Unconferencing – an Un-expected Delight!

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How to create your own unConference… and love doing it!

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You know, I think the last traditional conference I actually enjoyed was back in 2007… These days my most favourite events are all less formal and more passionate, along the lines of BarCamps , Open Space, and other UnConferences (for examples, see Kaliya’s site). Ok, they seem strange at first… no published agenda! some kind of “self organising” sessions! Strangely, it works every time :-)

In 2008 a colleague and I created AgileCoachCamp for our own community, with the idea to make it easy to copy, so it could spread everywhere. Now – as we prepare for events in 2013 in the US, Germany, Canada, Norway, the Netherlands – more than 25 events later, the agilecoachcamp.org formula is still providing joyful community-building experiences. Here are my tips for making your unConference happen.

I was asked by the “Who is Agile” book collective to provide an overview of Agile Coach Camps, and I used the opportunity to (try to) distill what I know about making an amazing event into one page. I didn’t succeed :-) so you will find *two* pages on the subject in the rather interesting LeanPub e-book Who Is Agile. Here is the full text of that article.

Oh, and: in case it’s not obvious yet… I’m publishing this here, hoping that you’ll steal it (get the pdf) ! (and if you do, a link back here would be nice, to help spread it). Most important is: Have fun!

Here’s the article…

contagious collaborative un-conferencing

Q: What do you get when you put a bunch of Agilists in a timebox with a few simple rules?

A: If they have a passion for improvement through facilitation, teaching, and servant-leadership, the answer is: an AgileCoachCamp. Oh, and LOTS of fun!

In 2007 Naresh Jain, who lives in India, and I, then living in Canada, met at an Agile community event in the US. We quickly discovered a common passion: more interactive, practical events for Agile leaders. In contrast to big talking-head international conferences we wanted cheaper, more accessible events that would create and support local communities of peers. And we were sure of one thing: it had to be viral, because we had lots of other dreams to pursue too. Naresh brought experience with the Simple Design and Testing conferences (sdtconf.com), and my inspiration was the contagious BarCamp movement, spreading like wildfire since 2004. We probably didn’t say “viral” then, but from day one we worked mainly on a public wiki, to engage and inspire the community, and recorded our steps to help those we dreamt would come after. Four years and 20 AgileCoachCamps later, I am pleased to see the meme still wandering the globe, igniting new communities, energising old ones, and spawning even cooler events, like play4agile!

For me, the formula hasn’t changed much since our inaugural event in Ann Arbour in 2008, though others have invented wonderful variations on the theme. I’ve noticed that what makes these events work, what creates the characteristic ACC energy and fun, may be invisible to participants, and perhaps even to organisers, so I wrote them down. Here are my own reflections on these 4 years’ experience.

I have identified 12 key ingredients. Fortunately this is an agile book, because the instant I write “12” the list is sure to morph!  I could use these ingredients to tell you a short story of AgileCoachCamp, from a (let’s be frank: fanatical) organiser’s point of view… but maybe it’s not necessary. Have a look:

Just do it

don’t wait for the date/venue/committee/sponsor/facilitator/price to be perfect. You have a gift to give to the community, and they need it now – get on with it!

Participants Organise It

it’s *not* about you, so find a partner or two, from day one. Model the value of shared leadership, and get the satisfaction and learning of collaborative teamwork.

Create Containers

to “hold the space” for self-organisation, build trust and safety, offer some simple rules, and care for the spirit of the event, both before and during. Open Space and Lightning Talks can create such “containers”.

Feed Body, Mind and Spirit

this is an act of servant leadership. Offer your guests simple things that say “we care about your whole person:” fruit, water, a sofa, a book table, a good night’s sleep.

Rely on the power of getting The Right People

…they know who they are! This is the art of invitation: pick your niche, serve it well, ask for help, be transparent and generous. Then let them self-select – ask them how they fit in, with “position papers” that you make public. They will come!

All in one easy-to-find-place

don’t be an admin bottleneck – use gdocs, dropbox or a wiki to make information assets accessible and easy to use for organisers and participants, so they can help.

Simplify Expenses

there is no need to handle cash – even hotels will let guests pay directly. And ask the caterer to bill your sponsor directly! Don’t fear that you must create a non-profit company, or tie yourselves to a corporate sponsor. Be a “sponsorship in kind” matchmaker instead.

Simplify Participant Communication

so it’s easy for people to talk to you and to each other. Especially your early “who’s interested” page must be public-editable, to let people engage easily.

Make every participant a marketer

offer hints to participants on how to use social media to extend your reach. Their motivation: a richer, more fun event if their “right people” show up!

Simplify Registration

some teams have made this much more labor intensive than it needs to be. Mercilessly apply the principle of pull!

A Place for the Committee to Meet

in the same spirit of hosting, let a team member, or a pair, care for your meetings – reminders, facilitation, technical aspects – to maintain good team spirit.

Asynchronous Committee Work

teams are fun, but work apart or in pairs, too, to use different gifts and allow different schedules. Report back in team status checks on the phone or in yammer.

Pause to Reflect

you will be tired, but this is the eat-your-own-dogfood step. Before participants leave, find out what they loved or would change. Do the same with organisers later. Learn, grow!

I’m sure this list isn’t perfect, and I could go on, but the best way is probably for you to dig in and create your own incarnation of this event. Michael Herman’s Inviting Guide might help. And, if you really like to learn from books, my notes at http://sn.im/ACChowto will direct you to a few resources.

Be transparent about your inexperience, google for resources, ask for help (other events’ organisers tend to be compassionate), and prepare to be surprised, when your clear requests reveal new supporters – these are “the right people!” You will discover new ideas, new partnerships, and a community to continue supporting you, and learning from you, once you get back to the office.

All over the world, in different contexts, this formula has been adapted to work. In France this year, with just 11 people, the event was transformative! Yours will be awesome – enjoy the journey! Go!

Deborah (Deb) Hartmann Preuss

Effectiveness Coach for Individuals and Teams
Karlsruhe, Germany, May 2012

: I originally wrote this article for the LeanPub e-book Who Is Agile. It is reproduced here with permission.


Further reading:
Open Space resources and upcoming Open Space facilitator workshops

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