Update on 6/28 – I did a Thirsty Developer interview with Doc List, about Open Spaces and the unmeeting that we held. Check out the Episode Page or Listen to the show. I also made a minor change to the text below (moved one of the titles down a paragraph).

I think pretty much everyone has heard of the concept of the Open Spaces (or its close cousin the unconference) Open Spaces are:

A facilitated participant-driven face-to-face conference around a theme or purpose. (according to the unconference blog)

Recently some of my teammates gathered together to talk about planning our direction for the next year (the Microsoft fiscal year runs from July to June). We had a day together and a lot of items to cover, as you can imagine planning the direction for a large team for a full year will give you a lot to talk about.

I got the task of putting together the agenda, which is a tough when you have limited time and lots of material. Brian Prince, my friend and colleague from Ohio, put out the suggestion that we should try to apply the Open Spaces Technology to our planning meeting. Our boss, Brian Moore, is always willing to let us try things that are unconventional (with a few caveats that I will mention later). So eight of us set about having a meeting that used some of the Open Spaces principals or what I am dubbing an unmeeting.

Applying the Open Spaces Principles

Post-It Note on Whiteboard

With open spaces, there are 4 principles that guide the event. They are very Zen like, which is why you generally have a professional facilitator to help guide you through the application of the principles. The principles are:

  1. Whoever comes is the right people
  2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have
  3. Whenever it starts is the right time
  4. When it’s over, it’s over

I got to serve in the role of facilitator for our “unmeeting”. We did a number of things to apply the Zen like principles. Our plan was to have 6 attendees at the event, but we discovered that we needed more “right people” there. So we recruited a couple more people (including one that we picked up at a happy hour the night before).

The majority of our agenda was driven by a combination voting / consensus process (we used post in notes on the whiteboard with tick marks). We also modified the conversation throughout the day, which was important because there were a couple of topics that did not fit into nice hour long segments. And of course was not problem with everyone knowing that the meeting was over, after a long day of planning, it was obvious it was over.

In addition to the 4 principles of Open Spaces, there is one law…..

Another key difference between the unmeeting that we held and the traditional Open Spaces is that the “Law of two feet” was somewhat modified for our purposes. The law of two feet can be summed up as:

If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet. Go to some other place where you may learn and contribute.

No voting with your feet at our unmeeting

The law of two feet is great when you have choices of the activities to participate in; many Open Spaces events will have multiple sessions going on at the same time. If you are not getting something out of your current session, it is great to be able to leave without you or the other people feeling awkward.

Post-It Note on Laptop

Our unmeeting did not have breakouts, so the only option was to leave the room for a while (which we encouraged if you needed a mental or physical break) or to lose focus on the proceedings by getting lost in your e-mail. We tried to discourage non-topical use of your laptop during our proceedings (I as the facilitator used some creative techniques as you can see from the photo). This was somewhat a violation of the law of two feet, but part of this was driven by our culture as a company.

Most of you have probably never been to an internal Microsoft meeting (unless you work there). The great majority of the meeting has the Microsoft folks all affixed to their laptop screens dealing with the avalanche of e-mail we get on a daily basis (we try to behave ourselves better when we are at a meeting with customers and partners).

The boss is still the boss

Man swinging paper

One of the things that was different about our unmeeting was that it was commissioned by our boss and he did have a specific set of outcomes that he needed to accomplish at the conclusion of the meeting. As a result, he did dictate that we cover a few agenda items.

If it was a true Open Spaces, the participants could have chosen to ignore topics that they did not want to cover, but this was an unmeeting. We accommodated the “mandatory” sessions by putting them on a different colored sticky from the other topics during the voting/consensus process. The participants still got to choose when in the agenda that we covered the mandatory sessions, but we had to work them into the day. Other than that, our boss did not really rule the meeting with an iron fist (despite the picture). He did serve in the role of the “expert” as we would have questions about the outcomes that we were trying to accomplish.

Overall I think we had a positive experience applying the Open Spaces Technology to an internal meeting. I would encourage considering how you could apply the principles and law at your work.