Since 2013, my employer has hosted an Open Space conference, bringing together Agile Coaches and Practioners from across the company. Due to logistical issues, we weren’t able to meet in 2017. But, being the innovative type, I suggested we meet virtually instead and keep the spirit of learning and collaborating alive.
Hosting a Virtual Open Space is not difficult, but why would you want to and what is it?
Open Space Agility is a framework for adopting agile while gaining grass-roots support. Instead of ‘dictating’ agile, Open Space Agility invites participants to write the story of how agile will look and feel in the organization. This is done through an initial “Open Space” event, where the participants are invited to attend, define the agenda collaboratively, and identify experiements to run over the next several months. A second “Open Space” event closes the first chapter of agile adoption, while also beginning the next chapter.
Through these Open Space events, participants not only discuss how their agile adoption can evolve, they also get to learn from each other and collaborate. The event offers an opportunity to break from the day-to-day operations, take a step back, and see how the organization can grow on the next step of the journey. And the participants are the driving force behind the change. I personally think this is the secret sauce of an Open Space; by inviting particpants to define how the organization will change, participants own the change. As Peter Senge once said, “People don’t resist change; they resist being changed.”
But in agile, we value “Face to face conversations”, so why would I want to do a virtual event? Well, in the global economy we live in, most companies have more than one location and budgets can constrain travelling to meet face to face. And while the first few Open Space events should be held in-person, once individuals from across the organization have built relationships and agile adoption is moving along, a virtual event is a great way to still get together and keep the experimentation and collaboration moving, while keeping costs low.
So how do you go about running a Virtual Open Space event, From my experience, you need 3 things to be successful, and handy enough, they all start with ‘M’: Marketplace, Marketing, and Meeting.
For the Marketplace, you need some way to aggregate topics, get votes, and determine how the agenda will be built. We used Jive to aggregate and vote on the topics, but I’m sure you have a similar tool that you can use. Or, you can aggregate topics via email and allow voting via a survey. There’s plenty of options here.
As for building the agenda, here’s where I departed from the traditional Open Space format. I ordered the topics by vote/interest, and placed the high interest items in my first track, the next highest items in the 2nd track, and so on. I tried to place the highest voted items at the best times - I figured the beginning of the day, before lunch.
Alternatively, and much more in the spirit of Open Space Agility, you could convene a meeting with the topic submitters and build the agenda in that meeting. Logistically, it’s tougher to get people from all across the globe together for a 30 minute meeting. Collaborating on the agenda can also be done via email or chatting channels.
The biggest challenge we had with the virtual event was in the form of Marketing. How do you market an event of this size to everyone who might be interested? I tried a viral approach, with some success. We are attempting a virtual event again, and this year, we’re going more targeted to the attendees of the last Agile Open. These attendees have already meet face-to-face, are familar with the Open Space concept, and are motivated to learn and collaborate… all key aspects that you want from attendees to a Virtual Open Space.
I’m no expert on marketing, but here is where I would lean on volunteers to spread the word about the upcoming event, the virtual Marketplace, and the agenda creation. With a core of volunteers, flyers can be made and posted, reminders in email or chatting tools, and face-to-face conversations to drive excitement and awareness of the event.
Depending on your tooling, this could be a big challenge. What web conferencing tools you have can impact the Meeting or virtual event itself. We were lucky last year in that we had BlueJeans accounts to use - and the system didn’t break a sweat with 30 to 50 attendees at once. Whatever tool you have, you’ll want to make certain it can handle the load you expect. From my experience, some tools work well with a handful of particpants, but that we start to have problems with the tool performing well when we have 10 or so attendees.
Of course, there are ways around tool limitations. Something I tried with limited success was to have volunteers at each location book rooms and run the conference largely from different conference rooms in each of the locations. The success of this will go back to Marketing as well and how many volunteers you can get.
But, if you have a tool like BlueJeans or WebEx, you should be ok with a few dozen individuals on 1 conference line.
Open Space events are a great way to learn, collaborate, and define experiments for your agile journey. But, holding 2 or 3 events a year in-person can be cost prohibitive. Switching 1 or 2 of these events out for a Virtual event can be a great way to keep the conversations going, keep agile growing, and to keep costs in check.
If you try it, let me know how it goes.