The law of two feet

It’s amazing the effect a simple rule can have.

Last week I got to run a session at the CIPD’s HRD exhibition. (Translation: an HR conference). My partner in crime was Neil Morrison, and we had been asked to give the participants a little taster of the ‘unconference’ format that is springing up all over as an alternative to the more traditional conference circuit. (Please don’t switch off if you are not an HR-y person..I’m going to cut to the chase shortly).Flora Marriott at the CIPD's HRD conference in April 2012

The theme of our session was about our role as HR or L&D professionals in helping to do something about unemployment and contribute to the future of our economy. Neil writes brilliantly about this subject.  I think our future workforce is hugely important – so much so that in the recent past I devoted 4 years of my career to working as a lecturer on a business degree programme (that’s another post) – but right now I want to write about the law of two feet.

An ‘un…’ what?!

Unconferences are simply events in which the delegates set the agenda. Early on in the event, the delegates brainstorm topics which they wish to talk about or learn from others. These topics go onto a simple conference agenda, called ‘The Grid’. And from then on the event consists of several discussion sessions running concurrently. (Unconferences are also known as ‘Open Space’ events).

About the law of two feet

There are a few rules, but the most important one for me is The Law of Two Feet. This rule is explained to everyone at the start:

  • we are all grown ups and we are responsible for what we individually contribute and what we as individuals get out of the event
  • we can move between different discussions whenever we want
  • we don’t have to stay for the length of a session – if we are not benefiting from it or want to divide our time between that session and another one, then we simply use our feet to move
  • it is not rude or inconsiderate to others if we move

Some sessions die

The result of this rule is that not all breakout sessions survive and thrive. For example at the mini event that Neil and I ran, the audience had listed 5 topics that they wanted to discuss (e.g. paid v unpaid internships, courage to recruit differently, business’s role in education, and coaching & mentoring). The coaching & mentoring group died a death. For some reason the discussion fizzled out or came to an end and the people in that group joined in with other discussions. And that is just fine! It means that people focus their effort and energy where its needed.

People with blocked ears don’t hog the stage

There’s always a few people who are incapable of listening to others and who have to say 10 sentences where 1 would do. Who are thrilled with their own voices and the fascinating things that they have to share. The great thing about the law of two feet is that there is no need to sit there gnawing the insides of your cheeks. You get up and go.

Inside the firewall

I’ve been using the example of an HR conference, but there is tons of scope to use the unconference format and the law of two feet within businesses. It’s great for problem solving or developing ideas for a new direction. And it’s simple. The facilitators get right out of the way. And because individuals know they can get up and move between groups at will, it means that they are making choices. The law of two feet demonstrates trust, empowerment, treating people as responsible adults, etc. All the positive stuff that leads to useful outcomes.

Have a go

Anyhow, I’m going to end with a plug, not because I’m promoting it for self interest, but because it genuinely is an interesting, useful, and fun group of people. ConnectingHR is an unconference that’s being held on 16th May in London. Please also do come along if you are not in HR: you won’t be alone and it’s simply about people at work, and how we do good work together. It’s not posh, it’s not slick. But it’s really rather good.

8 thoughts on “The law of two feet

  1. We are going to have a go, behind the firewall, at some of our PM events. I will let some light escape and let you know how they go.

    We are already learning about asking PMs questions, listening, acting and letting go when our great ideas turn out not to be so great.

    I am even learning to shut up occasionally 🙂

    Another twist on two feet, is how you can take an idea from one conversation and add it to another. I find that one oddly exciting.


    • Anthony, Sinead, thanks for commenting. I’m really looking forward hearing how you get on. I’ve used it in its full format once, within my organisation, and it worked great. I hope to get the opportunity to use it again during this next year. And yes, that’s a great point about how people moving from one conversation to another adds ingredients to the new discussion.

    • Hey Pat. Thank you ever so much for stopping by from all the way over the big pond and encouraging me in my blogging quest. I love the the readers and comments come from near and far. Say hi to C.D.C.W

  2. Another great reflection on unconferences. And I absolutely love the two feet application inside the business. Look forward to seeing you at the unconference!

  3. Love the blog Flora and great posting on the unconference (open space) theme – really fab on so many levels!!! As you know, it’s a methodology close to my heart. (next to Appreciative Inquiry, of course!). A fantastic way to shake things up out of the usual (dare I say, boring?) conference format and really get people engaged and interacting at their level of need and interest.

    As Anthony infers above, it is a challenge to one’s facilitation skills though, as you need the courage (and confidence) to let go and ‘go with the flow’. Not always easy in my experience, but a million times worth it for the benefits it brings to the learning experience for participants.

    As far as the facilitation challenge goes – it reminds me of my early days teaching drama and using ‘the mantle of the expert’ technique with young children to encourage problem-solving. You have to be willing to relinquish your ‘expert’ role to the participants and be prepared for them to take control of the learning experience. No mean feat with a class of nursery children believe me, but in my experience equally applicable and rewarding in working with groups of adult learners.

    As for Anthony’s interesting question providing another twist on two feet – How you can take an idea from one conversation and add it to another? I wonder if the use of World Cafe technique might provide a dynamic route to achieving this – especially in combination with an open-space/unconference approach? Just a thought!


    • Karen, so pleased that you like the blog! Means a lot to me.

      I totally agree that it takes courage to use this type of format, or even to simply apply the law of 2 feet to a weekly business meeting. In fact, it’s about leadership isn’t it: i.e. courage, being able to listen to others, being humble, appreciating that others have a contribution to make, giving people the space to perform. ETC!
      And World Cafe….yes absolutely. And…we need Doug Shaw to fix his WordPress problem and butt in here, as he is MrDougWorldCafeShaw (who I will most certainly introduce you to next week, but whom you can find at ) Anyway, the long and the short of it is that you are absolutely right.

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