Open space is not just a physical location

When most people hear the term “open space,” they think of a green area in or near a city, a place set aside for our enjoyment of nature and to give us a breather from the city’s density. But in the world of project management it’s come to have an entirely new meaning: an open space, in this sense, is a self-organized meeting or event without an initial agenda, and with just on rule, the Law of Mobility and Responsibility (a.k.a. the Law of Two Feet): “If you are not learning or contributing where you are, find a place where you can learn or contribute.” An open space also follows these four principles:

1. Whoever comes are the right people.
2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could.
3. It starts when it starts.
4. It’s over when it’s over.

I got to experience this firsthand last week at the 2011 San Francisco Bay Area PMI Open Space, titled “Managing Projects in the New Decade — Are You Ready?”

Like many of the attendees, I didn’t know what to expect — and I admit to having felt some misgivings when the facilitator, Ainsley Nies, had us all sit in a circle as she walked around the inside explaining how the day would proceed. Anyone could come up with a topic, announce it, and post its title and location; then we’d all peruse the topics and decide which sessions we’d like to attend. Once in the session, the facilitator (usually the person who’d proposed the topic) would be responsible for keeping the discussion going and taking notes. Beyond that, anything could happen.

Though it felt a bit touchy-feely at first, the open space shaped up to cover some compelling topics, making it hard to pick which to attend at each of the four sessions. Agile development was a common theme, so much so that three of the topic proposers joined forces to create one session on the various flavors of agile. I picked this one over another on how to convince a new group of the value of project management — a tough choice. Other sessions I attended:

  • The role of a PMO in an agile environment
  • Project management in nontraditional areas
  • Project management best practices in a fast-paced, global environment

I’ll be sharing more details about the open space in future posts, so check back for more.

Artist's rendition of the open space process

As expected, the sessions varied widely, as did their size. Some were more like presentations than discussions, but I preferred the smaller sessions that allowed for more conversation. It was in these that I felt the benefit of an open space, one that many attendees noted in the final “closing” of the space: The open space creates a fertile environment for sharing real-world ideas and experiences. This was particularly noticeable to people in the group who’d been studying project management but hadn’t yet accumulated experience. And in my own situation of having learned on the job but not yet had much formal project management training, I found it at least as valuable. I heard that other project managers are dealing with many of the same situations that I face at work, and I got concrete ideas from them that I can apply in those situations. That alone was worth the price of admission.

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