These days when you go to conferences it is often the case that the person seated next to you is as interesting and compelling as the person up on stage.  Compound that with the reality that the "sage on stage" model is not the rule of thumb anymore for great learning to happen, and it is no surprise that unconferences are becoming a more interesting model for convening.

The first time I participated in an unconference, I felt like I was at a summer camp for adults with a buffet of master classes - on steroids.  The process allowed me to learn from a really diverse group of people and have conversations with other people whom I otherwise may have never met.  At unconferences, those great hallway and water cooler moments are the rule, not the exception.  The beauty and magic of the process is that ideas and questions are crowd sourced from the participants in an adaptive way.  I was so inspired that I have since facilitated my own unconferences: on service design at a Design Philadelphia event, as well as for clients exploring topics such as sustainability, or the future of work.

Here is my guideline for unconferences.  

  1. First, choose an overarching topic.  It should be specific enough to reign people in and broad enough to allow for a range of interpretations on how to approach the topic.  For example, something like "the future of work in healthcare" or even "the future of work" are good examples.  However, making the topic just "work" may be too broad.  But then again, if your goal is to allow for really wide-ranging conversations, then go for it.  That flexibility is the beauty of unconferences.
  2. Next, make sure you are convening in a space with areas for people to spread out and meet in separate rooms.  There should be 1 central convening room.  In advance create a time/activity grid on a wall (blue painter's tape is fine) with blocks denoting time periods and rooms.  For example, across the X-axis, horizontal row, you can list rooms "A, B and C" etc., and down the Y-axis list the time periods: 45 min is good because it allows for 15-20 minute breaks for people to get to their next choice.
  3. At the very beginning of your unconference, once the entire group is assembled, start by asking anyone who wants to lead a conversation, exercise (or even game!) to jot down their topic idea on a large half-sheet size post it.  (I typically ask that the format not be a PowerPoint presentation.)  Plot those topic ideas on a wall and allow everyone 3 dot stickers to vote on their favorite ideas.  The most popular ideas, crowd-sourced, will visibly emerge, and those are the ones you insert into your pre-made time/activity grid.
  4. Then, watch the magic happen throughout the morning, afternoon or day as people float from one room to another, learning lots of insightful ideas from each other. 

While unconferences are emergent and self-organizing, they do still have rules.  For example, the "law of two feet" means that people are allowed to get up and leave a session if it no longer peaks their interest- with no offense taken.  Another principle is that however many people show up to your session is just fine- that could be 2 people, or it could be 52 people.  On the logistical side, it is wise to have a few people whose role it is to be "butterflies" and float in and out of sessions ensuring that things are running smoothly. Depending on the goals and level of formality of your unconference, it is also helpful to have volunteers be recorders of the top takeaways from each discussion, in order to report out at the end.

Try experimenting with your own variations of the unconference at scale- for a smaller meeting as well as for a large convening.  One impact of today's plethora of digital options is that our high-touch, interpersonal interactions can feel sparse.  The unconference is one way to bridge that divide.

Published on: Oct 8, 2018