How to run a 90-minute unconference exercise
Tap the power of community with organized chaos
Unconferences are sites of intense collaboration, creativity, and innovation. Here's how you can run your next internal project like one.
In this article, I want to share with you of the power of an unconference—because I believe it's a technique anyone can use to generate innovative ideas, harness the power of participation, and strengthen community ties. I've developed a 90-minute session that mimics the effects of an unconference, and you can use it to generate engagement with a small group of people and tap into their ideas surrounding a topic of your choice.
An "unconference" is a loosely organized event format designed specifically to maximize the exchange of ideas and the sharing of knowledge in a group driven by a common purpose. While the structure of an unconference is planned, the content and exchange of ideas for breakout sessions is not. Participants plan and execute unconference sessions by voting on the content they'd like to experience.
For larger events, some organizers allow the submission of session topics in advance of the event. This is helpful for people new to the unconference format who may not understand what they could expect to experience at the event. However, most organizers have a rule that a participant must be present to pitch and lead a session.
One of the more popular unconferences is BarCamp. The unconference brings together people interested in a wide range of topics and technologies. As with any unconference, everyone that attends has the opportunity to share, teach, and participate. Other popular unconferences include EduCamp (with a focus on education) and CityCamp (with a focus on government and civic technology).
As you'll discover when you do this exercise, the success of the unconference format is based on the participants that are involved and the ideas they want to share. Let's take a look at the steps needed to facilitate an unconference exercise.
To facilitate this exercise, you will need:
- A room for 15-20 people
- Tables and chairs for the group
- Ability to break into two or three groups
- Markers and pens
- "Dot" stickers (optional)
- Sheets of plain paper or larger sticky notes
- Timer (alarm optional)
- Moveable whiteboard (optional)
- Pre-defined topic for participants
Step 1. Before leading the exercise, the facilitator should pre-select a topic on which the participants should generate and pitch ideas to the group. It could be a business challenge, a customer problem, a way to increase productivity, or a problem you'd like to solve for your organization.
Step 2. Distribute paper or sticky notes and markers/pens to each participant.
Step 3. Introduce the topic that will be the focus of the unconference exercise and ask participants to begin thinking about their pitch. Explain the process, the desired outcome, and the following timeline for the exercise:
- 10 minutes: Explain process and pitch prep
- 20 minutes: 1-minute pitches from each participant
- 10 minutes: Voting
- 10 minutes: Break / count votes
- 5 minutes: Present top selections and breakout sessions
- 25 minutes: Breakout collaboration
- 10 minutes: Readouts
Step 4. Ask participants to first prepare a 30‒60 second pitch based on the topic. This is an idea they want to share with the group to potentially explore in a breakout session. Participants should compose a title, brief description, and add their name to the paper you handed out. Pro-tip: Leave room for voting at the bottom.
An example format for a pitch sheet might look like this:
Step 5. Begin the pitch process and time each participant for 60 seconds. Instruct each participant to share their name, title, and to briefly describe their idea (this is "the pitch.") If a participant begins to go over time, kindly stop them by starting to clap, others will follow suit. Alternatively, you can use an alarm on the timer. As each participant finishes a pitch, the group should clap to encourage others and boost confidence for the other pitches.
Step 6. At the conclusion of each pitch the facilitator should lay out the pitch papers on a table, tape them to the wall, or post them to a moveable whiteboard so participants can vote on them before heading out for the break (second pro-tip: Don't use sharpies to vote if you tape pitch papers to the wall. You've been warned). Allow at least 20 minutes for steps 5 and 6.
Step 7. After the pitches, give all participants three votes to select the topic(s) they are most interested in discussing or exploring further. Have them vote on the pitch paper, using tick marks, with the markers or pens. Alternatively, you can "dot" vote with circular stickers. Votes can spread out or stacked for preferred topics. Allow up to 10 minutes for this step.
Step 8. While participants take a break, facilitators should count the votes on each pitch paper and determine the top two or three ideas. I prefer to count the votes on each pitch paper and write the number in a circle on the paper. This helps me visually see what pitches are the most popular. This will take about 10 minutes.
Step 9. After the break, present these top ideas and ask the presenters of these ideas to lead a breakout session based on their pitches. For larger unconference events, there is a lot more organizing of the sessions with multiple rooms and multiple timeslots occurring. This exercise is drastically simplifying this step.
Step 10. Divide participants into two or three breakout sessions. Ask participants to self-select the breakout session that is most interesting to them. Having balanced groups is preferable.
Step 11. Ask pitch presenters to lead their breakout sessions with the goal of arriving at a prototype of a solution for the idea they pitched. In my experience, things will start off slow, then it will be hard to stop the collaboration. Allow up to 20 minutes for this step.
Step 12. As you approach the end of the breakout sessions, ask participants to prepare their top takeaways for a group readout. Give groups a five-minute and then a two-minute warning to prepare their key takeaways.
Step 13. Ask each breakout group to designate a spokesperson.
Step 14. The spokesperson from each breakout group shall present their key takeaways and a summary of their prototype to the entire group. Divide the time equally between groups. A few questions from other groups are fine. This should last about 10 minutes.
Step 15. Facilitators should summarize the session, encourage further action, and conclude the exercise.
I've previously run this exercise with a group of approximately twenty middle school and high school students with the sole purpose of introducing the concept of an unconference to them. For the last three years, in fact, I've had the privilege of hosting a group of bright, young students participating in the Raleigh Digital Connector Program. I host them at Red Hat, give them a quick tour of our office space, then lead them through this unconference exercise to help them prepare for an annual civic tech event called CityCamp NC, which brings citizens, government change agents, and businesses together to openly innovate and improve the North Carolina community.
To recap on the general exercise, the facilitator's job is to keep things on time and moving through the process. The participants' job is to be present, share ideas, and build on other ideas. In this smaller setting, having everyone give a pitch is important, because you want everyone to share an idea. In my experience, you never know what you're going to get and I'm alway pleasantly surprised by the ones that get voted up.
In larger events, facilitator's should to drive participants to have some type of outcome or next step by the end of their session. Getting people together to discuss an idea or share knowledge is great, but the most valuable sessions allow participants to leave with something to look forward to after the event.
I will often refer to unconferences as organized chaos. Once first-timers go through the process, I've had many participants express sheer joy that they've never experienced this level of collaboration and knowledge sharing. On the other end of the spectrum, I often get participants who wish they would have made a pitch or shared a topic near and dear to them—after it was all over. Don't be that person. If you ever find yourself at an unconference, I encourage you to do a pitch. Be prepared to participate, jump right in, and enjoy the experience.
As you get more experience, you can convert this unconference exercise into a full-blown unconference event for your organization. And the results should be astonishing.
This article is part of the Open Organization Workbook project.