What happens when you bring a conference mindset to an unconference?


I’ve attended three unconferences in a row recently that all claimed to make use of open space technology. All three started very promisingly with some tea and coffee and a big circle of chairs, not to mention reassuringly blank walls and the smell of sticky tack.

We settle to silence as a facilitator stands up and there are smiles in some, a sense of anticipatory earnestness in others.

We are told that this conference is going to be different, and that the big difference is embodied in the two letters “un”. For this is an unconference, unlike any normal conference, unusual for some, undoing the traditional models of pre-decided meetings, unplanned, undecided, unravelling in undesigned ways – in fact, generally “un.”

And that’s why we are here – for an emergent, self-organised conversation.

In all three unconferences, the “conference” bit began quickly to suffocate and drive out the “un”.

I don’t intend to name and shame these events specifically. But there’s some possibly useful reflecting to be done for anyone interested in unconferences and open space.

Story 1

In story one, the facilitator over-facilitated the market place, “pushed” for sessions and seemed unable to cope with silence. This led to the facilitator looking at “allies” in the circle and hoping with popping eyesballs that they would get up and offer a session. This indeed happened and it stifled the more spontaneous potential in the room. The facilitator fussed around sessions like a mother hen and kept making announcements about how much time was left for sessions. “Of course, you can go on as long as you all want, but I just wanted to let you know that….” At the end of the day, the closing circle was over-facilitated and people were nudged to speak and the allies were once again picked out like plants in an audience.

Story 2

In this unconference there were half a dozen pre-set keynote talks – five minutes long each before we opened the circle. This pulverised the energy in the room and we were promised some more in the afternoon. The facilitators couldn’t just trust the space to open and had preloaded the day with some traditional content. Several five minutes turned into ten and there were Powerpoint bullet points aplenty. It was as if open space couldn’t be trusted. The  unconference was the filling in a kind of shit sandwich. On reflection, the keynote talks really had little to bring to the day and they jarred with the spirit of open space and unconferencing, almost a facilitated act of hypocrisy. The afternoon sessions in the open space dwindled and many people left (politely or furtively) at lunchtime. I sense some irritation at the “designed” and imposed part of the day.

Story 3

This was a very dynamic day but the sessions felt a bit “cooked”. This was because of two unnecessary facilitator interventions. The first was this: Instead of an open space marketplace, we were all given post-it notes and had to write our sessions. We then announced them to the group, one by one and put them on a wall. This meant that silence for some people wasn’t offered as an option. We were then sent for coffee as the second unneeded intervention took place. The facilitation team tried to group the topics and then allocated them (and us) to time slots and rooms. I found myself twice in a room with so many topics forced together that some issues weren’t covered and we remained very general. Of course, we were told, we could use the law of two feet and I did notice that happening more than at some unconferences I have been to. It took quite a while for those post-it notes to be grouped and, looking back, I do wonder why the facilitators didn’t keep faith with the unconference spirit and just let people announce sessions, times and rooms themselves.

Reflecting on all three stories

I had the chance to observe all three stories as a participant. All of the facilitators were “nice” people. All wanted the day to work and all had stumbled upon unconferencing at some recent time in their lives. Two had clearly copied the events they had attended. One had simply chosen to tinker with open space and add in more facilitation. In all three cases, the interventions affected the process, I believe, negatively. They did that by:

– being too dominant as a “speaker” at the start, and setting themselves up as leaders

– weaving over-heavy content into the event – unneeded talks, delivered by bullet point slides

– being uneasy, and unable to deal with silence and patient openness

– trying to organise the content and, insodoing, taking ownership of that process away from the participants

In a Conference Mindset a facilitator …

sees the unconference as a tool or technique of control

wants to influence the content that is produced by participants

tends to over design and over-control

views facilitation as a leadership or management role

…  sees themselves as a problem-solver, fixer of the silences

tries to ensure success through intervention

In an Unconference Mindset a facilitator …

looks for one less thing to do

is gently curious, willing to adapt and even dissappear

holds the space in a humble, responsive and improvisational way

seeks no influence over the content that is produced by the participants

views facilitation as the minimum process that supports self-organised conversing and working

trusts the principles of open space and other unconferencing approaches

One less thing to do! 

Harrison Owen, the herald of open space technology, regularly entreats facilitators to look for one less thing to do. We should only add in to open space when that truly feels needed in the moment. Over many years, even decades of open space, it hardly ever makes sense to complicate, and the role of the facilitator is really to disappear as quickly as possible. Self-organising  doesn’t need to be externally organised. Open Space technology and all true unconferences are “un” because they offer the absolute minimal process and structure to create a space for self-organised conversing and working. It isn’t ever about the facilitator. Facilitation is really one less thing to do. There’s a huge difference between doing good and do-gooding so, whatever the benevolent motive, unconferences do not need over-fussy, interfering facilitators. We do not need to fatten or muscle up an open space conference with a few injected keynotes or some clever facilitated “tool”.

“Just open the space” – and I would add “get the hell out of there, or join in the conversation.”

Not all unconferences conform to the model proposed as “open space technology”. Most alternatives are designed with a bit more process embedded. But even in these alternatives, (World Cafe and Art of Hosting are examples), the same conference mindset can been seen, where the facilitator tampers with the process in ways that over-complicate and undermine it.


So what was really going on?

What I believe was at the heart of those three stories is a “conference mindset”. It is really a kind of paradox. When you hold a traditional conference mindset, an unconference is beheld as a risk and it is easy to opt to play “safe” and to dilute it, to revert bits of it back to a more controlled, pre-planned and designed process. Then it’s a short step to tinker with the content and “fill the dangerously empty space”.  In a conference mindset, facilitation is viewed as an important leadership role. At its worst, you are the captain of the Good Ship Emergence and, though we may not know exactly where we are all going, it is YOUR boat and YOUR wheel. All of this stifles the potential in the space which is opening. Facilitation becomes so much clutter. Sometimes the space doesn’t open at all – people in the room give up and zip their mouths, get irritated, becoming  superficially compliant and even fearful. Most just collude with the developing mediocrity

Often the facilitators look relaxed, enjoying their own sense of “cool” and are certainly fired up and excited. Often the event falls short but a conference mindset often has lowered expectations etched into behaviour as a norm and so, when the event doesn’t reach its potential, it is still named and celebrated as revolutionary, successful and “the neatest thing we’ve ever done.” A conference mindset tries to design the unconference to succeed. it tries to engineer that success often losing faith with the truly open and minimally structured nature of open space itself. Open Space Technology is beautiful. A conference mindset can add wrinkles to its brows and lock up its joints. Delightfully I have occasionally witnessed self-organising communities ignore these unneeded interventions anyway. But not always. Often it is a missed chance. Often it feels a bit ugly.

More often than not, an unconference is experienced as refreshing and new. Energy and ideas, impulses and feelings that have been latent, even locked away inside the cage of structure, release as the space opens. Sometimes, early on in the day it is a bit tentative. An over-controlling facilitator can ensure that the those first steps in self-organisation and spontaneity flee back into their hidey holes. Even as they are trying to benevolently organise it all, the facilitator starts to impose a “conference shadow” onto the unconference. Not all participants will accept it and will go around them anyway. But other people will settle in conformance, or will just zone out, lower their expectations and the lights may appear to be on as they smile back at the facilitator, or nod their heads, but there’ll be no one at home (metaphorically speaking). If you set up an unconference and promise freedom and play in the invitation, just a few contradictory controlling actions on the day can switch the whole thing off, back into a default of mediocrity.

Some questions to think about before designing an unconference

If you recognise yourself in any of the stories above, I’d like to leave you with a few questions to ponder…

… on second thoughts, you decide what those questions are.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Agustin says:

    Hello Paul,

    Great post! In MHO, I think that these facilitators were not prepared to “facilitate” an unconference. This format is the most exigente one to facilitate, because you have to let go and to trust, and it needs a lot of personal development work.


  2. Adrian Segar says:

    Hi Paul,

    I’m the originator of Conferences That Work, one of the more structured participant-led (I really dislike the term “unconference”) meeting designs you mention. I developed it around the same time as Harrison developed Open Space, but didn’t write a book about it until 2009. Its popularity is growing, with hundreds of folks using it all over the world.

    I agree with you that facilitators with assumption about what “success” looks like, and those who are uncomfortable with silence, can easily weaken a participant-led experience.

    I don’t think, though, that there is a universally applicable definition of “the absolute minimal process and structure to create a space for self-organised conversing and working.” For example, when I run Open Space, I’ll sometimes omit Harrison’s talking stick finale because the participants clearly prefer to use the time available for additional multiple meetings rather than a plenary to share individual reflections. (And sometimes I’ll use a closing session that’s designed for hundreds of people, for which Harrison’s finale would take a mind-numbing-for-most-people amount of time.)

    In addition, the Open Space approach has a number of weaknesses that, in my experience, stem from its bias towards attendees who are, at the start, confident and clear about what they want to do with an open format. Extroverts flourish, but introverts often just stay quiet, and their expertise and experience is underweighted. More structured participant-led formats, like Conferences That Work, take extra time to create a safe environment for introverts, support uncovering attendee sharing expertise and experience at the start, and model a participatory environment for the event before sessions are proposed. They also include a wide range of closing formats that can be tailored to the needs of the group. I’m not saying that such designs are “better” than Open Space but, in my experience, they are arguably more effective in certain situations.

    You clearly have a bias towards Open Space and, like me, cringe when a well-meaning, but perhaps inexperienced facilitator, tramples on Harrison’s beautifully simple format. But I think there’s a place for World Cafe, Art of Hosting, Conferences That Work, Future Search, etc. too!

  3. Daniel Fillion says:

    Good day Paul,
    I like your comments, it is pretty difficult to facilitate an OST session if you want to lead it. We must trust the process and always get back to Harisson Owen philosophy.

  4. Michel says:

    Great post Paul. Thanks for writing it down. You name and make visible some of the often invisible what ‘not to do’s’ for facilitators coming to open space for the first time. Last year I was involved in teaching social activists some of the more open facilitation and hosting type ideas. After I had facilitated a roughly 300 person open space that year, some of them asked me ‘what did you really do there’…. and while one can answer ‘I held space’ or ‘I got out of the way’ –your post offers some pointers as to ‘what NOT to do’ — which can be very helpful. So thanks!

  5. Paul Levy says:

    Thanks for all the considered replies so far. Adrian, I heartily agree with you about the term “unconference”. It is one of the reasons I wrote this artlcle as so many “unconferences” weren’r “un” at all, and I’m not sure we need to “un” them in the first place. Open Space is, as you say, part of the creative repertoire in the way human beings can meet and organise conversation and work together. I characterised “conference mindset” deliberately (and provocatively, I suppose) as a fixed, “traditional” view that turns a symposium into an imposium. It is where design and facilitation does “for” people rather than “with” or “out of” them. it is a delivery mindset, a catering mindset, a push mindset, often for its own sake, rather than as a real-time response to the community in the room.

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