Open Space not so open for introverts?

Adrian Segar* over at “conferences that work” has just put up a really good post about the limits of “Open Space Technology.” Among other things, he writes –

Open Space session topics are determined by individuals who stand up in front of the entire group and announce their chosen topic. Generally, this is much easier for extroverts, who have few difficulties speaking to a group extemporaneously, than introverts who tend to shun such opportunities. The end result is that introverts are largely silent during the opening process, and the subsequent Open Space sessions are biased towards those proposed and often dominated by a comfortably-vocal minority.

Given that introverts are reckoned to make up ~25-50% of the population (higher in some industries, such as information technology) this is not good.

A facilitator told me recently about her experience at an Open Space conference she was running. The acknowledged expert on the conference topic was present, but he was so uncomfortable with the process that he hardly spoke during the entire event.

As a well-known introvert (cough cough), I whole-heartdly agree.

*conflict of interest statement – he and I had a v. useful skype chat a while back.

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25 Responses to Open Space not so open for introverts?

  1. Hmmm, I am wary of this “introvert” label, especially when introversion is conflated with an unwillingness to speak in public. They are not the same thing at all. I also think in some cases we’re giving a cover story to passive-aggression, where some folks want the process to give them a power and authority they refuse to claim for themselves.

    All processes have faults and downsides; Open Space does present a challenge to people to give a name to what they care about and to say it in public – it’s can be more of a challenge than it looks. Of all the biases you could have, one towards people being open about what why care or know about might not be so terrible.

    That said, I do think we can offer other means of organising feedback and conversations that reduce that open outcry element.

  2. Dwight, thanks for the hat tip! I wish we’d had longer to talk; let me know if you’d like to do it again.
    Johnnie, I’m not clear on the point you’re making. Yes, introvert extrovert is a spectrum; I’m using “introvert” to refer the 25-50% of the population that incline that way. I don’t think that introverts are unwilling to speak in public, but, in my experience it’s harder for them to do so, especially at short notice. Let’s recognize that and see what we can do to make it easier for them to participate.

    I agree with you that people need to claim their own power and responsibility. The point I was trying to make in the post is that, sure, Open Space offers this possibility, but does not really support or encourage it. There are ways that this support can be provided and I give some examples in my post.

  3. Sam Gunsch says:

    Using Post-it Notes to capture participants views…

    Is this method common to Open Space?

    In many of the Open Space sessions I attended in the early 1990’s, participants were given a generous amount of time to write their suggestions, proposals, priorities on large Post-It Notes.

    Everyone was given a limited number of Notes, thereby forcing some priority setting.

    I thought this method necessarily generated more input from people who are inclined to not speak up very often, and it certainly limits the domination of air time by yappy people like me.

    The Notes were then sorted and posted on the wall in clusters around the topics or issues to which they applied.

    These topics/issues had usually been kept quite general. Generating the list of topics/issues was a facilitated process.

    But a key option to generating new ways of approaching whatever the session was to be addressing, was that participants were encouraged to also identify any topic or issue they thought had been left out by the first cut at a list.

    I personally found that reading these Notes was the most effective way of understanding the spectrum or variety of thinking in the room.

  4. leavergirl says:

    Hm… well, introverts are often grateful that other people voice their concerns, and that there is no need for them to speak up unless there is really a gap in the concerns voiced at the end. Forcing them to speak seems misconceived.

    As for one of the suggested “cures” — to have everybody speak at the beginning of the Open Space while being timed… I’d rather you take a pint of my blood. Ugh. 50 people at 3 min a pop = where is that rope so I can hang myself?!

    Sorry. I absolutely detest groups that do that right off the bat. Let’s get a move on, not everybody is a meeting freak!

    I do like the stickies idea. As long as it does not get in the way of briskly moving along.

  5. @Sam The Post-it Note variant you described is a great improvement on the classic Open Space format in my opinion.

    @leavergirl “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Building a group knowledge of who’s in the room and the resources available takes time. With 50 people, I’d give ’em each <=2mins, depending on the length of the whole event—a minimum of 1½ days for Conferences That Work—with breaks every 20 minutes for group exercises. I've been doing this for twenty years now, and I can assure you that your presumed experience is the actual experience of very few people.

    • I think this is a really useful debate and I need to write a longer more considered reflection somewhere.

      I think it’s easy to generalise from our personal experience and only human to assume it applies universally. It’s a trap I fall into, and I think Adrian you do too when you say: “I can assure you that your presumed experience is the actual experience of very few people.”

      You can “assure her”…. hmm that feels like invoking status rather than hard evidence to me.

  6. leavergirl says:

    Ey, Johnnie, in my (anecdotal) experience, feedback from us “meeting haters” is rarely appreciated. Hey, if introverts get special attention, shouldn’t we too? 🙂

    Btw, an easy fix for the introverts would be simply to say, if you still think your own issue is unaddressed, write it on a sticky, and it will be added to the process. You’d get one or two stickies, maybe none. And things keep on movin’…

  7. leavergirl says:

    Adrian, when you said the above (that Johnnie was responding too) I felt dismissed, as though my feedback did not count… and you speaking only to Johnnie later reinforces my impression. Is defending your way more important than listening to others? I am left wondering.

  8. leavergirl says:

    Adrian, I was looking to be heard. Instead, I got lectured, and saw you defending your way of doing things.

    When Johnnie picked up on it, you further defended yourself.

    Would you be willing to ask me more about what I had meant earlier? And consider it thoughtfully, before you decide whether or not it’s useful?

  9. leavergirl says:

    I’ll be delighted to give it another shot.
    It really bothered me in your write up that you basically seemed to be saying, well, them introverts would rather not speak up, so by gum, I’ll make’em! So you have a roundtable where everybody speaks. The introvert in me cringes. What I love about Open Space is that participation is voluntary. (As I had suggested, a few stickies at the end of the round where the topics are called out would level the playing field and not add cumbersomeness.)

    As for the introverted expert in your example… who knows, it could have been a blessing he spoke little! For once…! Non-experts need a chance too, and experts intimidate.

    I tend to think that the responsibility of the event organizers is not to be nannies for those less willing to speak… but rather be the anti-bullies regarding those who would hog the space. Let those who are less willing to speak make their own choices, and grow at their own pace. (within a safe space, as you say)

    The other part I was trying to address was this. Opening rounds where everybody speaks seem de rigueur these days, but some of us find them a real waste of time. At 2 min a pop, you can’t really say much at all. Most everybody runs over, and it drags on. And people don’t remember what was said anyway unless the group is quite small (in which case intros do work). I basically favor the format where people say their name and why they came, and that’s it. In a large group, such as Open Space, skip it altogether and people will get acquainted during the event in other ways. (How about posting everybody’s photo on the wall, and a paragraph they wrote about themselves? That way, if I am in a discussion group with someone who catches my interest, I can later go and look them up on the wall.)

    And finally, I think it would be good if facilitators listened more to people who don’t like meetings (as currently done) and therefore are not there to give feedback because they’ve had enough of meetingitis for a lifetime. Maybe giving me the benefit of doubt regarding how many people my voice represents since people like me are, um, largely invisible to you?

    What say you?

    • Thanks for explaining more where you’re coming from. It helped me.

      Perhaps what we have here is a failure to communicate, for which I’ll take my share of the blame. Plus, probably, some different perspectives, which is how it is.

      It’s true that I invite everyone to share his or her answers to the three questions that are at the heart of the opening roundtable in the Conferences That Work design. I can’t make anyone do this, and people are clearly given the option to pass. (Or say their name and why they came, as you prefer, or whatever they want.) I don’t remember that anyone ever has passed the opportunity completely, but it could happen and that would be fine. Also, people don’t have to talk for the whole 90-120 seconds that are allocated, and often they don’t.

      To put this in perspective, it’s the only sharing that I invite from group members during the whole 1½+ day event. The purpose is to model an environment at the start of the event where sharing is safe and conventional “experts” do not automatically monopolize conversations.

      I hear your cringing about being asked to share. I apologize. I suspect that no process is optimum for everyone. My experience is that the roundtable design I’ve developed leads to many people who have rarely opened their mouths at traditional events, for whatever reasons, learning that they have something worth sharing and moving into an ease of connection and acknowledgement that they haven’t experienced at a conference before. Against that are responses like yours.

      You said that experts intimidate. That’s often true. The Conferences That Work design works to uncover experience and expertise that attendees find useful; there are no initial assumptions made about who is an expert. At every conference I’ve ever run, the process has discovered people who have valuable experience and expertise that no one knew they possessed (sometimes even the people themselves).

      I’m not in favor either of conference organizers being nannies (which implies having power over helpless attendees). Instead, my purpose is to create a safe environment that encourages and supports communication. I’m trying to make it easier for many (but not all) introverts to contribute to the direction of the event by helping them safely share about themselves, what they want to happen, and what they have to offer. In my experience, not doing this usually leads to monopolization by experts and/or a bias towards those who think out loud (i.e. the extrovert-inclined).

      I agree with you that, unless the group is pretty small (say 20 or less), unstructured opening rounds are not the best use of time, especially if people are only going to be together for a day or less. The Conferences That Work roundtables, by the way, are never larger than 60 people—if there are more present we’ll run multiple simultaneous roundtables, optionally with a buddy system so that people get an idea of what happened in the other circles (details in my book).

      At the roundtable I provide each attendee with a printed facebook (small f) with all attendee info and a headshot of each person. Attendees can write notes on their copy as people share in the roundtable. I like your wall photo idea too.

      I hear that you don’t like meetings, and I know you’re not alone. I don’t think you’re invisible to me if you’re present at the event, because I’m sensitive to people for whom the process is not working, and try to check in with them during the conference and listen to what they have to say. Of course, I’ll miss some people, plus all those who don’t even show up. I will add that for repeated events I’ll run a special orientation for first-time attendees, and have noticed that many of those who at the session are highly suspicious and skeptical of what they hear is going to happen become some of Conferences That Work’s biggest fans once they experience the process. But not everyone, for sure.

      leavergirl, I don’t know whether what I’ve said here has made any difference to your response, and I don’t know where you live. If you’re ever interested in experiencing one of these events let me know!

  10. I’m going to leap in here and say that I’m sure what I’ve written earlier challenging Adrian could have been expressed more clearly. My line about status was a bit of shorthand from improv and it may have confused things.

    Just to unravel that, it was great to see the comment you left, Adrian, citing feedback data. I think you may have intended to reassure us, but in the previous comment the phrase “let me assure you” minus the data does sound like a bit of an over-reach from “this is my experience”.

    The thing is, I think I agree with vast amounts of what you argue Adrian. For instance, I too like to use processes that get everyone in the room to speak. I find they vary in how well they work and how annoying or deep some people find them. In some groups, a talking stick with no time limit seems to have been brilliant; in other contexts that could be a disaster. Time limits sometimes make it zing, sometimes not. I can relate to leavergirl’s experience.

    I keep finding that any technique that seems to work well* in one context may work quite differently in another. That’s why I am passionate about improv because it helps me to stay alive to what’s happening and be flexible. I would imagine you do the same, Adrian.

    Returning to where I started, my experience, FWIW, of Open Space is that if you are willing to hold the marketplace open long enough, people who are teetering will add a topic, sometimes a bit nervously, and that one often seems to attract a lot of energy. Also, I tend to make the announcement of topics an invitation; if someone wants to post one and not announce it, that’s an option too.

    Hoping this doesn’t further muddy the waters…

    *I’m going to post a second comment elaborating on this in a sec.

    • Johnnie, you were right to call me on my “I assure you”. Not helpful language that revealed the vestiges of how I was taught to argue in academia for many years. Leavergirl, I apologize for that. I’m sorry I said it.

      Yes, I like to be flexible too in how I respond, and I’m slowly getting better at it over the years. I wrote the book about Conferences That Work not because I believe there’s one way to create the best possible event for each attendee (kind of “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”) but because I wanted to provide a better alternative to the terrible conferences I’ve endured and most of us still have to endure. And I wanted to provide a guide to something better that anyone could use without being a brilliant improvising facilitator who could create magic out of thin air with a group.

      When I’ve run Open Space I’ve done exactly what you’ve done Johnnie (holding the marketplace open past some silence; “posting without announcing is fine!”). But I’ve always wondered who and what I’ve missed because people didn’t act. My experience with the Conferences That Work roundtables leads me to believe I’ve probably missed significant topics and attendee resources. But we’ll never know.

  11. What do we mean by saying a method works? It’s absolutely as a piece of shorthand but humans being what they are, it’s unlikely that they’ll all agree on what works means. It may not always mean that everyone has a really good time. Sometimes a fractious meeting that ends with raw nerves is what needs to happen for some issues to be taken seriously.

    Many clients get very attached to their events ending on a high note but I always feel a bit wary about this. Why do we think we can or should control when or how are participants get high? Why do we think we can or should have everyone agree at 5pm rather than some other time? We can easily confuse our search quality with a desire to over-control.

    The British comedian Eric Morecambe was accused in a skit of playing all the wrong notes. He insisted he played the right notes, not nessarily in the right order. In similar vein, and intending a degree of lightness, we can say that all facilitation methods “Work” but not necessarily in the way we like.

    On a related matter (as I think Hannibal Lecter may have said) I was a bit thrown by the second sentence in this quote from your original post.

    “However, I think that Open Space does not work well for many participants. This has been corroborated informally over the years by every facilitator that I’ve spoken to who has used it.”

    Because I (and I expect many other keen users of open space) would love to have a conversation with you… but wouldn’t want to spoil your remarkable track record…

    • I agree with everything you charmingly said.

      One of my best learning experiences, for me as facilitator and the participants, was at a conference that ended in a perfect cacophony of conflicting views and high emotions that in retrospect accurately mirrored the hitherto unseen work that the participants had yet to do.

      And I’d love to meet OS practitioners who belie what I’ve heard to date about introvert involvement. Perhaps you’re doing something that makes all the difference. Spoil away!

  12. leavergirl says:

    This has been a very useful interchange for me, and thank you Adrian for catching yourself in midstep and really listening and talking back! I would love to try it — I am in Colorado.

    Btw, when I said that people like me are invisible to you, I meant, since we are not likely to be in a meeting, we are not likely to be filling out your questionnaires either! 🙂

  13. Thank you. It’s been a good lesson and learning experience for me. It’s great to get to know people a little through interchanges like this. If I’m working in Colorado, I’ll let you know.

    I am wondering though what “meeting” means to you. Somehow I doubt you’re a hermit. If you’re not, where does being with one, two, three, or more people tip over into being in a “meeting” that you want to avoid?

  14. leavergirl says:

    Interesting question.
    People who are together for some sort of enjoyment, is not a meeting.
    People who are together to move through an agenda, that’s a meeting.
    Off the cuff.
    I’ll think about it some more.

  15. leavergirl says:

    Well, I thought about it, and I think what I said basically holds. I once was part of the Greens, and we had meetings. Then, for several reasons, about 8 of us rebelled, and began to get together by ourselves, in different people’s homes. Then, instead of meetings we just talked from the heart. We were real.

    And by the way… better process can improve some things, but it cannot fix meetingitis. Once I participated in a Quaker business meeting, The process was excellent! The meeting sucked. Mostly because we moved through an agenda of items of small importance (that could have been resolved with a few phone calls) while outside, a glorious golden autumn afternoon was passing by forever.

    • dwighttowers says:

      Meetings for the sake of meetings – yuck!!

      But what if some of those decisions aren’t small importance. When and how are the aggrandizers held to account? (Not saying that meetings do that! Interested to hear your thoughts…)

  16. leavergirl says:

    If the aggrandizers are running things… run for the exit! (But I am probably misunderstanding your question… 🙂

    One of the Quakers’ decisions was important — but of course, it had already been made behind the scenes. A family awaited the entire deathly boring meeting to be accepted into the church. I felt sorry for them — they should have been the centerpiece. In a humble Quaker way, of course.

  17. I’ve come to this discussion late and have enjoyed reading the original post and the 24 responses.

    My first experience of Open Space was in 1988, at the Sixth International Conference on Organisation Transformation (a.k.a. OT6) in Stockholm. I began designing, organising and facilitating Open Space meetings, conferences, events, what-you-will, straight after OT6, and must have facilitated some 150 OS events over the years.

    And this introvert issue has never been an issue, or certainly not one I’ve been aware of, so I’m not going to add to the great points that people have made here.

    But I’d like to contribute what is probably one of the most effective facilitation methods I’ve ever encountered. I wish I could remember who first showed it to me so I can credit them, but I’m a grey-haired old codger and the memory is long gone. Here’s the method:


    This is an effective way of having 10 people check-in or report back in 10 minutes.

    Let’s imagine that one person from each of 10 breakout groups is required to report back to the large group.

    Arrange a line of 10 chairs at the front of the room, facing towards the large group.
    Ask the 10 reporters to sit in these chairs. If you want the running order to be random, take 10 playing cards, Ace through to 10, shuffle them, and, holding them face down, ask each person to take a card. That’s the running order.

    Inform the reporters that they have just one minute to report any decisions made or insights revealed during their small group session.

    Hand a watch (if necessary, borrow it from one of the reporters) to Reporter 2. That’s the person in second chair.

    Ask this person to give a signal to Reporter 1 when he or she has been speaking for 50 seconds, and a ‘time up’ signal at 60 seconds.

    When the first report back is complete, Reporter 2 passes the watch to Reporter 3, and the process is repeated until every reporter has spoken.

    Reporter 10 is timed by Reporter 1.

    A similar process can be used for check-ins, except that the row of chairs is not needed.

    Benefits of this method

    1. Once the facilitator has explained the process, it is self-managing.

    2. With the exception of Reporter 1, everyone is sympathetic towards the timekeeper, as they have just experienced that role.

    3. Again, except for Reporter 1, everyone is acutely aware of how much can be said in 60 seconds.

    4. Reporters always stay within the prescribed time limit. In some cases they will finish with time to spare.

    5. This is the quickest, easiest and most egalitarian way of handling check ins and report backs.

    I hope you’ll try this method when the opportunity arises. But please don’t give me the credit. I nicked it from someone else.

    Thank you Dwight, and warm wishes to all.


    Jack Martin Leith
    Bristol, United Kingdom

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