Mixing the unconference format into a traditional conference

I ran an unconference session at a conference for Housing Tenant Engagement people last week. Dave and I touched on it in our latest podcast – he asked me how it had gone, how it worked in a situation where people hadn’t chosen specially to come to an open space, when they’d been there solely because of work, rather than interest. (Which is an interesting distinction to make, in itself!)

I didn’t have a great answer on Monday, other than what people had told me on the day, which was that they’d loved it – they’d felt set free by creating the agenda for themselves. They looked relaxed and happy and energised to me.

Yesterday I got an e-mail from the client with the transcribed feedback forms. And I’m glad to say that they confirmed what I thought and added a little more data. I’m not going to republish the comments directly because, I don’t think they were given in that spirit – they were shared with the organiser, not me and anyway there’s nothing extraordinary about any of them. Except when we run unconferences for ourselves, “happy sheets” are probably part of the paraphernalia that we reject!

The format of the event was that it started with lunch at the hotel, I ran an unconference slot from 2.30-5.30 and then they had a social event, then the next day was all traditional speakers and workshops. I left immediately after my session.

We divided the time up into three 45 minute slots to allow time for introductions, pitching and changeover between slots. We had four syndicate rooms and the one large room to play with so we could have had up to 6 sessions per slot – we had 18 pitches and some of those merged so that there were empty slots in the timetable. As usual, I didn’t see many people using the law of two feet – once they were sat, they were sat, but with 6 sessions to choose from there were on average 10 people per session.

So. Roughly a third of people who gave feedback (in total 72 – I’m not sure how many of these attended both days of the conference) mentioned the unconference in a positive remark – most of those were in answer to the question “What did you particularly like about the event”. Some people mentioned it in response to the question “What did you not like about the event” but none of these were out and out “I didn’t like the unconference” – they included a couple who had worried about the format at the beginning but warmed to it over time; a few who said “I didn’t like X or Y but I liked the unconference”; a couple who would have liked to have had more notice of the format and a better chance to prepare; one who said all the moving about was a bit disruptive; one who wanted to set more of the agenda in the same way and one who thought that the unconference had spoiled them for the traditional workshop sessions.

I hear all of these at most unconferences I facilitate and I feel the same way a lot of the time too. As Dave and I discussed, there are always people who think the pitching can be done in a smarter way and who wish other people were in the room, but the process just works: we give ordinary people the opportunity to talk about the things that matter to them and they love it.