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Reflections on an Open Space Conference

Last week I ran an Open Space conference for 50 service providers who work on connecting individuals with disabilities to employment. For the uninitiated, Open Space is a format that encourages dialogue and problem-solving around key topics, rather than pre-set presentations. Just wanted to capture a few thoughts/reflections while they're fresh:

  • I worked with a team of about 8 people to put the conference together. We did it entirely through teleconferencing, a project wiki and some emails--not a single face-to-face meeting. Logistically, the Forum went off without a hitch, proving to me once again that face-to-face for planning can be overrated.
  • We violated one of the tenets of Open Space by identifying the topics/issues to be discussed ahead of time. I did this because we felt like it might be too much to go from traditional conferencing to the wild frontier of a self-organizing conference with nothing in between. It worked well, as it gave people some focus for the discussions. Next time we may go totally Open Space. 
  • We ended up being a little more old-fashioned than I wanted when it came to note-taking. Ideally, we would have had people working directly in a wiki, projected onto a screen. Unfortunately we had last-minute tech issues that forced us to go with the old "flip chart" approach. I must admit that I'm spoiled at this point and was glad that someone else will be typing up those notes.
  • Several of the individuals attending the conference--and a few of our facilitators--have disabilities, including visual impairments and brain injury. A few were in wheelchairs. I was concerned about moving people around to different rooms, taking notes, etc., which forced me to be much more aware of the issues that people with disabilities face in the workplace. Interestingly, these challenges were not difficult to overcome--they just required us to think ahead a little and be prepared.
  • We got rave reviews from participants about the effectiveness of using the Open Space format. We had them focusing on ideas for addressing a number of different challenges, so they basically had an entire day to brainstorm and network with colleagues. Apparently this was a massive relief to people who are sick of attending "death by PowerPoint" conferences. They felt like their voices were heard and that some actionable ideas came out of the groups.
  • Our "next step" plan is to put everything on a wiki so that people can see the ideas that were developed. Interestingly, at the closing session when we were discussing this, a few people kept saying that "you" (meaning the group that organized the Forum) needed to follow up on the ideas the group generated. I pointed out that the power of both Open Space and a wiki is that ANYONE can take charge of an idea that interests them, so we were transferring the ownership back to them. Not sure this was totally appreciated, but at the same time, it's where we need to be.

What seemed to work well for us was providing people with Open Space guidelines prior to the Forum and then reviewing those guidelines again during the opening. We also identified facilitators ahead of time, but then asked for volunteer notetakers in each group. This seemed to get people engaged as  co-creators.

I'm not sure what I would change for the next time, other than diving deeper into Open Space. The group seemed like they could handle it and I think it would be an interesting experience for them. I'll also be sure that we have the technology to put our notes directly on the wiki so that we avoid having to re-type them.

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