Using Open Space in traditional conference design

I have used Open Space in almost every way conceivable and what Lisa Heft wrote on the OSLIST today about using it with traditional conferences strikes home.  This is good wisdom, friends:

My experience is that – if doing a mix of ‘traditional’ format conference and Open Space – the most ideal situation is traditional, (recreation day before or after that or after the whole conference) and then Open Space.

I have seen that if Open Space happens first – when there is the switch to traditional, participants feel uncomfortable and ‘edgy’ because they have tasted the power of self-organization and physically being able to move to what they need and find who they need – so they are not happy or focused sitting in an audience listening after that. If you do OS as the last day (or whatever) then there are two extra values of people being able to host conversations about what they are learning and exploring in the previous days of the conference as well as whatever your theme question / task will be. Nice integration and self-organized continuation of learning, networking, community. Plus, the close of the Open Space makes a very nice close for the conference – it really feels like reflection, comment, participant voice to close.

The most difficult thing I know is to start and stop Open Space / break it up within a conference – really, it destroys the reason for doing OS and completely changes what OS can do. When I am told that by a conference I simply switch to some other lovely interactive dialogue stuff – for example I will do World Cafes within a conference with themes that will help participants as they move through the arc of learning and the several days of the conference.

The other most difficult thing I know is to have OS at the same time as other things in a conference – because usually there is not a good, focused opening (for all participants who wish to join), arc of learning and thinking across time, and not a good sense of closure. So it all feels like a big room where conversations can happen but just like any other sort of coffee house environment, no reason to do Open Space. You could just as well give people signs to put on their tables to gather around a self-organized topic whenever they come into that room, if they like. No process or facilitator needed. (this is sometimes referred to as ‘Birds of a Feather’.)

Oh yes and I personally think that all formalities in a conference must be seriously considered – do 100% of the participants need to do that voting or decision, or is that for a small leadership group, do people really need a keynote speaker or is the wisdom in the group, are speeches really good for anyone other than the person speaking ;o) … do people walk away from conferences going ‘gee I loved that formal gala and it really changed how I do my work on Monday’ or do they get more from participant-driven co-learning – all things to consider when deciding on overall conference design


  1. Thanks Chris! Awesome timing as I’ve been thinking about how to weave OST into a conference in early part of next year. Blessings mate.

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