120. Unconferences, Open Spaces with Doc List

July 30, 2019

On today's episode, we are joined by special guest, Doc List to talk about Open Spaces and unconferences. Doc is an educator, speaker and Open Space facilitator. With a background in software technology, he was thrust into the world of Open Space and has not looked back since. He shares some of the background of Open Space, along with the thinking behind this way of sharing ideas and why this method works. There has also been a move towards more organizations having unconferences, which differ from Open Spaces, but have many of the same principles and ideas. These bottom up, more organic and collaborative spaces are a departure from traditional conferences, which hold the idea that there is only one expert who everyone should listen to. Rather, these radically different gatherings are empowering opportunities, where everyone feels valued through being included. While they may seem unstructured, these spaces require a great deal of planning to run smoothly and when they do, they can be enormously beneficial both to the individuals and the organization at large. To learn about these spaces, join us today!


Key Points From This Episode:


  • What the philosophy behind Open Space is.
  • Some of the differences between Open Space and unconference. 
  • What the five principles and one law of Open Space is.
  • Who the bumblebee and butterfly are.
  • How topics are decided on in an Open Space.
  • What the role of the facilitator is in an Open Space.
  • What Lean Coffee is and how it’s different to unconference.
  • And much more!

Transcript for Episode 120. Unconferences, Open Spaces with Doc List

[0:00:01.9] MN: Hello and welcome to The Rabbit Hole, the definitive developer’s podcast in fantabulous Chelsea Manhattan. I’m your host, Michael Nunez. Our co-host today.

[0:00:09.8] DA: Dave Anderson.

[0:00:10.7] MN: Today, we’ll be talking about open spaces and Agile coaching. What’s the deal with open spaces?

[0:00:16.2] DA: Yeah, what’s up with that? We just had a company meeting and you know, we just did all this crazy stuff.

[0:00:22.8] MN: Yeah, often times, as I will have Open Space which is something we’ll dive in to more detail but before we do, we have a special guest, we have Doc List. How’s it going, Doc?

[0:00:35.1] DL: It’s going very well, thanks, I like the way you managed to manage to avoid that, that was good.

[0:00:38.5] MN: Yeah, I managed to avoid saying what’s up doc, that would, yeah.

[0:00:42.6] DA: That would just completely ruin everything and then no one would have any fun.

[0:00:46.8] MN: Doc, tell us a little bit about yourself?

[0:00:50.3] DL: I’m a career software technology guy. I started out long, long, long ago, working on mainframes and worked in all sorts of systems and all sorts of software and in about 2007, I started working for a little company and they were doing Agile by name. I’ve been doing Agile like stuff since the 80s but nobody had given it a name yet.

I joined this company and the guy who was there kind of main architect, designer, visionary guy. One day he said, “I’m starting up this thing and I want to do an open space, do you know what an open space is?” I said, “no, I have no clue.” He said, well here’s the book, would you read this and because I know you’ve been a professional speaker. I’m sure you’ll be fine, would you be a facilitator for this?

[0:01:37.6] DA: Just go with it.

[0:01:38.5] MN: Yeah.

[0:01:39.2] DL: That was pretty much it, that was the beginning of the of.net community.

[0:01:45.2] DA: I do believe I saw you at the open space that we had at Stride company meeting and you may have been facilitating it.

[0:01:53.0] DL: Yup. One of the things I discovered early on was that it’s easy to follow the book, it’s like Scrum, right? We’re talking about Agile, it’s like Scrum.

[0:02:01.1] DA: Right, there’s a basic set of instructions that if you just follow this bullet points then you’ll be there.

[0:02:08.0] DL: Yeah, you’re doing it. In the Agile community, the catch phrase has always been not doing agile but being Agile because that’s about the mindset and so forth.

[0:02:18.0] DA: Right, the spirit of it like, staying true the essence and not like the rules.

[0:02:24.2] DL: Right. The same is true of Open Space. Having read the book and having that other people who read the book. What I realized is that anybody could read the book. The book was written by literally written by a guy named Harrison Owen who came up with the idea back in the late 80s and he said –

[0:02:42.9] DA: I didn’t realize they’d be around for so long.

[0:02:44.4] DL: Yeah, it comes out of the organizational development community.

[0:02:48.6] DA: I see.

[0:02:50.6] DL: It was an approach to how do we have an event where we can fully engage the participants as participants, not attendees? He said that when he went to conferences, what he found is that the sessions might be good but the best times, the most valuable times are during coffee breaks, when he could talk to people about whatever they wanted.

[0:03:14.2] DA: Yeah, I think we’ve talked about Open Space at least briefly or maybe a variant of Open Space on conference. They’ve had this, we’ve done this before at Stride where you know, we have the day long company meeting and you know, largely unstructured. Also, I conference this sometimes there’s like a parallel track like PyCon does this where t here’s always the hallway track, there’s always the coffee if you want truly unstructured meetings, but if you want to – a space to meet up then they provide that as well.

[0:03:49.9] DL: Yup. So, it’s interesting because there have been evolutions of it. So, when Open Space started to reach the wider world outside of purely organizational development, it got embraced by the technical community and in fact, the first on conferences were put on by O’Riley, the publishers.

[0:04:08.3] MN: Yeah.

[0:04:09.7] DL: Called Foo Camp. Needless to say, the next ones were called Bar Camp.

[0:04:15.7] MN: Yeah, is that bass camp?

[0:04:21.6] DL: And the change there was open space was about, how do we get a bunch of people together who maybe feel passionate about some topics and instead of creating the programming for them, give them a chance to have a voice? And what they did with un-conferences is they said, well, anybody can come and they can present, they can teach, they can collaborate.

But we only have so much time and space and so we’re going to vote on the topics and that is one of the main differences between sort of pure Open Space and un-conference.

[0:04:54.9] DA: What are the basic rules that you need to follow in order to be an open space? I feel like most of the time that I’ve seen this out in the wild, it’s probably been more trending towards an unconference than an Open Space.

[0:05:06.6] DL: That’s very likely. In Open Space, there are – there were originally four principles, they’re now five and the four prints were – whenever it starts is the right time, whoever comes is the right people, whatever happens is the only thing that could have and when it’s over, it’s over.

In the last few years, they added and wherever it happens is the right place and I’m not responsible for the bad grammar in any of them, I just want to add. That’s the way Harrison wrote them. And then he added the one law which is now called the law of mobility. Which says, if you find yourself in circumstances where you’re neither sharing nor learning in a way you’d like, go somewhere else.

[0:05:53.5] DA: Which is a kind of radical and freeing idea in itself.

[0:05:56.7] DL: Yeah. And different from program sessions where I think there’s always this kind of social pressure, psychological pressure that if I get up and leave, will the speaker be offended? Will the other attendees look at me and stare at me as I leave?

[0:06:13.8] DA: Will they heckle me as I leave?

[0:06:14.9] MN: Yeah.

[0:06:15.5] DL: Yeah. Open Space gets rid of that and so therefore unconferences get rid of that which is it’s kind of expected that if you’re not getting something out of where you are, you’ll go somewhere else and you may go to multiple places. So that led to the definition of two behavior patterns, one is the bumble bee. The bumble bee goes from session to session, maybe stays a few minutes, five minutes, 10 minutes, whatever, and then takes what they got from that session, goes to another session and maybe they share some of what they got, if they picked up something else.

It’s sort of the idea of flitting from flower to flower and pollenating. That’s expected. Now, if it were just really talking about with the law of mobility.

[0:06:57.2] DA: Yeah, I feel like I often end up in that pattern because like sometimes, I’ll have like major fear of missing out. The fomo strikes hard. Then, I can’t decide if I want to like, I want to talk to everyone, I want to be all the places.

[0:07:13.7] DL: Yeah, that is a challenge and that’s part of what it’s designed to allow for, the other behavior pattern is called the butterfly and that’s where you go, you know, you just need some quiet time, you go sit in a chair, on a wall, in the park, whatever and another person may come along and chat with you, that may happen, it may not happen or you may do that deliberately and you end up with some ad hoc conversations happening.

Which going back to Harrison Owen’s origins of Open Space is like a coffee break, right? “Well, I’m just taking a rest, look, somebody else came along, let’s chat about something,” and it may be the most meaningful conversation you have.

[0:07:51.3] DA: Right. That’s awesome.

[0:07:53.6] MN: I think, when you have these principles and the law of mobility, What are the next steps to having the open space. I imagine you need space to have these different sessions?

[0:08:05.3] DL: Yup.

[0:08:06.1] MN: And time, right? You have to divide the time and the space.

[0:08:09.3] DA: I think it’s also the right people.

[0:08:10.9] MN: And the right people. But before that –

[0:08:14.4] DL: I want to correct that last one. Because I believe in that the principle that says whoever comes is the right people. The idea of this is that – the one we did for Stride, right? Is, not everybody from Stride was there. So, the people who came were there because they were available because they chose to, because it was important to them, whatever it was.

[0:08:35.0] MN: Right.

[0:08:36.5] DL: And therefore, they were the right people because the conversations that were held were created by the people who were there. Every once in a while, I run into an organization and well, we want to put this online, in fact, it may be that one of your leaders suggested this and I rejected it. Let’s put it online and people can promote their topics before we get there.

The problem with that is it takes away the relationships between the people and their interest in the topics which come up. And the process of creating the agenda as you guys experienced is that someone has a topic, they come up and they announce it. And so, right away, you’re starting to create some connection between the people and the person proposing the topic and the topic itself and what’s going on.

[0:09:24.7] MN: This has to be something that you’re like passionate enough that you’re willing to kind of actually, bring it in front of everyone.

[0:09:32.8] DL: Yes. And be brave enough and what I typically see is what I call the pause which is when I announce, “okay, it’s time to start creating the agenda.” If there are people who have done this before, they’ll come right up and do it like Ken did because he’s done many Open Spaces.

[0:09:51.7] MN: Right.

[0:09:52.7] DL: But then, there’s this lull where the people who have never done this before are sitting there and probably thinking things along the lines of, “do I really want to get up in front of people and propose something that may sound stupid?” There’s that man, that psychologic al restraint we put on ourselves and then somebody breaks the ice and again, this is what happened at Stride is one person and then another person and all of a sudden it just rolls.

[0:10:20.3] MN: It’s like popcorn that you put in a microwave for some time and it’s silent and then one corn pops and then they all slowly start happening, starts cracking on and then all the ideas come out and it’s really great to see the silence and then all the ideas that sprout after that.

So, when people have ideas and they share it in front of everyone and we have the ideas up in a place where everyone can see, the next step is to vote for the topics, right?

[0:10:51.6] DL: Yes. Before that, we have said, how many spaces will there be and how long is each session? We know what our capacity is. In a true Open Space, everything that’s proposed is help.

[0:11:07.3] MN: I see.

[0:11:08.2] DL: In an un-conference, that is not the case. The other big difference is frequently, well, always in Open Space has a move towards action. We’re having this conversation so we can decide to do something about something. An unconference, where typically doesn’t. It’s just a way of arranging things, but when I do them as we did with stride, we want to have an action segment of it because that’s where we get the value of the wisdom of all the people there.

[0:11:41.5] DA: It creates some stakes to these, you have to decide,  you have to narrow the focus and decide what you really cared about the most and what you’re willing to carry forward because you know, you may have had some really great conversations and those  have affected you in some way, but you know, they may not have the energy or any action items required to move forward from there.

[0:12:04.0] DL: That was actually an interesting part of the conversation with the Stride leadership. We’re going to have conversations and then what? I think in the past, the ones you guys have done, my understanding is there was not an action component and that was the problem.

[0:12:20.4] MN: Right.

[0:12:19.6] DA: Yeah. The action component may have been within each of the specific things and so it wasn’t a narrowing, it was a broadening, we just came up with ideas and ideas and actions and actions and actions and then the reality of Monday morning comes and it’s like I got to do my job. I don’t have time to do all of this stuff.

[0:12:43.3] DL: Right, which is why when we did the action segment, I specifically said, “who is on point for this?”

[0:12:48.3] DA: Right

[0:12:50.2] MN: I do have a question though. I’ve been with Stride for a very long time and we’ve done like Open Space with a smaller group because the company wasn’t as big and the reason unconference feels different because of the amount of people attend. Doc, do you notice or do you see how behaviors change depending on the size in Open Space or unconference?

[0:13:15.6] DL: Yes, I do. The largest I’ve done was 400 people.

[0:13:19.4] MN: Whoa that sounds –

[0:13:21.8] DL: However, the largest I have ever read about until a few years ago was one that Harris and Owen and somebody else did in Germany with 2,000 psychotherapists.

[0:13:32.8] MN: That’s a lot of people, that is a lot of energy.

[0:13:35.9] DA: Were they going for the Guinness Book Record?

[0:13:39.1] DL: And then, you guys know who Kent Beck is? The guy who came up with extreme programming or at least one of the guys who came up with it. His wife is an Open Space facilitator. I met them at a conference in Sweden and I am just chatting with her. I don’t know anything about her. She goes, “I do Open Space.” I said, “really?”

She’s said, “yeah, I just finished doing one with this organization. There are about 4,000 people there.”

[0:14:01.8] MN: What? Oh my gosh.

[0:14:04.7] DA: And when you say Open Space you’re talking about like a truly Open Space.

[0:14:08.3] DL: True Open Space where everything is proposed is held. The one that was done in Germany they did in two circus tents. So huge tents and they had balloons and every balloon was a space where people could get together and talk. In some cases, there were two people and then some there were 50.

[0:14:27.2] DA: That sounds very appropriate somehow just being in a circus tent with that many people. So how do you discover the structure of a truly Open Space? I guess with an unconference I get it because there is constraints and being an engineer, thinking constraints. There is a box, I can put my piece of paper in there and then it will fit. People will vote on my topic; we’ll see how many people want to go and we’ll arrange it in a grid and there’s order, but I guess it is funny and hard to visualize how you would self-organize such a large number of topics.

[0:15:06.5] DL: It is challenging. But when you’ve done the planning so it seems like, you know we just show up and create an agenda then we do action then we’re done. But the reality is that a big part of it is the planning, the preparation. Where is this going to be? How big are the spaces? For instance, at the venue that we used for Stride, there’s no way I could have done a true Open Space because we are constrained by space.

And if we had allowed every idea that came up, there wouldn’t have even no room. And the way you talked about putting things up on the wall that’s called the marketplace. What typically happens then is we have numbers and letters or whatever it is and when somebody proposes a topic, they immediately go pick up a sticky that has a time and a place on it. They put it on their sticky, which is their proposal and it goes on the wall, period, there is no voting.

So, it is just the one in Germany. They may have had 2,000 numbers up there or 500 numbers or whatever it was and you just go up and you pick one and say, “okay,” and this will be at this time and then you do a little bit of organization in terms of day and time and location. But everything gets held. Well we couldn’t do that and a lot of the ones I’ve done have ended up being unconference style like the alt.net community.

They did want to accomplish some stuff, but more important to them was getting together with their community that shared an interest in this idea of, we’re committed to Microsoft but there is other stuff out there. How do we incorporate that? They did a series of this around the country over the course of several years.

[0:16:47.5] DA: Just gathering feedback from people and ideas.

[0:16:50.2] DL: Yeah, I mean the first time I ever saw somebody talk about the language F sharp, which is a functional programming language, a guy came and he adjusted the presentation and that’s all it was and people want to know what it was about.

[0:17:02.2] DA: That’s cool. So now that you have explained that I feel like it is crystalized in my brain and I’ve realized now that I have been to an Open Space. The one at PyCon US every year is an Open Space because no one voted for the topic that I put on the board. I just put it out there and then prayed that people show up and they did and it was great.

[0:17:25.3] DL: The prayer worked?

[0:17:25.7] DA: Yeah, the prayer worked. I’ve been doing something right.

[0:17:31.6] DL: So, I want to take us back to earlier in the conversation because we’ve talked a little bit about why, what makes me specifically more something. I don’t even know what the word is.

[0:17:45.6] MN: A specialist.

[0:17:46.5] DL: The reality is I talked about anybody can pick up the book and read the book and know the mechanics of, right? But like Agile, there is also a mindset to it and my job as facilitator is to set the tone for that, to open the space that is literally a phrase that’s used and I think of it also as stirring the energy. So, it is challenging at yours because I couldn’t walk around the room. Normally, we start with everybody sitting in a big circle and I walk around inside the circle.

And I in my mind, I am connecting all of the people there and I think I had the people at your on conference look around the room at each other but what I do when I walk the circle is I say, “look across the circle,” and that people you see share some of the same passions you have. Here is that topic and they’re interested in it just like you are.

[0:18:44.1] MN: I see.

[0:18:44.9] DL: And so, creating a spirit in the group and a mindset in the group of what they’re there to accomplish, that’s my real job.

[0:18:53.0] DA: Yeah.

[0:18:53.4] DL: And that I worked with Michael, the other Michael in crafting the invitation because that is also really important.

[0:19:02.9] DA: Right making sure that before you enter the space, you’re mentally and physically prepared for what the requirements are and what the general tone is going to be.

[0:19:15.3] DL: Well and what the goal is, why are we coming together? as opposed to just show up.

[0:19:23.5] DA: I guess it comes to the question that I was having, it seems like such a loose concept and it seems like you’re saying anyone can do it, but it seems challenging to know if you are doing it right or if you’re getting – I guess with the rules whatever happens is the right thing that happened and you don’t have to worry about getting it right, maybe.

[0:19:47.2] DL: There is no right. You know it is funny because I talk about this all the time, there is no right. It is like estimating in Agile, relative estimation. There is no right, the number doesn’t mean anything and there’s no way after the fact to say, “did we get the right estimate?” Well how would you know if it’s a three or a two? There’s no objective measure. The same is true here is right is, “did we deliver the kinds of results outcomes that we were looking for?”

[0:20:18.6] DA: I guess yeah because it is very improvisational and you can’t know what it’s going to be before. It becomes the thing that it is so.

[0:20:27.3] MN: You got to let go of the FOMO and just let it be. That’s what it is just let it be.

[0:20:33.4] DL: We’re going to get in some special FOMO-tions.

[0:20:35.6] MN: Exactly.

[0:20:36.7] DA: Will they make me go faster so I get to all of those different Open Spaces?

[0:20:39.5] MN: They’re just going to turn on and that makes them walk away from every Open Space you tend at random intervals.

[0:20:44.4] DL: They will have the little flashing lights as you step.

[0:20:46.4] MN: Those are the best.

[0:20:48.4] DA: All the fun stuff. So, can I go back to the question before, my question about a large space is there any limit on how small the group can be to have a truly Open Space? I would tell friends about this. I’m like, “oh my gosh this is so great, it is so energizing. We had a great discussion. We came up with some great action items.” And it was all bottom up like no one had an agenda and they’re like, “that’s insane. That would never work for my group of 20 people” or my group of 10 people or my group of five people.” 

[0:21:22.9] DL: The smallest group I’ve ever done it with was seven. It was the board of directors of a non-profit and back then, they had yet to find Lean Coffee. But in effect, Lean Coffee is an on conference for a small group where you hold one conversation at a time and each conversation is time boxed, which is exactly the same as unconference just simpler.

[0:21:48.9] DA: Right one track.

[0:21:51.5] MN: Yeah, Lean Coffee is like one of my best meetings to facilitate and to run. I don’t know why. It’s just like, “all right we have a column of all the things we want to talk about and all the people put up. We have a column where we are currently talking about it and we have a column that is done, let’s go.” And then you just move things up.

[0:22:09.5] DL: And prioritize the problem.

[0:22:10.7] MN: Yeah, you prioritize it and vote it. Once all that’s good, we’re talking about this, five minutes, we’re going to do that. Knock them out that’s great.

[0:22:18.1] DL: That’s the big difference between unconference and Lean Coffee is on conference we don’t prioritize other than putting them in times and spaces.

[0:22:26.3] DA: Right and I guess there is also in the law of two feet, you can’t run away. I guess you can run away from a lean coffee but.

[0:22:31.4] DL: Well sure, “excuse me, I am going to get some water.” And you come back an hour later yeah.

[0:22:36.9] DA: Right.

[0:22:38.7] DL: Yeah, I love this stuff, I mean I have seen it. I worked with the Microsoft enterprise architect group for a number of years and that is where they would have three to 400 people and I did that twice a year for a number of years and there’s where very much technical topics and they did a hybrid event where they’d start kind of like you guys did with a few talks to get people thinking about things, but they would be short presentations 15 to 20 minutes. And then at 11 AM or whatever it was, we create the agenda and everybody would go off for the conversations.

[0:23:14.0] DA: That’s cool, yeah I like they hybrid approach because you certainly have some kind of structured conversation you want to have or take a break from being highly engaged and you know, being a bumblebee or a butterfly or whatever you’re mode of transportation is and absorb some message or re-energize. Doc, do have you any thoughts on the directions or any points you’d want to cover before we close out this space of the podcast episode?

[0:23:46.8] DL: No, I think I’ve said everything I want to say and I think we’ve covered the important stuff. I am eager to hear what it sounds like once it’s been edited and produced.

[0:23:55.5] DA: Yeah, it should be good. I think it’s a good one.

[0:23:58.7] MN: So, Doc, how can people contact you?

[0:24:01.4] DL: Well, I have my own organization, my own company. It’s me but it’s my company and it’s Another Thought like the two words, Another and Thought and my domain is anotherthought.com. I have a website there my Twitter handle is @athought because I decided to leave out another because it is too long and you know we have 140 characters.

[0:24:24.8] DA: I like how that’s – that is like the first movie and then the website is the sequel.

[0:24:29.7] MN: Yeah.

[0:24:31.2] DL: And then I have my blog is at doclist.me and that’s where there is some of my writing about all sorts of things including open space and then conferences and I’m easy to reach and I’m doc@anotherthought.com, which seems kind of obvious to me but I thought I’d say it.

[0:24:48.5] DA: Cool, yeah. So, people can check out those blog posts and see if they’re doing their unconference or Open Space right. Spoiler: they are, hopefully, well we’ll see.


[0:25:00.7] MN: Follow us now on Twitter @radiofreerabbit so we can keep the conversation going. Like what you hear? Give us a five-star review and help developers like you find their way into The Rabbit Hole and never miss an episode; subscribe now however you listen to your favorite podcast. On behalf of our producer extraordinaire, William Jeffries and my amazing co-host, Dave Anderson and me, your host, Michael Nunez, thanks for listening to The Rabbit Hole.


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