What on earth is an ‘unconference’?

Shot of a team of colleagues using a digital tablet and laptop together during a meeting at an outdoor cafe.

Nick Terry reveals the why, what and how of the unconference

We’ve all been there. Our company conference. Less than exciting presentations, panel discussions that don’t really connect with the people and break-outs that are a bit wide of the mark on the actual business issues.

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One of the biggest problems with many corporate conferences is that whilst employees leave them feeling frustrated and that their time has been wasted, the leadership leaves thinking that the eagle has landed. Another growing issue is the stagnation they can create, when the desired output is actually innovation and fresh thinking.

It’s these challenges, and many more like them, that are driving an increasing number of organisations to begin to reflect on what might constitute a better way to get their people together and move their business forward, that isn’t PowerPoint, working groups and team building!

“The sum of the expertise of the people in the audience is greater than the sum of the expertise of the people on stage.”

Introducing the ‘unconference’.

Unconferences have been around for a number of years and are getting more and more popular, particularly as companies get increasingly interested in building and fostering a culture of innovation; that is they want more new ideas. The whole premise behind the unconference idea is that, as entrepreneur Dave Winer put it, “the sum of the expertise of the people in the audience is greater than the sum of the expertise of the people on stage.”

Whilst most of us have heard of the ‘unconference’, there’s still a fair bit of confusion around what it is. The concept is fairly simple. At an unconference, no topics have been predetermined, no keynote speakers have been invited, no panels or working groups have been arranged. Instead, the event lives and dies by the participation of its attendees. They decide what topics will be discussed and they convene the individual breakout sessions. In other words, an unconference has no agenda until the participants create it.

So how does it actually work? A true unconference would go like this. Attendees arrive and are welcomed by the host, explaining how things are going to work – start finish and break times, plus any practical details. Then it’s onto creating the agenda for the day. The agenda is usually planned on large sheets of paper (taped to the wall or on flip charts) each featuring empty session slots. Attendees can put a session up on the agenda on whatever topic they like – all they need to do is write down a session title/topic, the location and their name in a free slot.

Once the slots are all filled, the attendees may want to consider if there are any topics that can be merged together in a collaborative joint session, therefore freeing up slots for other topics. Any session can be amended throughout the day as and when required. Each session is run by an attendee(s) and therefore can take a whole range of different formats. They can be a formal, well-planned session to a very informal one where someone discusses an idea that just occurred to them or debates a fresh topic. A range of formats will feature in a typical unconference including discursive, lecture, show and tell, Q&A and even Pecha Kucha! At the end of the day, everyone usually comes together for a wrap up, thanks from the host and whatever follow-up/ forward actions arrangements are appropriate.

One of the key things to say about unconferences is that central to the success of the event is something called ‘The Law of Two Feet’. It means that if a session doesn’t inspire attendees and they are not contributing, they should get up and find a different one. It’s vital for keeping the energy high and the contributions of good quality.

Top five things to think about

1. The where

Your venue will have very different requirements to your usual conference so thinking about how the space will work for briefing, session zones and catering is key. Another key venue consideration is your session zones. How will they be differentiated? Does noise management need to be considered? Will people sit or stand in each zone? (This should be driven by elements such as how long each session is).

2. The what

In terms of the content and run of the day, both structured and unstructured approaches can include single sessions or multiple sessions simultaneously, with predetermined or audience led rotations. Will your session facilitators be volunteers or selected (a mixture of both can work quite well) and will their content be predetermined or audience led? If you are feeling nervous about the content, quality roaming event facilitators are a great safety net to rescue any sessions that need it.

3. The top

With any departure from the norm, management of your leadership team will be key, right from pitching the idea through to what role they will play on the day. Your business leaders will still play a vital role within an unconference, but it may not necessarily be the one they’re used to, i.e. delivering the keynote at the start and end of the day. The most important thing is that you support your leadership team in their understanding of the event, the role they have to play and how they can communicate with impact in the context of the event (effective listening will be a key part of this).

4. The build-up

Clearly if this is a new format for your company, it’s also vital that attendees arrive in the right headspace, i.e. not expecting a day of sitting down and listening! Pre-communication to gain buy-in and build excitement is key.

5. The results

Just because you’re running an unconference, measurability is still critical. Set clear event objectives that can be measured to determine how successful your unconference has been and what key learns you have for next time.

If you’ve read this far and are feeling a mixture of inspiration and terror – fear not! There’s actually a way for you, and your organisation, to try some of this stuff without going the whole hog (for now!). It’s called a ‘structured unconference’.

The structured unconference has the same spirit as its unstructured sibling but a little more infrastructure in place to guide the content and output a little more

The structured unconference has the same spirit as its unstructured sibling but a little more infrastructure in place to guide the content and output a little more and reduce the beads of sweat for the delivery team (and business leaders!).

Key elements of the structured unconference include pre-determined objectives, some or all topic themes stipulated, session hosts (again some or all) confirmed ahead, colour coded audience rotation around conference zones and roaming event facilitators organised ahead to step in and facilitate where necessary and capture key discussions/ content. There’s also an option to operate a ‘first come, first served’ policy on sessions to encourage an equal weighting and rotation of attendees around each session. If you like the sound of the unconference, a structured approach can be a great way to start and build the confidence of the delivery team, the attendees and the organisation. The lower risk profile of the structured style also helps get the management on board too.

There’s no doubt that the unconference, structured or unstructured, isn’t for everyone or every company. It’s also worth saying that the more traditional company conference is far from dead! There are plenty of organisations delivering highly effective company conferences full of creativity, engagement and innovation through pre-event audience engagement, social media platforms, visual technology, presentation techniques and more. It’s horses for courses and the sweet spot is knowing what is going to transcend your company conference from a one way broadcast to a two-way exchange that lands the messages, delivers fresh thinking and gets every single one of your employees on board with your business strategy.

Debbie Carter

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