I have participated at a few Open Space events, and facilitated some, but the crowd never exceeded 60. So I was a bit apprehensive, when it appeared that the Open Space Technology part at Valtech Days Paris 2007 would gather more than 150 participants. Here are some things we did and lessons we learned.
Big is beautiful (mostly)
We had very large boards (about 2,5 m high) for displaying the agenda, so that it would be visible from the back of the main room (we were not supposed to stick things on the wall — not that we respected this during the conference).
I had requested bigger-than-average post-it notes (exactly 4 x 6 inch, or 10.1 x 15.2 cm) for the agenda, but Gian, the guy in charge of purchases, also took the size above, a huge 5 x 8 inches, or 12.7 x 20,3 cm (note that 3M also has easel-pad-sized sticky paper, much much bigger than those). That was a good idea, and I ended up using mostly those. You can write in big block letters, and they also tend to stick much better.
The problem with the boards is that they were so were so large that a handyman was required to set them up for us. So it was not possible to just drag them to another room. In practice, we had to request 2 sets of boards, so that we could move the agenda from one set (in one room) to another (in the lobby).
I wanted to arrange seats in something close to a circle. At the same time, I still wanted people to see the agenda. We settled for an arrangement in the shape of an hexagon with many rows, the agenda being one edge. That was alright, though the central space was not very large.
Trust their enthusiasm
Since it was the first time most participants had ever heard of Open Space Technology, let alone joined one, I had taken every precaution I could (also, Valtech management was very mindful that the success of the conference depended on that part). So, I had contacted my colleagues from Valtech to ask them to act as local champions (they had all participated to our internal Open Spaces before). I also provided as much information as I could in the introduction, insisting that participants should be as active as possible, and encouraging them to stand up. Finally, LaÃ«titia had arranged to print classy signs with the Law of 2 Feet, the 4 Principles, etc. These signs were displayed in every room, in order to educate the participants as much as possible.
Side note: My personal opinion is that we did not need to have some signs printed by a professional. I would have much prefered hand-written ones, like in most Open Space conferences. I wonder if we could get participants to help us with that next year? Unfortunately, I already know the answer from the management and marketing people: not professional enough!
At the end of my talk, I saw one, then two, then a wall of people standing up and going my way… and I knew we had won (later, a participant complained that the introduction had been much too long).
That said, there certainly was some confusion when people announced their topics: many started talking and were not really listening. Some others started voting for existing topics (putting a dot on the post-it notes), before the agenda was even complete. If I had to do it again, I’d ask them to stay on their seats and make them ask for the microphone. But maybe we’d have less topics, then? Also, it’d probably take longer.
The part were the agenda was created by the participants was really quick, after all. About 30 minutes, which is equivalent to what I see with much smaller crowds.
Divide and conquer
I really wanted to do a quick “breaking the ice” exercice where everyone introduce themselves to the rest of the crowd. Since we had more than 150 people, it couldn’t practically be done (at CITCON, I timed this at 50 seconds per person, so it would have taken us more than 2 hours).
Instead, I suggested that we break up in groups of 10 to 20 first. That worked well; in fact, even a bit too well: some started to write down topics (not a big problem, of course).
One thing I was worried about was that people from the same company would tend to be sitting next to each other, making the exercise less fruitful. I couldn’t figure out an easy way to rearrange the sitting order, though. In practice, it seemed that it wasn’t a problem: groups were apparently big enough to gather many more people from different backgrounds.
Lesson Learned: never have several sessions simultaneously in the same room
Since we had a fairly large room, I thought it would be a good idea to allow up to 3 sessions simultaneously in it, including one with a video projector, for a total of 6 spaces. It turned out it was not that great an idea, because the section with the projector invariably gathered the largest crowd, and tended to drown out the other sessions (in fact, the people with the projector even requested a microphone, as they were not heard too well by people in the back). This is a problem that I had seen at AgileOpen, and that Sadek reported when he attended the Open Space session at QCon.
Another thing is that one of the rooms was the lobby, a large room where coffee and tea was served. In practice, none of the session in the lobby took off. I think this is partly because the less popular ones were relegated to it, but also because it didn’t “feel” as a place where serious debating could be done. I did see people talking there, but not about the topics originally planned.
All in all, it comes back to the fact that you need separate rooms for each topic… plus the big one for the introduction. Which is a real practical problem, as all this becomes fairly costly.
One thing I did, was encourage people to write down the names of their sessions on big sticky notes and display them on the door of their room. This way, one could just be walking around and decide to join a session simply when passing in front of one of the signs.
Educate potential facilitators
Some people complained at the end of the day, that the only sessions that were interesting to them were the ones where a facilitator was writing down things. As far as I can tell, only half-a-dozen sessions had such someone writing things. This is not necessarily a bad things (in some sessions, it is ok to simply do a product demo; in others, an informal talk will do just fine). But it is true that more sessions would have benefited. Since I had either been in small Open Space conferences were this sort of arrangement was not necessary, or in larger conferences were most participants were already familiar, I didn’t realized it would be a problem.
I wonder, though, if another Open Space conference organized by Valtech would have the same problem. After all, many participants would already have the experience of this one.
Questions put on Information Radiators
One the first day of the conference, I had arranged signs where people could stick topic suggestions for the Open Space part. It was an OK idea, but not revolutionary: I think it helped a few participants make up their mind about coming the next day, but that’s it. Many of those topics were *not* reused on the second day, which I fully expected.
Another thing I did is “ask questions on the wall”, a practice I had witnessed at CITCON. The idea is that I would write a question on a big sticky note (“what agile tool do you like?”), and expect participants to come up with their own answers (“rally”, “ScrumWorks”, etc.), like a poll with open answers. That worked only partially. There were just a few responses, really not many.
That’s a shame, as I think it is a great idea: it promotes experience sharing, and is just good fun. Next time, I’ll have to remember telling more about it during the introduction. For this conference, I didn’t mention it, hoping that participants would pick up by themselves.
I wish we had more sessions during the day. I only managed 4, each lasting 1 hour 15 (breaks were included in those 75 minutes), plus a closing session. The problem is that the introduction & agenda session is taking much time at the beginning of the day. I think CITCON has this right: organize the agenda on the first evening, and concentrate on the sessions during the actual day of the conference. They manage 5 slots in this way.
I don’t believe we’ll manage to get people to arrange the agenda on the first evening (except maybe we ask it at 5pm?). Not sure what to do next time.
Don’t underestimate the closing session
I had planned for the closing session to take place at 5.45pm. That turned out to be a misjudgment. The previous sessions had generally run until about 5pm, and most people did not have enough energy to start new sessions (except for the one that I facilitated myself). So many left before the closing session even started. Next time, we should plan the closing session no later than 5pm.
Eventually, we did run a quick closing session immediately following the topic that I was facilitating. There were only 20 of us still there, but it was nice nonetheless.
Things to remember: make sure that the participants write on the cards before they talk. You are never going to remember specifics, apart from a general “it went well” feeling. The cards are actually precious. Make sure that they at least write about what they want to keep, what they want to change, and what they learned. Having a board on the wall like we did at AgileOpen would be a good idea too (as long as you explain it during the introduction).
The schedule was originally as follows (and applied more or less as planned):
- 8:30am Breakfast
- 9:00am Introduction & Agenda
- 10:40am Coffee Break
- 11:00am Session 1
- 12:00am Lunch
- 2:00pm Session 2
- 3:15pm Session 3
- 4:30pm Session 4
- 5:45pm Closing session
- 6:15pm end of conference
Maybe next time we could try:
- 8:30am Breakfast
- 9:00am Introduction & Agenda
- 10:15am Coffee Break
- 10:30am Session 1
- 11:45am Session 2
- 1:00pm Lunch
- 2:30pm Session 3
- 3:45pm Session 4
- 5:00pm Closing session
- 6:00pm end of conference
All the pictures from the event are visible there: http://valtechdays.pbwiki.com/Galerie+Photos.
My mine are there: http://www.flickr.com/photos/elefevre/sets/72157602696948759/.
Update (19/11/07): Joel Spolsky has an interesting recent post on demo’ing software in large venues. Especially insightful (to me): playing loud music (we didn’t do that), ask who is using the software (we did), get nicest venue possible (mostly did), get a room of right size (didn’t for some sessions), very high ceilings (didn’t pay attention), etc.