Monday, October 27, 2008

Empty open spaces at OOPSLA'08

Hi again,
I spent most of Monday afternoon at the Open Space area at OOPSLA. Open spaces are a very interesting concept to get people gather around a subject. It is based on the fact that it is much more useful to have a conversation than a monologue. Therefore, traditional presentations are less useful than getting people together to chat with each other.

So what you need to have an open space?
Well, space, a big board, a few tables, a lot of chairs, flip charts and, maybe, just maybe, one projector. On the big board, write down a time schedule with several areas available (places with chairs and a table) and provide a way for people to suggest their topics.
After that, you need to warn people about a few things. There are 4 rules on open spaces and one law. The rules are:
  1. It starts when it starts
    This means that people can be late, people can just post and sit and start talking or people can start it before or after the time schedule.
  2. Those who attend are the right persons
    Whoever comes in is welcome and should be there. No matter if that person does not know much about the subject or is an expert. A lot of very interesting things can be achieved by just gathering people that know very little about a subject but are willing to spend some time thinking about it.
  3. Whatever happens was the only thing that could have happened
    If the output of the meeting is that this subject is useless to be discussed, so be it. It is still a very good thing to learn. If, on the other hand, you decide that the people there are more interested in something else and you change themes, great too!
  4. It ends when it ends
    There is no need to speed or slow people to finish on schedule. If the subject has not been fully discussed, stay. If it has, go. Nothing to worry about.
The law is called "The law of 2 feet" or "The law of mobility". It states that if you are not giving to or receiving from anything of that open space session, then leave. It is understood and expected that people only stay if they are passionate about what is being discussed. This allows people to leave a group freely at anytime therefore keeping the group always happy about the ongoing discussion. The two feet come from a foot of passion and one from responsibility which should allow you to leave if needed.

This also allows for two specific behaviors. The first one is the butterfly one which consist of flying around the spaces just to check what is going on without participating actively or staying anywhere. Those can generate new subjects when meeting another of their species. The second one are the bumble bees. Those go around each conversation and sit for a while, engage in the discussion and then leave to another area. Those ones allow for information and different perspectives to flow across the areas. Both should be welcome and accepted in an open space environment.

This was the first year OOPSLA had an open space are. Dirk Reihle was responsible for that but, sadly, he got stuck in Germany trying to get his work visa to the US. Luckily enough, Deborah Hartmann was there to replace him. Since OOPSLA's open activities really only start on Tuesday, the area was quite empty on Monday afternoon and the Coding Dojo session I had suggested with Mariana ended up empty. We then decided to help Deborah in creating an interactive poster to present the Open Space during the poster presentations at the ice breaker reception later that day. We came up with a three areas poster: What is an Open Space? - The schedule for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday - What questions would you like to have answered by Friday?
The idea was to get both people aware of open spaces and people that had no idea what it was to collaborate in order to create new sessions. And indeed, during the reception, we managed to get some people to suggest topics and get interested in the topics that are posted. And that closed Monday around 9pm and we went straight to bed to sleep.

That was it for Monday. If you have ever been to an open space and would like to give a better description than mine, please do so in the comments here or post a link to your blog. If you would like to have an open space going, contact me or post a comment and I can try to help or get you in touch with other helpers.

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