What’s the biggest unconference mistake you can make?
Sometimes, good intentions pave the road to hell.
A conversation I dread
CONFERENCE ORGANIZER: “Hey, Adrian, we’re incorporating participant-led sessions into our conference this year!”
ADRIAN: “That’s great! What are you going to do?”
CONFERENCE ORGANIZER: “Well, some program committee members are skeptical that this format will work, so we’re going to add an unconference track that people can attend if interested.”
ADRIAN: Nooooooo! Don’t do that!
I’ve had more than one conversation like this. Here’s why adding an unconference track to a conventional conference program is a big mistake. (Probably, the biggest unconference mistake you can make.)
Why you shouldn’t add an unconference track to a traditional conference
Consider these three points:
- To date, relatively few people have experienced a unconference session (one shaped on the spot by the needs, experience, and expertise of the people present);
- Lecture-style formats comprise the vast majority of people’s formal learning experiences. So, if you haven’t previously experienced an unconference session you’re probably skeptical that it’ll be useful to you; and
- We are creatures of habit, and most of us are cautious about trying something new.
When you combine these observations, the unfortunate outcome is that very few people will attend an unconference track. Most attendees will stick to the conventional and “safe” concurrent sessions on pre-announced topics.
I was a skeptic myself when I started using participant-led formats back in 1992. A number of years passed before I stopped worrying whether this new-fangled way of running events would work for the next group I tried it with. It turns out that when a participant-led session or sessions are the only conference activities going on, people dive in and nearly everyone likes what occurs. But when you give people a choice between what’s familiar and what’s not, all but the bravest take the safer path.
I’ve made the unconference track mistake. I’ve stood in a room set for three hundred attendees and had thirty show up, while four other concurrent sessions siphoned off 1,400 people. Yes, those thirty participants had an amazing time. But the overall perception of the vast majority who didn’t attend (and the conference organizers) was that participant-led formats were “not really wanted” and could be safely ignored.
Don’t make this mistake!
So how do we avoid making this mistake? Make participant-led sessions plenaries or simultaneous breakouts. You certainly don’t have to make unconference sessions 100% of your conference, but there should be no other type of conference activity going on at the same time.
There will probably always be conference organizers who are skeptical that participant-led sessions can work. A compromise may appear to be the way to keep such people happy, but it will invariably create a self-fulfilling prophecy; the “experimental” track will be poorly attended and the skeptics will say, “I told you so”.
We all get tripped up from time to time by the unintended consequences of our good intentions. When planning to add participant-led sessions to your next event, resist the alluring compromise of an unconference track. Instead, dedicate a morning, afternoon, day, or days to well-designed participant-led sessions. Then you’ll see just how well these still-novel but increasingly popular formats can work.
2 thoughts on “The biggest unconference mistake you can make”
One way you can have both ‘lectures’ and active participation is to iteratively cycle through short presentations (I used 20 minute Ted-like talks form people) to inspire new ideas, then have people propose discussion topics for breakout sessions (I had 6 or so occurring simultaneously), then allow people to go off and conduct them. They come back for the next ‘lecture’, rinse and repeat until the day is finished. It worked great…
I would NEVER recommend having an unconference format running along side a lecture-based conference though, it seems one never gets the critical mass for the unconference format to work. So perfectly agree with you Adrian
Right Paul, what you describe is a mash-up of conventional short lecture sessions with mini-open-space breaks. I can see this would work well at an event where the organizers have reason to believe that certain information should be shared by presenters as a spin-off space for participant-led sessions. I usually prefer to go the whole way and let participants create the entire event themselves via a Conferences That Work meeting format, but what you’ve shared is a lot better, in my opinion, than most conference designs I see.