Open Space Doesn’t Work in China

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to go to the Scrum Gathering in Shanghai, China to represent VersionOne and give a talk on Collaborative Chartering. It was a long way to go for 3 full days on the ground but what an experience it turned out to be. Bas Vodde gave a great keynote titled “Scrum doesn’t work in China”. It was a talk based on both his experiences and a survey he did on cultures and the acceptance of agile methods. China was one of many cultures involved in the survey. Bas has coached teams and worked on many continents and amongst many different cultures. One of the funniest things from his experience was something he has encountered in almost all countries: “That may work in the United States but it won’t work here”, “That may work in the Netherlands but not here” and even “that might work in Europe but not here in the United States, our culture just wouldn’t support it”. Apparently agile methods will work anywhere EXCEPT where you currently are.

This brings me to my point. The Shanghai Scrum Gathering was organized by both the Scrum Alliance and a local, “on the ground” group. Right up until the start of the Gathering the local team fought against (or at least discouraged strongly) the idea of having an open space event as part of the proceedings. They simply thought: “That may work in other places but it won’t work here. Our culture won’t support a self-organized open space event where people get up and propose sessions to the whole group and hope people show up and are interested.” Tom Mellor, Chairman of the Scrum Alliance, was the facilitator for the open space. He was aided by instant translation through headsets for those that didn’t speak english and he had a bilingual assistant to paraphrase in Chinese as he went along. There we were with over 200 predominantly Chinese attendees wondering what would happen. What did happen as soon as he opened up the floor to session proposals astounded local organizers but not experienced open space practitioners.

People did as many do that are new to open space. There were a few initial ‘brave souls’ that were ready to propose their sessions as soon as Tom said ‘go’ and soon there was a constant stream until the marketplace (1) was overflowing. The coolest part of these session proposals was that, without prompting, the participants announced their session in both english and chinese if possible. Many had broken english but powered through it. It was interesting to see the stark difference between the fluidity and passion that came through when they spoke in their native language. From there the sessions self-organized and the first sessions started when they started and ended when they ended (2). In fact, many of the last sessions went well into the cocktail reception that followed the official session times. Like all open space events I have been part of, whether as facilitator or participant, the conclusion from newbies was the same: they couldn’t believe the value they got out of it. They were excited about how it all worked, the richness of the discussions with peers and how much they got out of it.

Open Space does, in fact, work in China but maybe not where you are.. something tells me that may not hold true.

A side note: I was in Boston about a week after Shanghai at a great 1-day event put on by Dan Mezick and Agile Boston. There were presentations in the morning and the afternoon was dedicated to open space. Like Shanghai almost all attendees had never taken part in an open space. The main difference was that when Stephen “Doc” List (open space facilitator) invited folks up to propose their sessions there was a mad scramble by a huge number of people until a massive line formed. So many that not all sessions made it on the board. One of these sessions was someting I am keenly interested in: Agile methods outside of development. I found the other 3 folks that had expressed interest and we created our own space. Self organizing at its best! When Stephen commented on how enthusiastically folks new to open space got up to propose sessions there were jokes about the Boston personality, which inevitably included commentary on Bostonians’ driving etiquette. Boston was a great event too, and like Shanghai there were a lot of open space converts at the end of it all.

notes:

1. The “marketplace” is where session hosts post their session titles within a grid that specifies time and location. This is an example from an AgilePalooza event held in San Francisco that had scrum, xp and general agile development practitioners discussing topics of interest to them.

2. This actually covers 2 of the four principles of Open Space: “It starts when it starts” and “It’s over when it’s over.” The other two principles are: “Whoever comes are the right people.” (to each session) and “Whatever happens is the only things that could have.” Along with the four principles, there is also a single law: “The law of mobility and responsibility” or commonly known as the “Law of Two Feet”. This “law” simply states that if you are not learning or contributing where you are, find a place that you can learn or contribute.” >

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