How Unconferences Work

Over the past year with two gatherings for Up to All of Us, we’ve continued to make the time in each excursion to build a common language we can all speak which helps set the expectations that we’re here to make ideas better and shared… not to cut them down. One can argue a lot about how to make ideas actionable and the filtering that inevitably comes from that — that’s not what our time together is for. Our time together is to dare; to make explicit the dents we want to put in the world that we keep to ourselves like cards held too tightly to the vest. It’s really only on the last full day that we can finally nudge into the uncertainty.

I think it’s that persistent uncertainty in our professional (hell, even our personal) lives that drives so much demand for relevant and meaningful opportunities for people to learn from and share with each other. This is why I think the unconference scene is just going to continue to grow. Our own community gathering has been cited in a lot of ways; some people describe Up to All of Us as either 1) a conference; 2) an unconference; or 3) a retreat. I’ll go into deep dives on each of these some time in the future (or over a beer or a coffee), but suffice it to say, here are some quick descriptions of each:

A conference is a highly organized event, generally tied to a specific trade or association, with a set agenda. Speakers are lined up in advance, programs are made available and both attendees and speakers have pretty well-established roles by which they participate. The organizers, beyond being an emcee, facilitate the overall operation of the event, clearing the way for everyone else to fulfill their roles. The trade or association that is associated with the event operates mostly independently from the event itself. There are exceptions and they’re easy to cite, but even in many of the exceptions, the model for organization and interaction is largely top-down.

An unconference has several flavors and variants, arguably the most common is the BarCamp model. These can be organized by anyone for anyone (or everyone). There’s a lot to cover on BarCamps but the gist is that someone (or some group) convenes the unconference, quickly lays out the ground rules and the agenda is set largely ad-hoc and the participants themselves set and run the sessions or topics organically. There is a lot of work that goes into facilitating the emergent nature of such a conference. Some unconferences recur on a regular basis as a community develops around them.

A retreat has people co-locating together over a few days where they exchange, eat and sleep together (not like “sleep together” — get your heads out of the gutter, people) and this is often what Saul Kaplan might call “the random collision of unusual suspects.” Church organizations, work teams and some recognized professional groups gather together — generally they share some explicit reasons for gathering together and retreats are a vehicle for teams to bond more, work through sticky problems, etc.

As I’m sure people who are part of Up to All of Us (and everyone else) might gather… we’re borrowing a bit from all of these. We’re like a conference in that the attendees themselves don’t really set the agenda explicitly, even though there is an implicit design that is largely defined by the talents, skills and body of work by the participants, curated and encapsulated like “power pellets” that Megan and I think (hope) will nudge some conversations or ideas in some intentional ways. We’re like an unconference where we have structured holes to be filled by whatever emerges from the group convened, even though by the group we’ve gathered together, we somewhat stack the deck on what kinds of topics might emerge. We’re like a retreat in that we basically spend a solid couple of days living and learning together, though many of the people coming (especially this year) don’t really know each other all that well, but walk away knowing they want to.

That describes the moments we’re all gathered in the same place. To look at Up to All of Us with just this lens is to miss the bigger story: the community. The community that supports and drives these gatherings is a huge ingredient in many gathering-like events in a couple of different communities: the wonderfully energetic ORDCamp in Chicago has a community that is invisible to the outside, but once you’re part of it, you can appreciate how the dynamic nature of the community affects the gathering; the affirming and enlightening group that is The Overlap does this, too, with a diverse community of academics, entrepreneurs, technologists and designers across a variety of disciplines. These recurring gatherings (like the one Megan & I ran last year) use the events to feed their collective cultures with new people with their fresh perspectives, questions, insights and personalities.

Trade organizations that hold conferences bring together a lot of people from one discipline or another. Up to All of Us and the communities it draws from are multidisciplinary, in our case, spanning multiple approaches to design and a very large audience spanning professional learning, K-12 and higher education and training.

Retreats pull together a lot of the usual suspects you’d work with. Up to All of Us pulls together some usual suspects, as the disciplines, broad as they are, are somewhat focused – but hardly anyone who’s part of the community works with each other on a regular basis, lives near each other, etc. This is a community of shared interests and it manifests itself through a mailing list with a very high signal-to-noise ratio.

There’s nudging, there’s moderation and there’s facilitation — mostly, though, such are groups that authentically provide personalized professional and personal development because with the intimacy of their events and the encouragement to own one’s own experience as part of the collective event… well, there are a lot of people who aren’t finding that nourishment elsewhere.

Megan and I saw this need over a year ago and amazing things have happened — not because of anything we’re doing as facilitators or hosts — because really all we’re doing is summoning people together. I think we set a pretty good table for the metaphorical dinner party and do our best to bring together good people with a hunger, if not a comfort, for ambiguity and uncertainty… and we give people explicit permission with to be their authentic selves.

So what sets unconferences like what we’ve done with Up to All of Us apart is the intimacy that comes from putting some strong but permeable boundaries around the community so people can roam ideas with trust, and experiences that encourage autonomy, self-directed learning and autonomy. This can scale by growing it slowly and organically, giving people and their ideas time to rise and as the small cultures we create together within these trusted circles mature we knead the culture into other places and help everyone else find their way.

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