Reflections on The ResponsiveOrg Unconference
On Saturday May 14th 2016 ~50 people met up at Coworkrs in Gowanus, Brooklyn, NY to talk about the future of work and responsive organizations. The format was an unconference, meaning there was no set agenda or speakers. Instead the participants came forward with topics, themes or questions they wanted to talk about and put them up on the grid, the crowdsourced agenda with designated time slots and rooms, leaving you to walk around and listen and join in on the conversations happening.
This is a reflection on my experience throughout the day.
What’s so great about an unconference?
I’ve been to a few unconferences back home in Sweden. They’ve ranged from being in co-working and incubator spaces to a small scout ranch to a camp (yes, with tents and campfires) in the Blekinge archipelago. What I love about going to these types of events is that it’s so easy to connect to people. At a traditional conference where there’s a set agenda and it’s a lot more business focused I feel lucky if I get to talk to two or three people even if they’re not that valuable conversation-wise. Here I had at least 10 deep conversations with people I never met before and I felt really good about making those connections.
A traditional conference is based on one-way communication and evangelizing the speakers. The unconference has its values in two-way communication and is focused on bringing people together and that everyone can contribute and are valuable.
Here you can talk about what you want to and find people who also care about those topics. The underlying assumption is that we do things better together and collaboration is great. My own observation is that there’s usually more diversity in unconferences as well. Why that is I don’t know, maybe that’s something I can bring up at the next unconference I go to.
Talking about “good” in the sun
After people presented their ideas and put them on the grid, the crowdsourced agenda, I decided to start the day with a philosophical session. Bob Gower asked the question “What makes a good organization?”. About 15 of us met up out at the patio and spent an hour in the sun. We started in a biological perspective with ants and organisms at the center of the conversation. Influenced by that we started talking about survival being the ultimate goal of an organization and if it should be the goal. If we agreed that it was then the theory of scientific management is a failure since companies go bankrupt all the time, with the decreasing average lifespan of the Fortune 500 companies as an example.
The conversation then took a turn to what good means. Are companies good if they treat their employees good but isn’t contributing to a good cause in society? Are they good if they are doing really good things for the community but treat their employees like crap? It’s a tough one and we didn’t get to a definition of good (if we did I think it would’ve been a small miracle). But what I found interesting was that a big chunk of the conversation revolved around capturing good and putting metrics on it and what those metrics should be, if it’s even possible to measure “good”. To me it felt like we were trying to solve a problem with the same mindset that created it, which shows how difficult it is to break narratives and mindsets.
After an hour we left with possible sunburns and, perhaps, a bit more confused. But maybe that was a good thing. The overall vibe I got was that people were happy to have started this conversation and that it would eventually lead to something down the road.
Mini session and listening
I dove back into the room with the grid, the place where all the sessions were posted. I had a hard time figuring out which one to go to and ended up having a mini-session with Bob who facilitated session #1 and Phil Surles the co-founder of Gradfounder, right in front of the grid. We talked about good, what we were doing and wanted to do, and work.
With 15 minutes or so left on this time slot we ended our conversation and I headed out to the patio again. That session ended soon after I arrived but I stuck around and listened to Brian Fountain and another participant (who I’ve sadly forgotten the name of and couldn’t find on the participant list — if you know who you are, let me know) who had a really interesting conversation about organizations and how to run them. Brian talked about always bringing in the why when you ask someone to do something, especially since it’s so easy to email and just write down tasks. By adding the why you bring meaning to the tasks and it connects to the overall purpose. They also talked about the false dichotomy between failure and success and that in the end it’s the learning you take away from it that matters. I felt what connected most of the conversation is making things tangible and clear so people can see where things are going.
Moving through lunch
Halfway through the day and it was time for lunch. I ended up talking more to Brian before I sat down in one of the couches to have a delicious tuna sandwich (thank you August for bringing the lunch!). Jerome, who I’d met earlier that morning, joined me and we talked a bit about cultural differences between USA and Sweden when it comes to driving, and especially the culture of honking here, which turned into a conversation about self-driving cars.
Then we were summoned to the grid again where we had a movement exercise led by LeeAnn Mallorie, CEO at Leading in Motion. It was inspired by the responsive aspect of the day and was designed to make us think about sensing and responding to the people in our environment. I teamed up with the person next to me and we moved/danced our way through the exercise, adding another team of two and exchanging a team member along the way. There was a lot of nervous laughter in the room and I felt that doing something that put most of us in a vulnerable state of mind brought us all together. Also, moving is nice when you’ve been sitting most of the day letting your brain do a lot of work.
The law of two feet and breaking into a field
We then voted on the last five sessions and I ended up at the patio again. The conversation was about diversity and how we can diversify and bring more value to organizations. I didn’t feel that connected to where the conversation was heading after a while and practiced the law of two feet (meaning that you can walk away at any time during a session if you feel like it). I went into the Bond-room and joined the conversation on how to break into organization design consultancy. Erica and Jessie from August had a really interesting session where they introduced different buckets where you could start to build your expertise and knowledge base to break into the field.
What I walked away with
At the end of the day we reconvened in front of the grid and Robin Zander, who was the organizer and facilitator of the day, asked us if there was something we wanted to share and what insights we were walking away with. A lot of people shared their impressions and experiences throughout the day and there was a happy and satisfied vibe in the room as we all left to enjoy our Saturdays in the sun.
So — what did I walk away with? I felt really happy at the end of the day. I met some really nice, cool and interesting people. I got the chance to reconnect with some. And I learned a lot. For a moment I was a bit overwhelmed. Since I’m trying to break into this industry I was amazed by the amount of knowledge and experience people had and felt a bit discouraged. But then I reminded myself that I’m on a journey and working really hard to learn more. Talking to others who are in the same position also helped me to cope with those feelings. My main take away is that getting together and talk with people who are interested in the same things you are is really valuable. Community is everything.
As someone said at the end of the day: “I’m so relieved there are others out there who are also thinking about this stuff!”.
What to do better next time
- Name tags! I love post-its but in the area of sticking to a piece of fabric for an entire day it does a terrible job.
- I would’ve liked another session in the afternoon because there was so many more conversations I felt were brewing under the surface.
- Personally, I need to get a business card.
- If there’s around the same amount of people next time — maybe we can do a check-in and check-out to further connect everyone in the room?
- How might we make space for everyone to speak during a session? This got brought up after lunch, so there’s a problem to fix here.