Steven “Doc” List on Agile Open Space Austin and OST

Submitted by Lynn Bender on Fri, 06/06/2008 - 12:00am

It's near impossible to be involved in Austin's tech community and not hear Steven Doc List's name come up. At any given time, he seems to be engaged in half a dozen projects -- most recently the Agile Open Space Austin and the Green Technology Alliance. I was extremely happy that he was able to make time to answer my questions. Rather than try to summarize everything he's involved in, I'll refer you to Doc's Linked In profile, and his websites:,, and

Lynn Bender: It seems that Open Space Technology has been around for more than a decade. However, I've only heard it mentioned in the last few years -- most frequently during conversations among Agile advocates. Can you tell me a bit about OST and how it was implemented at Agile Open Space Austin?

Steven "Doc" List: I've had the same experience. Harrison Owen first codified the concepts in 1989, followed by the book "Open Space Technology: A User's Guide". So how is it that you and I have not heard of it prior to the last few years? My belief is that it's because it has been building toward a tipping point. It is so totally counter to the way that Western business has run meetings and events, that it makes organizers and managers nervous. Truly. We live in a command and control culture, where the manager/leader/organizer expects to decide who and what and where and when. Schedules, project plans, organization, staff, materials...

Consider the PMBOK (Project Management Body of Knowledge), which is the codified approach to command and control. Get all the details, write them down, estimate them, schedule them, compare reality to the plan, stick to the plan. How different could Open Space Technology be?

So let me get back to answering your questions and addressing your observations.

Why have you heard about OST mostly amongst Agile advocates? Because both are intrinsically self-organizing, self-managing, iterative, and anti-command-and-control. Agilists embrace it because it mirrors their approach to what they do, and how they think, in many ways.

What is OST? It is a very simple methodology for holding meetings/events that puts the power into the hands of the participants, based on their passion and responsibility. The simple version is this: arrive, create the agenda, convene sessions, discuss issues, write some notes. The facilitator explains how it will work and guides the participants through creating the agenda. After that, the event is mostly in the hands of the participants.

At the Agile Austin Open Space, we met on Friday evening to create the agenda. The majority of the participants had never been to an Open Space before, so it was interesting to watch the acceleration. First, a few folks who had been to Open Spaces before offered topics. Then a few of the bolder "newbies" started to step up. For a while, it looked as though we would have lots of empty space in the agenda (six rooms, six time slots, for a total of thirty-six possible sessions). And then the tide started rolling in. We easily filled the agenda, with a couple of extra topics thrown in.

Once the topics were on the wall, the participants began to negotiate mergers ("these two topics seem pretty close"), changes to schedule ("I have a conflict at this time - can we switch slots?"), and anything else that needed handling. I, as the facilitator, mostly stood back and let them go at it. There was one moment when someone looked to me to tell them what to do. Scott Bellware said "we don't need Doc - let's just get this done." And they did.

On Saturday, we began with Daily News - announcements, logistical details, and an opportunity for anyone to negotiate a change to the agenda. And then people went to whichever sessions they wanted. Conveners could organize their sessions any way they wanted, or not at all. One popular mechanism is the Fishbowl.

Saturday ended with a short meeting, announcements about what would be happening on Sunday, and a few minutes for anyone to share or ask questions.

Sunday began with Daily News again, this time outside in the parking lot. Attendance was a bit slow at first, but it got rolling. Not surprisingly, some of the sessions both on Saturday and Sunday "didn't make" - no one showed up. So the conveners went to other sessions. This is one of those self-organizing things that express either the importance of the topic, or the conflict between interesting topics. And no one gets their feelings hurt.

Sunday ended with the Closing Circle, in which a Talking Stick is passed around and each person gets a minute or so to share. I find this to be one of the most rewarding parts of the process, as each person expresses appreciation, surprise ("it really works!"), insights, and more. I love the Closing Circle.

We created proceedings of the event by using the wiki that Eric Anderson had set up for the event, and having conveners go in to create a page for their session. It's still up at - click on the Agenda and Proceedings link. Other than reminding them, I didn't have to do anything, and now there's a persistent record.

Bender: So what are the key aspects or guiding principles of OST?

Doc: Harrison Owen says that the ideas came from African and American Indian tribal ceremony (circles, talking sticks, respect, passion), and the fact that he saw the most valuable discussions at events he attended over the years happen at the coffee breaks. In many ways, OST is about loosely organized coffee breaks!

There are four principles:
- Whoever comes is the right people
- Whatever occurs is the only thing that could have
- Whenever it starts is the right time
- When it's over, it's over

I like to add a corollary to the fourth principle:
- When it's NOT over, it's not over - if a conversation isn't done, there's nothing stopping you from continuing that conversation.

There's the One Law - the Law of Two Feet: if you find that you are not learning or contributing the way you'd like, where you are, use your two feet and go somewhere else. Join another session. Sit in the hall. Have a conversation with someone at the coffee bar.

And one guiding thought: Be Prepared to Be Surprised.

At every Open Space I've facilitated, I've heard the same comment in various ways: I had no idea what to expect, and I got a LOT more out of this than I could ever have expected.

Bender: Open Space Meetings sound very close to another recent meeting format: BarCamp. Both provide methods for the meeting to "self-organize". Both appear to be participant driven. What distinguishes the two?

Doc: BarCamp actually borrows from OST. As folks around technical and other communities have become exposed to parts of Open Space, they have embraced and adopted them.

The difference - as I'm aware of them - is that BarCamp is oriented towards possibly unrelated sessions within a broad topic, and the sessions are frequently hands-on learning sessions. Open Spaces are more oriented towards addressing problems and challenges.

While OST can be used for anything, it shines when there are strong emotions and opinions, problems to solve, and a group of people who bring passion and a sense of responsibility. It has been used to address geographical community issues (zoning, resources, libraries, and so on), corporate bodies (board meetings, company strategy, departmental issues), social/technical community issues (ALT.NET, Microsoft MVP), and so on.

Bender: What sort of problems arise when organizing an Open Space Conference? Is it more difficult to attract big names? Is it even important to attract big names?

Doc: The problems are pretty much the same as with any other event: getting volunteers to actually do stuff, getting the word out, and arranging resources.

As to attracting big names, the questions are two: Why would I care? and What's the problem?

In the Open Spaces I've facilitated, we've had participation from and sponsorship from the likes of Microsoft, ThoughtWorks, Version One, Rally, and Adecco. Attendees have included Scott Guthrie (Microsoft), Scott Hanselman (Microsoft), Martin Fowler (ThoughtWorks), Ayenda Rahien (from Israel), Ian Culling (CTO of Version One), and other "names" in the Agile and .NET communities. The list is much longer - these are just a few well known names that come to mind. So clearly we're not having trouble attracting "big names".

But why would I care? The participants get out of it what they put into it. They participate in conversations, they share and learn, and they create their own experience. So while it's sometimes cool to have folks like those I mentioned, it's not essential to the success and value of an event.

Where there is resistance to participating or sponsoring, that resistance may come from the fact that there are some who are confused or put off by the idea of OST. They don't get how it will work. They're used to presenting and organizing, in a traditional sense, and being in control of their own time and space. In OST, the participants are in control.

Still, there's a lot of flexibility. At least year's inaugural ALT.NET Open Space, here in Austin in October, Scott Guthrie offered to present the new Microsoft MVC framework. Note that it's "offered" - it was not predetermined before the event - he offered when the agenda was being created. Most of the participants opted to have just one session at that time so they could all be there and not miss out on anything good. And even though Scott's session was mostly presentation, it was much more interactive and free-wheeling than it would have been at a "traditional" event.

Getting back to your question, though, the biggest problem is overcoming resistance and ignorance about OST and how/whether it works. By crafting the invitation with care, this can be addressed. Michael Herman, a well known practitioner, has an excellent PDF on crafting the invitation and all of the logistics leading up to the event (

Fortunately, the tipping point is in sight, as more and more people are becoming aware of OST and how exciting it is.

Bender: So why would an organization, particularly a corporate organization, choose to use OST to run an event?

Because it works. It's been done literally thousands of times and has produced remarkable results. There are lots of examples, and finding information about Open Space Technology is easy.

In some ways, it's akin to the choice between waterfall and agile.

Waterfall has proven itself to fail over and over again. Agile is proving itself to succeed.

The same is true of "traditional" versus OST. OST works. The participants are engaged, and bring passion and a sense of responsibility (yes, those are key concepts).

If you want your organization to succeed, whether it's over the long haul with a clear strategy, or addressing a specific problem/challenge/issue, doesn't it make sense that the results are likely to be more effective if the members/employees/participants have an emotional stake in the process and results?

Bender: The best BarCamps I have been to have been in the 100-200 person range. Are there scalability issues that are unique to the OST format?

Doc: I freely admit that I don't know. The largest event I've facilitated so far has been about 150 people, and it worked beautifully.

The largest that I've heard about was facilitated by Harrison Owen and Michael Pannwitz (of Germany, creator of the Open Space World Map - It was an event in Germany with a bit over 2,000 psychiatrists! They put up two circus tents in a field, connected by a tunnel. They held the opening circle with everyone sitting on pads on the floor in several (like five or more) concentric circles. There were around 240 separate topics discussed. One of the most interesting things was that both Harrison and Michael conducted openings simultaneously, one in English and one in German. Not translations of each other's words, but simultaneous openings as they walked around the circle on opposite sides. Amazing! I've seen photos and read the write-up.

So I really don't know whether there are scalability issues.

I know that I'm not ready to try it with more than 200 - 300 people.


Bender: Any plans yet for follow up Agile Austin Open Space?

Doc: You'd have to ask the folks at Agile Austin. I think that, given the results they saw, it's likely that this will become a regular event. The participants were excited, and want to continue the discussions that began here. And it's worth noting that not all of the attendees were from Austin - we had folks from as close as San Antonio and College Station, and as far away as Virginia and Maryland and Atlanta.

There will certainly be at least one more Open Space in Austin this year, organized by Scott Bellware. Scott was the primary organizer of the ALT.NET Open Space last year, and is responsible for me becoming an Open Space facilitator.

I believe that ADNUG is also considering holding an Open Space in Austin, but maybe not until next year.

Outside of Austin, I know of another ALT.NET event being planned for Calgary in August, and Microsoft has invited me to facilitate another Open Space for them in the Fall in Redmond.

One event that I'm hoping to attend is the World Open Space on Open Space in July in San Francisco. Practitioners from around the world will be gathering to discuss OST in an Open Space. How cool will THAT be?

So it's rolling and gaining momentum. I expect we'll continue to see more Open Space events as more people become aware of it and familiar with it. I do my little bit whenever I can. In fact, when folks invite me to connect on LinkedIn, I send them a nice thank you email with a link to the Open Space page on Wikipedia ( Guerilla marketing at its finest, eh?

Bender: Any last remarks?

Doc: Yeah.

I love Open Space.