Open Space Tells The Story


Everyone wants to know the story. Open Space tells that story.

Open Space inside organizations is a very lightly scripted drama. There are 3 roles. First, authority stands up, in a role called Sponsor. The Sponsor is the host, and welcomes the group. The Sponsor tells the story of the issues and opportunities the group is actually facing, and makes sure everyone feels welcome and safe. They do this by formally authorizing the gathering. This means the Open Space gathering represents work that is very important to the organization.

Next, that same authority figure introduces the Open Space Facilitator, and, in a somewhat ceremonial and ritual fashion, hands the “management” or “administration” of the gathering to the person who is occupying the Facilitator role.

The Sponsor then sits down.

Now the Facilitator is the only one standing up.

Imagine if you will:  hundreds of people sitting in a circle.

The Facilitator is standing up.

The space is completely silent.


What is about to happen?


What is about to happen is, this Facilitator is going to take almost all of the authority they have received from the Sponsor, and deliberately hand it over to all the Members. The Facilitator will then work to maintain this arrangement for the entire duration of the gathering. The Facilitator will then “hold the space”, wide open, for the Members to do their thing. To self-manage. To “self organize.”

Some folks may invite the Facilitator to “manage” or “fix” things that seem to need attention during the gathering. These invitations to “manage” or “fix” things will be declined. Instead, the Facilitator will encourage all the Members to “manage” themselves by following their senses of passion and responsibility.


“Without passion, nobody cares. And without responsibility, nothing gets done.” -Harrison Owen


The entire group starts noticing that lots of important interactions are happening all the time in this gathering. Lots of “individuals and interactions.

The executives who attend definitely notice this also, as they experience the event. They may attend sessions. Or not. They may start to question their assumptions about the “management” of people.

The people start to notice that their “street credibility” seems to count for something big in Open Space, while their formal title suddenly seems to be far less important in this setting.

And those normally very quiet people have a curious way of showing up big in Open Space. Quiet leadership can and will emerge in this setting. “Be prepared to be surprised.

As the event progresses, people who might have had standing disagreements with each other may reach some important common ground as they “live out loud” in Open Space. “Responding to change over following a plan.” If anything or anyone attempts to squelch this flow, the Facilitator may mysteriously appear. This may seem like odd behavior for someone, who, just a moment earlier, was picking up coffee cups and paper plates from the floor, and putting them in the trash.

Everyone starts noticing that great conversations are leading to great solutions. “Collaboration over negotiation.” They also notice not just who was present the whole day, but also: who was not.

Open Space tells the real story of how self-organization actually works. At scale. “By doing it and helping others do it.” The core idea that “the best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams” often shows up very big in Open Space.

Open Space tells the whole story.


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Start in Open Space


The Open Space meeting format provides a wonderful way to get a rapid and lasting Agile adoption. The basic idea here is that Open Space provides a direct experience in self-management and self-organization. Instead of talking about it, we simply DO IT. After an experience in Open Space the executives get a sense of how a great Agile adoption looks, and a sense of how a great Agile adoption actually feels.

You may be familiar with Open Space events that are part of public conferences. Believe me when I tell you that private Open Space events are very, very different from what you may be familiar with.

In public conferences such as Agile conferences, the binding or cohesion in the social system is usually very low. Organizations, on the other hand, have much more cohesion and operate and behave more like a family or clan. These folks are familiar with each other. They do after all work with and for each other 5 days a week. And they earn a living from this. The stakes are high.

By starting the Agile adoption in Open Space, everyone gets an opportunity to say what they want, think and feel about it. They identify solutions- and problems. There is laughing- and some moments when there is obvious and tense conflict. There is passion and responsibility present. The not-so-obvious (informal) leaders that can take the Agile adoption forward will clearly identify themselves in Open Space.

Starting the Agile adoption in Open Space is an extremely leveraged use of time, if what you are seeking is a rapid and lasting Agile adoption.

Some of the advantages include:

  • Identification of key issues that will impede the adoption
  • Identification of the people who can help
  • A sense of whether the timing is good
  • The opportunity to see what “self-organizing” actually looks like
  • The creation of crucial conversations with teams, executives and other leaders

And so: if you start your Agile adoption in Open Space, “be prepared to be surprised“, because you are in for many pleasant (and extremely useful) surprises.

Start in Open Space.


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Practices Change; Principles Don’t


Ask 20 people what Agile is, and you might get 21 answers.

This is no way to start.

You must start with the Manifesto as the definition of Agile if you want to have any chance at all of being successful encouraging an “Agile transformation.”

First things first.

Take for example the Manifesto principle “Welcome changing requirements, even late in development.” This principle informs specific practices and specific collections of practices, like Scrum. Is Scrum the only way to honor the principle “Welcome changing requirements, even late in development?” The answer is obviously no. Teach that.

The Agile Manifesto is not perfect. It is, however, good enough for the beginning of the beginning. Therefore: Take your ego out of it. Stop using your shorter definition, even if it is valid. Teach the Manifesto instead.

By focusing them on the Manifesto, you gain the following advantages:

  • You gain a durable, scalable agreement about what Agile is.
  • You gain a shared language for making sense of Agile reality
  • You define an important set of guardrails (guidance) for behavior.
  • You trigger feelings of freedom and creativity about creating and experimenting with a wider range of Manifesto-aligned practices

Practices come and go, but principles are forever. Therefore, at every opportunity, invite the teams to either use a pre-fab, Manifesto-aligned practice like Scrum, or invent their own. Repeat: invent their own.

The one rule? Whatever they come up with must align (and stay well within the boundaries defined by) the Manifesto. Will some of them end up at Scrum? Kanban? Something else? Yes, yes, and yes.

This teaching is very liberating for teams. And you want teams feeling liberated and authorized, not coerced or forced. They learn much faster this way. To make this work, first get agreement with higher-ups on two things:

  • Experiments are good
  • Teams can experiment with any practice at the beginning, so long as they stay within the general guardrails of the Manifesto.

The added advantage here is that you are also teaching the executives something. You are getting an agreement with them about the nature of experimentation, and those (very useful!) Agile Manifesto guardrails.

Those guardrails actually work. Those guardrails point the organization in the right direction. Those guardrails are durable. And accessible. Those guardrails encourage teams to focus, almost immediately, on decision-making. And you definitely want them talking about making decisions.

Because discussing decisions and then making them is what is going to mysteriously draw them into the emerging story of the Agile adoption.

And a few of them will figure it out quickly, and begin authoring the new and emerging narrative. The narrative that will certainly survive your exit, and actually sustain that transformation…long after you vacate.

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Invite Facilitation


You must not only deliver excellent facilitation- you must also model it.

You must constantly invite people in the organization to learn the art of facilitation by watching you, and by doing it. And by being mentored by you.

The people who actually accept your invitation to participate in learning facilitation are the people who will help shape the new organizational story. These are the very people who will help make the organizational transformation a lasting and ongoing reality.

One of your primary tasks as an Agile coach is teach and encourage a culture of facilitation. Facilitation makes organizational learning easier. If this culture of facilitation outlives your engagement, it is a testament to your effectiveness as a coach.

Facilitation is an art; it is not a science. You must apply this art, and teach this art inside the organizations you are serving.


The root word of facilitation is “facil” or “facile”,  which means “to create ease” or “make easy.” Facilitation helps organizations more easily learn how to learn.

Disciple the facilitators you teach during your (short) time there. These folks are the very people who will soon be replacing you. These are the people who will help make the organizational transformation an actual reality…long after you are gone.

A disciple is “a follower or student of a teacher, a leader, or a philosopher.”


As you model and invite truly excellent facilitation, here are some questions you might consider asking:

What is the nature of my philosophy?

What is the nature of my teaching?

What is the nature of my leadership?


Your longer-term results provide a highly detailed answer to each of these questions.


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Your Authoritative Style Kills Self-Organization


It is important for Agile coaches to understand that coaching is an exercise in authority dynamics. Contrary to popular belief, it is not enough for some C-level person (someone capable of signing off on a big check) to authorize you.

The teams you coach must actually consent to being coached.


Repeat: consent to being coached.

It is important to ask the team for consent before facilitating their meetings. And respect the “no thanks”… if it comes.

Any attempts to coach teams without their consent amounts to a dysfunction you are definitely party to creating. The organization is trading one set of dysfunctions for another. You are a player in that drama. You are an enabler.

[NOTE: In earlier lessons the link between self-organizing teams and the real-time distribution of authority by and between the members is explained. If you are unclear on this essential concept, skip back to previous lessons and catch up.]

Yes, we all know the “Shu-Ha-Ri” model popularized by Alistair Cockburn. The “Shu” stage, or beginner-state, is the typical excuse for inflicting help on teams. The idea is that “they are in the Shu-state. They know nothing, and must be taught. We must prescriptively model it for them.”

Really? Does that actually work well long-term?

Teams are typically in the Shu-stage for a very short period of time. What happens after that?

Imagine this:  Assume that absolutely ideal conditions exist…these teams want to try Agile, and they consent to being coached. So far so good…

Question: How long do you plan to keep on playing the lead in their process? How productive is it for you to continue in this manner for more than two or three weeks?

Answer: “Not very.”

Here is why:

  • You are setting yourself up as the single source of truth about Agile and what Agile looks like. You are not.
  • You are not building any kind of capacity in the organization to reach a self-sustaining, freestanding state of Agility. Instead you are dominating the team’s entire experience of Agile.

Now let’s click down one level, and assume that the typical conditions exist, namely: the teams never consented to do these Agile practices. As such, they never really consented to your “help” either.

The following aspects are also now true:

  • You are symbolic of management. You represent management. You are part of a “solution” created by management, one the solution providers (the software developers) are forced to accept. The have no option– except to quit. This creates almost automatic dis-engagement. The reason is simple: you are turning them off with your presence.  You are party to a mandate of specific practices.
  • You are “inflicting help” on people who never asked for help; in effect you are trying to “fix” them. This is a failure pattern. It’s a recipe for creating resentment.
  • You are authorized by management; as such you are perceived as an authority figure. The team, now quite disengaged and likely feeling more than a bit resentful without knowing why, will now simply wait for you (the authority figure) to explain everything. They will wait for you to make decisions that properly belong to them. They literally cannot and will not self-organize because there simply is not enough authority to go around.

Disengaged, resentful, unwilling. This is the very opposite of what a self-organizing team looks like.

Can you see why?

How do you, the Agile coach, get out of this mess you are in? The solution is very simple:

First, make sure the teams are consenting to doing these Agile practices.

Next, find some people in the organization who wants to try doing facilitation, the kind you deliver.

Then intensely mentor these new facilitators, so they learn by watching, and by doing.

And then… get out of the way.


Related Links:

Essay: Triggered By Process Change (link)

Essay: The Anxiety Iceberg (link)


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Self-Management is Authority-Distribution-By-Consent


In a previous lesson, I explained that self organization is in fact “self management.”

Self-management is “authority distribution” by mutual consent.

What is “authority distribution?”



A better question might be, “what is authority?”



Authority is the “right to do work.” The term “work” in this context includes the very important work of making decisions that people are subject to, such as the people who populate a team.

You may want to read the previous paragraph again…slowly.


Let’s digress  for a moment, and add this related definition:

Power is the exercise of authority. (NOTE: This series of essays on Agile coaching refers to these concise definitions frequently.)

For now, let’s bookmark those two definitions… and sum up what we know so far…

  • Self-organization IS self-management.
  • Self-management IS authority-distribution.


  • At the root of self-organization is the “distribution of the right-to-do-work.”

There is a quite a bit more to it than that, however:

  1. First, the distribution of authority (the distribution of the right-to-do-work) is by consent of everyone who is effected. If the distribution is not consent-based, there is at least some form of tyranny present.
  2. Second, the distribution of authority (the distribution of the right-to-do-work) is dynamic, and very sensitive to inputs & feedback from the environment. In a truly self-organizing system, the operative rule is that everything is subject to review all the time, in real time. This absolutely includes at all times how decisions are being made that affect the group-as-a-whole.

If this is beginning to sound like you better get busy studying authority, then I believe you are understanding this lesson series very well indeed.


At the root of genuine and authentic self-organization in human social systems is the dynamic and ongoing distribution of authority by consent.

This fact has huge implications for how you might be able to effectively coach Agile teams.

Furthermore and more to the point, this fact implies you might encourage the use of periodic, enterprise-wide Open Space events in service to authentic and genuine org-wide transformation… (hint hint…)

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Use Your Body When Facilitating


The facilitator is a servant, always serving the person or group who is authorizing them. In service to the group, it is essential that you make it clear exactly who you are working for, before you start facilitating a meeting.

You need to get explicit about where your authorization to facilitate is actually coming from. Announcing who the Convener actually is (the “meeting owner”) helps you to do your job, because people understand who (and what) you are serving. They understand your role.

Once you clarify your role and related authorization, you may proceed. You bring your tools to the facilitation: your experience, that set of juicy markers, the flip charts, and the other stuff you need.

You also bring your body.

Your body is always positioned somewhere in the room, and it is either sitting or standing. Somewhere. And, it is in a posture. It’s also dressed in clothing (presumably.)

Whether you care to realize it or not, you are continuously signaling something with your body, which includes your face. And your postures.

When facilitating meetings, be aware of your postures. This (strangely) includes some very little things, such as who or what you are looking at.

And for how long.

To be effective at facilitation, pay attention to the subtle effects your postures, positioning and gestures are having on the group as a whole.

Here are a couple of things to think about…

…the following forms & actions are authoritative in nature:

  • Standing when the others are seated
  • Documenting the goings-on (white board or flip chart or notes)
  • Pointing your finger
  • Sitting or standing deep in the room, facing the door
  • Being dressed a little better than the ambient level of dress in the room

…so be very careful about how you use these non-verbal devices. Pay attention to the fact these devices are authoritative in nature. Avoid them when you want to “be background.” Use them when you want to “be foreground.” During the span of a typical meeting, you are typically oscillating between these two extremes.

When you use these devices, you are projecting authority. When you refrain from these non-verbal forms, you are refraining from projecting authority. Try to be very deliberate about both.

You can go much further with leveraging your non-verbals. But first, to make the most of these non-verbal tools, it is important to make sure the people in the room are completely comfortable with you moving about.

You want to be able to move about naturally so you can use positioning (later) to maximum effect. And so my guidance is to move around periodically, early on, so the folks get used to that. If you are working with a team, get them used to you moving about. After a while they will get used to it and “forget about it.” Thereafter, you can make the most of that freedom-of-movement, in service to the group’s process.

Here are some examples.

Say the group starts discussing something. And one person starts saying something specific that you quickly recognize as being really key to helping the group.  By simply positioning behind them (ideally a little to the right) you signal non-verbally that you are supporting (and indeed, are authorizing) that conversation. The theory here is that people use signals and signs to make sense of things. To make meaning.

Here is another example. If a member of the group is in the middle of executing the “endless monologue” pattern as others are rolling their eyes, use your body to shift the discussion in a subtle manner. Simply move into the general area of the speaker and if they do not slow down, eventually move into their personal space in very small increments until they do.


Once you become aware that people are ascribing meaning to your non-verbals, and that you can use your body as a facilitation asset, you can experiment with the use of your body to become a fantastically effective facilitator.


The facilitator is a servant, always serving the person or group who is authorizing them.


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Agile Facilitation Jobs In Maryland

One of my Agile adoption clients, this one in Maryland (about 40 mins east of DC with no traffic)  immediately seeks several people for full-time hire to facilitate the ongoing work of 18 existing software teams relatively new to Agile software development.

In this role you are a member of a 6-person team responsible for facilitating higher performance across the entire enterprise…

…The ideal candidate has:

  • Passionate interest in the dynamics and application of self-organization
  • Solid understanding of Open Space concepts and facilities (strongly preferred)
  • Direct facilitation experience (general meetings, World Cafe etc)
  • Familiarity with Agile software development; especially the Agile Manifesto 4 values & 12 principles
  • Familiarity with concepts and components
  • Familiarity with Kanban, Scrum and related Agile practices (user stories, planning poker, retrospectives etc)

…If you are a successful candidate, you’ll be mentored and guided by professional Agile coaches. These temporary external coaches (myself included) will begin vacating throughout the Open Agile Adoption implementation period (90 to 120 days) after bringing you up to speed…

The primary responsibilities are:

  • Facilitate various team meetings
  • Sense what you teams need from a sociological point of view
  • Create conditions for self-management and self-organization to manifest
  • Work with peers and people in higher-authorized roles to create & then continuously maintain the conditions for high performance and continuous improvement
  • Be diplomatic and adept in communicating as needed, up and down the organization
  • Work within and contribute to an enterprise-wide community of practice
  • Encourage a culture of facilitation

These are full-time positions. This is a ground-floor opportunity to facilitate, full-time for a living. You’ll work in an Agile environment where periodic, enterprise-wide Open Space gatherings are part of the plan. Knowledge of the software side of things is important, yet less important than your grasp of Open Agile Adoption ( sociology and related topics.

If you have solid facilitation experience, and

  • are seeking a great full-time job in facilitation, and
  • have more than a clue about Agile software development, and
  • live near (or are willing to relocate to) northern Maryland, then:

….please contact me by email with “Maryland Jobs” in the subject line.

Reach me via

Self-Organization is Self-Management


Self organization is self management.

This means the reverse is true: “self management is self organization.”

What is management?

To manage is to direct and control. Inside software development teams, management includes directing and controlling decisions that effect the the team. Let’s set aside that important point for now. For now, let’s discuss the nature of management as it pertains to the software teams you are advising…

…Management is a function, not a role. Repeat: management is a function performed by the team, not performed a single person in a role. Not a person. Not a “manager-person.”

Management is a function, and an essential one. IT’S NOT GOING AWAY. Management is actually more alive then ever before. The difference, for purely Agile teams, is that management is an essential function, rather than an essential role.

So: when you hear “self organization”, replace that with “self management.”


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Positioning Is Signaling


If you think people are not paying attention to how you move, where you position, where you sit, where you are looking, where you are standing, etc….you are missing some very fundamental information that can help you be much more effective. Your choices of dress, postures, positioning and seating choices during meeting facilitation has everything to do with how you are signaling… in authority terms.

As it turns out, most people are quite adept at picking up signals without thinking about it. Especially signals about authorization.

And in Agile coaching, authority dynamics are the name of the game.

In the previous lesson I explained to you that must deflect any and all projections of authority from the teams you are advising.

Presumably you understand that. The question now is: how are you going to signal that you are not an authority figure?

Here is a very specific way you can signal a complete lack of authority: sit as close to the door as possible, with your back to the door. In all cases, avoid the head of table. Avoid seats that are deep in the room, facing the door. Why avoid these seats?

First, do so because that is where authority sits. And you are not authority in this organization. If you play the authority-figure, you are killing repeat KILLING any chance the team has to self-organize. (This is explained in the next lesson.)

Second, if you occupy any of those seats, you miss a wonderful chance to see who chooses to occupy them. By leaving them empty, you can see what develops. You can see who considers themselves to be authority in this social space.

Third, and most importantly, you can now easily get eye contact with the authority in the room. You are after all working for them- why wouldn’t you want to check in frequently with some eye contact?

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