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Preparing for Unconferences: An Open Space Technology Primer

Before the first public LexThink conference, I wrote an introduction to “Open Space Technology” (sometimes referred to simply as “Open Space”), which is the methodology and approach developed by Owen Harrison we use in LexThink conferences. This post is an update of that introduction and provides some good starter resources about Open Space Technology.
When I talk to people about LexThink, I notice that they are a little wary of the Open Space approach and don’t quite see why I am so enthused about it. In part, that’s because the approach seems so different than what we are all used to at conferences. It all but flips the tradition conference approach on its head. However, it also evokes memories of nearly every great learning session you’ve ever had – from sitting on the floor on a dorm hallway to a late night conversation in a hotel lobby at a conference.
I’m also intrigued by the way Open Space has found its way into the blog world. There’s been a lot of discussion of conferences and the need for new kinds of conferences. In fact, I see the term “unconference” on a regular basis and it’s gratifying to see how well LexThink fits into that discussion. For some examples of the “unconference” discussion, see Dave Winer, Johnny Moore, Doc Searls, Mary Hodder, Stowe Boyd, Steve Rubel, to name a few. There’s a Technorati tag for unconference. Someone has parked the domain name for two years – without using it.
There’s even been some discussion about having a “conference” about unconferences. I’ve started referring to that as “The Unconference Unconference.”
You can’t get more than a few sentences into a discussion of unconferences, alternatives to conferences or brainstorming without the topic of Open Space being raised. Having at least a working knowledge of Open Space seems to be a wise thing these days.
Think about this: The best “learning” you have at any conference takes place outside the sessions, in the conversations you have with others over a beer or sitting in a hotel lobby.
The radical concept of Open Space (and LexThink and some of the other “unconference” approaches) is that we eliminate the notion of lectures, speakers and topics set in concrete and, instead, replace them with flexibility, interaction, conversation and small communities of interest.
I was initially both fascinated and repelled by the idea of Open Space Technology. It was hard for me, both personally and as a creator of LexThink, to give up the control of the conference that Open Space Technology demands. No set agenda? What does that mean? Will people simply do what they want? What will that mean?
However, I was reading James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds at the same time we were thinking about using Open Space for LexThink. I decided not only as a general matter was the “crowd” going to be wiser about what topics mattered and what the conversation and conference agenda would be, but that I was nuts if I thought that I could come up with better ideas and a better agenda that this group of attendees could.
I also became very interested in the notion of “trust” in comparison to “control.” I like the experiment of using Open Space. What happens if I, we, trust the attendees and resist the urge to control the event? In the case of LexThink 1.0, we had a great group with whom to try this experiment in both innovation and “trust.”
While we were first thinking about using Open Space for LexThink, Matt and I went to BlogWalk 6 in Chicago, organized in large part by LexThink attendee and KM guru, Jack Vinson, we walked right in to a session that was using Open Space. Was it a sign? I took it that way.
We saw how Open Space worked that day and it felt just right for LexThink. However, many people have the same reservations and questions about this approach that I had.
Coleridge talked about the “willing suspension of disbelief.” While I recommend a little of that when thinking about (or participating in) an Open Space event such as a LexThink conference, I highly recommend that you take a little time to read up on Open Space Technology (see the resources below) to get a better feel for the goals, the actual process and procedures (to the extent those terms make sense), and the few key “rules.”
What I think you will want to consider are the ideas that (1) you need to make sure that you know what subjects you are most interested in and how it is your responsibility to make sure that they get addressed, (2) despite what you thought was most important when you started the day, you will be faced with an ongoing set of choices of which discussions are most important to you, and (3) there really is a notion of voting with your feet – you can and should leave a discussion if it no longer interests you or you notice a more interesting discussion going on elsewhere. Both you and the group as a whole will set the directions the day will take, even though we’ll exercise some gentle guidance and set some flexible limits.
At the end of the day, the process is designed to pull together and make available to everyone all of what happened during the day. Both the process and, more importantly, our variations on it will also drive us toward reaching practical action steps and try to answer the “so what now” questions that are present by the end of any good conference.
I’ve probably reached what Kathy Sierra of the Creating Passionate Users blog calls the Koolaid Point on Open Space Technology. I see the benefits of using this approach everywhere I look these days. For example, I’d like to get some of my favorite bloggers and a few others together for a couple of days of Open Space time and see what incredible things would emerge out of those sessions.
I hope this introduction has piqued your interest in Open Space Technology. If it has, the following reading list will get you started. This is something I enjoy discussing, so I’m always pleased to hear about the experiences people have had with Open Space and ideas and questions they might have.
So, here’s a starter set of resources on Open Source Technology -if you have time to read only one thing, I suggest Lisa Heft’s article listed at the end of these resources.
Open Space World – http://www.openspaceworld.org/wiki/wiki/wiki.cgi? (especially the intro at http://www.openspaceworld.org/wiki/wiki/wiki.cgi?AboutOpenSpace)
GlobalChicago: OpenSpaceTech – http://www.globalchicago.net/wiki/wiki.cgi?OpenSpaceTech
Harrison Owen’s Brief Introduction or User Guide – http://www.openspaceworld.com/users_guide.htm
If you become really serious (and I warn you that you might well do so), you might track down Harrison Owen’s books on Open Space, the easiest to find of which will probably be Expanding Our Now: The Story of Open Space Technology, which was a follow-up work after the classic text, Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide.
The Change Management Toolbox: Open Space – http://www.change-management-toolbook.com/tools/OpenSpace.html
Cornerstone Consulting’s Resources on Open Space – http://www.ourfuture.com/osover.htm
Chris Corrigan on Open Space – http://www.chriscorrigan.com/openspace/
Wikipedia on Open Space Technology – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Space_Technology
Lisa Heft’s article on OpeningSpace.net – http://www.openingspace.net/papers_facilitation_OSCollaborationCommunication.shtml (If you read just one thing, I’d recommend that it be this article.)
I’ll probably be writing more on this topic, as well as about innovation in general, on the LexThink Blog.
[Originally posted on DennisKennedy.Blog (http://www.denniskennedy.com/blog/)]
This post brought to you by LexThink!(TM) – The Conference, Re-imagined. LexThink! – Think big thoughts, do cool things, change the world.

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