Curious about unconferences? Perhaps you’re thinking of running one? Or maybe you are invited to an unconference or open space, and the organizer sent you this link to describe how it works? If so you’re in the right place!
This doc is a high-level summary. For more details and facilitation instructions, see the ebook How to run an internal unconference.
What is an unconference?
An unconference is basically a conference without predefined topics. There is a high level structure and theme, but actual topics are generated by the participants on the spot, and breakout groups are formed dynamically based on interest and relevance.
If you know what an Open Space is, an unconference is really just an Open Space event with some added structure at the end to make it fit for company-internal events.
This is a pretty awesome format for cases where you want a super-flexible and participant-driven agenda and structure. I’ve been using it for years at Crisp, Spotify, Lego, and other clients, and it tends to spread virally within organizations. I’ve done it mostly with groups of 20-80 people, and people often say things like “all conferences should be like this” or “best conference I’ve ever been to!”
Disclaimer: I didn’t invent the term unconference and I don’t own the definition of it. So this is just my take on it.
What are the benefits of this format?
The key benefits of this decentralized setup is:
- Higher energy level. People focus on issues that matter to them.
- Less up-front planning. No need for someone to set up a detailed agenda ahead of time.
- More flexibility. Once we have everyone together, we may discover unexpected topics that are of great interest and importance. With a dynamic agenda, we can capture the moment and maximize the value of the conference.
- Spontaneous conversations. Often the most valuable parts of a conference are the informal conversations that happen between people in different teams or roles, who don’t normally work together. People get to know each other, exchange knowledge, and build trust. The open space format encourages this.
If the purpose of a conference is to collaborate and communicate, then an unconference will often fulfill the same purpose in a more simple, fun, and effective way!
What are the potential downsides?
If you have a specific topic that you want people to talk about, or specific decisions that need to be made, then this format might not be ideal (or you’ll at least need to tweak it). Because this type of conference is entirely participant driven, so they choose what they want to talk about, and that might not match what you want. As organizer you only set the overall theme and then let go.
So the question is: To what extent do you really need to control the conversation, and to what extent do you trust people to make best use of their time? If you aren’t sure, try letting go of control just once to see what happens. You’ll probably be surprised!
What? Is there no structure at all?
Actually there is some structure. But bare-bones compared to how typical conferences work.
The organizer defines a Theme. For example “How we will we make this project super-awesome” or “What are our biggest challenges and what will we do about them” or “How does version 2.0 of our company look like?”.
The theme is super-important, because it will attract the right people to the event (and detract the wrong people). So make sure participation is optional. Once you have an inspiring theme, an experienced facilitator, and the right people in the room, the event will almost surely be a success!
The organizers also define a High level structure. Usually follows this pattern:
- Part 1: Intro & agenda creation.
- Everything gathers up (typically in a ring), facilitator goes through the theme of the day and the driving principles for this way of doing conferences.
- Then people identify topics and work together to allocate them to the different breakout slots. A “topic” could be just about anything – a discussion, a question, a presentation, a demo, a rant, a walk in the park, a pair-programming session, or whatever.
- Part 2: Breakouts.
- The room has a few breakout locations, each with a flip chart and some chairs. The schedule shows which topic is happening where and when. Typically 45-minute or 60-minute slots.
- Everyone chooses where to go, based on Law of 2 Feet: “If you aren’t learning or contributing or having fun where you stand now, use your two feet and go somewhere where you can learn or contribute or have fun”.
- People can roam around freely, and don’t have to stick with the scheduled breakout sessions. Spontaneous conversations can happen by the coffee machine or on the balcony. Breakouts don’t have to stay on topic, participants are free to discuss whatever they want to discuss.
- The time box is not strict. Sometimes a conversation will be over in 20 minutes, sometimes people will want to continue for another hour. Law of 2 Feet overrides everything during the breakouts, so the schedule is not a rule, it’s just a guide to help you figure out where to direct your 2 feet.
- Each topic has a host, who captures actions/decisions/insights (if any). Typically the person who suggested the topic, but anyone could take on the role, it’s pretty informal.
- Part 3: Gathering and sharing.
- Whole group gathers up again. Participants are invited to share any actions/decision/insights/questions that came out of their breakout sessions.
- It’s perfectly OK if your breakout sessions didn’t come up with anything concrete. Often the conversations and personal connections are valuable enough.
- Any other whole-group topics are addressed (such as decisions that affect everyone).
The organizer may add additional elements before the intro, such as inspirational speakers to provide context or knowledge relevant to the them. The organizer may also add elements to the third part (the gathering) for example to capture decisions in a more formal way. Sometimes there will be additional gatherings, for example after lunch (to harvest outcomes from the morning).
But Part 2 (the breakouts) is free of disruptions and the facilitator meddles as little as possible.
Law of 2 feet
I’ve already mentioned the Law 2 feet, but I’m giving it a section of it’s own because it’s super-important. It’s the one and only rule of Open Space and Unconferences.
“If you aren’t contributing or learning or having fun where you are now, use your two feet.”
This basically means we trust people to take responsibility and make the best use of their time. If the organizer and all participants keep this in mind, just about any question or problem will sort itself out.
How does an unconference look?
Here are some typical scenes:
If you need help organizing one, feel free reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org. Several of us have quite a lot of experience doing these things.