The Agile Open Tribe(s)

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The best part of any conference tends to be the coffee breaks. Thus, a great conference should be all coffee breaks!

Okay, this isn't an inescapable conclusion. Your favorite coffee shop may offer free refills, but they probably don't let you skip the first cup and only get the refills. A conference of coffee breaks wouldn't have anything to break from. And even if the coffee breaks are the best part, the rest of the conference might be great in its own right. (That's certainly what we're hoping for as we see the program for Agile2013 getting put together!)

What if you did take seriously the idea of a conference that was all coffee breaks? Actually, this isn't even a what-if: in the past couple weeks only, at least three different groups of Agilistas - that I'm aware of - attended such gatherings: Agile Open France, the first ever Agile Open in Brazil, and Agile Open Northwest in the US.

It all started with one brave soul who did take the ideal seriously, as the story goes - Harrison Owen, who invented what he called "Open Space Technology" way back in 1984. The idea is still alive and well today; it has spawned a number of variants.

For instance, in the mid-2000s the tech community became enthusiastic about the idea of the "unconference". The first "unconference" I attended was EuroFoo 2004, the European follow-up to the successful "Foo Camp" initiated by Tim O'Reilly; the "Foo" stood for "Friends Of O'Reilly". A group of people who liked the format but preferred an open-enrollment approach, rather than the invitation-only policy of Foo Camps, came up with the term "BarCamp" - a nerd joke; foo and bar are part of programmer jargon. BarCamps were largely responsible for popularizing the "unconference".

The format of BarCamp differed little from that of an Open Space meeting. In a nutshell, the conveners of an Open Space set aside a place (typically a conference venue with several rooms, but many other options work too), and a time (from a morning or afternoon, to several days) to be divided into "sessions". Other than inviting participants and proposing a theme, their works stops there. Every attendee is a "speaker", encouraged to propose a session about whatever topic strikes them as relevant to the particular group assembled on that occasion.

Participants not only create the program; they are also encouraged to move around as they see fit, as opposed to the conference norm whereby it is rude and insulting to the speaker to get up in the middle of a session and go somewhere else. This "Law of Two Feet" is the most important rule of Open Space.

This is of course quite congenial to the idea of "self-organization", so central to Agile discourse. It is, in fact, a nicely concrete illustration of how "self-organization" can work in practice: a well-run Open Space isn't something that "just happens", it takes some effort, dedication and courage on the part of its conveners. On the other hand, as long as the conveners do their part in "holding the space", all of the key decisions tend to get made by the participants, without any central authority; from "what shall we talk about" to such logistical details as "when do we break for lunch", and in many cases up to solving any problems that arise (for instance, if lunch fails to turn up at the expected time). Self-organization has the same attributes on an Agile team: it can take a lot of work to create the right conditions, but those who do that work should then tend to fade into the background.

One paradox is worth mentioning - the annual Agile conference (and many smaller, regional conferences) nevertheless find it difficult to make room for Open Space events in their programs, or at least enough room to satisfy the fans of this format. This is a perennial topic of controversy among successive conference committees. Though we try year after year to "include an Open Space portion within the conference", it seems to be an either/or thing - some people prefer the traditional conference format (and that's entirely their privilege), some prefer freedom and flexibility. It's hard to have the two cohabit within one "space" - you end up with a hybrid, neither open nor quite not-open.

These reservations aside, it's clear - and not surprising - that many in the Agile community have a soft spot for Open Space gatherings. We might ask, though, if this is enough to call those people a "tribe", as I've been using the term in previous instalments of this series. There definitely is an "Open Space tribe" in general - Open Space practitioners use the term explicitly, as in this call for an "Open Space on Open Space" gathering; and there are many who will use those terms to define their professional identity - "I am an Open Space facilitator".

As I've stated before, I use the term "tribe" quite loosely - but part of what I mean by it is the groupings that people refer to when they are asked the Identity Question: "what do you do?", explicitly or implicitly when introducing themselves. So whenever people in any number tend to say of themselves, "I am an X", taking X to be a tribe is a reasonable assumption.

Then again, "Open Space facilitators" is a select group; they are vastly outnumbered by the participants at such gatherings, who as a rule do not say things like "I'm a BarCamper" or "I'm an X Open Space person", for some topic X. This goes for Agile - I don't think many people would explicitly say "I belong to the Agile Open Space tribe".

And yet... I can only speak to my own experience at the French Agile Open, which has now been running for six years. But this gathering has a special place in my heart. We have kept it small, by design: it takes place in a hotel that has room for 30 people. Even for someone like me, who isn't very good at networking, this is small enough that I can get to know everyone in such a group that I don't already know, and spend some time in sincere, open and passionate conversation with nearly everyone. The people who come regularly have become more than just colleagues and acquaintances, but friends.

I can only conclude that "tribal feeling" doesn't have to be explicit - it can be there even if you have no words for it. That particular Agile Open is somewhere I feel I belong. To a large extent I attribute this to the format. I've heard enough about other Agile Opens to know that this feeling isn't peculiar to me, either.

So, even though there might be no such thing as the Agile Open "tribe", it seems to be the case that Agile Open creates tribes - and tribes are vital to this thing we call Agile.


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