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Opening Up to Change in Presentation Approaches

In his book Open Space Technology: A User's Guide, Harrison Owen describes a situation in which 225 people meet to hash out an agreement on how to spend $1.5 billion for highway construction across public and tribal lands. The participants—one-third Native Americans, one-third federal government officials, and one-third state and local government officials—were historically at odds with one another. Few in the group expected an amicable resolution.

An even more daunting challenge? There was purposely no meeting agenda and no presentations scheduled for the two days set aside for the meeting.

But in short order, the group managed to get significant work done, according to Harrison:

  • The agenda itself was created in less than half an hour, and the various task groups produced about 150 pages of proceedings in 36 hours...and copies...rolled hot off the press in time for the departure of all participants on the morning of the third day. During the concluding session, one of the Native Americans said that never before had he felt so listened to and so much a part of the discussion. The feeling was shared by all parties.

Harrison had introduced Open Space Technology to the group. In the 25 years since he developed Open Space, Harrison reports that more than 200,000 meetings in 124 countries have used the approach for an astonishing range of purposes—from budget allocation to architectural planning to peace talks in the Middle East.

But how can any specific meeting approach help groups around the world accomplish so much, especially when there is no preplanned agenda, no prepared speeches, and no idea in advance how anything will get done?

If you have not experienced an Open Space meeting (Figure 4-8), the concept seems unbelievable and no description will do it justice. People who hear about the concept are skeptical, and the only thing that changes their opinions is actually participating in such an event in person.

Figure 4-8

Figure 4-8 Open Space Technology is a fundamentally different way of conducting meetings that is influencing events around the world.

As described in detail in Web Appendix D, the Open Space approach introduces self-organizing principles and techniques that give audiences full responsibility for every aspect of meetings. One of the most influential ideas to come from Open Space is the Law of Two Feet (also known as the Law of Mobility), which states:

  • If, during our time together, you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet and go to some more productive place.

Walking through the halls of conferences (such as the South by Southwest Interactive Festival), it's very common to see attendees using the Law of Two Feet. If they are not satisfied with a presentation, they leave. Then they describe in the backchannel why they weren't satisfied. Or they walk in to a presentation once it's underway based on good comments they heard through the backchannel.

A bigger movement toward opening up more space

According to trends and events throughout the world, it looks like we need to buckle our seat belts for more involvement like the kind inspired by Open Space.

In a Weber Shandwick study released in early 2009, major event organizers indicated they are ramping up for more audience engagement and involvement:

  • ...conference organizers reported they are planning more time for Q&A (72% more vs. three years ago), more interactive sessions between speaker and audience (70%), and more panel sessions (64%). They are planning fewer keynote sessions (30%) than they did three years ago.

There is, indeed, a thirst for more involvement that hosts are aiming to quench. At some conferences and gatherings, the change is already well underway.

A conventional conference opens itself up

A few years ago, the organizers of the National Educational Computing Conference (NECC) noted that their attendance numbers were down. They needed to do a radical rethink of how they created an experience that their 20,000 attendees were willing to pay to attend.

Donella Evoniuk, senior director of conference services, had heard about Open Space and also had observed how often people were using online social networking tools to create community and collaborate around ideas. She also noticed a new trend people really liked on the massive exhibit hall floor: mini theaters with product demonstrations, where they could get up after a few minutes and go on to the next one.

Seeing the big trends in participation underway, NECC organizers made a dramatic break from the traditional PowerPoint model and turned the conference programming upside down. In 2007, they took 65 percent of the content that was previously shared in meetings and put it in the public spaces in an interactive format (including technology playgrounds, cafés, and working sessions). There were still traditional keynotes and panels, but the focus was now on freeing up people to either direct their own learning or to learn from one another.

The response was phenomenal. Attendee Kristin Hokanson expressed this sentiment in a blog post describing her experience at NECC in 2009:

  • The real learning at this conference isn't going on behind closed doors, seated in rows, with the speaker in the front shuffling their PowerPoints—showing and telling. It is in places where people can get together in small groups share, converse, and experiment.

Though the NECC organizers didn't specifically use Open Space techniques, they did use them in spirit. "The thinking that (Open Space) provided to look at things differently was huge," Donella said. After hearing about it, she remembers thinking about the conventional approach to meetings, "Wow—we don't have to do it this way!"

Unconferences and camps

Some audiences aren't even waiting on event hosts to create a more interactive experience; these audiences are already organizing their own events instead. This is especially true in the technology industry, where Open Space has influenced many events and meetings, particularly camps and unconferences.

The camp movement began as an invitation-only gathering of about 200 tech experts who pitched tents outside the offices of O'Reilly Media in Sebastopol, California. Inspired by Open Space, the group created their own agenda and ran their own sessions over a weekend—and they did so to rave reviews by attendees.

Soon a spinoff known as BarCamp opened its events to anyone who wanted to attend and at any location where a host wanted to sponsor one. The camp movement has since exploded in popularity (Figure 4-9). For example, it includes events covering specialized technical topics (such as WordCamp), events for people working with open-source technology (such as WordPress), and events for podcasters and social media practitioners (such as PodCamp). Camps now gather around a range of professions and topics, including ProductCamp for marketers and product managers, Edu-Camp for those in education, and even LaidOffCamp for recently unemployed people or solo entrepreneurs.

Figure 4-9

Figure 4-9 The BarCamp website features hundreds of camps held in locations all over the world.

The term unconference refers to any loosely structured gathering that is distinguished from a formally organized conference (such as BloggerCon, an early unconference for bloggers). Kaliya Hamlin, a consultant who has designed and facilitated more than 100 unconferences in the tech industry over the past five years, describes an unconference as "more organized than a cocktail party and less organized than the talking heads on a panel (discussion)."

Kaliya uses Open Space as the basis for 80 percent of the events she facilitates; she applies a blend of other approaches as she deems appropriate to the other 20 percent of events. Because unconferences are so much cheaper to produce, and they create such high levels of participant satisfaction, Kaliya describes them as 10 times cheaper and 10 times better than traditional conferences.

The impact of Open Space on the backchannel

In looking at the backchannel through the eyes of audiences who have attended Open Space events, camps, and unconferences, you gain a better understanding of why some people create alternate communication channels in the first place. They feel excluded or unhappy with the presentation format and they want something different (even though they may not yet know what it is).

Many early adopters of the backchannel have experienced Open Space principles in action, and when they return to speaker-driven meetings, they are often dissatisfied because traditional formats simply don't deliver the same quality of experience.

Open Space is definitely an important part of the evolving presentation mix—it's influencing current events and audiences, and it's part of the bigger trend toward more participation. It simply has to be put on the table when you get ready to engage the backchannel.

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