How to host a 100+ person conference without an agenda

An experiment in self-organization on a large scale.

Courtney and Alistair, our wonderful Open Space facilitators.

1 full day. 21 sessions. 100 people. No set agenda.

It’s January. That time of year when we look into the future and see where we want to be in twelve months. It’s also the time of year when we set goals that move us towards our vision.

Now imagine doing that visioning with 100 people at once…

That is what we did when we ran Open Space. A conference which is free of speaking slots, pre-planned workshops, or concrete outcomes.

“Often the best part of a conference is the time spent between sessions, where conversations naturally arise.” — Alistair McKinnell, Nulogite & Facilitator

Open Space is a special type of conference we run once a year to understand Nulogy’s internal pulse. We find it valuable because it allows us to surface cross-company needs that are otherwise hard to uncover — employees are given the chance to have interwoven conversations that blend across teams.

http://www.openspaceworldmap.org/

OpenSpace has been used world-wide for 25 years by various government bodies, NASA, and of course — Nulogy.

Participants pitch conversation topics and the entire conference self-organizes according to their interests. Conversations are not regulated or managed but are encouraged to flow in order to surface themes.

How it works:

This style of conference needed just five things to get started: 
1. An open room with chairs
2. Facilitator(s)
3. People (aka your team)
4. Bulletin Board
5. Overarching theme

1. Set the tone

  • Pick the theme for your conference. For us it was Engagement & Growth.
  • Let people know that the pressure is off.
    Don’t worry if the conversations stray from their original goals. Whoever shows up are the right people. Wherever it is, is the right place. Whenever it starts is the right time. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have, be prepared to be surprised!

2. Facilitators give up the mic 🎤

Once Facilitators set the tone and explain some basic rules, they give up the microphone!

Participants are asked to come up with conversation topics on the spot and pitch these topics to everyone else. The topics are meant to revolve around the main theme.

For instance, this year’s OpenSpace was themed around Engagement & Growth. Conversation topics included:

  • Onboarding
  • Waste related to company growth
  • Personal growth

As you can see they can be quite loosely related to the overarching theme.

3. Pick a time-slot to hold your conversation

You just pitched a conversation topic? Amazing!

Pick a time slot to hold your conversation on the bulletin board. We had three different time-slots with seven concurrent conversations going at once. To make it easy, clearly label where each conversation session will take place.

Once all the topics are up the board, check for overlaps in conversation theme and bundle those overlapped topics into a single time slot.

Facilitators can let everyone know that they’re welcome to join the conversation sessions that most interest them, and participants can float between different sessions.

4. Hosting a conversation? Show up and capture what was said. That’s it.

As a conversation host your only responsibility is to show up and write down what was said. Don’t worry about leading the conversation or setting an agenda. Let it flow. That’s the point.

When it’s over, it’s over.

Bonus: Finish the evening with a meal together.

OpenSpace has been a way to sync up as a company, it fosters new connections through discussions that normally don’t take place in the lifecycle of a normal day.

One of the resources we used to run this conference is the book Open Space Technology, A User’s Guide by Harrison Owen.

This article was written by Nulogite Ella Gorevalov

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