After attending the Community Leadership Summit (CLS), Danese Cooper suggested that I begin writing reviews of conferences that I attend. I have facilitated almost 100 unconferences and since I attended my first conference Siggraph ‘97, I have attended about 300 conferences from a wide range of industries: green business, tech fields like open source, non profit tech, semantic web, security and identity, journalism and even spirituality.
I am at Transparency Camp this weekend and there is much here that could be improved.
Better Agenda Creation and Space Creation
In creating the Transparency Camp agenda wall, no presenters announced their sessions (until the very end when given feedback, a few sessions got announced over the microphone). The session proposal process was not transparent to anyone but those located next to the agenda wall. Having proposers of sessions announce the name of the session, what their session is for (like technology or policy) helps everyone know what the presenter looks like, get a sense of who they are: their demeanor, voice and other non-verbal cues, as well as understand if the session might be interesting given the attendees goals. If presenters have similar ideas, or something to contribute to a session, those kinds of things can be sorted out in advance. People with similar interests and presentations may want to talk to each other ahead of time, ask questions and suggest things.
It is important once session leaders start by announcing their proposed session titles, one at a time, that the facilitator stay there to support the process – at the CLS event, the conference organizer literally left the room where people where announcing their sessions. This sort of left the group hanging and people felt a bit lost. By remaining right there, the facilitator is communicating that the session announcements are the most important thing happening at that moment.
Once many of the proposers have announced their session, the facilitator can invite those interested in topics they knew want need to be covered to come forward and propose a session in areas attendees haven’t yet thought of. This kind of prompting can also communicate that the topic area of the unconference needs help, and those who are tentative often do step forward to lead a discussion about a topic, even if they aren’t expert in it, just to make sure there is space for the topic.
I have heard people say that having people announce sessions takes to long. I don’t believe it does. I have never had an agenda creation process take more then 45 minutes and often it’s more like 25-30 minutes. A facilitator must make sure that people make brief announcements describing their session rather then speeches. But giving a fast demo of an announcement, the facilitator shows how the quick but effective announcement can be done without wasting time.
The facilitator should share with those gathered the Flocking Rules and Norms of Behavior for the day. Hopefully, whatever set of rules and norms the conference uses will be posted.
Personally I use the principles of Open Space and the One Law of Open Space. These are well known and “proven” having been used around the world at over 100,000 successful events.
By using the Open Space Flocking Rules, once the agenda is made, the facilitator doesn’t need to interrupt sessions to suggest it is time to move to the next one. Self organizing means presenters choose when and where to be and to manage their energy.
See the previous post on this blog that articulates in detail how to facilitate an unconference or camp agenda creation process.
Have More People
There could be more people attending Transparency Camp – the organizers closed registration relatively early and as per most free conferences about 40-50% of the people did not appear. On the first day, just over 100 people were here but the space here at Google would easily hold 300 people. Because the relatively small number of people for the space feels empty, it seemed wasteful of the opportunity.
One thing I heard was that the organizers kept the Transparency Camp small to facilitate relationship formation amongst this small group, but if that was the goal (having a limit of 100 people) then the camp should be convened in a space that works for 100 people, not 300.
Use the Space Better
Transparency Camp is not using the full range of break out spaces. Google is providing 6 very small break out rooms available for meetings plus the big main space (Charlie’s cafe).
The big main space could be broken up into about 6 different break out spaces. The tables outside could be listed as spaces.
Have more Breakout Sessions
For an unconfernece supporting as many breakouts as needs to happen is important.
Unconferences should support as many breakouts as needs to happen. Transparency Camp limited the number sessions per time slot to 7 and it was mostly “full,” meaning there may be more energy to have more sessions.
Yes, there will be a lot of parallel sessions which people want to be at during the same times, however, if you support and promote extensive note taking this anxiety can be lessened. If leaders arbitrarily limit the number of breakouts to say 7, but there is enough interest and energy to have 10-12, then those who didn’t find room to call a session on their topic will take the energy they have for “that thing” to be discussed/presented into other people’s session topics and be somewhat disruptive. The moderator should never be proactively merging sessions. Session participants should work this out during the announcing session.
All people who want to lead a session should be free to propose it and they all should be putting their names on the session paper they are calling. If people feel two or three topics are similar and ought to be merged, they can find the people who proposed those two sessions and “lobby them” to merge sessions. This is a self-organizing process in that the people hosting/convening a session get to decide if they want to merge or not.
Have a Documentation Center
Transparency Camp didn’t seem to have a clear idea of how to document sessions. At professional community unconferences, I always work with a person who’s only job is to collect and track session documentation and get it up online quickly. I will be working with my usual helper to write up detailed instructions on how to run a documentation center to share with the community. But here is an example of good documentation from the last two Internet Identity Workshop. 2009a, 2008b.
Have an Opening and Closing
Opening and Closing circles for an event are key elements that were left out of Transparency Camp. This is where I would position it in the room.
I led a session today about how to do amazing unconferences, the 4th time I’ve led a session like this at an unconference in the last couple months. Here is an example of the way I think about articulating the over all flow of the day – converging and diverging the groups energy.
The facilitator and organizing team help develop and maintain the flow of energy in an event – by coming from the outside world – together into a circle – where agenda creation happens. The community diverges amongst itself via the sessions throughout the day, then comes back together again at the end – converging in an ending circle to share what happened during the breakouts sessions (divergent time).
Post – Event
Ideally, the schedule, after a closing circle, will then give people a break to have a shower at their hotel or just go for a walk – before convening a dinner or an “after event.” I am also a huge believer in supporting people eating together to build community and buying everyone dinner supports this kind of convergence. Then after dinner everyone disburses back to their homes/hotels.
It’s very important for the event organizers to attend these after events. Transparency camp didn’t appear to have it’s organizers attending the evening event after the first day, held in a local restaurant. So while many attendees were there, without the event organizers, the evening felt a bit abandoned, as though the organizers were too busy or otherwise gathered at more exclusive events. But supporting the social evening event is just as key as the other recommendations I have made above.
I work with my clients (typically organizations in technical fields trying to solve problems and build community) to navigate the landscape of choices when designing an event. It is important as an event organizer, convening organization to understand why they are convening an event and to understand why attendees want to participate/attend the event. Answering these questions allows the convening organization to be able work with a process designer/facilitator like me to sculpt the processes used during the convening. Unconferences if done well can serve in supporting innovation, solving hard problems and bring people together in community. If done poorly they waste people’s time and do limited good.
UPDATE: Mary Hodder has an excellent post with her observations about Transparancy Camp and how it can be improved.