The biggest unconference mistake you can make

Biggest-error-message Sometimes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

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 they’re 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. 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. Even though those thirty participants had an amazing time, 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.

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 when they’re scheduled there should be no other type of conference activity going on.

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.