About two years ago, when Scandio was still a lot smaller and there was no pandemic, the topic of self-organized teams became more and more important. In order to discuss this new form of collaboration among all employees and, if necessary, to take further action, the first Open Space event was held at Scandio. In the classical Open Space way, topics were collected, teams were formed and discussions took place in every available room at the office. Afterwards, the results of every topic area were presented to the other employees on creatively designed posters. In the end, the Open Space format helped us split an extensive topic into smaller subject areas and thus come outwith various action points that can be put into practice.
Over the last few years, we have gained a lot of wonderful new entries - Scandio has grown continuously. This growth comes along with new challenges within the teams’ structures and the organization of the company. A new Open Space event was needed! But this time in a new dimension - thanks to Corona and the now 3 locations in Munich, Augsburg and Berlin, the whole event could only take place remotely.
For us in the agile Community of Practice (or agile CoP, as we call ourselves for short) this was a welcome challenge. How do you plan an Open Space event with 88 employees that is completely virtual and where everyone can freely exchange ideas despite the necessary structure? Our goal was to guarantee this without making the event feel like a dry Zoom marathon.
What is an Open Space?
An Open Space is a free format for brainstorming and discussion, which is limited by a time frame. A framework theme is presented, for which various smaller theme groups are formed. The topics themselves are suggested directly by the participants. One person per group is responsible for moderation and securing results. An Open Space is basically open to results - anything can and may happen.
Open Space has 4 principles and 1 law (the law of the two feet):
The 4 principles:
- Whoever comes, are the right people.
- Whatever may happen - it is the only thing that can happen.
- Whenever it starts, it is the right time.
- Over means over.
The law of the two feet:
- Can I learn something?
- Can I contribute something?
If I can answer neither one nor the other with “yes”, I leave the group and look for a more suitable topic.
So far everything is clear - but how can an Open Space with such high demands on the interaction between the participants be implemented virtually?
Which tools did we use?
Let’s start with the right tools. We decided to use as few different tools as possible so as not to confuse the participants. Nothing is more strenuous than constantly having to jump back and forth between different platforms and tools. Therefore we have defined the following “communication stack”:
Atlassian Confluence was our centerpiece during the event. We used it for planning our preevent to-dos, the agenda, the votings and documentation.
We set up a special slack channel for the virtual Open Space event, which was very practical as it allowed all questions and discussions that arose during the event to be collected in one place. Announcements, such as short-term changes in the agenda, could also be communicated without any problems. For the communication between the hosts there was a separate slack channel as well.
Up to 100 participants in one call, the possibility to split a call into different breakout sessions and screen sharing while still seeing the faces of the participants - Zoom was the ideal tool for us to replace direct communication.
Of course, the collection still lacks a whiteboard to visualize the various discussion rounds and to record the results. We decided to use Miro because it allows an unlimited number of anonymous users to access a board at the same time.
The various phases
Our Open Space should take place on ONE day. Due to the virtual character of the event and the time limit, the Open Space itself was divided into different parts. Some points, such as the collection of topics, could be outsourced from the actual event and tackled in advance. This relieved the tight schedule of the event-day itself and made the organization somewhat easier.
Prior to the event
The whole basis for the Open Space event are the topics to be discussed. Therefore we needed a collection of those in advance. Since we couldn’t place that directly in the event due to time constraints, a table was created on a Confluence page three weeks beforehand. All employees were able to submit suggestions for topics, which were limited by an overriding theme and which should be formulated positively. In addition, at least one responsible person had to be found for each topic, to remain in the corresponding zoom call during the entire discussion. Overall, everyone got a week to collect the topics to be discussed. After that, the Confluence pages’ status was set to read-only and solely the organizers were able to continue editing.
Since this collection of topics was still quite unorganized, we had a phase of summarizing, for which we scheduled three days. During a meeting within the CoP, the individual topics were reviewed and possible summaries discussed. We then approached the individual persons responsible for the topics and discussed, whether and how changes and summaries would be possible for the respective topic. This whole process was documented transparently for all employees on the Confluence page for the topic collection.
The issues had been clarified - now it was time for prioritization. Since we only had a certain number of hosts available, the number of topics that could be discussed was limited as well. That’s why we needed a vote - following the “as few tools as possible”-policy, we did that in Confluence using the Polls-Plugin. The employees again had about a week to vote for the topics they wanted to discuss. The 16 topics with the most votes made it into the virtual Open Space.
The different phases of the topic collection were communicated via internal blog posts and reminders in Scandio-Slack.
The day of the event
For the big day an agenda was created on a Confluence page. All important links to the different zoom calls and Miro boards have been summarized here, so that all participants could orientate themselves quickly. Even spontaneous adjustments to the agenda, for example changes in the time schedule, were possible without any problems.
An important part of the event and thus linked everywhere on the agenda was our feedback wall, which we had created in Miro. During and after the event the participants were encouraged to use it again and again. This way we were able to directly implement the feedback for smaller things.
Our virtual Open Space event had the following schedule:
The whole thing started in our “main zoom room”. A few introductory words were said and information about the rest of the day was given. The agenda and break slots were also communicated here. One of the most important rules was: everyone has to turn on their camera during the whole event - discussions are simply more fun when you can see your counterpart.
Presentation of topics and division into teams
As a next step, the topics collected in advance were presented individually. By this, each participant got a better overview of the various possibilities for discussion. Before the participants were distributed into the individual groups, a short introduction to Miro and its functions was given as well. There was a short break to take a deep breath, before the first discussion round started.
We divided all topics into two discussion slots - eight topics could be discussed simultaneously. The law of the two feet is very important in Open Space and by linking the different topics on the agenda, everyone was able to quickly switch rooms and participate in another discussion round at any time.
Each topic had its own host, a separate zoom room and a separate miro board. The host led through the discussion in a kind of “lean coffee” format, thoughts were collected on post-its, topics were clustered, prioritized and discussed. If a group was too big, Zoom Breakout Sessions could be used to split it into two smaller groups, which could then continue to discuss separately. The results were dicussed together again afterwards.
It was incredibly exciting to see in which directions the discussions were developing. An Open Space can be full of surprises and every topic is different, yet at least the last 20 minutes of a discussion round were used to visualize the result. Even if it wasn’t possible to create real “action points” for every topic, at least ideas were recorded.
In between the two time slots for the discussions we had a big lunch break. This is highly recommended, as it gives everyone a chance to catch their breath before the next round.
Presenting results from the discussion rounds to all participants
At the end of the second thematic slot, the results of each discussion were presented to all other employees. To keep the chaos of screen sharing as low as possible, the respective Miroboard was opened by one of the moderators and the screen was shared for all the others. The different results were presented by a participant of the discussion group, who was previously determined within the group. Following the presentations, all participants had a further ten minutes to get an overview of the various results before voting on the follow-up.
With 16 different topics, not every single one can be discussed in detail for the follow-up. That’s why we reverted back to our Confluence Polls plugin and started a quick poll for tracking. The16 previously discussed topics were to choose from, and each participant had ten minutes to vote on the topic they considered most important.
Once this had determined the prioritization of the topics, it was time to plan the follow-up. The first five topics were looked at more closely, the next steps were discussed in the whole group and working groups were formed, which would deal with the topic and the implementation of these steps in the coming weeks.
Everything was again documented on a Confluence page that is visible to all employees.
Every event needs a good finish. For our virtual Open Space event we decided to do a short mood check in Miro - and thus test the limits of it. How many users can simultaneously move emojis across a board?
Follow-up and documentation
Clearly, the end of the event does not mean the end of the exchange. A lot of topics were discussed and ideas were collected which need to be documented. For this purpose we created a section in our Confluence where all results (and the one or other the snapshot taken during the discussion) were saved as screenshots. This is also where the areas for the working groups to follow up the various topics were created.
The organization of our first virtual Open Space has been a real challenge - but also a lot of fun. The balancing act between the freedom of an Open Space event and the necessity of structure and organization, which a virtual discussion needs, was really exciting. But thanks to our very committed participants, the previous organization within the CoP and the help of these valuable tools, everything worked out as it should. However, the multitude of possibilities made it difficult to decide on one topic, which is why we would focus on fewer topics at the next Open Space and have more hosts on hand to divide the discussion groups into smaller groups if necessary.
We’ve learned a lot during the organization of this extensive event and are working to further expand our knowledge. Since this type of virtual events will continue to accompany our everyday life in the future, we would like to assist other companies in the preparation and implementation of such Open Space events.
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