How to Run an Un-Conference
Organizing events is a community effort, especially events as open to interpretation as an un-conference. I first sat down with a small group interested in Responsive Org events in 2015. Of that initial group Steve Hopkins was a founding member of the Responsive Org movement, Dori Rutkevitz was an active organizer in the related Reinventing Organizations community, and all of us were enthusiastic to learn more. Steve’s initial proposal to organize an un-conference was met with enthusiastic support by everyone at the table, followed promptly by “What’s an Un-conference?”
In the two years following that first meeting, I have produced and directed more than a dozen un-conferences and several more formal events. This short article is the playbook I wish I’d had when I began organizing events.
What is an Un-conference
An un-conference is any event where the agenda is set by those who attend. The rules of an un-conference are simple:
Rule #1: Whoever shows up are the right people
Rule #2: Whatever happens is fine
Rule #3: Whenever it starts is the right time
Rule #4: It is over when it’s over
In less flowery language this just means ditch expectation and don’t try to control the experience.
Flow of the Day
After attendees arrive, an empty conference agenda is posted on the wall with time slots and a variety of meeting spaces. Leaders share a theme or question they would like to discuss and post it in a time slot. If you post a topic, it is your responsibility to turn up to that session and introduce your topic or question. If you are not hosting a session, you are free to attend whichever of the sessions you are interested in.
Attendees are encouraged to adopt any of a number of roles:
Leader — who is facilitating each breakout
Scribe — is someone responsible for taking notes for each group
Nomads — give attendees permission to move between break-outs
The Law of Two Feet
Everyone at an un-conference is encouraged to practice the law of two feet. The law of two feet says that if you become uninterested at any point, you are encouraged to leave and join another session. In an un-conference you are also invited to take breaks at any time, with the idea that it is sometimes in the breaks that the ‘A-ha’ moments arrive.
Roles & Responsibilities
There are three main components necessary to a successful event — recruiting, production, and a strong facilitator.
A Word on Recruiting
In my experience, it is helpful to have an extended network to help with recruiting, not just a single person. All other logistics can be handled by a single person.
Among the organizers, someone has to be in charge of logistics, including:
— Venue sourcing and on-going communication
— Setting the date
— Attendee arrival emails
— Day-of logistics
A strong facilitator can make or break any event, but especially one with as fluid an agenda as an un-conference. Facilitator on the day of the event. It is essential to have one strong facilitator overseeing each un-conference, to welcome attendees and provide context for the event.
How to Facilitate an Un-Conference
Here are some tips, most learned the hard way over hundreds of hours of practice in the last two years.
1. Stay Centered
Despite having spent a fair amount of time on stage, I found myself getting nervous and feeling rushed in the hours leading up to a day-long un-conference. My single biggest piece of advice for a facilitator is to arrive with plenty of time to spare so you won’t feel rushed. You are responsible for the framework within which the attendee experience takes place. As such, staying grounded and centered is the single most important thing you can provide, even though in the moment it may feel like it is more important to make sure the space is set up or the coffee is ready.
2. Don’t Participate
This one might seem odd. It can seem like the entire point of organizing an event is to participate. In my experience, doing so decreases the ease with which I was able to coordinate new sessions, lead an end-of-day wrap-up, and refocus attendees when necessary.
In my view, the facilitator of the un-conference is there in service to the attendees. I have found it gets in the way of the attendee experience to actively participate in sessions and workshops that occur throughout the day.
The facilitator should practice before the beginning of the un-conference. Review these guidelines for a successful un-conference and be able to describe un-conference rules from memory. Practice your welcome speech.
4. Incorporate movement
I have always found it very useful to incorporate movement into events. When we have short periods of movement interspersed with other kinds of learning, we shortcut the passive sit-and-absorb tendencies we all learned through the education system, and which have carried over into most events. Read this article on the importance of movement within events.
Events are a lot of work, and sometime I have learned to produce of necessity. However, in this hyperactive digital age, I’m convinced of the value of what Tony Hsieh calls “spontaneous collisions” — the value of people spontaneously cross paths. If you’re considering putting on an event of your own, I encourage you to do so. When we create a container — an event or gathering — we create the opportunity for emergent possibilities to fill the open space.
*Acknowledge: This un-conference format is derivation of Open Space Technology, founded by Harrison Ownen.