5 Reasons to Run an Experiential Unconference

How to bring large meetings to life

First up, what is an unconference?

An unconference, sometimes called an ‘Open Space‘, is a meeting focused around a theme or purpose. It begins without any formal agenda beyond the overall purpose or theme.

The participants collectively build an agenda together at the start of the session, inspired by the theme and based on the specific interests of the group. Individuals propose topics to fill a series of sessions according to the available space and time. The group decides which combination of topics and sessions will constitute the unconference. The agenda might look something like the image below.

The schedule board at the 2007 Personal Democracy Forum unconference by user jdlasica on Flickr.

5 Reasons to Run an Experiential Unconference

Experiential unconferences focus on activity-based sessions with little or no upfront presentation. We outline the 5 reasons to run an experiential unconference below.

1. A Best-Fit Agenda

With an unconference, you create the best-fit agenda for that set of people, at that time. In many cases, the large gatherings we attend have their agendas determined many months in advance. By the time we get there, that agenda may be less relevant and you have no power to change it. In an unconference, you get a say on the day.

2. Unleash the Group’s Energy

Veterans of unconferences know how much energy they unleash. Here are the three main reasons they create such energy:

  1. Empowerment – people feel empowered as they get to design the meeting
  2. Relevancy – the topics provide exactly what people are looking for
  3. Movement – people get to move around between sessions

3. “Hive mind”, not “Sage on the Stage”

Organisational behaviour expert Anita Williams Woolley and colleagues showed us in 2010 that for a range of complex activities, the collective intelligence of a group usually exceeds that of the most intelligent individual in the group.

Woolley et all (2010), CC BY-SA 4.0 by By PaDBu – Own work, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48400432

In the unconference format, people can bring their problems and have a group of people create a collective intelligence, or “hive mind”, to work on that issue together.

4. Follow the Value (The Law of 2 Feet) 👣

At an unconference, a participant has freedom as well as responsibility. She has responsibility to herself and to the group. When she joins a session, if it is not providing her value, or if she is not providing value to the group, then it is fine for her to leave. Unlike in traditional conferences where she might be trapped mid-row in a ‘Powerpoint Deathmarch’, she can find something better suited to her needs (The Law of Two Feet).

5. Learn by Doing

Each session of an experiential unconference is activity-based or discussion-based, plus some space given for reflection. This allows someone to participate in something, reflect on it, conceptualise it in their own way, then figure out how to apply it. This is a very powerful form of learning. It is in stark contrast to the traditional academic style of knowledge acquisition. It provides a powerful learning experience for participants.

Ryan Behrman (co-author of this post) and I facilitate workshops and meetings using Open Space technologies. To experience an unconference on changing the world of work, join us at Melly Camp in London UK on Friday 8th December 2017. To find out more or to book your place visit www.mellycamp.net