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Unconferences 2.0: making them work for you

We talk a lot about the value of unconferences at UC. And for good reason. They deliver a much better participant experience, are notoriously more enjoyable and most importantly, tend to drive real change.

But what exactly is an unconference?

In its purest form, it’s an event without a set agenda, which emphasises interactions among participants rather than relying on pre-prepared presentations. Participants show up and vote on what’s to be discussed, then break into smaller groups to tackle the issues raised.

Unconferences depend entirely on participant involvement and differing points of view. It’s the vibrant debate and resulting perspective that determines the event’s success.

They are a particularly useful event format when you’re looking at solving a multi-stakeholder industry-wide challenge, where Complexity, Urgency & Tension are present (we call it applying the ‘CUT test’. It also works brilliantly if you’re trying to change behaviours internally at your organisation.)

Compare that to a standard "speaker head" conference, which is often nothing more than a gathering of mass consensus rather than actual debate. And in a lot of ways they are deliberately designed this way, to ensure the agenda - both literally and metaphorically - is controlled. In other words, the expected outcomes have already been predetermined.

Unconferences aren’t new. It turns out that someone named Alexander von Humboldt created the idea in 1828, as this article from Tim O’Rielly explains.

But here at UC, we don't slavishly follow the model. Instead, we take the parts that work and the improve those that might not be as useful.

Importantly, we understand that some form of agenda is crucial, if only because, how else does one decide if an event is worth joining? Another risk of building an agenda entirely in-situ is that the loudest people tend to commandeer the programme.

“A pre-planned schedule is not a tool of oppression but liberation: it frees you to decide if an event is worth going to. Who has time to take a punt on whether interesting people will turn up or not?” as Pilita Clark rightly points out (originally an FT article).

At UC, we treat the programme or agenda at unconferences as a journey. It has a beginning, middle and an end. There are points of insight-sharing to set the stage for the deeper conversations, as well as moments for the “real” work.

Presented this way, we find participants are not only better equipped to understand what the offering is, but they can understand the real benefit of joining - something a lot of conferences sorely lack.

As for the ‘real work’ we mention, these might be round-table discussions or debates at a whiteboard or some other similar small-group activity. Whatever the format, these elements allow participants to share their views, ideas, experience and actively participate in the conversation. At UC we believe that infusing the entire experience with a sense of joy and mutual discovery is critical to supporting participants in arriving at tangible outcomes.

Admittedly, unconferences don’t run themselves and we certainly don’t advise a ‘try at home’ approach. So drop us a line and let us support you in creating and delivering the best possible unconference fit for your purpose.


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