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Openspaces in the Office

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I recently attended the Manchester NxtGenUG “Open Mic.” Night that was run as an OpenSpace style event. I had never heard of OpenSpace before and I wasn’t to sure what to expect from the open mic night but it turned out to be an extremely enjoyable experience with lots of valuable information. Thanks to Steve and Seb for making it such a great night!

I shameless stole the format and used it as a team building exercise at work. I had several worries because of the small team and other constraints that meant it couldn’t be a true OpenSpace event.

So What Is An OpenSpace Event

An OpenSpaces conference is one with no agenda, keynote or dedicated speakers, just passionate people talking about what they are interested in. When I was looking for more material to help explain it to people at work I came across this great quote about the idea behind OpenSpace.

In my experience open space is based on the belief that we humans are intelligent, creative, adaptive, meaning- and fun-seeking. It sets the context for such creatures to come together knowing they are going to treat each other well. When this happens there is no limit to what can unfold.

Alan Stewart personal communication

source and excellent article about OpenSpace

The format of them is fairly lack. You get all the participants to sit around in a circle then go through them one by one asking for a topic they would like to talk about. Once all the subjects are collated a vote is taken as to which to talk about. When a subject is chosen the person who chose the subject starts the conversation by expanding on it. The conversation should be flowing at this point as people will have voted for it for a reason.

Each subject is talked about till it has naturally run its course then you move on to the next. It is simply over when it’s over.

How Would This Work In The Office?

All this sounded wonderful and works great when you have like minded people and lots of time but how would this work in a workplace?  In the office we have time constraints, it has to be justifiable to the business, not everyone is as passionate about software as others and more experienced members of staff can be cynical.

The time constraint was unavoidable but I was confident even with only an hour available it could still be constructive. To make it relevant to the business I positioned it as a training session that was self led, to discover the strengths and weaknesses of the team along with exposing hidden knowledge in the team. Finally, to tackle cynical/non passionate people I spoke to as many people as possible and explained the concept and made it clear it was optional.

I ran it past the team leader and asked for permission to try it during the working day to get as many as people to come. I think I got the timing right here, we are currently in a quiet spell before the start of a new project and it is the run up to Christmas so not a lot is going on so it was given the go ahead.

So with some trepidation I arrange a meeting for late Monday afternoon.

How Did It Go?

Well in a word, fantastic. All topics chosen were topical, relevant and most importantly could be applied to the current code base and processes in the team. I was truly impressed with the level of knowledge and desire to improve that was shown.

The meeting itself got off to a bit of a shaky start with people unsure about what to expect. This is where the host (me in this case) has to really take the lead and explain to people what is going to happen. We selected a subject, which just happened to be mine. This helped as it allowed me to take the lead and show others just how easy it was. Everyone of the nine people contributed something interesting.

At the end we had a five minute retrospective (We couldn’t be Agile without it :P), everyone was pleased with how it went but suggested next time we take more notes or have an official collator of links. So this is something we are going to try.


We took the concept and made it fit within it our situation, I see this as an evolving thing inside the team and each time we will tweak it to fit the topic or mood of the team. The biggest takeaway, for me, has to be that it turned into a great session not only did it show where people’s interest and knowledge lies but it was a great team bonding exercise.

I can’t recommend trying something like this in your team enough, remember:

  • Don’t stick to the format rigidly
  • Trust your team to bring up the problem areas or where they want to improve
  • Have fun!
  • Oh, and try to make sure the cake isn’t a lie.