Computer says no. What broken computers and conferences have in common.

A broken computer as a metaphor for the (in)effectiveness of conferences.

By Ola Möller
(MethodKit / unMonastery)

If you got 400 specialists and experts on future of [insert topic] in a room, is the best that can be done getting them to listen to one expert at the time for five days? Is this really the best way to do it?

One person speaking, 399 listening might not be the best way. Many conferences are well organized but I feel that the format is faulty by design. How can we develop better (un)conference formats for solving problems? Both spreading information effectively over a network and for getting together on causes we share. Below is an evaluation of how a computer’s activity monitor would view traditional conferences.

This article will keep changing with your feedback! Please add and suggest edits!

This article is a comment to this thread on unMonastery Discourse.

Part 1. The conference activity monitor

Let look on conferences like a computer with 400 cores. How can we harness the capacity? One person speaking, 399 listening is standard. Is 0.25% activity really the best we can do?

The classic conference

- Keynotes & parallel sessions (0.25–1% activity level)

Most of the people being in active.

My biggest thought has been: Can someone please tell me why 399/400 specialists are inactive!?

If the conference is about solving the world’s problems, what are we waiting for?

- Drafting sessions (4%)

40 people attending drafting sessions to give feedback one by one.

Specialist: I think [part of the report] can’t be right. I think that [conflicting thought] is a more accurate way to put it.
Chair: What is the exact wording would you like to propose?

- Coffee breaks (15–50%)

Many people seems to attend conferences to get to know other specialists & experts.

- Conference Dinner (20–40%)


A computer performing 0.5% would be returned for repairs! A conference with 0.5% would be seen as a success. Is that really the conferences we want 2015?

Part 2. Alternatives to the conventional conference format.

Some points where I see possibility for improvement:

High activity: Create parallel action (not serial listening). To capture different things happening at the same time (capture for example via gDocs or with a post-it walls), that later could be fed into a greater picture.

Collective output: Work on defining a clear collective vision (even better if that’s done on a distance before getting together) + loose processes that aid people.

Decentralized network: Have lots of time for discussions in smaller groups. Build network to avoid human bottle necks.

Diversity: Strive towards a large degree of diversity in opinions.

Inclusion: Make sure few people being passive.

- Co-writing / Digital drafting (40–80%)

Editing mode (Co-writing)

Everyone writing in the same document on their own computer. Hackerpad or Google Docs. We mostly worked in silence but once in a while surfacing thoughts and question with each other that was beneficial to discuss. This followed by going back to writing in silence. The benefit of group work with the benefit of working alone. (Similar to the way Nadia, Ben and I drafted the first proposal for unMonastery).

Can be found in the upper right corner of gDocs.

Suggesting mode (Feedback)

If a group already drafted a proposal people could work in the Suggesting mode in Google Docs to highlight changes the are proposing. The group that drafted the docs could then take into account if the change should be done or not.

- Fast Company:
Brainstorming doesn’t work
NY Times: Rise of the new groupthink

- Visioning in silence (10–90%)

Parallel digital tracks

  • Feed in comments from a twitter wall.
  • Broadcast sessions on the internet
  • Plan digital tracks that go on at the same time letting people to write down brain dumps of interesting thoughts that came up as a reaction to someone presenting.

Proposal for Conferences

  • A mix of productive sessions and informal hangouts
  • Defined outcomes before the Conference.
  • Use both the effectiveness of working alone with the opportunity of airing thoughts in group when needed
  • Smaller teams working on parallel tracks rather than a big group working on one track.
  • UnConference formats. (Open sessions, participation)

This article will keep changing with your feedback! Please add and suggest edits!

By Ola Möller
(MethodKit / unMonastery)

Thanks Jordan Lane & Ben Vickers for feedback.

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