An unconference is an unconventional event based on Open Space Technology. It is a very different conference from what we are used to.
It is one of the moments of Agile that is carried out less frequently than others, but it is no less important for this. At Mia‑Platform we organize an unconference twice a year and in this article we will tell you what it is, how it takes place, and how to organize it even remotely.
What is an Unconference?
In traditional conferences, there are various aspects that we know well: the calls for papers, the speakers, a well‑defined agenda of the day, the frontal sessions, etc.
Let's try to put them aside for a moment. Imagine a day in which the participants are also the speakers, the agenda is built together at the beginning of the day, and the success of the event depends on the participants themselves: in a nutshell, here’s an unconference.
The Unconference follows an unconventional format:
- Everyone can share content: there is no previously decided agenda, but everyone is free to bring their content. The agenda is decided at the beginning of the day at a defined time, called the marketplace, to which we will dedicate a paragraph later;
- There is no contents selection: there are no defined criteria, according to which an intervention can be admitted and another cannot;
- The environment plays an important role: the hosting structure must have certain characteristics to facilitate conversation and exchange among participants. The container enables the content.
So, what are the contents that can be found?
During an unconference, you will certainly find some frontal speeches, as in classic conferences, together with different topics.
- Presentations and talks: the above‑mentioned frontal speeches, in which we deliver our knowledge to an audience who wants to learn something new.
- Round tables: moments of ideas exchange and discussion on given topics.
- Questions to experts: during an unconference you can raise your hand and ask for clarifications on the processes, on the functioning of something, etc.
- Workshop: this is an excellent time to lay the foundations for something new, to imagine a new project, or to start activities together that can allow us to learn something.
This is the moment that starts the unconference and allows to set the agenda for the day.
The marketplace is the moment when everyone proposes their content: it takes place according to a specific procedure.
Each participant writes down the title of their sessions and a brief explanation of it on a post‑it, and puts it on a billboard (or a wall) in a time slot of the agenda.
Once everyone has submitted their sessions and the slots are all filled, an important moment takes place: slots can be moved and swapped. Only the slot‑owner can move his/her post‑it note, and this is the time when the negotiation begins.
Typically, we try to move the sessions so that similar topics do not overlap, or to make sure we can participate in the slot we prefer.
Once the exchange is over, the agenda that we set together is ready.
Four principles and one law
We already mentioned that the unconference does not follow the rules of traditional conferences, but this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t follow some rules anyway.
So, let's see the four principles behind Open Space Technology.
1. Whoever comes is the right people
Don't worry about people who aren't participating in the session. Whoever attends the session is the right person and will make his/her contribution because he/she is really interested.
2. Whenever it starts is the right time
A creative process requires unpredictable timing. In the time frame that has been given for the slot, ideas must flow and let things happen.
3. Whatever happens, is the only thing that could have
Get ready to be surprised: nobody can foresee the synergies that arise in a group that was randomly created.
4. When it is over, it’s over
You have to leave the clock aside. The times of creativity may not correspond to the slot and if, for example, the flow ends before the end of the sessions, everyone is free to leave.
The law of two feet
This rule states that if you are not contributing or adding value to the session you are attending, you can move elsewhere. There could be a session in which you can contribute more.
In fact, one of the peculiar characteristics of this conference is the freedom of moving among sessions, which is not perceived as rudeness or lack of respect.
We are bumblebees and butterflies
To explain the law of the two feet, we might use a metaphor: let’s think about the participants of an unconference as bumblebees and butterflies.
Bumblebees are noisy and move from one place to another pollinating and fertilizing; butterflies are quiet and continuously move to make participants feel comfortable.
This metaphor helps to understand how important the role of the participants is for the event’s success. Participants are no longer just spectators but real actors of the day.
Making participants aware of the importance of their role makes them automatically much more likely to contribute. The sessions, the moments of discussion, the unexpected situations make the unconference a successful event, enabling creativity, new perspectives, and new energies to be brought into daily work.
We have mentioned several times how the organization of the space is important for the success of the event. Therefore, special attention should be placed on it, especially when organizing a remote unconference.
So let's see how the organization of space takes place in a live conference and how we have equipped ourselves to run it remotely.
A face‑to‑face event
For a face‑to‑face event there are some aspects to always keep in mind.
Location: we need to choose a pleasant place. The event we are organizing is out of the ordinary, but it will still be challenging, as it takes up the whole day. We are organizing an unusual event that will be demanding and will last a whole day. A well‑kept space immediately creates the right atmosphere and puts people at ease.
The location must certainly have a good Wi‑Fi connection and the spaces that we will describe below.
A room for the plenary session and the marketplace. The day is held in several rooms, but one of them must be big enough to host everyone for plenary sessions that take place at the beginning and end of the day.
The rooms. All the rooms must be equipped to facilitate any type of session. Therefore, it is necessary to have a projector or screen, a flipchart or a blackboard (or both), paper and pens, post‑it and paper tape, outlets, movable tables, and chairs.
Additional spaces. In addition to the equipped rooms, it is important to provide the space for spontaneous meetings that can take place between people who are not following sessions, or where lunch and coffee breaks are served.
So here we are: how do we organize an event whose spaces are so important, remotely? It can be done. We have experienced it and we will tell you about it.
For us, the unconference is a very important moment of the year and it is held twice a year.
On both occasions, we dedicate some time for a plenary session in which we present the year’s overview as well as last year’s, goals and achievements etc. For these reasons, it's a precious appointment for us.
March 2020 was the designated month to host our unconference in our brand‑new very spacious headquarters. But it didn’t happen. So, let's see step by step the tools and the planning that any company can experience, and greatly benefit from, as we did.
The day. We decided to split the event into two half days to avoid wearing headphones for 8 hours in a row and, above all, being too tired to give our contribution as bumblebees and butterflies.
The marketplace. This was really a big question mark. The beating heart of the event, that is supposed to be held together at the beginning of the day, needed to be changed.
Therefore, we decided to use a shared document and we opened the marketplace a few days before the event, in order to avoid confusion and waste of time on the day of the event.
Everyone had the opportunity to write down their speech and comment on the file, a little before the date of the event.
Then, we moved the agenda to Mirò, and there it was much easier to do a little bit of session exchange and reorganization of the agenda at the beginning of the event.
Mirò was a very valuable support tool as it made the use of the agenda easier and made workshops simple and fun.
An example was the workshop of one of our Product Owner, Edoardo, that you can read in this article.
The rooms. For the rooms, we used Google Meet. Each room corresponded to a link and everyone could freely enter and exit the sessions through the links always available in the agenda.
The sessions. Normally we organize 1‑hour sessions, which allow everyone to have flexibility and time to move from one room to another. In this case, we experimented with 30‑minute sessions, with 5 minutes for changing rooms and a mid‑morning break.
For many speakers, 30 minutes were not enough. But in other cases it was a good way to start new topics to explore later and to be concise and go home with content pills to immediately put into practice.
As we have an opening ceremony - the marketplace or a plenary session - we also have a short retrospective at the end of the day.
How does it work?
Usually, we run a small game: scrolling through the various slots of the day in front of the agenda, for each slot we throw a ball in the hand of someone who participated, who will make a comment on the session, briefly talking about the topic explored t and what he/she learned. A comment for each slot and a report of the whole day.
This time, remotely, one of our Scrum Masters shared the screen and we went through the sessions freely commenting - always one person for each slot.
Finally, we recorded the sessions and this was new compared to our classic unconferences. A novelty that was much appreciated because it allowed everyone to watch a session they missed because participating in another one, or review a session that he/she considered particularly interesting.
Despite many doubts at the beginning, the event was highly appreciated and many proposals arose for the second day once the first day was over.
This guide is meant to be a good starting point to help you organize your unconference!
Cartoon by Claudio Perrone
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