Audacious Salon 2018
Agile 2018 has come to an end. Once again, virtually all of my time was spent in the Audacious Salon, where I was a track chair. Once again, it was an immersive and powerful experience for me.
It’s time, perhaps past time, for me to describe the salon to the world. To describe how it came to be, the intent, the evolution, and the magic I’ve seen flourish.
This description is, of course, the viewpoint of one man. Undoubtedly I’m biased. Understandably, others will have different viewpoints based on different hopes and wishes, different experiences, and different knowledge. I invite you to share these differences in the comments, even if your viewpoint seems negative toward the concept. Perhaps particularly if you have some complaint, doubt, or fear about the Salon. I, or we, can learn most from a diversity of opinion from diverse people.
In the Fall of 2015, the Agile 2016 Program Committee approached Doc Norton and me, challenging us to devise a conference track for those people who often spoke at the conference but rarely went to other sessions. The concern was that the conference was becoming oriented more for newcomers and was pushing out people who might be expanding the envelope.
I thought about the power of an Open Space conference full of such people. I’m a member of several communities that host week-long residential Open Space conferences, where every participant has expertise to contribute and passion to learn more.
I’ve also seen Open Space “fail,” or at least underwhelm me, when many of the participants are there to passively receive wisdom from nominal experts. Having Open Space sessions in parallel with traditional talks seems to exacerbate this phenomena. Leaving out the opening and the closing of the space also seems to dilute the focus and value. I thought about how to bring the intensity of participation within the context of a traditional conference.
I wanted people to attend sessions because they had interest in the topic and something to contribute to it, rather than to hear a “famous name” impart conclusions. I wanted the participants to explore topics beyond their known boundaries and, if we were lucky, to go beyond the collective knowledge. I wanted differing ideas and viewpoints to procreate new ideas and shift viewpoints. My high dream was that people would make connections that they maintained to continue exploring in the future.
I thought about the French salons of the 16th through 18th centuries. In these, salonnières would host gatherings where people would come to learn from an invited expert. It was a mix of hospitality, entertainment, and learning.
Also during this time of history we find the “Age of Exploration.” European adventurers sailed into the blank areas of their maps seeking fame and fortune. This image also fed the vision growing in my head.
Of course, there was a downside to the Age of Exploration. The fact that these areas were blank on European maps was taken as a sign they were unowned and available for the taking. In the world of ideas, the blank areas of our mental maps are also not likely empty. Others live and that space and we do well when we honor the preexisting. I like to think we’ve progressed in offering empathy and coexistence with others over the centuries, and that we will continue to progress in that manner.
We now have three years’ experience running the Audacious Salon at the Agile 20XX Conference. For the last two years, Lyssa Adkins has been my co-chair. I have had the benefit of ideas and feedback from my co-chairs, the salonnières, the conference program committee, and participants in the salons. Here of some of the things I think I’ve learned.
I think the facilitation skills of the salonnière may be more important than their subject matter expertise. This makes sense when you consider that we want to draw out knowledge from all the participants. In fact, it may be beneficial to separate the roles of facilitator and subject matter expert, as it was in the historical salons. Unfortunately, the rules of the Agile 20XX Conference inhibit co-leading a session.
The default approach to exploring in groups is a group discussion of the topic. The deeper sessions, though, have activities pre-planned by the salonnière that get people beyond the opinions they held when they entered the space.
The arrangement of the space, itself, is important. The first year we ended up with the typical big round tables for 10 people. This is too large for an effective small group discussion. Cafe tables intended for seating 3 are much better, even when 4 or 5 are crowded around them. Sometimes you don’t want even those. The room should be easily rearranged by the participants. Having comfortable couches and easy chairs also facilitates a better learning space in some circumstances.
It’s important to have plenty of space to move around. Congested spaces create friction among the participants. Attendance should be limited by what is effective for the planned facilitation techniques rather than by the capacity of the room. At the Agile 20XX Conferences, we limited salon attendance to 40 in a room rated for 100 people by the fire martial.
Have a variety of the usual tools: flip charts and markers, writing paper and pens, index cards, sticky notes, and more. For some exercises, go further with construction paper, scissors, yarn, stickers, tape, or whatever suits.
In our second and third years, we held daily debriefs among the salonnières. This was excellent both for helping us learn from each other, but also in building a sense of community among the salonnières. I have certainly gained some life-long friendships among this community.
I don’t know what the future holds, but I sense that the Audacious Salon will continue to thrive. I hope that the salon and the participants will both grow from the experiences. Thanks to all who have helped and will help.
I’ve run large open spaces in the context of 2000 person conferences. We do continue to use the Open Space Opening and Closing circle. However, I’m interested in ways going beyond where we are today. Is there any documentation about how you are setting up and doing Audacious Salon. I’d like to see if we can replicate some of your success.
Tom, this is that documentation.