Open Space: The All Coffee Break Conference

Empowering Learners to Control their Own Learning

By Stephanie Hemmert

When I began working at the Federal Judicial center ten years ago, I first heard of a learning conference concept called “open space.” You may have heard of it or even used it. It seemed so odd to me! Basically, learners come together with a predetermined, overarching topic for a specific amount of time with no specific agenda topics predefined at all. Some people call this an “unconference” or “open conference.”

Until I first saw the open space concept in practice, I was confused and skeptical. Hundreds of people flying in from around the country for about two and a half days with absolutely NO initial agenda other than start and end times?! What? Then I saw the concept in action. I experienced how scores of agenda topics can be developed in real-time, how hundreds of people (I experienced group sizes from about 25 up to 650!) were enthusiastically engaged throughout the whole program, and how participants walked away with tangible benefits they immediately applied. I began facilitating individual sessions, and then for years I also facilitated participants creating the agenda. I find the process to be a complex, yet simple, educational work of art. It almost seems magical. I would describe it as such if I didn’t know that behind the seeming magic a number of things are actually put into place beforehand and specific concepts are followed during the event to ensure its success.

For this write-up, I would like to share with you open space “ground rules,” some optimal conditions I’ve found to help it run smoothly and effectively, and a brief history behind it.

Ground Rules
I’ll focus on four ground rules or concepts:

  1. The “Law of Two Feet”
  2. “Whoever Comes is the Right People”
  3. “Whatever Happens is the Only Thing That Could Happen,” and
  4. “When It’s Over, It’s Over”

Some people use slightly different phrases for the rules as you may find them slightly awkward and/or, let’s be honest, wacky sounding.

  1. “Law of Two Feet.” After the learners come together to build the agenda (more on this to follow), everyone receives a copy of it – showing which topics were scheduled where and when – and learners go to the topic session that interests them the most. Folks with something to give as well as something to gain are encouraged to attend a particular topic of interest to them. The idea of the law of two feet is that when a person feels he or she has nothing more to add or gain from the conversation, he or she moves on to another conversation topic. This may happen multiple times during sessions. The learner is in control. Nobody is offended when someone comes into a conversation later and facilitators do a great job of quickly recapping the highlights of the conversation for these latecomers. It is a constant, fluid process.
  2. “Whoever Comes is the Right People.” Whoever shows up to the individual session is meant to be there. Sometimes people lament over who is not present, but it doesn’t matter. Whoever did come to the session by definition has a vested interest in the discussion and there is information to be shared and discussed.
  3. “Whatever Happens is the Only Thing That Could Happen.” I have been in a session where after about five minutes the participants felt that they answered their questions and that no more needed to be said so everyone moved on to another session. It works! They solved their problems and got a chance to gain even more information from another session. Everyone wins. This concept overall is meant to focus participants on the here and now and not worry about what could’ve and should’ve been.
  4. “When It’s Over, It’s Over.” Similar to the previous rule, when the discussion has run its course, it is time to move on! There is no need to belabor anything and waste time. People take responsibility for their own learning.

Optimal Conditions
Participants ‘self-select’ their way into open space discussions, both to the overall learning and to the individual sessions. Once they are there, a critical way to help the learning process is to make people feel welcome and a part of the process and discussions. This applies during the agenda building, by encouraging people to contribute topics they are passionate about, and it also applies during the individual discussions with facilitators making everyone feel welcome and actively involved.

During the agenda building process, when people nominate a topic, I have found it helpful to ask them to write it down on a fairly large piece of paper with a fat marker and hold it up to the group while announcing it. The person then visibly cements their commitment and passion for the topic and the group has the opportunity to meet the person making the suggestion. Having the topic written down also assists the person who is creating the agenda on the side, filling slots with topics. It may go without saying, but I’ve found it is also helpful to remind people that we strongly encourage the topic nominator to go to the discussion and to be there at least at the beginning.

Once the topics are assigned to location and time slots it is very helpful to publish an electronic version of the agenda to which everyone has immediate access. A paper agenda is also possible, but it means there is a little more downtime with printing and copying before the first session can begin.

Though not critical, I’ve found assigning facilitators to each session enhances the learning. Facilitators play a major part in moving the discussion along, focusing on encouraging a variety of participants to speak, making each person feel involved in the discussion, quickly recapping major discussion points as new participants join in, and writing major points or bits of learning information (such as a contact name/number) on a flip chart. I have run “Facilitator Refresh” sessions prior to the open space to review basic facilitation concepts, emphasizing specific points such as not being a subject matter expert and highlighting open space concepts such as implications of the Law of Two Feet. With Facilitator Refresh sessions, I like to use the analogy of an orchestra conductor who is inviting music (discussion) to be played from all of the different instruments (participants) in the orchestra (room), keeping the music going until it’s over.

Having participants sit in a “U” or semi-circle during the individual sessions (and during the agenda creation, if feasible) works best for sharing knowledge and ideas.

It is helpful to have a note taker assigned to each session to write down key points from the discussion. These can be shared with participants later, and even with people who did not attend the open space. Another aspect that facilitators can help out with is asking and reminding participants to say their name/location each time they speak. This helps the note taker as well as helping the people in the room get to know one another.

For a multi-day open space conference, I’ve found that reconvening all the participants to regroup and have additional agenda building sessions works well so that the group builds the agenda in segments. As open space progresses participants’ passions widen, curiosities spark, and people have additional questions and think of additional topics. Keep in mind that open space sessions don’t have to be multi-day events. I’ve led open space sessions that last an afternoon, or even just a few hours.

I cannot talk about open space without giving kudos to Harrison Owen, who first discovered the concept. (He rejects having “invented” it.) Before Owen designed open space, he described how he used to organize and run conferences, and people would comment that the most valuable time they had and where they would gain the most, was from the discussions they had with other participants at a break, over coffee. Sound familiar to anyone? So he set out to design a conference that was all coffee break, so to speak. Brilliant!

Here’s a great quote by him.

Open Space runs on two fundamentals: passion and responsibility. Passion engages the people in the room. Responsibility ensures things get done. A focusing theme or question provides the framework for the event. The art of the question lies in saying just enough to evoke attention, while leaving sufficient open space for the imagination to run wild. —Harrison Owen

I also would be remiss if I didn’t give deep hat tips to my former boss, Judy Roberts, and colleague, Bob Fagan, who introduced me to open space and modeled the key aspects that make it work.

Please see below for related additional reading on open space. If you have any questions or comments, please contact me at .

Owen, Harrison. “Opening Space for Emerging Order.” Open Space World. n.p. n.d. Web. 25, May, 2016.

Deutsch, Claudia H. “Round-Table Meetings with No Agendas, No Tables.” The New York Times. The New York Times. 5, June, 1994. Web. 26, May, 2016.

Stephanie HemmertStephanie Hemmert, a Senior Judicial Education Attorney, works with the Federal Judicial Center, a judicial branch agency whose primary mission is education and research for the federal courts. Prior to law school, Stephanie worked in the insurance industry in underwriting and training capacities. All views expressed are her own.