. Ask yourself who can convene these networks. Go to those “mavens” and enlist their support in not only emailing or writing the key people, but actively and personally inviting them.

The real work of open space is in networking networks together. That has to be done as the pre-work before the invitation goes out. In fact, the invitation will be drafted and redrafted, negotiated if you will, by each of the co-conveners as they insert phrases of important to their networks.

Michael Herman and I did this together three years ago for the Open Space on Giving. Our invitation was ultimately gibberish, because so many people pulled it in so many directions as a precondition of their inviting their networks. But the revision process led to their buy-in; and their personal invitation, not the words used, but their willingness to invite people over the phone, is what got the key players there. So treat the words as flypaper. Get key mavens stuck in the glue. The more they struggle with the the words the more involved they become, until the exact words no longer matter.

Phil and I worked by email two years ago, and lots of phone time. We traded 37 different drafts, many of them major revisions, of the invitation. We went round and round with words, but around a core purpose: Giving. And that is what’s been sustained and sustaining everything since then, that core purpose, in so many different languages. It’s just great to see so many ripples from something so simple as one short “invitation.”

Food Security Summit

Reporting today from Day Two of the Rockford and Four Rivers Regional Food Security Summit, the latest in a line of events that dates back to the original summit that was convened in Open Space by the Chicago Community Trust in November, 2001.

More than 60 people, ordinary citizens that is, have gathered here at Rockford College, raised and discussed more than 30 issues, including land use, farming and gardening, food pantries, organics, community education, marketing, school lunches, fair trade, among many others.

We are using a weblog to post all of the proceedings and will be experimenting with that as a platform for sustained community action. There’s a lot of life in this circle. Maybe it’s all the organic food. Whatever the explanation, meetings like this give me hope for the future.

Open Space Conference Seeds Sprout

Three years ago, I designed and facilitated an Open Space track of the Agile/XP Universe Conference for programmers here in Chicago. Nice to hear that some of the seeds sewn there have begun to sprout. This report came in recently…

Yesterday, I opened space at the PNSQC conference in Portland OR. (Pacific Northwest Software Quality Conference) Ellen Gottesdiener (copied on this email) opened space in July at the Agile 2005 conference, also software-related. In both of those the OS ran concurrently with other sessions. Here in the NW we are planning another software-related regional conference (XP Fest NW) for next spring to be all Open Space, all the time.

The first time I saw Open Space in a conference setting in 2002, Michael Herman opened it for the XP/Agile Universe.

It’s not the ideal way to facilitate Open Space, [conference tracks] but it makes for a more enjoyable and rich conference, IMHO. The more conferences I attend with Open Space tracks, the more impatient I get with powerpoint presentations. Another thing I’ve noticed in conferences that regularly include Open Space…the senior folks and “gurus” tend to show up there and become more accessible than in more formal sessions.

I’d agree with Diana. Better to run the whole thing in Open Space, but sometimes the tracks are a necessary bridge to that. Go, Diana, Go! And perhaps the coolest part about Open Space is that somebody can see it once or twice and then just dive into the leadership for themselves. It helps to have a couple of good looks at it, but after that, it’s just a matter of Practice!

BlawgThink in Open Space a Winner

Talked with organizer Matt Homann today, who tells me that he’s not heard a single negative comment about last weekend’s BlawgThink conference. Recall from previous postings here that we started with 2/3 of a day in traditional conference mode, then spent a full day in Open Space “unconference” mode. Here’s one of my favorite comments:

I just returned from the Blawgthink conference in Chicago. As the name suggests, this was a group interested in law blogging and law bloggers. You know, you’d think a room full of lawyers would be boring. You’d be wrong actually. This group was a blast.

Matt’s posted comments and more comments. Looking forward to more experimentation with the BlawgThink/LexThink gang.

Report from Aspen

First, the hiking was fabulous.

Second, in The Conversation, the Open Space conference that was my reason for being there, we did two innovative things that bear reporting here, for future practice.

One of them happened very spontaneously. We convened for the opening at 3pm, built the agenda, and then started the first working sessions in Open Space at 4:30pm. Meanwhile, 15 or so of our 100 participants were battling weather conditions, airport delays and mountain traffic in hired vans, still trying to reach us in Aspen. So we called them on cellphones and gave them the first session discussion topics. They had their sessions in the vans!

The other innovation was part of the program design, in response to the sponsors’ request for “some structure” and “panel discussion.” How did we build a structured panel discussion in the middle of Open Space? We picked the five panelists from participants, but not until just a few hours before the “discussion.” We asked them to talk about their experience at the conference, everything that was being accomplished, and also to look forward at what was yet to be done or discussed. We put them in the center of the room, rather than at the front. And we did it at the end of 1.5 days of Open conversation, the evening before what would be the closing half-day for action planning.

It worked perfectly, in that we allowed for panelists to tag or be tagged by others, so that those center seats could rotate. After a couple of rounds, the panel broke down, into one big circle with a talking stick. The structure gave way to community. We heard ideas, insights and appreciations from many people, which did an excellent job of setting up the next conversations, convened on the last morning. Next time, I’d put 6 chairs in the middle and use that empty chair as invitation to come join, and the signal that somebody should leave the panel.

The Conversation event was a great success, by all accounts. Two accounts of The Conversation, one from the event and one from the vans, were published in newspapers and are posted in my wiki notebook.

Rocky Mountain High

Reporting in from Aspen, Colorado, where I will be facilitating The Conversation, a large-ish Open Space Summit on the future of what it means to be Jewish in America in the 21st Century. Where else to have this visionary meeting, but on the mountain top? Some interesting innovations built into the program, to be reported on later this week.

Aspen itself is absolutely gorgeous. I always breathe better in Colorado. I love it here. So much more space, room to breathe. My theory is that the mountains make us more aware of how far we can go up, but whatever the reason, it’s working for me. Looking forward to having Jill here later in the week.

Meanwhile, there’s a big climate change conference finishing up just before we start. Al Franken almost ran me over coming around a corner in the hallway today. Theresa Heinz Kerry standing next to me at the front desk as I was checking in. And Al Gore passing by later this evening. Too bad they’re not working in Open Space!

Oh yes, and I guess the John Denver festival is just wrapping up, down the road a piece. Woohoo!

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