Herding cats….. the definition of an Unconference?

I sometimes wonder if I’ve been unknowingly attending unconferences for very many years, and just not recognising it. Are they just another version of meetings / workshops / seminars and conferences, that just happen to be ‘organisation free’? I also wonder if their current rise in popularity might be due to a bit of reinvention for the cool, trendy (and gullible)? And yes, I do fondly recall the ‘Open Space Technology’ movement and wonder what is so different?

Herding Cats. My recent attempt to explain the concept of an unconference has unfortunately caused confusion with some of my associates. So, I’ve turned to cats for some help, specifically herding cats. My associates instantly get the idea of herding cats, and from there, it’s a short jump to explaining unconferences.

Moving on swiftly, this is also a self-indulgent opportunity to link to the best ever cat video on the internet, ‘Herding Cats’.

Is an Unconference just an ‘Organisation Free Meeting’? Recently I mentioned my unconference observations to one of my more unreconstructed associates. They found the notion of an unconference extremely perplexing, if not a little disturbing, and demanded a detailed explanation.

To give my explanation a bit more credibility I quoted directly from a relevant website, one that lists the following unconference rules.  This feels like a bit of a contradiction, like the anarchists club having a beautiful scribed policy folder with template agendas, but here goes:

  1. Whoever comes are the right people,
  2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have,
  3. Whenever it starts is the right time,
  4. When it’s over, it’s over
  5. The Law of Two Feet (“If you are not learning or contributing to a talk or presentation or discussion it is your responsibility to find somewhere where you can contribute or learn”).
  6. Like all ‘laws’ or ‘principles’ at an Unconference, participants should feel free to break any or all of these rules if they feel that they are not contributing to the intellectual rigour or content of the event (a direct quote, honest).
Unconferences Lovely Boy?
“They don’t sound very organised to me Lovely Boy”

As I finished the last sentence of ‘how to run an Unconference’, I knew I was in trouble (the look in my colleagues eyes and his flared nostrils gave it away). So, very rapidly I explained  how the unconferences I’d attended to had actually functioned…

There was no structure, anyone who wanted could attend, there was no agenda and no clear idea of what everyone wanted to achieve. We worked things out as we went along, and once we got to an outcome we liked, we finished the unconference and went to the pub”. 

There was Silence!

He slowly sucked air in between his teeth and then responded, …

UNCONFERENCE?  … “That Lovely Boy…(dramatic pause)… sounds like every meeting, every conference or every bleedin workshop, I have attended in the last ten years!” He then stomped off, the law of two feet in action?

For balance, it’s worth a look at this Guardian article from April 2011, the future of council training. It talks about the rise of unconferences how they are, “Encouraging those determined to learn by attending out-of-hours unconferences, and paying for themselves to do so, are the kind of people who will be the innovators of the future, the ones equipped to lead through digital times, driven only by the need to deliver better, more efficient services”.

So, What’s PONT?

  1. Maybe I have been unknowingly attending unconferences for years? The description of the rules and how they function is spookily familiar to a lot of practice I’ve experienced.
  2. Unconferences will get more common here in Wales, it’s inevitable. Just look at how many are happening in London right now and predict how many will happen here in 5 years time (2016). A huge increase I reckon.
  3. My colleague, Unreconstructed Man will fit right in at unconference. He’ll just make plenty of noise, stomp around a bit and get the whole unconference will follow his agenda.

An update for 2017. Recently I saw a quote about the use of Slack, the digital communication platform that allows collaboration and is being used as the alternative to email by a number of people (mostly cool, innovator types).  The quote was a bit of a moan about Slack and went along the lines of, “it’s like taking part in an all day meeting, with no agenda and no idea of who will turn up, when they will turn up and how long for…”. That sounds uncannily like an unconference to me, a virtual unconference. I love progress.

I do love this. Sign outside the Anarchists bookshop in Vienna. Very neat, very orderly. I stayed next door.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

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