Organizer’s Take Note: a Plea for Improving Unconferences

This is a follow-up post from my previous post “What is the Matter with Unconferences“; if you haven’t read it, please drop by and do so – we’ll wait…

…dum-de-do-barumpadum…

Back? great!

As one other clarification, here is a Wikipedia extract that outlines what a BarCamp is, which is what most of these I have been to is based on…

They [BarCamps] are open, participatory workshop-events, the content of which is provided by participants.

After seeing issues at both UXCamp and ProductCamp, I’d like to offer some suggestions.  What saddens me in particular is that so many sessions at this past ProductCamp were presentations.  While I like that at least the type was known to me beforehand, even some pitched as workshops weren’t hands-on.  And the presentation ones seem to leave little time for true discussion.

To provide some details on the disturbing trends and to offer some unsolicitied advice on changes to make:

  • People getting scheduled before the conference. I think it is OK to find out people’s passion beforehand, but let’s not schedule sessions before the unconference; unconferences are more than just crowd-sourcing topics
  • Using voting as a method for choosing what topics are in or out. People will follow their passions; I’ve been at sessions where I was the ONLY one that showed up as the convener; that’s OK.  I either went to another session or captured my thoughts quietly; I’ve also had others come join me after about 10 minutes from the start as they tasted a few competing interests and found the conversation we created more interesting.
  • Don’t provide A/V equipment for sessions. No mikes, no video. To have participatory sessions, the sessions should self-constrain themselves to being small where microphones are unnecessary. Unlike big formal conferences, we’re not interested in trying to determine speaker or topic popularity, people self-determine that… Several workshop sessions at ProductCamp were set-up auditorium style and the participation was limited to getting small amounts of input from the audience. The default format should be open discussion; workshops should be essentially the second option.
  • Don’t have any session format connote different levels of expertise; no panels of experts or ask the expert. Unconferences are awesome because they promote peer-based discussions. That young guy out of college may have more innovation in them than the greybeard of 30 years in the industry. You are not going to unlock that by placing one over another via a self-proclaimed or given title. Let that expertise emerge from the group and people will learn what they want to use or not. If a panel of people want to convene one, that’s fine, but don’t let people call themselves experts; it’s still a conversation.
  • Consider what a Keynote does; it constrains thinking and lowers energy. If you are going to have a ‘keynote’, consider building the schedule (in Open Space, we would call it a marketplace) before the keynote.  This then captures the tone of attendees without influence.  If it isn’t aligned with the keynote, so be it; now you know what is on people’s minds.  As soon as the keynote happens, people begin constraining what must be important is centered around it AND having someone talk at me for 45 minutes to an hour lowers energy levels for proposing sessions. Also, let everyone have a chance to propose a topic before letting others offer a second one.

Select a style and focus on it beforehand: Camps tend to be more hands-on workshops.  Open Space and World Cafe formats more discussion-oriented.  Also, can I ask that space be considered a bit better?  While I thought the digs at both the Goethe Institute (UXCamp) and LivingSocial (last ProductCamp) were cool spaces, they were not conducive to moving around or running an effective unconference given the number of people; perhaps decrease the number of attendees.

I’m going to be watching what these two camps in particular do next year; I may set-up a competing model that truly emphasizes peer conversations if this is the trend for these two.

PS – This is NOT considered a knock on the organizers – who did a wonderful job at the format that they decided to do, but either they do not fully understand (or want to execute on) what an unconference (Camp) is, OR they are being seduced by ever greater number of attendees/sponsors they can get in exchange for sacrifices on the format.  I’d invite them to consider their own personal motivations and perhaps incorporate them explicitly into their message.

What is a Matter w/Unconferences

I’m sitting at an unconference and really feel compelled to write a note about what is wrong about MOST unconferences I attend…. Here is a definition so we can focus attention on what’s wrong:

An unconference is a conference organized, structured and led by the people attending it. Instead of passive listening, all attendees and organizers are encouraged to become participants, with discussion leaders providing moderation and structure for attendees.

Definition from http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/unconference

The disappointing thing I am finding is almost all of these have too many presenters or panels discussing ‘at me’. There is no true peer-to-peer discussion and/or hands on learning. And more and more of these are having their sessions being planned in advance.

One session at the one where I am currently had the title stated such that an audience was supposed to make decisions on what would be discussed yet the speaker had slides! How in the heck could this person know what was going to be proposed? Rather it was a case of twisting the proposals into what they desired to present.

I want folks planning these to be more conscious of this; please do not call your conference an unconference if you are having people talk at me.

Of course not all unconferences are falling into this trap, but most of those that are not are seeming to be open space events; I love open space, but a good unconference doesn’t have to be this format.

If anyone has a way of finding out beforehand where unconferences actually are falling more into a typical conference format, let me know…