Open Space

“Open Space 2 Innovate” was a Goddard wide forum where employees were encouraged to think innovatively and collaborate across boundaries to address our mission, business and technical challenges. Wednesday, March 17th, 2010 Credit: NASA/GSFC/Debbie McCallum Click Here to view NASA Goddard's Flickr page with images, visualizations and videos!

“Open Space 2 Innovate” was a Goddard wide forum where employees were encouraged to think innovatively and collaborate across boundaries to address our mission, business and technical challenges.
Wednesday, March 17th, 2010
Credit: NASA/GSFC/Debbie McCallum
Click Here to view NASA Goddard’s Flickr page with images, visualizations and videos!


At Scrum Day Dallas, I got the privilege of attending an Open Space. The discussion was invigorating, the format was exciting, and the takeaways were extremely valuable.

This was my first Open Space, but it is not a new concept. The concept is referred to as Open Space Technology by its originator, Harrison Owen. Here is a good thumbnail description of the history and concept from Agile Open California. They’ve been running with the concept for years and appear to like it very much :). If you are in the California area or want an excuse to visit California (pronounced “kah-lee-FORE-knee-yuh”) check them out. And say high to Scott Dunn if you see him there.

The thing I found so invigorating was the light yet effective organization, the “fit-for-purpose” nature of the discussions and conclusions, the fluidity of the format and the ownership of the topic felt by members of the discussion.

(Self) Organized Time

We were not just thrown into a sandbox and left to our own devices. A trained facilitator setup the framework and explained the format. Within a few minutes, the group knew everything it needed in order to self-organize to meet its own needs. It reminds me me of some other “framework” that “self-organizing teams” can use to meet their needs to “…address complex, adaptive problems.” Bonus points if you’re the first in the comments to call out the answer. You’ll get a digital fruit basket from me ;).


Fit for purpose is defined by as such

appropriate, and of a necessary standard, for its intended use

There were several aspects of the Open Space that encouraged this outcome for discussions and conclusions:

  • Those with a great deal of experience in the software industry attended
  • Professional Scrum Trainers facilitated organized the space
  • Attendees were very motivated to explore the subjects of discussion

PSTs did the initial work to set up and kick off the Open Space and were able to contribute as participants with considerable, subject matter expertise. The result was an organized time with discussions that really answered questions, proposed new and novel solutions for problems, and satisfied the requirements of the sessions themselves. Fit for the purpose for which the sessions were intended :).


People could come and go as they pleased. The law of two feet made it very easy to migrate from discussion to discussion as people found they could contribute and wanted to take part in the discussion. This seems to effectively mitigate the dampening effect caused by folks being forced to do something they dislike. The result was an engaged working session of motivated people who radiated a joy that was contagious :D.

Additionally, topics were fluid. As discussion flowed freely, the groups interest occasionally wandered into a side-topic of intense interest. The group self-selected this complementary topic and followed it, then self-corrected to get “back on track.” Rarely did any formal facilitation have to occur to get us back on subject; the group policed itself and still showed flexibility in exploring these sub topics.


People congregated where they had interest and felt they could contribute. Fueled by this autonomous action, they were internally urged to own the topic, the discussion, and the results of it (including failures). The drive to think of the results as “mine” or “ours” was fed further by the growing mastery participants felt when new techniques were discussed, questions were answered, ideas were generated, etc. With the excitement of a 2nd grader prizing a drawing on display on the refrigerator, we all shared a collective pride in our work.


I have never felt as invigorated at a conference as I did at Scrum Day Dallas, and I owe that feeling largely to the Open Space they facilitated. I thought about it a great deal during my six-hour road trip home to Tulsa, consistently probing for why it was so much better than more presentation-driven conferences I’ve been to in the past. The thought that snagged my attention came when I jumped to a realization that the Open Space format bears a striking resemblance to the behavior enabled by Google’s search, Facebook’s content , Uber’s car rental, and AirBnB’s rental arrangements. All three do not own the content they provide their customers, but rather they simply facilitate the introductions.

There’s more here to explore, but I’ve got to put a cap on this post. Feel free to explore this idea (and any others) with me in the comments.

Resources for Further Exploration

Broad Strokes Explanation of an Open Space

Great article on Open Space by Martin Fowler

Fleshed out Wiki article on Open Space

Open Space World Resources by Harrison Owen


Jason is a developer, Scrum Master, writer, teacher, coach, husband, father, and community leader out of Tulsa Oklahoma. He's been delivering software since 2007 and absolutely loves the values and principles of agility especially as given form by the Scrum framework.

  • Harrison Owen

    Nice job! I did notice however that apparently “Scrum Trainers” facilitated the sessions. I guess you have to give those folks something to do, or they might get in trouble… but the 30 year global experience is that such facilitation is really unneeded. this is true even with groups who have never heard of the magic words “facilitate.” Sounds like a prescription for disorder (getting off track, whatever) but it turns out that groups do just as well, and usually better, all by themselves. The power of self organization is quite amazing.

  • jknight

    Thanks for the comment :).

    As I think back on that Open Space, I fear I’ve used the wrong word for what the PSTs did. At the outset, one of the the guys stood up and explained the Open Space, collected some initial ideas for discussions from the gathered group, and showed us the physical spaces we had to work with. Additionally they had been responsible for making sure materials e.g. chairs and whiteboards were available to meet the expected need.

    Beyond that, the PST involvement was little different than that of the average participant. Occasionally, I noticed that they brought subject matter expertise e.g. something only someone who has coached a diverse set of large enterprises would know; however, that helpful aspect of their contributions was not specific to their professionally certified state and very well could have been fulfilled by any participant.

    Your point about the group self organization is well taken. Just last night, I observed that very thing in an open space discussion. The results of the “tangent” were much more exciting and beneficial to the group — as opposed to the original goal — in that we were able to hypothesize concrete and specific solutions to more pressing problems being experienced by the group.

  • Pingback: Dancing with Shiva | Jason Knight()