Unconference: The power of a blank agenda

We know that engagement is highest when authentic, two-way interactions are experienced, and everyone has an opportunity to contribute. So when your next all-staff conference or leadership offsite has ENGAGEMENT as a key objective, we’d like to suggest you tackle agenda planning a little differently.

Here’s something to consider – leave a session or two open in your agenda for your attendees to fill. The open sessions encourage a participant-driven meeting of the minds, ensuring there are fewer passengers. This format is often called ‘Unconference’ and has been growing in popularity in recent times.

It excites people as well as scares them!

So what are the benefits?

  • Breaks the hierarchical aspects of conventional conferences like one-way presentations and top-down communication.
  • Promotes better connections and collaboration.
  • Unites participants behind a common purpose.
  • Encourages risk-taking, innovation, iteration and agility.

Set your own agenda

The Unconference format is based on crowd-sourced design and real-time agenda creation. Participants are given the chance to build conference sessions that they actually want to attend. They nominate topics that are relevant to them and gain valuable experience working with a team to build something on the run.

Of course, the success of an Unconference depends on the work done by the participants. The sessions will only be as good as the people designing them. If participants don’t think an idea or session is any good, then it’s up to them to fix it.

The sessions designed are informal and spontaneous – they are loosely structured to maximise the potential for your event to go to (great) unexpected places. It’s about conversations, not presentations. Embrace uncertainty – yes, there’s a small chance that there will be chaos but it’s worth the risk!

Now to our tips for a successful Unconference.

For organisers:

  • Create a topic and an angle. Let everyone know what thoughts to stew over before the session begins, increasing the odds people will have interesting things to share.
  • Think about the logistics so others don’t have to. Provide flip charts, post its, unusual spaces, a list of brainstorm techniques and a clear sense of timing and purpose.
  • Don’t be scared to pick tough topics and give them purposefully challenging titles.
  • Emphasise interactivity. Use the art of facilitation to make it easy for people to participate, ask questions, and use the group to build expertise on the topic.

And as a participant:

  • Don’t walk in without a position. Conversations need seeds – offer an opinion, or a set of questions, to get the ball rolling.
  • Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
  • Trust the process.

Our recent work with EnergyAustralia as part of their ‘Unlearn’ two-day leadership workshop contained an Unconference component. EnergyAustralia’s organising committee was brave enough to give leaders control of the conference content on day two.

This led to powerful interactions and 93% of participants rated the event excellent or very good. Read more about Unlearn here.