Skip to content

What’s missing with open space meetings?

Recently I went to an open space meeting, or an unconference and was engaged by the conversations I had, and yet found myself wanting more.

For those of you not yet in the know, an open space meeting is essentially a gathering, spanning one day or several, around a common topic, where there is no preset agenda. The participants create the agenda on the day by putting up topics for small group discussion. The facilitators provide a grid of time slots and meeting spaces, and people put up the ideas or problems they would like to discuss. At the appropriate times, people vote with their feet and go to the small group gathering that interests them most. They can stay at one group, or flit between groups. Meeting notes are captured, and then published in a wiki or some other format.

The quality of the conversations depends on the participants, the topics, and the energy of the space. It’s a different way of having a professional conference. You are responsible for creating your own experience. Ok, I buy into that. But still, I find myself wanting more. What’s missing for me?

For me it’s the difference between formal and informal learning, where structured conferences are the former, and unconferences are the latter. There is a place for both. One is about learning in a designed path, in a structured way, to a particular outcome. The other is about exploring a topic.  So it depends what I need at that time. Am I exploring or wanting to get somewhere?

What I love most about the open space meetings is going places where I never thought I’d go. What I don’t like is when I’m looking to plunge deeply into a topic, and be taken to place I didn’t know I could go, by someone who has explored and thought about it in depth — when I need a guide.

Now that I’ve written this it seems obvious, but it’s not so obvious in the moment when you’re having great conversations and still find yourself looking around for the sage. I want both. I want to dive deep with a guide, and then explore, with others, and find my own way. Like improvisational jazz — structure and unstructure within the same experience.

Can’t we design a middle way?

Posted in business, learning profession, OD, tools.

Tagged with , , , , .

6 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. Saqib Ali says

    more like “Meet the press”???

  2. Rani H. Gill says

    More like anchored instruction. Having an opening piece that grounds the group and puts them on the same page, and gives them a depth of knowledge on a topic that can then be critiqued, referenced, or otherwise a jumping off point for discussion. Something provactive. Meet the Press (in my understanding) is more like a panel discussion.

  3. JOE Houde says

    Rani – unconferences are similar ot how people like to think of informal learning, but not so much like how informal learning really works. Informal learning is amazingly outcome-driven, at least in a professional context. People tend to pursue informal learning due to some desire to change something. Unconference as exploring would then feel a little unsatisfying because of that.

    Also, one of the hallmarks of informal learning is that people seek out individuals with deeper knowledge than they have in order to learn from them. The most common informal learning tends to be ‘near-peer’ learning, where people have a little more experience and are close enough in social status to be approachable.

    With these two points in mind, a way that I have seen open space work well is with people sponsoring the sessions, and even making them workshops that they lead. (which is a little like what your anchored instruction idea, I think.)

  4. Rani H. Gill says

    Joe – good point about informal learning being outcome driven and near-peer learning. That’s a very useful distinction. What your points make me realize is that the topic of the particular conference was not focused enough — it was too broad to be useful to me (to others as well?). The sponsoring group could have done more work in finding sponsors for sessions – thus giving the workshop structure that I was craving.

    thanks for the comments and insights.

  5. Dwayne Hodgson says

    My three experiences as a participant in Open Space sessions also left me unsatisfied. In each case, the relevance and immediacy of the small group discussions was enhanced by being able to choose your own topics “vote with your feet”; however, in the end each exercise seemed to dissipate and there was no common focus, rigorous documentation or meaningful follow-up. And as you noted, the quality of the conversations varied dramatically according to the group dynamics and/or the de facto facilitation that took place in the small group discussions.

    I think that including an Open Space session on say Day 3 of a large, 4-day conference would be a great way for people to synthesize their learning so far, address their emergent learning needs, and create a common understanding that would inform the final Day’s workshops, plenary, etc. However, to make it work well I’d:
    a. structure a very clear overarching session;
    b. create more guidelines for how each sub-group should function (e.g. ensure that everyone has a chance to contribute)
    c. create a semi-structured way of documenting what happened in the group (e.g. noting themes, key ideas, conclusions, recommendations, new questions, unfinished conversations, and/or actions items)
    d. facilitate a more meaningful follow-up conversation with all the participants to get to the “so what?”

    I also think that Open Space might work really well for a community consultation exercise in which you wanted to explore a complex subject (e.g. community sustainability), but even there I’d incorporate your idea of having some preliminary sessions to introduce a common theoretical framework and some innovative ideas.

  6. Rani H. Gill says

    Dwayne – thanks for the feedback. Glad to hear you also felt the same way. I love your ideas, especially the Day 3 idea. I think also, that’s it’s about expectations. In a community consultation exercise, you want more open ended conversation and the expectations are different. Lots to think about.

Some HTML is OK

or, reply to this post via trackback.