Ted Ernst on Open Space

One of the traditions of WikiSym is “Open Space”. Our facilitator this year is Ted Ernst, a long-time member of the WikiSym community. Starting in 2005 as an attendee, Ted has subsequently served as an Open Space facilitator or co-facilitator in 2006, 2007, and 2008.

What does Ted do when he’s not at WikiSym? “You know how executives sometimes find that the business isn’t growing as fast as they want it to and they end up spending more and more time at work? What I do is coach executive teams on habits that both reliably grow and drastically reduce the amount of time required to manage the business.”

The following are some questions about Open Space and Ted’s answers.

Can you summarize the basic structure and philosophy of Open Space?

Open Space unleashes all the energy of a good coffee break, while providing enough structure to ensure that the right players are in each of those conversations.

What should participants expect when they arrive in Open Space?

Open Space is the self-organization we see in wiki, in real space. Expect to see a blank agenda wall to be filled up with topics convened by those present. Every topic people care about enough to convene a session on will get discussed/worked on by the others interested in that topic.

How does Open Space differ from the “birds of a feather” or “special interest group” gatherings common at other conferences?

Birds of a feather are great gatherings for these interest groups that are known in advance. Open space is best for those groups that haven’t been thought of before, or have never been convened. No one knows in advance which thoughts/topics/projects/ideas/etc. will have people excited on the day of the event, and Open Space allows us to roll with the energy we have in the moment.

How has Open Space changed in the time you’ve been facilitating?

Open Space is a minimal structure that allows self-organizing to happen and thus hasn’t changed in the time I’ve been facilitating. The growing edge for facilitators worldwide is looking for one more thing not to do. Everything that remains has withstood the test of time. Nothing significant has been added in 15-20 years.

What has surprised you most about being an Open Space facilitator?

It always works. No matter the looks on people’s faces, or how long it takes for the first session to be posted, every group I’ve ever experienced in Open Space does fill the wall with topics and great conversations happen.

What is your most striking memory from Open Space sessions?

At WikiSym 2008 in Porto, Portugal, Dan Ingalls from Sun Microsystems gave an invited talk on the Lively Kernel. Afterwards, he posted an Open Space topic to go deeper with anyone. He sat at a table one on one with a single WikiSym participant for 90 minutes. What a great opportunity for this “famous” person to spend that kind of time informally with someone truly interested (as opposed to all of the polite listening that can happen in an auditorium-type setting when that’s the only option), and what an opportunity for this one participant whose excitement was sparked by Dan’s talk!

Anything else you’d like to share?

Be prepared to be surprised!

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