The (Un)conference Culture

As the founder of a young startup, a persistent voice in the din of my mind is always questioning me: how to sustain innovation and build an environment that will enable a free flow of ideas; questioning the norm; and fostering a no-holds-barred climate of enabling genius. Having spent over a decade in the corporate world, I had yet to find a model that was authentic and worked. After attending WPP Stream 2016, I believe that understanding the heart of this “un-conference” culture is the key to unleashing a sustained innovation pipeline in organizations. 
 
 Allow me to explain:

As organizations and teams grow, several dynamics come into play. To name a few, the initial founding team that were previously one-person armies with total control of ideation, conception, design and execution must begin to delegate in order to scale. Processes come into play, communication must increase and the diversity of the team grows. More processes are invented and discarded to suit communication preferences, styles across teams and so the story evolves.

Discussions at WPP Stream 2016

Every startup aspires to be a corporation (albeit with unicorn status). Inevitably over time, internal culture and processes shift towards industry norms that keep a large machine running and, more often than not, the result is that the initial free flow of crazy ideas is slowly choked off.

Often, innovation is delegated towards an ‘innovation team’, creative ideas are filtered through the lens of revenue and stuck in limbo while power struggles within ranks and management try to wrangle for dominance[1]. To fix issues, brain-storming meetings are held, off-sites scheduled and executive retreats called to ‘come up with ideas’. There is an entire industry that services the need of these corporate requirements that come packaged with workshop formats, bowls of skittles and post-it notes.

WPP Stream 2016

Another factor that I’ve observed in both large and small companies is that of hierarchy, ego and arrogance. Though hierarchy is a natural framework in organizational structures, free thinking is at risk through the rise of arrogance among peers. This disrupts the smooth flow of ideas, and, combined with a management imposed structured ‘innovation process’, one might as well wave goodbye to originality.

Thus we are faced with a question: is there a sustainable model that can be embedded in the culture of a growing team, or an established organization that can maintain the original days of glory where ideas flow freely, fueling innovative thinking?

Enter the ‘un-conference’ model and my experience at WPP stream 2016. What has struck with me the most were some of the key cultural elements that can be used as guiding principles for building a high performance innovation culture.

The overall experience and feel of the conference is like a startup or summer camp — and those are two experiences that are highly correlated with inventive thinking. Post-it notes and skittles replaced with giant whiteboards and markers and PowerPoint slides considered poor taste. The culture that is created for these few days is highly inspiring and that got me thinking about what makes it work.

Here is my decomposition into some key themes:

1. Diversity: Whether you are building a new team or want to foster an innovation culture in your existing organization, diversity is critical. Bring in skills, perspectives and knowledge from different industries and disciplines. Like WPP Stream, set the bar high for the selection process such that you are truly selecting those who ‘belong’ and each member will add to discussions with meaningful experiences and facts for others to build on.

2. Level the playing field: A super critical element — there is no ego (for the large part). With the super high caliber of attendees, somehow, it is obvious without it being stated anywhere that you are in an environment of intellects that will take you to task and call you out if your act isn’t together. And it is really a ‘playing field’, not unlike the school yard where you had to compete but knew that you’re amongst friends and kids your age but curiosity was a common currency.

3. Lead with authenticity: It is very common in many organization cultures that we put on a work-face, but the environment at stream is built around the leaders and organizers being themselves. Whether it is doing a talent show on stage or uninhibited laughter and personal stories, authenticity breaks barriers and lifts the screens to social interactions.

4. Have faith, trust the collective: In almost any meeting we start with agendas or frames which are driven by priorities. The ‘unconference’ has no set agenda, no prescribed guidance. When you have collected the right people together and leveled the playing field, you are implicitly trusting the collective. This swarm algorithm displays its power because themes emerge that you would have never thought about. The result is a surprisingly potent and intellectually stimulating experience, and a key counter-intuitive principal.

Winners of The Pitch at WPP Stream 2016

5. Curate the learning: The learnings during each discussion have to be captured and curated but instead of taking notes, embed participants in every discussion that are diligently contributing and taking note of the key elements and themes emerging. Asking participants to share their top-of-mind throughout the event, you are ensuring that the main elements are captured as close to the source as possible.

6. Repeat: Stream has been going on for ten years and when taken over this time duration, those who have been there through the years would have a keen pulse on the evolution of ideas. For embedding this culture into your own teams, it would be critical to ensure repetition. There is no set time for the ‘innovation year’, the process has to repeat regularly and consistently so you can measure and understand the trends.

These elements may not be new to experienced leaders but given the scarcity of long-lasting innovation cultures, it is certainly a topic worth ruminating upon.

by: Yasir Khokhar, CEO- Connecterra

[1] Clayton Christensen’s innovators dilemma does a fantastic job of going deep into this particular topic.


Yasir Khokhar is CEO of Connecterra; a company with a mission to connect the analog to understand everything on earth. He believes in the power of using machine learning and sensors to solve hard problems that will impact the future of our planet. Problems such as food security, climate change and energy.

Yasir is based in Amsterdam and has a passion for mountaineering, photography and south Asian cooking.