Improving unconferences

In thinking over my experiences at various unconferences, I’ve noticed one consistent problem: The people who get to run sessions aren’t the smartest or most interesting people. Instead it’s those who chose seats closest to the session boards, run faster than everybody else, or are pushier at grabbing fistfulls of whiteboard pens.

Of course this is by design – unconferences intentionally give up on hierarchy, beilieving that all things being equal, the good stuff will rise to the surface. However if there are only 8 slots at an event, and the 9th person in line happens to Bono or Einstein, everyone is out of luck. And worse, since rooms are self-selected, you may end up with 500 people trying to fit into a closet to listen to Bono, while the three sprintly organziers for the talk on “COBOL – the future” sit quietly with the crickets in the empty 500 person theatre.

This is a design problem with philosophical constraints: how do you introduce some controls or weights for who gets a slot, without violating the purity of the unconference vibe?

Here’s some ideas:

  • Hot talk reserved slots. Every pre-unconference wiki has requests for someone to talk about topic X. If these are popular, organizers could reserve a room for a topic but without a speaker. So the topic is assigned, but the speaker, or speakers, aren’t. If organizers want to seed the sessions with more diverse or highly requested topics, this does that without killing the unconference vibe. One hot talk per hour. If no one signs up, the hot talk is killed.
  • Priority for previous speakers. Can you say hierarchy? Much like how first class passengers get to board early, previous speakers at the event (or previous speakers who earned good feedback), can get first crack at the session board. Not a huge fan of this, but it’d be easy to do.
  • Put the sign up list online. Why not put the session sign up board online before the event. It’s dynamic and open, but since it’s days or weeks ahead, there’s the chance for organizers to join or split sessions, help popular sessions find bigger rooms, etc. It’s still open, but with a guiding hand. The footspeed effect is nullified, and the rush is spread out over a couple of days before the conference.
  • Filter the session board. Once the session board is filled, an organizer goes through the board, and tries to match talk popularity with size, swapping rooms or even talk times. I’ve yet to see an unconference board that didn’t have obvious overlaps and avoidable confusions, and it wouldn’t take much for someone to clean things up for everyone’s advantage.
  • Rules of order. It’s stupid stuff, but people rarely put their name in their session. This makes it impossible for someone in a conflicting or related session to track you down before hand to either join, split or generally get your shit together (or ping you afterwards if they missed it). And of course there are always people who put a session on the board, but then forget to show up and run their own session. A big X through your session saves everyone else some time, and opens the room to Bono or Eintsein, if they’re still around.

Are there downsides to all this? Sure. Unconferences feed on the belief that you are witnessing real time conference creation – so any sort of structuring might kill that energy. But then again, unconferences do have registration, mailing lists, wiki’s and other organizing tools – perhaps a few small, well crafted additions can make unconferences even better.

Any other ideas for improving unconferences? (See also, how to improve unconference sessions)

11 Responses to “Improving unconferences”

  1. John the Statistician

    I don’t know anything about unconferences, but it seems well within the spirit of the idea to make attendees first class entities. Let them vote for what they will attend, and then say who gets a slot dynamically. This isn’t such a bigger stretch if you put the sign-up list and schedule online.

  2. Scott (admin)

    One of the consequences of unconferences, I hope, is that it opens up a range of ways to run conferences, somewhere between unconferences and regular conferences.

    As you point out John, there’s a spectrum of organizer control, and no reason you can’t have organizers make some decisions, while attendies make others.

  3. Nancy White

    Scott, there is a way to do this – really USE Open Space methods – all the way. What we are seeing at unconferences is a partial deployment. What is missing is the magic of negotiation that happens in an opening circle. There people have to stand up in front of the group and make their offer, then they go place it on the market place wall. Then everyone gets up and the wall is negotiated. People put their name on session sheets they are interested in. I see you are doing a session on Cacao at 2 and I’m doing chocolate at 10 and we combine. Then we go to the person who has the kitchen for a meeting space and swap ’cause they don’t care about the kitchen, just the time slot. The sign ups give clues on rooms and then there is information to adjust the schedule.

    The other secret here is more flexibility on space. A good unconference has spaces that might not be formally identified as a designated space, but can be use as such. “The back porch” “Under the pine tree” are just as good as room 3A in terms of giving the participants a lot of control.

    What I sense I’ve seen so far is we have trusted ourselves to create something good a bit. Now we have to go all the way.

    (see for more on OS methodology. It is really quite simple. Many have explained it much better than I.)

  4. Bryan Zug

    I think Nancy makes a lot of good points above.

    Filter the session board… (try) to match talk popularity with size

    I dig on this — something that gives a quick visual representation is to give attendees a round sticker for each hour — once the sessions are blocked out, people put one of there stickers next to their prefferred session for the hour — nice quick visual representation that could then be used to do the type of mods mentioned.

  5. Scott (admin)

    Thanks Nancy/Bryan. On Openspace: I’m familiar with these docs, but I admit I’ve never read all of them. It seems all the organizers of the spate of tech-camps should read the full method and think about going further.

  6. Kaliya Hamlin

    Hey Scott,
    I am with Nancy – if the camp/unconference leaders actually followed the open space methodology a lot of the issues you surface just don’t become issues. I recently facilitated open space at the Interent Identity Workshop.
    We had a – who is coming page on the wiki, along with a suggested topics page. The first morning of the conference everyone who wanted to present came to the front of the room, wrote there session on piece of paper, annouced it to the whole group and then posted on the schedual. The session presenters negotiated (moved them around on the time/room grid) to make a really great agenda that dealt with all the bubbling up in the community. Many of those in attendance said it was one of the best events they attended….
    I am happy to talk with aspiring facilitators about how to lead this process and talk to coprorate types to might be shy about trying it.



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