Unconferences: disruptive innovation or the appearance of it?

Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still. Chinese Proverb

Hackathons, Hack-days, barcamps, unconferences, jams and many more. Most of you have probably heard about them all and been to one. Some of you pay to go to them, others go for(or because) they are free. There is a central narrative to them. It’s an attempt to innovate – disruptively. Instead of having a speaker at helm and a one-way lecture series, reminiscent of the unimaginatively sleep-inducing lecture theaters of university – these events claim to do something different: create conversations. Most of you know how much I love going to various events and the buzz of it all. Unconferences happen to be my favourite type of event and so I thought it was only fitting to write about them as it has been a source of content and discontent in the previous year for me. I write this as I come back from helping with the premier social enterprise un-conference of the year: Oxford Jam and co-organising an exciting ‘Sensecamp (think barcamp marrying a hack-day)’ with Makesense – an open platform of young self-motivated change-makers.

To date, I have attended 4 unconferences and have a mixed feeling towards what they pretend to do and what they actually accomplish on the day. I have attended one shocking example of an unconference and the others were very good, sparking my interest in sketching out a scale. To me and to most event organisers, there is no perfect image of an unconference. The general goal and idea is ‘organised chaos’ – or ‘creative disruption’ – celebrating the breaking of shackles of a traditional conference where someone speaks from the pulpit to the ‘audience’ and the audience has time to  interact in the coffee breaks with each other and the speakers who linger a few minutes after their talk.

Here are the things ‘unconferences’ should not be/have:

1- The seats are like that in a lecture theatre. Not cool. It puts people in that ‘shut up and listen to the expert’ mentality where unconferences should generate conversation that is two way and three-way. Consider bean bags and chairs that can be pulled in circles and around a round table.

2- The generous 1o minutes of Q & A often titled ‘Interactive session/Discussion’. Also not cool. Unconferences are not about a strict one hour regime of learning information – it’s about collaboration and collective insight – both of which cannot be exchanged in 3 or 4 questions that generate only a few conversations apart from the speaker. That can be done by watching a talk on YouTube and tweeting/emailing your question to them. Think about possible activities that speakers/contributors can put on to engage the participants with each other and the speaker.

3- Coffee breaks with participants wearing Nametags that cannot be read. What’s the point? That’s all I say. How are you supposed to grab a cup of coffee and meet someone other than chatting to the people you already know(because it’s too embarrassing to wander alone) if you can’t read the name tag? This is where space in event management that excites me the most. Colour-coded stickers and ‘adjective’ name-cards (investor, collaborator, creative, learner) are good conversation starting points.

4- ALL IN KEYNOTE. One keynote – two keynote – three keynote maximum but the whole unconference should not be keynotes speakers. Unconferences should be activity-led, debate-led, and collaborative spaces where learning, planning and action co-exist. All of that does not exist in keynotes. You have traditional conferences for keynotes- don’t waste the opportunity of utilising an unconference for that.

5- Unilateral streaming. It’s lovely to see event organisers embrace social media to get people to the unconference. It should not end there. It should not end with streaming what contributors are saying aswell. Have you considered taking a snap of however you are talking to and tweeting it out saying a little about them? Somebody at the venue might be really looking forward to meeting someone like them but just didn’t know how to find them. Pictures do just that. What about post-event collaboration? Social media allows you to do that. Encourage participants and lead by example.

So in the informal scale I have literally sketched out on my iPad, 1 scores highly on all of the above so I would call that ‘pretence of an unconference’ – a mere PR stunt to look more open but have all the tools of control. I have yet to attend a 5 but we are aiming for the Sensecamp in London to be a 4.  I have attended one 3 and on 2. Best experience so far was the 3. Worst- as you can imagine was the 1. So, if you are putting on an unconference – think about all of these factors and match your event to the following scale and see what you can change to make it more interactive.

Match your experience of unconferences to the scale below and please do comment about your experience and anything else you would like to share!

This is the scale.

understanding the dynamics of organising an unconference






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This entry was published on May 6, 2012 at 8:05 am. It’s filed under conference, social media, talks/seminars and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

4 thoughts on “Unconferences: disruptive innovation or the appearance of it?

  1. Good piece Hera. Two randoms…

    Now that unconferences are becoming popular I am a teeny bit concerned that folks whose heads are more towards the “1” end of the scale are beginning to use the language of the “5” end to describe their events. Nothing to be done; but we perhaps need to cultivate an awareness that not all those in sheep’s clothing are actually sheep.

    I have been to a few unconferences where unstructured sessions have left me wanting because they have been taken over by one or two folks who …er …talk and the less bold don’t get a look in. I know there is a lot to be gained by just letting stuff happen but I can’t help feeling there must be a way to enable (facilitate ugh?) wider, more inclusive, conversations. (But maybe I am just an old “2” with a lack of self-awareness?)

    And (because you asked) here is a link to a piece I wrote on unconferences a while ago http://fodengrealy.com/2011/07/conferences/

    Happy Sunday

    • I completely agree about the unstructured sessions. I have been in similar circumstances and I think it’s important to have little things like a 3minute rule or have the facilitator take an active role in advancing the conversation. I’m curious to see how the ‘4’ event (Sensecamp) will go with facilitators.

  2. Hera

    Your scale is very helpful for sense-making.

    The point on facilitation is important – the best sessions for me at OxfordJam had excellent and collaborative facilitation – I often think of the magic that was created as the conveners animating discussion and built consensus of learning and capturing key dilemmas. The one bad session I had their was poorly convened and over attended = no room to self-organise and so stagnated flow.

    I really like your graphics style – I will be copying this myself – Its very kookie-smart 🙂

    The name badge is hugely important. But people who attend also need a story to frame why they are there and why it matters to them. Everyone should know what they hope to share with others and also what help they would like from others. (Else their day will be directionless).

    Thanks for sharing!

    James

  3. Pingback: 54 hours. 12 ideas. 9 startups. Say Hello to Scotland’s first StartUp Weekend! « herahussain

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