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Using an unconference to boost innovation

Hey there, fellow enablers of change! In this episode, let’s dive into something exciting and unconventional that can truly shake up the way we do things – the unconference approach. So, grab a cuppa, sit back, and let’s explore this game-changing concept together. Have you ever attended a conference where you felt bored by the presentations, frustrated by the lack of interaction, or disappointed by the relevance of the topics? If so, you’ll be interested in this different way of organising and running events.

The unconference, also known as open space technology, is like the rebel of the conference world. Unlike traditional conferences with an often rigid schedule and pre-set keynote presenters, unconferences thrive on spontaneity and collaboration. They’re all about letting the participants take the lead and drive the discussions. These can be a great addition to our co-design efforts. 

The roots of the unconference approach is often traced back to the 1980s when Harrison Owen, a theologian whose academic background and training centred on the nature and function of myth, ritual and culture, coined the term “open space technology”. Harrison believed in the power of self-organisation, and that’s exactly what unconferences are all aboutgiving people the freedom to create and engage in discussions that matter to them. It’s like an extended coffee break, where the real discussions often occur during traditional conferences. 

In his book Expanding our now: The story of Open Space technology, he says he didn’t invent it, but rather, stumbled across it, as it has existed for thousands of years and can be seen in the way many ancient tribal communities conducted their meetings. In fact, Alexander von Humboldt, an eminent scientist of the 19th century, implemented a process akin to the unconference approach around the year 1828. Revered as one of the most extensively travelled and accomplished scientific explorers, Humboldt was an inspiration for people like Charles Darwinwhich tells you a bit about how revered Humboldt was! 

In September 1828, Humboldt invited hundreds of scientists from Germany and across Europe to attend a conference in Berlin. Instead of the customary format of conferences with occasionally monotonous paper presentations on individual research, Humboldt orchestrated a distinctly different program. Rather than subjecting the attendees to passive listening, he envisioned a more dynamic exchange by encouraging the scientists to engage in discussions with one another. As he said in his opening speech, “Without a diversity of opinion, the discovery of truth is impossible”.

The conference attracted about 500 delegates and featured meals together, cultural outings, including concerts, and visits to the royal zoo. Meetings were held amongst the botanical, zoological, and fossil collections, as well as within the university and botanical garden. Humboldt actively promoted interactions among scientists in small groups and across diverse disciplines. His emphasis on fostering personal connections ensured that the visiting scientists formed friendships, establishing robust networks. This historical example highlights Humboldt’s different approach, anticipating the contemporary unconference! It’s a testament to his foresight in cultivating a collaborative and interconnected scientific community.

Moving on to more modern history, you may recall that back in 2001, APEN had an international conference in Toowoomba. John was the convenor for that event and as part of the preparation, he invited APEN members to tell the committee about other conferences that they’d attended and share ideas they thought we might include in this one. John used a simple survey and thinks they received between 50 and 100 responses. A small number of those respondents mentioned this thing called open space technology, so John looked into it and found a facilitator who was experienced with the process. The team structured the conference so the first half was the usual stand and deliver conference presentations, and the second half was open space. 

We want to say this is using co-design before we realised what co-design was! Denise recalls that conference as a great event, and it was so refreshing to use a different process. There was a high level of energy as people discussed topics that were important and meaningful to them. It was pretty interesting at the beginning of the unconference process though, as we waited for what appeared to be ages for the first person to engage with the activity. Denise confesses she wasn’t sure it was actually going to work!

John felt the same as the team no idea whether this process would appeal to people. It turns out they loved it and John was intrigued to learn more about the process. He found the two books that Harrison Owen had written about it, and read those. John even had the pleasure of meeting Harrison in Brisbane a few years after the conference, and he kindly signedJohn’s copy of Open Space Technology: A user’s guide.

Now that we know what unconferences are all about, let’s break down how they work and why they can be a game-changer for us as enablers of change. In our professional practice, our strength lies in collaboration and co-design. Unconferences embrace this by letting participants propose and lead sessions on topics they’re passionate about. Imagine the exchange of ideas when everyone is contributing based on their expertise and interests.

The unconference approach can be used with groups of five up to over 2000 people. It is particularly effective when no one knows the answer, and when a diverse group of people with different perspectives is required to find a solution. It should not be used in situations where somebody in a position of authority already has a solution, or where that person needs to be in tight control of the process. Are you ready to shake things up and host your own unconference? Let’s roll up our sleeves and get into the nitty-gritty of how to do that.

Start by defining the topic or theme, which helps create a boundary for the discussions. For the Toowoomba conference it was something like “Exploring beyond the boundaries of extension and paving the way for a positive future for regional communities”. Keep it open and somewhat fuzzy, as you never know what might emerge. Invite people to the event, and don’t try to explain the whole process, but rather pique their interest. Just let them know it’s not going to be the usual talking heads with PowerPoint presentations.

At the event we need to create an open and inviting atmosphere. A comfortable venue with flexible seating arrangements encourages participants to engage in meaningful conversations. If you can, add in a few potted plants to soften the look. Instead of the traditional theatre seating style, use a circle of chairs. This simple seating arrangement encourages equality and inclusivity, creating an environment where everyone feels comfortable sharing their thoughts. No hierarchy, just a bunch of extension practitioners ready to learn from each other. If you have over 50 participants, you may want to use several concentric circles of chairs, so as to fit everyone in the space.

To begin the event, the facilitator gives a simple welcome and then helps focus the group on the space and those present. They then state the theme and briefly explain the process, but not in too much detail. The facilitator then invites anyone who wants to initiate a discussion on a topic related to the theme to come forward and write their topic on a sheet of A4 paper or a large sticky note. That person announces their topic to the group and places their page on a wall or a board, creating a grid of time slots and spaces. This becomes the agenda for the unconference, which is co-created by the participants on the spot.

The facilitator then explains the four principles and the one law of the unconference, which are:

  1. Whoever comes are the right people: This means that the people who show up to a session are the ones who care about the topic and can contribute to it.
  2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have: This means that the outcome of a session is not predetermined or expected, but emerges from the interaction of the participants.
  3. Whenever it starts is the right time: This means that creativity and inspiration cannot be forced or scheduled, but happen when they happen.
  4. When it’s over, it’s over: This means that a session can end earlier or later than the allocated time, depending on the energy and interest of the participants.

The law is the law of two feet: This means that participants are free to move between sessions, join or leave a session at any time, or even start a new session. The idea is that participants should take responsibility for their own learning and maximise their contribution and benefit.

Now stick with us! There are two types of insects at work during an unconference. Bumblebees are participants who use the law of two feet to move around from session to session. Like their namesakes, these people bring new ideas and insights to the groups they visit. They often connect different topics and add more diversity to the conversations. Butterflies on the other hand are participants who do not join any session because they’re not interested in any of the topics. Butterflies form spaces for inaction. However, these spaces can also be the source of innovation: butterflies can chat with each other and talk about overlooked issues or reflect on their past experiences. Insights from these chats can then later contribute to other groups.

The facilitator then invites the participants to look at the agenda and choose a session they want to attend. The sessions are usually held in different rooms or areas, and are led by the person who proposed the topic. The sessions can take various formats, such as presentations, discussions, workshops, demonstrations, or even games. The facilitators are encouraged to document the sessions using notes, photos, videos, or other means, and to share them with the rest of the group later on.

At the end, the facilitator gathers everyone back in the circle and invites them to share their reflections, insights, feedback, or actions from the unconference. The facilitator also thanks the participants for their involvement and contribution, and invites them to stay in touch and continue the conversation.

The unconference might take between half a day to three days, depending on your circumstances and resources. So why might we try the unconference approach? It’s a powerful way to tap into the collective wisdom, creativity, and passion of a group of people. It can help us to explore complex or emerging issues that require diverse perspectives and inputs. It can also be useful for generating new ideas and solutions that are relevant and meaningful to the participants. It can also build trust, relationships, and networks among the participants, and empower them to take ownership and action on the issues they care about. Finally, it can be a fun, dynamic, and energising learning environment.

So, there we have ita glimpse into the world of unconferences and how they can revolutionise the way we, as extension practitioners, collaborate and learn. The unconference approach aligns with our goal of acknowledging that everyone brings something to the table, making it a tool worth having in our toolkit.

We hope we’ve given you enough background so that you too can run an unconference. However, if you’re feeling a bit uncertain and would like us to facilitate it for you, reach out and check our availability. As we finish this episode, let’s embrace the unconference approach, where every voice matters. Share your experience of unconferences below and any practical tips and tricks for helping them be effective. 

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Owen, H. (1997). Expanding our now: The story of open space technology. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Owen, H. (2008). Open space technology: A user’s guide. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

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Aaron Meikle
Aaron Meikle
3 months ago

Looks like an introvert’s worst nightmare! 🙂 From your article, there seem some parallels with classical brainstorming – is that mentioned in the books?

Noel Ainsworth
Noel Ainsworth
3 months ago

It sounds like facilitating the definition of the problem is a key component.

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