The unconference where we learn from unconferences

Holding an unconference on unconferences does sound like the most meta joke of the year. Or possibly a plotline on W1A  But what other way could academics who have investigated unconferences choose to discuss their findings?

If you’re reading this blog you probably know what an unconference is. For our purposes the key points are it’s a self organised conference with an emphasis on discussion and sharing rather than presenting and listening. In the UK (and other places) unconferences are often called ____camp so UKGovCamp is about government in the UK (and UK government), LibraryCamp is about libraries and MuseumCamp is about museums (in my time I’ve helped organise BlueLightCamp (about emergency services), GovCampCymru (about government in Wales) and ShropCamp (about, er, Shropshire).

Daniel King and Emma Bell undertook the research and along with Dan Slee and Lloyd Davis organised the event on Friday 21 Jan 2017 at The Bond Company in Birmingham. In a very traditional conference style Daniel kicked off with a summary of his research. If you care about unconferences check out the slides, they’re really clear and interesting.

I’m writing this the next day based on my personal reflections having heard about the research and having had a day to discuss with others. I do think that having this time to really consider what we are doing when we do unconferences was a real privilege and I don’t pretend that I have unique or groundbreaking insights. But this is what is in my head and now it’s on the Internet.

Kill the pitch line

Unconferences inevitably start with a blank grid marked up with timeslots for the day and break out rooms. The grid must be filled and the way we chose to do this is to ask people to queue up and take turns “pitching” ideas to the assembled multitude. This is a fun, high energy, enjoyable way to kick off an unconference.

It’s also rubbish.

We all know it’s rubbish but we still, often, do it. We know it’s rubbish because it favours extroverts, experienced camp attendees and socially confident people. We know, because we can see it, that women are typically underrepresented in pitch lines and many facilitators and organisers take steps to encourage women to pitch. But what about people of any gender who are introverts, to whom the idea of standing up in front of a group of people fills them with horror before we add on some social pressure to be entertaining and the threat of public embarrassment if they take too long?

An analogy that makes sense to me is

“We’ve been running this new online service for a while. People need to press the big green button marked “Go”. It turns out that loads of people just don’t press the button. What should we do?”

Should we add a big orange arrow saying “please press this button”?
Should we redesign the service so it works better for all users?

I think we know what to do.

Safe spaces

There is an assumption that unconferences are positive and inclusive spaces. They are. Up to a point Lord Copper. Even in our flatter, more inclusive unconference world we still have power dynamics and hidden hierarchies. Again, many organisers and facilitators and, indeed, attendees are conscious of this and try to make sure that open, helpful, supportive behaviours are encouraged.

And this is another area where it is often hard to see who we are excluding. Indeed we actively encourage people to leave discussions where they aren’t getting or adding value. Though that simple act can be hard for many people.

My key takeaway is that the unconference process takes us only so far. We are asking a bunch of people who have often never met and have certainly never worked together in this configuration to create a space that will work to enable all of them to collaborate and contribute. I actually think it’s impressive how much this actually does work.

Within these temporary spaces the degree of confidence and safety that the participants feel is a function of the people who turn up, the process they follow and the way they behave (all of which interact with each other of course. We can really help within the community to ensure that we practise behaviours that demonstrate that we are listening, that encourage people to contribute and that recognise the contribution of all those in the room. (Anyone who knows what I’m like in an unconference knows that these are areas within which I have considerable scope for personal growth).

I think we could also introduce and encourage the use of patterns of behaviour that would promote inclusion and safety. For example if it became common to open sessions with a question and 3 minutes of silence while people wrote their initial thoughts on post-its this would help people who thrive when they have time for quiet reflection (and shut people like me up for 3 minutes). I suggest this only because it is a technique from my own practice many, any other techniques and patterns exist. We should encourage experimentation and learning with these different approaches.

Configuration

One of the points that really struck me from Daniel and Emma’s research was the question of the function conferences (remember them?) perform. I’m paraphrasing badly here but I think what the research says is that conferences are for configuring and managing professional or technical fields. You go to a conference to be reminded how to be a person in your field or profession. Conferences reinforce power structures, uniforms and behaviours.

And so do unconferences.

We’re not terribly explicit about this (but then neither are conferences) but I think many people would recognise this configuration role. Indeed many of us have experienced govcamps (for example) as an insight into an alternative (and superior) way of being a public servant. That was certainly the case for me.

I think that this is a useful way to frame how we think about unconferences. It may not be the only thing that they do but it is part of what they do. It also suggests why it might be hard to get “suits” to attend. Conferences reinforce the status of suits in their profession and technical sphere. Why would they engage with a process designed to reduce their relative status? (Because public services would work better that way – obv).

Act, don’t act but decide.

This is not intended to be a call for a radical overhaul of unconferences. I wouldn’t call for that even if I thought it was necessary. Unconferences are run by the people who run them and they work the way they work. The way the people in the space decide they should work.

I do think that we always, as organisers, as facilitators, as attendees, as members of the community run the risk of doing the things we did before, or the things we think everyone else wants us to do.

Overall what this research says to me is that unconferences are imperfect. They are unfinished. They are not yet done. Of course. The awesome thing about this community is that we embrace change, we embrace innovation and development and we are comfortable trying things, failing and learning.

So maybe the next unconference you organise runs exactly the same way. Maybe you behave in exactly the same way when you attend one. But do so explicitly, because you’ve considered the options and decided this is the right, best, least imperfect way to do it. Or change. But be explicit.

(I recognise that I attend every govcamp with an internal pledge to speak less and listen more. I usually break within a few minutes. So this recommendation is made in a spirit of considerable humility.)