How to create an event where people take ownership, self-organise and solve real problems?
TL;DR; Open Space Technology is a way of organizing a conference-type event where people co-create panels and the event itself. The agenda is created on day one without any prior preparation (except for a few elements). This is a lightweight format that gives power to the participants. In the post below, you will read what to expect from an Open Space Technology event and how to prepare for it as an organizer. Expect the unexpected.
👉Why it’s worth a try? There are several things you may expect: surfacing topics that people really want to talk about, creating opportunity for people to take ownership for their experiences and development, making stronger ties with each other, and a lot more. All this with less hassle in comparison to organizing a traditional conference.
This article is based on preparations that, together with Kamil and Pola Mikołajczak, we took to organize PM Offsite in 2022 for Netguru. It is divided into three sections relating to the phase of the event along with the list of activities we took to make the meeting inclusive and provide a frame for self-organization to occur.
☝️ Before the event
Dedicated Slack channel
It is worthwhile to set up a dedicated channel on Slack for the participants to let them share their emotions live, make suggestions, share insights, etc. This is also a great way to enable self-organization in practice. It can serve as a side channel to in-person announcements — or those written on flip charts in common spaces.
The idea of the Open Space is that people co-create the event. The same goes with the preparation. In order to place less pressure on the organizers and make sure that people feel responsible for the quality of the event, participants create a backlog that can be a living repository of ideas and actions.
The items in the backlog are tasks that need to be done before or starting day one of the event. Some examples include: arranging spaces, creating posters, making sure XYZ is available, leading some sessions, etc. You can find asample backlog for a two-day event here. Feel free to copy and modify it. Depending on your need, this does not have to be an exhaustive list.
I won’t devote too much time to it. Logistics is vital whenever you book a space, do an in-person workshop, or wish to travel. It’s best to start communicating one month before the event so people can book the time and pair up for rooms (if you plan a multi-day event), among others. It might also be a good idea to suggest environmentally conscious decisions like arranging carpooling to get participants to the event.
🌀 During the event
The event itself is self-organizing. Many to-dos can be shared with participants in the form of the aforementioned backlog. Still, there should be at least one person (or group) responsible for making sure everything is going in the right direction.
📦 The backlog
The base for the conference preparation is the backlog which can be printed out and placed in a visible place in a common area. The participants can take items from it and help you arrange the space, rooms — or even facilitate some of the organizational sessions (like introductions, day debriefs, etc.). Once they take a card, they own it along with the corresponding task.
It’s a good practice to leave around 45–60 minutes for arranging the space and preparing the Open Space together with participants prior to the event. Having people co-organize gives them the feeling of ownership and responsibility for the event. The backlog can be as follows:
It’s best to leave a set of stickies with a few sharpies on display for people to add new things if needed.
📜 The rules
The general rules for the conference are as follows:
Whenever it starts, it is the right time: Open Space encourages creativity during and between formal sessions.
When it’s over, it’s over: Getting the work done is more important than adhering to rigid schedules.
Whatever happens, happens: Let go of your expectations and pay full attention to what is happening at the moment.
There is one “Law” — the “Law of two feet”: If participants find themselves in a situation where they are not learning or contributing, they have a responsibility to go to another session or take a break for personal reflection.
Sometimes people may leave a session or come late. At times, the sessions might be longer or shorter. Whatever happens, happens. It’s best not to judge those situations but rather embrace them and use them to your advantage. After all, they already happened, right?
One thing I like to mention is that before you walk out of a session, try to think how you can participate in making it more valuable for yourself and others (if that’s the case).
⏳ The agenda
In terms of PM Offsite, the schedule was as follows (already corrected from what we have learned):
1 to 2 p.m. — Lunch
2 to 2:30 p.m. — Collective work on the conference backlog
2 to 4:30 p.m.– Intros & agenda building
4:30 to 6 p.m. — Sessions
About 6 p.m. — Dinner & evening activities
8 to 9:15 a.m. — Breakfast
9:15 to 10 a.m. — Agenda building
10 a.m. to 1 p.m. — Sessions
1 to 2 p.m. — Lunch
2 to 5 p.m. — Sessions
5 to 6 p.m. — Day’s recap
About 6 p.m. — Dinner & evening activities
8 to 9:30 a.m. — Breakfast & check-out (bring your baggage to the main conference room)
9:30 to 11 a.m. — Event closing
11 a.m. — Off and away
Don’t be afraid to change the previously created schedule if you find some things not working for the group. Feel free to experiment with sessions’ length, recaps, etc.
Below you will find more in-depth descriptions of some of the agenda elements.
This part consists of making sure everyone knows the mechanics of the event, rough agenda, and the general rules. It’s worth mentioning:
The idea behind the meeting
The Open Space format (rules)
What the day is going to be like (including the evening part)
The breakfast, lunch, and check-out time
How people are to communicate during the event, e.g. share book recommendations, fill other participants in on the changes in schedule, make announcements.
Feedback wall — where people place their feedback and others can react to it. Are the rooms overheated? Maybe one of the participants can solve it. Lost your keys? Let others know — perhaps somebody will find them.
Below I have shared two ideas on how to arrange an introduction session.
Ask the people to pair up with someone they don’t know or stand in a circle and answer the following questions:
* Why are you here? What thoughts have you arrived with?
* What do you need from the group/event? What has been troubling you recently?
* Is there anything else you would like to share?
In the first scenario, it takes three minutes for each pair (6 min in total). We did two more iterations with changing pairs.
🤹🏼♂️ Building sessions agenda
Agenda consists of the creation of a simple board. People take pen & paper and write down the session they want to lead. They note down if they would like to “share” knowledge with or “take” knowledge from other participants. Hosting a meeting does not need to mean giving a fancy presentation. Sometimes it is just trying to solve a problem while getting a perspective from others. They can also write their name and surname with a phone number for others to be able to contact them if they want to discuss the topic further or have missed the session.
After that, hosts of given sessions come one by one and share with others the topic ideas, why this is important, and what they expect. They place the sheet in a chosen room and time. It looks roughly like this:
👩🏫 The sessions
Each session lasts around 45–60 min and is followed by a 15-minute break for everyone to change the room or just rest. During a session, the person who suggested the topic gives more context as to why it is important and what she or he expects from the participants. The rest can be a simple discussion or a structured workshop — there are no fixed rules here.
During each session, it’s generally a good idea to ask somebody to take notes (outcome, main points) on a flipchart-size sheet of paper and bring it to the common area for others to see. The notes can be taken by the session’s lead or a participant. At the end of the offsite, you will be able to read through the thoughts and practicalities of all of the organized sessions.
💃🏻 The un-official (evening) part
Having finished the sessions, there is still time for the “unofficial” part of the event where people mingle. On the selected day of the event, people can add a sticky note to the sessions’ board with their venue suggestion and their proposal. It can be a small concert, a discussion with a glass of wine, a set of board games, or anything else to make the evening pleasant.
🙌 Closing the event
After the breakfast and checkout, everyone meets in the larger hall for a quick retrospective. It might involve going through the feedback wall for starters and a round where people share their thoughts on:
What they take home from the offsite
Who (if anyone) they would like to thank
Anything else they would like to share
Sample retro format:
Learned → Longed for → Liked → What do I want to do differently next time?
Please note that the focus of the last question is on each participant — not on the initial group of organizers. This is for everyone to take ownership of how they participate next time and the value they bring to the open space.
📢 After the conclusion
Materials from the event can be shared with the participants. They should always include at least materials collected in the common room, such as agendas and sessions’ recap — not to mention cheerful photographs of all participants (remember about the Vegas Rule).
It’s also great to share thoughts from the retrospective concluding the event with the benefit of hindsight so the (co-)organizers (including participants) of future events can take them into account.
You can use the above guide to create events in person or online using tools like Gather Town, Team Flow, or similar ones. The backlog will be a bit different — just as the logistics. The flow, though, stays the same.