Running an unconference - top tips

Posted by s.hettrick on 31 July 2014 - 10:00am

By Simon Hettrick, Deputy Director.

Have you ever needed to answer a big question that's fuzzily defined and can only hope of being answered by combining the experiences and knowledge of a wide group of disparate experts?

Whenever this situation occurs at the Institute, we apply the perfect solution: an unconference (like our Collaborations Workshop). Rather than sitting through a dull series of presentations, the attendees at an unconference are in control of what they do and how the conference works. This makes the confernece adaptive, so that the shifting boundaries of fuzzily defined questions can be honed and narrowed down until a solution is found.

At a good unconference you could have around 100 people all firing suggestions at you across a huge range of topics and, somehow, you have to accommodate these ideas on-the-fly into a constantly evolving agenda. Fortunately, the organisation of an unconference can be made much easier if you prepare in advance and follow our top tips.

1. Bag a good venue

People tend to remember two things about a venue: the food and the wifi. An unconference adds an extra requirement: good rooms.

You need a lecture theatre or another room of sufficient size to hold all the attendees. This is used as the plenary room where introductions and voting take place, it will also be used for reporting back from the discussion groups.

Unconferences are reliant on breakout groups of some form. This is where the attendees split into small groups and go off to discuss a topic of interest. These groups are best kept below ten people in total, which means you will need a number of  breakout rooms that equals the total number of attendees divided by ten. These rooms should be located close enough to each other that your attendees don't spend too much of their time walking between break out groups... or getting lost. When it comes to breakouts, the definition of room can be pretty flexible. A corridor with some sofas will suffice for a small group, and some rooms are large enough to house two groups without a distracting level of cross talk.

The hardest part of organising an unconference is finding a venue with suitable rooms. Get this right, and the you will make your job of running the conference much easier.

2. Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure

The whole concept of the unconference is that anything can change on the fly: the attendees can ask to change the agenda, add something new, remove something old, break into different groups... pretty much anything they want. If you are to cope with that level of flexibility, you need a solid infrastructure in place before you start.

A solid infrastructure starts in your own head. You need to decide how you want the event to run, when the attendees get a chance to contribute, what decisions the attendees can contribute to, how this is going to be communicated to the attendees, and what infrastructure you need to cope with the changes. This information needs to be drilled into a group of helpers who become your unconference experts who help the conference attendees when they have questions. Spreading the knowledge about how the day will run helps prevent problems before they occur. In addition to these experts, you will need a runner or two, because unconferences require a lot of chasing if they are to run to time.

As discussed below, we take a very modern approach to unconferences, so rugged wifi and adequate power supply is a must. This does not mean that it's impossible to take a Lo-Tech approach to unconferences. It's possible to run one using whiteboards and Post-It® notes, but I think this approach is a lot more difficult to organise and requires more people to keep it running smoothly.

3. Timing an unconference is an art form

Timing an unconference is difficult. The pace of breakouts and reporting back can become relentless over a couple of days, so you need to ensure there are plenty of breaks where people can take some time and grab a coffee. After all, you want people talking, and people often talk best during breaks. On the other hand, the unconference needs a fast enough pace to feel vibrant.

A good agenda is absolutely fundamental. You need to provide sufficient time for the sessions, some wiggle room to deal with the inevitable time slips and mishaps, and plenty of breaks for people to mingle. Things will run more smoothly if the agenda is easy to find, and that changes to the agenda are quickly propagated to all the attendees. This is why we favour an online agenda, because it's easy to access and changes can be made very quickly.

We have found that most topics can be discussed in an hour, so we provide an hour for our breakout sessions. Any longer and people get bored, any shorter and people don't have sufficient time for the discussion. We've experimented with the format of reporting back sessions (where people report back their findings from the breakout sessions). We find that five minutes per group is perfect. It's enough time to announce the salient facts, yet short enough that you can listen to six-to-eight groups without getting being inundated with information.

During break outs, your attendees are meant to leave the plenary room, walk directly to the break out room and get started. What they actually do is start talking to friends, forget which room they were walking to, get lost, decide to find a place that sells better coffee and a million other things. This is where runners come in. They patrol around the building, find people who need help and direct them to the right place. At the end of the break out session, your attendees should write up their notes and come back to the plenary room. What they will actually do is get so engaged in the debate that they forget to come back to the plenary. Again, your runners are the solution. Ten minutes before the end of the session, your runners should be sent round each of the breakout rooms to remind people what they need to do and when they need to be back in the plenary.

4. Get a timer, and use it ruthlessly!

Now that you've organised your agenda, it's time to enforce it! People like to know when things will happen - and they particularly dislike significant overruns. If you start departing radically from the agenda, you will upset your attendees.

Stopping people talking is difficult and can cause tension, so we use a timer that's projected onto a screen. This way, the person who is talking is completely aware of the time they have left, and if they overrun it's not just you - but everyone in the room - who applies pressure for the presenter to summarise quickly. It's even more effective if you have an audible out-of-time alert (we use a recording of a fog horn) to get the point across.

5. Embrace the 21st Century

A website, wiki, mailing list, messaging, and social media make it much easier for you attendees to contribute to the unconference and for you to cope with proposed changes.

We have two sayings at our unconferences:  "everything's online" and "email everything".

Using a website (or wiki) to organise the content for the unconfernece will mean that it's significantly easier to keep everyone up to date with changes. If you engender a sense that attendees must look at the conference website for information, then they will automatically find out about changes without you having to inform them directly. This strategy can be reinforced by using Twitter (and an appropriate hashtag) to alert attendees when changes are made.

We ask our attendees to email all questions, answers, and anything else to a mailing list to which all the attendees are subscribed. This means that everything that is discussed at the workshop is distributed to everyone at the workshop instantly. In other words, the minutes are produced on the fly by the attendees themselves. And if you open the mailing list to the outside world, it means that anyone can see what was discussed at the meeting for all time. It's a very easy way of producing a long-lasting record of what happened at workshop.

We use a Google spreadsheet (but any multi-user tool will do) to track the breakouts and the number of people who have voted for them. It's easy to change, and it can be made publicly viewable so that the attendees can see what they voted for, where they need to go (i.e. which room they need to be in) and at what time they need to be there.

Twitter is the best tool we have found for allowing attendees to contribute or comment on discussions. It's also an excellent way of publicising the outcomes of the workshop to a broad community. Remember to choose an appropriate and easily remembered hashtag!

Finally, all of this 21st Century wizardry needs to be tied into the main website so that attendees can quickly and easily access information about the workshop. Life at the unconference is made much simpler if you task one person with making changes to the website and keeping everything running. As the organiser, the last thing you want to do is try and update an online agenda whilst simultaneously organising presenters and dealing with questions.

6. Unconference: without its attendees, is nothing

If you want a lively and productive unconference, you need to engage your attendees: the earlier the better. From your first publicity announcement to your welcome to the conference Tweet, you should be thinking about engaging your attendees and making sure that they know how to contribute.

Be clear on your website that you are looking for your users to contribute ideas, suggestions, talks, or whatever it is you want. A good time to get a first concrete contribution is during registration. Ask your attendees what they want from the workshop and what they would like to discuss or spend their time doing. If you have the manpower, get in touch with your attendees to discuss ideas further.

As time progresses, keep in touch with your attendees and be quick to add their suggestions to the website. If your attendees see that you are reactive, they will feel that their contributions are valued and are more likely to contribute further. And if you can engender that culture before the unconference starts, you are far more likely to have a successful event.

7. Think like an attendee

The final point is to think like an attendee. Running an unconference can be scary, but attending one can be intimidating too. Put yourself in the mind of an attendee and try to see where confusion might arise.

Regardless of how much material is available on the website, there are always problems with attendees who don't know how to take part in the discussion groups or are unsure of how they should contribute. At a few opportune moments (registration, a week before the conference starts, at the start of the conference) it's useful to re-iterate the instructions for taking part. Even if some attendees still don't know what to do, this should help get numbers of the uninitiated so low that they can simply ask the other attendees for help. 

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